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This is what ID you need to travel to Switzerland’s neighbouring countries

Did you know that if you are going from Switzerland to Austria, France, Germany and Italy you still need to take a recognized travel document? The Local's George Mills takes a look at the rules.

This is what ID you need to travel to Switzerland's neighbouring countries
It is generally a good policy to stay on the right side of border guards. File photo: AFP

If you live in Switzerland, it can be easy to get blasé about borders, especially if there's one just down the road. For many foreigners with Swiss residence permits living in cities like Geneva or Basel, going to another country is a routine matter.

And now that Switzerland is part of the Schengen ‘free travel’ area, it is easier than ever to cross the border as there are usually no controls at all.

Spot checks still happen

But when I visited Austria for the day recently, I was reminded that despite the usual lack of border controls, random spot checks do still take place and that's why it is important to carry a recognized form of personal identification.

On the day in question, I was travelling in a car with two friends. We drove into Austria without being stopped. But when we were returning to Switzerland, we were signalled to pull over by Austrian border police who asked to see our papers.

I had my UK passport with me. The Austrian officials glanced at this quickly and returned it to me. However, one of my friends – an Irish (and therefore EU) citizen – only had his Swiss residence permit with him.

My other friend was only carrying his German residence permit, which had been issued to him because he is a non-EU citizen living and working in Germany.

Incorrect documents

In both cases, the documents in question were not considered valid forms of identification by the Austrians. My friends were warned that they would “usually” be fined €100 each.

Before waiving their fine, however, the Austrian officials also checked to ensure we were carrying a legally-required warning triangle in our car in case of vehicle breakdowns. When he saw this was the case, we were sent on our way. 

If the car hadn't been equipped with a warning triangle, my two friends would probably have been fined for not having their travel documents on hand.

Possible consequences

Most border encounters like the one I experienced recently result in a stern talking to and not much else, but it can depend very much on the day or the official you happen to deal with. And depending on the circumstances, if you have already entered a country without the right papers, the consequences could be more serious.

Countries can set their own rules when it comes to what documents you are required to have on you. In Austria, for example, the maximum fine for being in the country without valid ID is €1,000. France, Germany and Italy also have rules stating you must be able to produce a passport or other recognized form of ID when asked to do so.

And, at a practical level, it is always good to have official documents with you just in case something happens to you when you are overseas, such as a car accident for example.

The documents you need 

So what ID do you need to take with you if you have a Swiss residence permit but are visiting Austria, France, Italy or Germany by car or public transport?

The situation is different depending on whether you are an EU national or the citizen of a non-EU country.

According to official Swiss information, for most EU nationals, a national ID card (such as the German ID card) is all you need to travel to one of Switzerland’s neighbours. You don’t need to bring your Swiss residence permit. And remember: your Swiss residence permit is not sufficient.

For people from EU countries that don’t issue national ID cards, such as Brits, a passport is the best option. Driving licences, bank cards and social security documents are not recognized as valid travel documents by the EU. In other words, your UK driving licence does not count. You may get away with using it as ID when entering one of Switzerland's neighbours, but don’t count on it.

In the case of Swiss residents from non-EU countries, you should take both your passport and Swiss residence permit with you.

EU citizens can't simply be turned back at the border

On a final note, if you are an EU citizen who is resident in Switzerland and travelling to Austria, Germany, Italy or France, the EU highly recommends you bring a passport or ID with you in case you are stopped.

On the other hand, be aware that border guards in Austria, France, Germany and Italy cannot simply turn EU nationals away if they don’t have the correct papers.

According to the EU: “Border guards may not return you back without giving you reasonable time to have your passport or identity card brought to you.”

In addition, in exceptional circumstances you should be given the chance to prove that you are an EU citizen by providing evidence in the form of other documents. But it is far easier just to take the right documents with you to start with.

READ ALSO: What Swiss residents need to know about cross-border shopping

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