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COST OF LIVING

EXPLAINED: Why is Switzerland so expensive?

That the cost of living in Switzerland is notoriously high is hardly a surprise — though it may still shock some people. There are several reasons why this is so.

EXPLAINED: Why is Switzerland so expensive?
Life in Switzerland is expensive. Photo by Claudio Schwartz, Unsplash

Besides chocolate, cheese and banks full of other people’s money, Switzerland is perhaps best known for being expensive. 

The country is especially pricey when it comes to food, beverages, hotels, housing, restaurants, clothing, and health insurance – or pretty much everything you need. 

While Switzerland is expensive for its residents, for people coming from abroad, high costs here are the ultimate culture shock.

READ MORE: Why Zurich ranks as the world’s most expensive city once again

Various studies have shown time and again that Swiss consumers pay much more for basic goods and services than their European counterparts, with the exception of Norway and Iceland.

For instance, one such study found that people in Switzerland have to pay 168 francs for a basket of consumer goods costing on average 100 euros in the EU.

Why is this?

Many reasons have been given to explain this phenomenon. Some of them however are based on popular beliefs rather than economic facts.

One such explanation that is making rounds in Switzerland is that prices in Swiss supermarkets are high because employees in Swiss supermarkets are paid more than their European counterparts.

While Swiss salaries are indeed higher than almost anywhere else in Europe, this explanation does not hold water.

Cost of living in Switzerland: How to save money if you live in Zurich

So what is the real reason for the high cost of consumer goods in Switzerland?

Among the most often cited ones are protectionism and lack of competition, which are inter-related, as the former invariably leads to the latter.

Trade protectionism is a policy that protects domestic industries from foreign competition.

A case in point is milk.

Milk can only be imported if it is in short supply in Switzerland, which is not currently the case. This means that Swiss milk has no foreign competitors vying for the consumers’ attention, and forcing it to lower its price.

This kind of protectionism extends to many other products as well.

But sometimes it works the other way too.

study by the University of Applied Sciences of Northwestern Switzerland shows that foreign producers and suppliers impose large price increases in Switzerland, exploiting high salaries and consumers’ purchasing power.

This means that Swiss buyers are overpaying for their purchases by more than three billion francs, the study found. 

This is the reason why so many people living in border regions go shopping in France, Italy, and Germany, where the same items are considerably cheaper. 

Cross-border shopping: Vaccinated Swiss can now shop in Germany again

This practice is widespread in e-commerce as well.

Anyone who wants to order something online from a foreign store is often redirected to the supplier’s Swiss site, where the prices are often much higher.

This is called ‘geo-blocking’.

This practice finally spurred the public and politicians into action.

READ MORE: ‘Fair prices’: Switzerland moves one step closer to referendum on cost of living

A popular initiative tag-lined “Stop the expensive island” , which aims to fight against overpriced goods in Switzerland, was presented to the parliament in 2017.

It has been stagnating there for four years because PMs couldn’t agree on how to tackle this issue.

But in March, the initiative was revived and is heading toward a referendum (no date has been set yet).

If passed, geo-blocking’ will be prohibited. In the future, consumers and businesses based in Switzerland will have to be treated by foreign online shops the same way as domestic consumers

It is difficult to predict whether Swiss prices will drop significantly as a result of this initiative, but at least there is hope on the horizon.

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COST OF LIVING

Can I have a fire in my backyard or courtyard in Switzerland?

The winter months are on their way and the weather is getting colder. If you’re lucky enough to have a backyard, can you light a fire?

White marshmallows toast over a fire
If you want to toast marshmallows in your backyard in Switzerland this winter, first make sure it's OK. Photo by Leon Contreras on Unsplash

Even if you own a property, the rules for what you can and cannot do in Switzerland can be relatively restrictive. 

As we covered in the following article, laws or tenancy rules can prevent you from doing several types of activities in your own backyard, including felling trees or washing your car. 

You can also be prevented from certain activities on particular days. For instance, rules, bylaws and tenancy arrangements may prevent you from mowing your lawn or hanging out your laundry on a Sunday. 

READ MORE: What am I allowed to do in my backyard or apartment courtyard in Switzerland?

As the weather gets colder, you might be tempted to stock up the fire pit, fire basket or fire bowl with wood and set it alight. 

The rules for lighting fires are also relatively complex. What you are allowed to do will depend on your canton, your tenancy arrangement and the type of fire. 

Can I light a fire on my own property in Switzerland? 

If you’re living in one of the few Swiss houses to have a fireplace, then you are presumably allowed to use it, unless tenancy regulations prevent it at certain times. 

You are also usually allowed to have a barbecue or grill either on your balcony or in your backyard, provided the noise and smoke is not excessive. 

READ MORE: Can I have a barbecue on my balcony in Switzerland?

Whether or not you are allowed to have a fire in your backyard however will depend on the rules in your canton. 

You are generally prohibited from burning any waste in Switzerland, other than typical forest or garden waste (i.e. wood, grass, twigs, sticks and leaves). 

That however can also be restricted at certain times of the year.

In Zurich, for instance, fires in backyards are only permitted from March to October, meaning that you will need to find other ways to stay warm in the winter months in Switzerland’s most populous canton. 

Even if lighting fires is permitted, you may want to check with the rules of your rental contract to see if you are technically allowed a fire. 

What about fires in the forest or open parks? 

A campfire might also sound like a nice way to spend a winter evening, but this may be restricted or completely prohibited depending on the circumstance. 

There is no federal ban on fires in forests and other outdoor areas, provided you are not burning waste (other than garden waste etc) and you are not producing excessive emissions. 

The rules are the same on August 1st, Swiss National Day, where special bonfires usually require a permit. 

Note that there are special rules for burning old Christmas trees, which is prevented by law. 

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