1. Staying in the city on a Sunday. Swiss cities can be like ghost towns on Sundays. With little open, it’s far better to make like the Swiss and escape to the mountains and lakes to hike (which is the Swiss national sport), swim and soak up the glorious scenery. Those who don’t tend to moan that Switzerland is boring. It isn’t – you just have to know where to go and what to do.
2. Assuming everyone speaks all Switzerland’s national languages. It may be a linguistically diverse country but it’s a mistake to think all Swiss are fluent in French, German and Italian (we’ll let them off the hook for not being able to do small talk in Romansh).
While many Swiss people are multilingual, don’t expect to be universally understood if you speak French in the German part or German in the French part. As political tussles about school language learning have shown, many people across Switzerland feel English is a more useful ‘second’ language than learning another Swiss national language instead.
3. Not greeting everyone personally. Don't think you can just say a general 'salut/gruezi' to the room when arriving at a Swiss social occasion. No, you must greet everyone individually. Otherwise you'll be thought rude. And don't be surprised if even very young children come up and shake your hand and introduce themselves or say hello!
4. Doing your washing whenever you like. Many Swiss apartments don’t have washing machines. Instead, tenants share a communal one in the basement, and rules on when to use it can be very strict. Don’t ever make the error of rocking up to use it on someone else’s ‘day’. Warning notes, verbal reprimands and even – in one case – physical violence could ensue.
5. Paying full price on the train. The Swiss train network is remarkably good, even if recent problems have caused plenty of frustration among commuters. But it’s also pretty pricey. So get yourself a demi-tarif/halbtax card, and get half-price fares for a year (for a one-off fee, of course – but it’s well worth it). The network often provides as close to door-to-door service as you could possibly expect with public transport and connections are amazing, so you won't often be left standing around very often.
Photo: Christof Sonderegger/Swiss Tourism
6. Calling an administration office between midday and 1pm (or 2pm, or 4pm). The Swiss like to eat their lunch early, compared to some other countries. So from midday for at least an hour, don’t expect to be able to visit or call city administration offices, medical clinics or other public offices. Staff have all gone out for the plat du jour or Tagesmenü.
7. Trying to buy lunch after 2pm. Speaking of lunch, don’t expect to easily find a restaurant that will serve you after 2pm, particularly in smaller cities and rural areas. You’ll just have to grab a sandwich (with the obligatory gherkin) from a supermarket instead.
8. Heading to your favourite cafe/restaurant/bar in July/August. On the subject of food, newcomers to the country might not realize that many restaurants and small shops close for (at least) a two-week holiday in the summer, a sensible move seeing as everyone else seems to be on holiday too. You may as well down tools and join them.
9. Expecting to get low-denomination banknotes out of the wall. In a country which thought a ‘basic’ income was 2,500 francs (€2,200 or not far off the average salary in the UK in 2014), it should be no surprise that banks don’t deal in small change. So if you withdraw 100 francs from the ATM, you’ll often get a 100-franc note, not five 20s.
Luckily, you don’t need to apologize for not having anything smaller when you pay for a loaf of bread with a 100-franc note. Swiss shop assistants just give you the change without batting an eyelid.
10. Trying to go grocery shopping on a Sunday (or late at night). As we’ve already established (see point 1), there’s little open in Switzerland on Sundays, and most big grocery stores are shut. Shop opening hours vary from canton to canton, with many places shutting their shop doors by 7pm during the week, too. So make sure you think ahead to avoid that empty fridge on a Sunday.
If you do find yourself short on food on a Sunday, or late or night, you can pick up basic supplies at some petrol stations, while shops at train stations and airports have extended opening hours.
11. Tipping in restaurants. A firmly entrenched custom in many countries, tipping is not, however, necessary in Switzerland. Staff salaries are good, compared with other countries, and tips are included in the price of your meal. You can certainly leave something if you want, but don’t feel obliged. Restaurant prices are high enough, after all.
On the other hand, if you do want to leave a little extra, rounding up to the nearest franc (or nearest five or ten francs on bigger bills) is relatively common, and a good rule of thumb.
Photo: Bern Tourism
12. Only making expat friends. A common mistake by foreigners everywhere is not to make ‘local’ friends in your adopted home and clump together with your fellow expats instead. While it can be hard to make friends with the sometimes reserved Swiss, once you do get to know them they’ll be friends for life. Join a sports club or do a language exchange to get you started.
Here are some more ideas on how to make friends in Switzerland, as recommended by our readers.
13. Crossing the road without waiting for the green man. One habit that often bemuses expats is seeing the rule-abiding Swiss waiting obediently for the green man rather than crossing a road without ‘permission’, even if there’s no traffic coming. On the other hand, people in Switzerland seem to take their life in their hands on crosswalks unregulated by traffic lights. Though pedestrians have priority, don’t expect that cars will automatically stop – they often don’t.
14. Queuing. The Swiss rarely queue at bus stops, shop tills or anywhere else, for that matter. So get out of the habit quickly or you’ll just end up feeling frustrated.
A version of this article was published in August 2016.