Surprising Things About Switzerland
From 1997 to 2004, I had the good fortune to live in Switzerland. When I
first moved to Switzerland from the United States, people told me "Oh,
it's not that different." And, in fact, for the most part it
isn't. Switzerland, after all, is firmly anchored in the Western
world. Moreover, the influence of American culture (for good or bad) is
easy to spot: McDonald's and (gasp) Starbucks!
Yet, Switzerland is also
a country that has been fiercely independent for more than 700 years. Thus,
it's not surprising (or shouldn't be), that there are some
things which are surprisingly different. So, to amuse myself, and perhaps
to give other Americans (as well as expatriate Swiss who have been away for
a while) moving to Switzerland some idea of what they are getting
themselves into, I have compiled the following list of "surprising
things about Switzerland".
If you spot any errors (factual or otherwise), or if you wish to add
more things, please do not hesitate to contact me. Thanks to everyone who has already contributed!
- almost everyone has the same type of mailbox (two part: top has a slot for
letters, bottom section has a door for packages) with an engraved nameplate.
- curbs are assembled from individual pieces of stone (granite) approx. 1m in
length. The surfaces are rough and can cause tire ruptures if you drive against
them. In the US, curbs are poured concrete.
- when you leave (quit a job, move away) it is customary that you, yourself,
organize a going away party (une verree or apero). In the US, your
friends/coworkers do this.
- it is virtually impossible to lock yourself out (of an office, of your
apartment). This is because almost all doors only lock with a key.
- almost all doors have handles, not knobs. This makes it easier to open the
door (if it's unlocked of course) while carrying things (i.e., just use
- animals graze in surprising places. For example, a couple times of the
year, a herd of cows (or sheep) will be brought to EPFL to graze.
- a child's name must be on an approved list. Swiss parents do not have
the freedom to name a kid "Moonunit". Resident foreigners can be
exempted from this rule, but you must obtain an official statement from an
embassy that attests that the name is acceptable in the other country.
- opening hours vary from town to town and depending on special permission.
Some examples: BCV in Centre Commercial de Crissier is open on Saturday, stores
(Toys 'R Us, Coop, etc.) in Centre Commercial d'Ecublens are open until
6pm on Saturday, most towns have a "nocturne" evening (grocery stores
open until 9pm on Friday in Morges), bakeries are open on Sunday (usually until
6pm!). Most surprising is that you may have to wait in line to *enter* the
store: Migros Ouchy (Lausanne) has a crowd control person who only lets a few
people into the store at a time.
- all stores are usually closed by 7 pm.
- there are approximately the same number of gas stations and post offices.
- there are occasional random driver license and car registration checkpoints
setup by the local police.
- there is no "rent control" (i.e., a formal governing
organization), but there are many rules and procedures governing rent
- if you want to buy groceries on Sunday (or after working hours), go to
a gas station. Many stations (especially Migrol which is owned by Migros)
are mini supermarkets. Another place to shop is at larger train stations,
or airports, where mini-markets are almost always open from 6 am to 10 pm.
- pharmacies sell maple syrup.
- gas stations sell good bread.
- vinegar compresses on the lower legs/ankles are recommended for reducing
- you can buy UHT milk, which keeps for months unrefrigerated.
- almost all milk comes in 1 liter Tetra-Pak boxes.
- you cannot turn right on red.
- FM radio stations are on both even and odd frequencies. In the US, stations
are only on odd frequencies (e.g., 105.3 FM).
- the Swiss consider the US to be "expensive" (high cost of
- the Swiss consider Switzerland to not be overly expensive (high salaries
probably accounts for this: starting EPFL researcher 60,000 CHF/year, EPFL Ph.D
- you can purchase insurance for just about everything including
"accidental sink breakage", "bicycle collision", etc. In
fact, if you ride a bicycle on a public road or sidewalk, you are required by
law to have liability insurance as proved by a sticker (vignette).
- Apartment dwellers may be required by law to purchase fire
insurance. In the Canton Vaud, insurance is provided by a government agency
(ECA), which is also the fire department.
- Homeowner (and apartment dweller) insurance policies state clearly that you
are covered for theft even if you have left the doors or windows unlocked
- fuel economy is measured as "quantity per distance" (liters per
100km). In the US, it is measured as "distance per quantity" (miles
- there are no smoke detectors in apartments.
- talk shows almost always have a panel of 4 or more. After all, how can you
possibly have a meaningful discussion without at least 4 people?!
- the architecture is long lasting, functional and plain (i.e., ugly).
- some apartment buildings require identical door mats.
- many stores are closed for long lunch (sometimes from noon to 3pm).
- banks do not charge ATM fees.
- when you get a package gift wrapped, they put a little address label on the
package with the name of the store (this does not help preserve the surprise).
- you have to weigh fruits and vegetables yourself at grocery stores. Scales
are located in the produce section and usual just have a large set of numbered
buttons. Once you have selected your produce, you need to look for the sign that
says what number to enter on the scale. Then, you take the produce to the
scale, press the corresponding button and the scale will print a label. Of
course, if you mis-read or forget the number, you may end up mis-labeling your
- shopping carts are omnidirectional. In order to use one in a supermarket,
you have to deposit a CHF 2 coin in slot on top of the cart, which releases the
chain by which the cart is attached to the next one. When you return the cart
to its place (once done shopping), you get your "deposit" back (i.e.,
the coin is released from the slot).
- shopping carts are often for the entire shopping center or mall, not just a
single store. So, people walk around with the same cart, going into and out of
stores. It's not unusual to see a cart full of groceries inside a clothing
- you have to bag your own groceries at grocery stores. If you want a
"good" bag (paper or plastic), you have to pay for it. You can,
however, get a small plastic bag (which will rip at the slightest touch) if you
- on many buses, you buy tickets and get change from the driver (yes, the
driver does carry change!!!)
- instead of garage sales, the Swiss have regularly scheduled "large
trash" days (most communes publish a schedule). On these days, you can see
lots of people "skulking about", surretipitiously looking through all
the random junk other people have thrown out. It's fairly amusing to watch
people put out stuff and then other people wander by and carry it off
(sometimes at night using flashlights).
- there are air canisters (big pots with handles) at gas station for filling
- almost all apartment buildings have assigned laundry times. In general, you
are assigned a specific 1/2 day slot per week (and don't even think of
trying to use someone else's slot).
- apartment buildings rules specify quiet time (usually after 10 pm). If you
make too much noise during this time, neighbors may call the police. Heard
from a friend: "A colleague once had invited his Swiss neighbors to a
house-warming party, where they partook of the refreshments, then promptly
departed at 10 p.m. The party continued in full swing. About an hour later the
police showed up at his door, asking him to 'keep it quiet please, or
else!', all at the prompting of those lovely neighbors.
- gas stations have "automates" for buying gas at the pump (with
credit cards or CASH!). However, you can only use the automate when the station
is closed (i.e., at night).
- all bank tellers sit behind thick plate glass windows. In the US, banks
usually do not have plate glass (which is why there are probably more holdups).
- there are photo radars on the autoroutes and in many towns. If you're
captured on film (and your license plate is readable), the police mail you a
ticket (but not the photo!). If you protest and demand the photo, you have to
pay a bigger fine (if it turns out to be you in the photo). Fines can be quite
hefty (several thousand Swiss francs, depending how much over the limit you
were going). If caught speeding in a residential area, you can actually spend
the night in jail! A less serious offence (but still punishable by a fine) is
making a right turn not exactly at the intersection, but by getting into the
right lane (usually reserved for buses and taxis) a couple of meters before the
- if you own any radios or tv's capable of receiving broadcasts (over the
air, via cable, via satellite, etc.) you have to pay a monthly tax (tv/radio
- the autoroute system (major highway system) is not finished. There is a
master plan for covering the country with autoroutes, but since the Swiss
did not start building them until the 1960's, they will not be
completed for a few more decades.
- parking garages do not have cashiers at the exit. Instead, you pay for your
ticket at a machine (or rarely at a central cashier) and then have about 15
minutes to exit (with that ticket). The machines always accept coins, and
frequently bills and credit cards.
- license plates are issued to individuals. If you sell the car and buy a new
one, you keep the plate.
- license plates are usually wide and short. Although some cars have rear
license plates approximately the same size as American plates, all front plates
- the numbers on license plates are all standardized. Passenger cars all have
2 letters (for the canton, e.g., "VD" for Vaud) followed by numbers
(e.g., "GE 225 123"). Plates are assigned based on experience, thus
low number plates usually indicate someone who has been driving a long time
(i.e., an old person). Larger cantons (GE, ZH, etc.) have more cars and so the
numbers on the plates are higher. Very low numbers (e.g., "GE 3")
usually are assigned to taxis. On government cars have a single letter (instead
of the canton): "A" for administration, "M" for military.
Up until 2000, all rental cars had a post-fix letter "V", e.g.,
"SH 6351-V". There are no personalized license plates.
- you can use a US penny in many parking meters (a US penny is virtually
the same size and weight as a 20 centime coin).
- sometimes there are small birds (swallows?) flying around *inside* large
grocery stores (Migros Crissier), cafeterias (EPFL Coupole), and even
restaurants (Movenpick Ouchy).
- mosquitos are slow moving, do not bite (usually), and dumb. This is
probably why there are no window screens in Switzerland.
- most windows which open can be swung on two sides: one of the vertical
sides (open all the way) and the top or bottom (to crack it open a few
- there are some American chains: McDonald's, Wendy's, Domino's
Pizza, Toys 'R Us. However, only McDonald's has a drive through (at
- there are stores (mostly in Geneva) that carry all those American and
British products and "comfort foods" not sold in Swiss groceries:
Marmite, Cadbury's Flake, Lucozade, Velveeta, Hersey bars, Cheeze-Its.
- intercity trains may have a grocery store (Coop) or fast food restaurant
(McDonald's) car. Some trains have a cart service with snack foods.
- Easter is a BIG thing: Good Friday and Easter Monday are national holidays
and nothing (except gas stations) are open. Stores close early the Thursday
before and are open with reduced hours on Saturday. Some stores are not even
open on Tuesday. As a result, many people go away on vacation.
- everything shuts down in August. Most people in Switzerland have 4 to 5
weeks of vacation per year and take a few of these in August.
- many day care centers are closed many days because of school holidays (1
week "winter sports" in Feb/Mar, 1 week spring break in April, 3 to 5
weeks during July/Aug, 1 week in Sep/Oct, 1 to 2 weeks for Christmas/New
- the deregulated long distance telephone market means that it is cheaper to
call almost anywhere from Switzerland than to it. In 2001, many operators let
you call the US for less than 5 cents a minute.
- people always hold a knife in one hand and a fork in the other while
- movies have intermissions.
- traffic lights turn green to yellow before red and red to yellow before
green (the yellow light never appears by itself).
- parking spaces are small: just enough (barely) space to park and to exit
- many restaurants, especially pricier ones, put warming trays with tealight
candles on the table to keep the served food warm.
- lingerie is advertised on sidewalk billboards so as to easily catch the eye
of pedestrians and drivers.
- there seem to be lingerie stores everywhere.
- nudity (and more) on network TV is not unusual.
- whenever a new building or house is being constructed, there is always a
fixed crane at the site.
- it is extremely hard to find a drinking fountain.
- you sometimes have to pay to get plain (tap/table) water in restaurants.
- the number "1" is often written like a "7" in the US (a
"7" is written in Switzerland with a horizontal cross).
- the thumb is used to indicate "1" when counting with fingers.
Thus, if you want to ask for one of something, only hold up the thumb. If you
hold up the index finger you will likely get two items.
- an "unfurnished" apartment is *really* unfurnished: there are
usually no light fixtures (just bare wires), curtain rods, kitchen appliances
etc. Sometimes, not even the toilet seat is included.
- if you live in a small commune and don't serve in the fire service, you
probably have to pay a yearly "fire service tax" (taxe
d'exemption au service du feu).
- most toilets don't flush very well (low flow to conserve water). Thus,
there is almost always a brush next to the toilet for "cleaning" the
bowl when needed.
- mustard comes in squeeze tubes (looks just like toothpaste). So does
- it is not unusual (nor a problem) to use large amounts of cash at stores.
For example, the cashier won't even blink an eye if you use a 100 CHF
bill to buy a stick of gum or a croissant.
- students (at least at EPFL) are not as concerned about getting rich as
American students (at least at CMU).
- there is a large section at the grocery store just for horse meat (the best
of which is labeled "from USA").
- people smoke indoors, even if an area is clearly marked no smoking.
- grocery shopping is very cheap, but eating out is very expensive.
- few people eat out often (not really surprising since it's expensive to
eat out), except for those who live downtown in large cities.
- you can ride on many public transit systems (bus, light rail) without
buying a ticket (i.e., ticket inspections are rare).
- most grocery stores do not accept credit cards.
- the post office does not accept credit cards for payments. Not even the
Visa and Mastercards that they issue!
- personal checks are rarely used.
- debit (EC) cards are widely used.
- most drivers will stop for pedestrians at crosswalks.
- many streets (even busy ones) are pitch black by 11pm.
- almost everything in public buildings is labeled. For example, there is a
little ID number above every toilet and urinal at EPFL.
- offices usually have funny looking "Swiss" keys (no notches, just
a bunch of circular indentations).
- there are no binder clips.
- binders have 2 or 4 rings (not 3). Most binders have a lever to open the
rings (unlike American binder rings, which you just pull apart).
- printers use A4 paper, not "letter". Actually, the Ax series of
papers is very logical (being based on fractions of a square meter), but the
dimensions are impossible to remember.
- a paper clip is a "trombone" (that's the French word).
- paper clips do not have rounded ends. Instead, one side is straight (lines
up on the paper edge) and the other is pointed (to make it easier to put on).
- the television standard is PAL (not NTSC). However, almost all VCR's
are able to play NTSC format tapes.
- people take their dogs everywhere: into restaurants (you'll see them
sitting under the table), on buses/trains, etc.
- a very large number of people, teenagers included, have cell phones. Yet,
cell phone calling is very expensive (it is 5 to 10 times cheaper to call the
US on a fixed line than to make a cell phone call).
- cell phones work almost everywhere, even in the mountains and on top of the
- very few places have air conditioning. Luckily, it's not hot very often
in the summer (at least, not for more than 3-4 weeks!).
- no one has a checkbook because personal checks are rarely used.
- ATM's insist you take your card before you get your cash. In the US,
your card is the last thing to come out of the machine.
- every bank posts exchange rates.
- newspapers are printed on small sheets: about 1/2 the size of American or
- the Yellow Pages lists each category by town.
- you can read a newspaper and not once see the name of the president.
- most cars are manual transmission (stick shift) and everyone thinks that
Americans only own/drive automatics.
- many small stores (especially boulangeries) have a round rubber/plastic mat
the size of a small plate on the counter top. This mat is used for placing
money: you put your bills on it, the merchant picks them up, then he puts your
change on it.
- stores, factories, and residential areas are all jumbled up. It is not
uncommon to find a commercial center hidden in an apartment building or in a
- you can make a hotel reservation without giving a credit card.
- you often pay for rental things (e.g., ski equipment) when you return it.
- when you check in at most hotels, you have to leave your passport for a few
hours (this is also true throughout the rest of Western Europe).
- the common way to pay bills is to pay everything at once. The bills are
standardized red or blue forms (bulletin de versement). When you are ready to
pay (usually the end of the month), you collect all the bills together and
either fill out & mail a single form to your bank, or take everything to
the post office. You can also use the automatic Multimat at the bank to pay the
bills by inserting the color-coded forms into the slot, where they are scanned.
- cars are often towed using a rope, not jacked up or lifted on to a tow
truck. This means, of course, that someone has to stay in the towed vehicle to
- greeting cards are sold individually wrapped in plastic (sometimes shrink
wrapped so you can't see what's written inside).
- most glasses at restaurants have the volume marked on them and a line so
you know exactly how much liquid is in the glass.
- people generally use shower gel, and not bar soap.
- some people use the same gel for washing and as shampoo.
- some elevators can only be used by one group at a time because they only go
to one destination at a time (cannot press multiple floors) and they can only
be called when they are fully stopped (cannot call when already in use).
- elevators are usually very small and cramped. Four-people (but no luggage!)
elevators are very common. One wonders how people manage to transport furniture
when they move.
- ground level is floor "zero" and the floor above is
- some phones have a meter so you always know how you have spent on the
current call (the display updates as time goes by).
- a cardboard "parking disc" (which you set to show your arrival
time and place on the dashboard) is used for parking in marked, colored zones.
- people always eat with knife and fork (except for fondue).
- it's considered rude (or at least "odd") to keep your hands
on your lap at the dinner table. Most people put both forearms or elbows ON the
table whenever they are not eating. In other words, the American "good
manner" of eating with one hand and having the other in your lap, is
perceived to be "strange".
- people wipe their plates clean (sparkling clean!) with bread. When Swiss
eat dinner, it is not uncommon to find the plates as clean after a meal as they
were before the meal.
- dry-cleaned clothes are usually returned folded-up inside a plastic bag,
not hung on a hangar (no freebies!).
- electrical fuses for most older apartments are located in the hallway
outside the apartment. These fuses are typically "screw-in" and can
easily be removed by anyone walking by.
- the equivalent of "Rescue 911" (or perhaps "Baywatch) is
called "Secours en montange" (mountain rescue). This show follows
actual rescue helicopter teams as they save injured mountain climbers, stranded
hikers, and... cows stuck in the mud! Yes, they rescue cows by strapping on a
special harness and then airlifting them with the helicopter.
- malls are "anchored" by big grocery stores (Coop or Migros)
instead of department stores.
- almost all houses and apartment buildings have bomb shelters, which often
cannot be used (because most people use them as storage spaces). If you build a
new house, you are required by law to include a bomb shelter. It is possible to
get an exemption, but in this case you will have to pay a fee (i.e., a
"contribution" to a communal shelter, even if one does not currently
- curling is a big spectator sport. It receives far more television coverage
during the Olympics than figure skating! This is probably because Switzerland
won the gold medal the first time curling was officially in the Olympics
- Chinese and Mexican restaurants are considered exotic and generally quite
expensive. It is very difficult to find "reasonnably" priced
restaurants (even though there are many chinese restaurants).
- you can stay at a Golden Arch
Hotel, where you can enjoy fine McDonald's cuisine.
- the profession of most people is listed in the phonebook, just after their
- employers expect information on your resume/cv that would probably be
illegal to ask for in the US: date of birth, place of birth, maritial status,
number of children. (note: this information is needed because job offers must
consider extra "allocations" for child support, pension, etc.)
- you generally do not leave tips in restaurants. In fact, if you do leave
something, it's usually just enough for the server/waiter to go get a
- many waiters carry a large black wallet, which they use to make change for
people paying their bills with cash. As a result, waiters often carry a
register's worth of cash around with them.
- recycling is a way of life! There are special areas in neighbourhoods where
you can deposit bottles (color and white glass separately), plastic, aluminium,
paper, batteries etc. in specially marked containers. Of course, there is
usually a warning sign telling you not to do it between the hours of 10 pm - 7
- it is customary in many restaurants (though not the expensive ones!)
for you to seat yourself (without waiting for someone to take you to a table).
- you are only supposed to deposit large pieces of cardboard (boxes etc.) by
putting them in a special spot outside the house at a specified day and time
only (but never on a Sunday!).
- shoe stores give large balloons (inflated, mounted on a stick) free to
- the police clean up after car accidents. That is, once they have collected
all the relevant information (photos, chalked outlines of where the accident
occurred, etc.) and after the vehicle(s) have been removed, the police take
broom and dustpan from their trunks and sweep up.
- the post office is also a bank.
- many stores (especially grocery stores) have point-of-sale terminals
(electronic direct debit) that accept "Postcards". By
"postcard", they do not mean a card with a tourist picture,
but rather an ATM card issued by the post office (see above).
- snow tires are required during the winter months (you can be fined if you
are found driving without them).
- all cars are required to have a "danger" triangle, which is to be
placed some distance (10m or so) behind the car to signal an accident or
- you can be fined if you do not properly maintain the apperance of your
property (house, car, etc).
- house loans / mortgages can be taken out for periods up to 100 years.
- people have actually been known to vote in favor of tax increases.
- learning the local language is just that, local. You can drive 30 minutes
and suddenly find that you do not understand and cannot be understood by
anyone. This is especially true in the mountains and parts of German speaking
- the grade school system requires students to learn a foreign language
(usually one of the 4 national languages).
- some university courses (especially at EPFL and ETHZ) are
taught completely in English.
- there is a lot more graffiti than you would expect. This is largely because
graffiti, particularly "artistic" graffiti, is not considered as much
a problem as it is the US. Also, relatively speaking, there is much less
graffiti in Switzerland than in neighboring countries (e.g., Italy).
- you can sometimes watch cow shows (cows paraded in front of a panel of
judges) on television.
- you can make it a condition of your work contract to be allowed to keep
dogs in your office. One woman at a well-known business school keeps two
Labrador retrievers in their own beds under her desk.
- some cantons (notably Vaud) impose a yearly tax on pet dogs.
- there is no mail pick-up at home (to mail a letter, you have to drop it
in a mail box or take it to the post office).
- the street number of almost all residences (homes, apartment buildings,
etc.) is a little, dark-blue metal sign with the number in white.
- Switzerland has four official languages: German, French, Italian and
Romanisch (which is only spoken by less than one percent of the
- Postal addresses often do not include the apartment number, just the
street address. Thus, it's important that the last name be clearly printed
on the incoming mail and also on the postal letter box.
- Switzerland is a member of the Schengen Treaty. The new Schengen Visa
process has very different photo ID requirements than the standard passport
photo. For example there are six pages of instructions on how an acceptable
photo must appear to apply for a visa that conforms to the Schengen rules.
- You may be required to pay for cable TV service even if you don't have a
television. If your apartment is wired for cable and you use cable-based
Internet access, then you must pay for TV service too. This adds about 350
CHF per year to the cable Internet bill and the provider will not inform
you of that (they must assume everyone has a TV...)
- Some grocery stores have started using customer carried hand-held
barcode scanners. You use a special card (issued by the store) to get the
scanner and then as you take items off the shelf to put in your cart, you
scan each item. For produce or pastry that is sold by the piece you scan a
barcode attached to the bin. Check out is usually quick and easy: you just
hand the handheld barcode scanner to the clerk at the checkout, swipe your
card and pay. To prevent theft, there is random auditing where at checkout
you will have to unload everything and the clerk scans each item to compare
to the handheld scanner.
- Banks offer special ATM machines that allow individuals or merchants to
deposit large quantities of coins to their accounts.
- Traffic fines for egregious offenses (speeding significantly faster
than the limit, as an example) are based on a percentage of your
- There are generally no public coin operated laundromats. One can be found
in Lausanne near the rail station (one for the whole city) but the rates
are quite high at 7 to 9 CHF per load for wash only, more for the driers.
- The "clothes dryer" in many older apartment buildings is just a closed
room with a huge heater (sometimes!) and many indoor clothes line.
- SMS Text messaging in Switzerland (and most of Europe) is free for received
texts, only the sender pays.
Last updated: 6 May 2010