Work hard…play hard
Swiss people are famously hardworking: full-time employees clocked up an average 41 hours and 10 minutes in 2016. People in Switzerland also tend to take their jobs pretty seriously and are proud of doing them properly, which could be down to the fact most workers are professionally trained thanks to the country’s excellent apprenticeship system.
At the same time, the Swiss are much less likely to put in overtime on evenings and weekends than the Brits and the Americans (although there are always exceptions). They are also very good at not checking work emails or taking work calls outside of office hours. Throw in an average five or so weeks of annual leave a year, and many Swiss people actually have a very healthy work–life balance.
The country basically shuts down on Sundays
Following on from the point above about work–life balance, Sunday is still pretty much a day of rest, with most shops and businesses closed. For people used to 24/7 consumerism this can take get some getting used to. But stick around and you could find yourself enjoying the downtime by spending time with friends (or Netflix). It’s nice to know that sometimes there is no other option but to relax.
However, if a full day without shopping is too much – or if you just need a litre of milk – shops at locations including train stations and even airports tend to be open.
By the way, much of Switzerland also tends to shut down over summer and at lunchtime. Many smaller shops and offices close for an hour around midday so their staff can grab a bite to eat, which can be frustrating if you want to use your own lunch break to cross a couple of things off the to-do list.
Put aside plenty of money for set up costs (and then set aside some more)
Everyone knows Switzerland is expensive, and everyone has a story to tell about the first time they paid 8 Swiss francs (around $8 or €7) for a coffee or 15 francs for a glass of wine. But the real costs of setting up in the country are worth keeping in mind – even if you have a well-paid job lined up.
There is a good chance, for example, that you are going to have to pay three months rent up front. You are also going to have to sign up for expensive compulsory health insurance straightaway: without it you can’t obtain a resident permit.
Read also: Here’s why Swiss rents are so high right now
On top of that, you may have to factor in costs like getting official documents from your home country translated.
The good news is that there are ways to keep spending down in Switzerland. Buying bulk in supermarkets, getting a discount railcard like the half-fare card and looking online for second-hand deals are all options. Oh, and some of the country’s best leisure activities are free (a hike in the mountains anyone?)
The language thing is really complicated
While Switzerland is basically divided into German, French and Italian-speaking language areas, the deeper you dig the more complicated the picture gets.
For example, if you move to German-speaking Switzerland, you are going to have to contend with High German (the ‘official’ written version of the language) and Swiss German, which is what people speak most of the time, even on local television and radio.
To make things even more difficult, Swiss German is not really one dialect: it is actually a whole patchwork of dialects, some of which are easier to understand than others.
The situation is a little more straightforward in the French- and Italian-speaking areas although there are differences in accent and vocabulary from what you might hear in Italy and France. Then there is Romansh – Switzerland’s fourth official language – which is spoken by around 60,000 people in the south east of the country.
It’s the cantons, stupid
Switzerland is about as decentralized a country as you can get. You pay most of your taxes to your local council and can actually see your money at work on local schools, hospitals and roads.
Meanwhile, the country’s 26 cantons (a little like states in the US) are often very resistant to interference from the federal government. They have their own education and health systems and even have discretionary powers when it comes to granting citizenship.
This can mean all sorts of paperwork, including getting a new resident permit, if you decide to move from one canton to another, or even from one town or village to another. You may also find that you have to start again with the citizenship process if you move out of the area where you live. You have been warned.
Oh, and one more thing, this obsession with everything local can sometimes make Switzerland feel like one big country village. Don’t be surprised, for example, if people stare at you on the streets or want to know your business. It’s generally more about curiosity than rudeness.
Summer is…a thing
OK, so the “endless summer” of 2018 was a bit of an outlier, but despite the popular image of snow-capped mountains and skiing, Swiss summers can actually get pretty hot, and temperatures of 30C are not uncommon. Valais and the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino have a distinctly southern air in July and August.
Yvonand in the canton of Vaud is a great place to get that seaside feel. Photo: Swiss Tourism
And with around 1,500 lakes, lots of pristine rivers and plenty of beautiful natural spaces, there’s no shortage of things to do in Switzerland during the warmer months, while the relaxed vibe of Swiss summers takes a lot of newcomers by surprise.
Not everyone knows how to yodel (or ski)
If your image of Switzerland is based on The Sound of Music (a film a lot of Swiss people haven’t even heard of, by the way), you might be surprised to discover a diverse, modern culture where hip hop is a lot more popular that yodelling. At the same time, the Swiss are very proud of their traditions and it is possible to see everything from hornussen (a bizarre golf-like sport) and schwingen – the Swiss form of wrestling – around the country.
There are a lot of foreigners
Just over a quarter of all people living in Switzerland are not actually Swiss. While part of the reason for this high number is the fact that it is famously difficult for foreigners to get their hands on a passport (Switzerland only this year made it easier for third-generation immigrants to get citizenship), the country is also very international.
Don’t be surprised to find yourself mixing with Serbs, Spaniards and Somalians when you are out and about.
Switzerland is an island
Stuck in the middle of the European Union but not part of it, Switzerland remains a world unto itself. With its unique form of direct democracy, gravity-defying scenery, and linguistic diversity, it is at once outward-looking (by necessity) and self-obsessed. Often it feels as if the rest of the world simply doesn’t exist even though the nearest country may be a matter of just minutes away.