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 lakeshores to hike, 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.
Why stay in the city when you have this to explore? Photo: Christof Schuerpf/Swiss Tourism
2. Assuming everyone speaks all Switzerland’s national languages. It may be a linguistically endowed country but it’s a mistake to think all Swiss are fluent in French, German and Italian (we’ll let them off Romansh). While many are multilingual, don’t expect to be universally understood if you speak French in the German part or German in the French part. As recent political tussles 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, either with a handshake or, if you know them already, by kissing them three times. Otherwise you'll be thought rude.
4. Doing your washing whenever you like. Most Swiss apartments don’t have washing machines but share a communal one in the basement, and rules on when to use it can be strict. Don’t ever make the huge error of rocking up to use it on someone else’s ‘day’. Warning notes, verbal reprimands and even – as in one recent case – physical violence could ensue.
5. Paying full price on the train. The Swiss train network is remarkably good, even if it’s not always as timely as its reputation would imply. But it’s also pretty pricey. So get yourself a demi-tarif/halbtax card, now incorporated in the new Swiss Pass, and get half-price fares for a year (for a one-off fee, of course – but it’s well worth it).
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 service offices. They’ve all gone out for the plat du jour.
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 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 (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 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 newspaper 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. 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 shutting their shop doors at 7pm during the week, too. So until plans to extend them get approved, think ahead to avoid that empty fridge on a Sunday (or hunt down a Coop Pronto in a railway station, which have extended 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.
Photo: Bern Tourism
12. Only making expat friends. A common mistake by foreigners everywhere is not to make ‘native’ 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.
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 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.