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LIVING IN SWITZERLAND

14 mistakes foreigners make on moving to Switzerland

With 25 percent of the population foreign, Switzerland is clearly a major target destination for people from abroad. That said, there are some common errors and challenges to be aware of. Here's what you need to know.

Switzerland's work lunch drinking culture can take a bit of getting used to. There are several ways to save money on Swiss trains. Photo by alevision.co on Unsplash
Switzerland's work lunch drinking culture can take a bit of getting used to. There are several ways to save money on Swiss trains. Photo by alevision.co on Unsplash

1. Sunday, bloody Sunday

Swiss cities can be like ghost towns on Sundays. While in other countries Sunday might be the perfect day to get your groceries, run some errands or engage in some retail therapy, there’s very little of that at all available to you on Sunday in Switzerland. 

That said, there is still plenty to do on a lazy Swiss Sunday – just do what the locals do. 

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.

Verdict: How much should you tip in Switzerland and should you tip at all?

2. Leave things late

New arrivals to Switzerland might be tempted to pop into the shops on the way home from work – only to find that the shops are already closed. 

Supermarkets close across much of Switzerland at 6:30pm, which makes shopping difficult – particularly for full-time workers. 

The same goes for Sunday, with all but the smallest convenience stores closed from Saturday afternoon to Monday morning. 

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.

3. Eating lunch at a time other than lunchtime

While this could be filed under point two above, the Swiss especially like routine and don’t like surprises. 

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.

Also – and this applies particularly to Americans and Australians – lunch is an important cultural event to the Swiss, even in the workplace.

While in other countries working through lunch or eating lunch at your desk may be an example of hard work and dedication, in Switzerland it may come off as rude. If you’re invited to have lunch with a colleague, take them up on the invitation. 

4. Get surprised at lunchtime drinking

OK, so we’re talking about lunch again, but one of the most surprising things about Swiss work culture is that the lunch break beer or wine is still a thing – particularly in Romandie. 

Work lunches will often include a small beer or wine, particularly on a Friday. 

While it may seem irresponsible or even dangerous, keep in mind that the Swiss do almost everything in moderation – particularly drinking, so while one beer will go down well among your workmates, a double vodka coke will send the wrong message. 

5. Thinking the Swiss speak all of Switzerland’s languages

Officially, French, German, Italian and Romansh are Switzerland’s languages – but that doesn’t mean a Swiss person will be able to speak all of these. 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.

EXPLAINED: Everything you need to know about Swiss language tests for residency

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. 

Younger people are particularly likely to speak English rather than another Swiss language as their second language – and Swiss from different linguistic regions are likely to talk to each other in English. 

6. Pay full price on the train

Swiss trains are expensive, but you don’t need to pay full fares. 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).

There are a range of discounts available. Swiss residents only rarely pay full price. 

Check out the following article for more. 

REVEALED: How to find cheap train tickets in Switzerland

There are several ways to save money on Swiss trains.  Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

There are several ways to save money on Swiss trains.
Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

7. Only making ‘expat’ friends

Making friends after moving to a new country can be difficult – and according to our readers, the situation in Switzerland is particularly tough.

As a result, many foreigners fall into the trap of only making foreign friends. While this is understandable, it hampers your ability to truly immerse yourself in and experience Swiss culture. 

Although the Swiss aren’t the most outgoing bunch, when you make a Swiss friend you’ll have them for life – and you’ll be able to see a whole different side to the country. 

Here are some more ideas on how to make friends in Switzerland, as recommended by our readers.

8. Failing to learn the laundry laws

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.

READ MORE: The 12 strange laws in Switzerland you need to know

9. Jaywalking

In many parts of the world, the ‘red man’ – i.e. the ‘do not walk’ sign – is a suggestion rather than a commandment.

In much of Switzerland, this is not the case. It 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.  

Deciding to do so – even if there’s really no traffic and no risk – will not only see you risk being shunned by your fellow pedestrians, but there’s also a good chance you’ll receive a fine. 

10. Not carrying cash

Switzerland is a world leader in innovation and technology, having established themselves as international role models for everything from luxury watchmaking to recycling. 

Switzerland also reluctantly clings to cash payments like few other wealthy nations. 

While the Covid pandemic has begun to change things – card payments overtook cash payments in 2021 for the first time ever – there are still a number of locations and venues where paying with card is difficult or impossible. 

READ MORE: Could Covid end the Swiss love affair with cash?

Just to be safe, be sure to withdraw some of Switzerland’s spectacular colourful cash and carry it around with you for emergency use. 

11. Queueing (lining up)

It is downright mysterious that – in a country as ordered as Switzerland – queueing (or ‘lining up’ for those Americans among us) isn’t really a thing. 

While arrivals from the English-speaking world are likely to queue for everything from public transport to takeaway coffees automatically, this is a language which many Swiss simply don’t speak. 

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Long-time Swiss residents will have lost count of the amount of times they’ve been standing at the front of what they think is a queue, only to be overtaken by one or more Swiss when the door opens. 

Just keep your wits about you and make sure you remind the person that you were there first. 

12. Tipping

Tipping is not expected in Switzerland, and while it is increasing in prevalence, it is largely not expected of you. 

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. 

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. 

13. Not greeting people 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!
 

14. Heading to your favourite cafe, bar or restaurant in August

Newcomers to the country might not realise 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.

A version of this article first appeared on The Local Switzerland in August 2016

Member comments

  1. Re: #5. Switzerland would be wise to make English the fourth official language. Swiss children universally should be taught the language of their canton and English, as soon as possible. Official languages other than the language of one’s canton should be optional, taught for their cultural benefit. German used to be the lingua franca (!) of Switzerland, but it no longer is – English is.

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DISCOVER SWITZERLAND

How to keep safe and avoid problems when hiking in the Swiss Alps

Switzerland is a perfect place to go hiking with its thousands of marked trails. However, hundreds of people get into accidents while trekking every year, and some die. Here is what you need to know to be safe.

How to keep safe and avoid problems when hiking in the Swiss Alps

The Swiss mountains are one of the country’s most notable and most visited sites. There are activities to enjoy during all seasons and hiking the Swiss Alps is something that people of all ages enjoy in the winter or summer months.

However, mountain rescuers are called every year to help people in emergencies. Last year, there were 1,525 cases of hikers in distress – a number higher than in any other type of sport. In 2021, there were only 500 emergency calls from skiers and 342 made by mountain bikers.

READ ALSO: Why getting rescued in the Swiss Alps could cost you thousands

Bruno Hasler, who is responsible for mountain emergency statistics at the Swiss Alpine Club SAC, says that many people overestimate themselves and that is dangerous. “The hikers need to be better informed. The authorities must inform people as well as possible about the dangers of mountain hiking”, he told public broadcaster SRF.

What are the main recommendations when hiking?

The first recommendation is to make a realistic self-assessment. Mountain hiking is an endurance sport and people planning on doing a trek should avoid time pressure and choose their trails and times well.

In that sense, it is essential to make careful route planning and evaluate the length, altitude, difficulty and current conditions (including weather forecast) of the trek. Thunderstorms, snow, wind and cold significantly increase the risk of accidents.

Don’t forget to plan alternative routes and keep emergency rescue numbers on hand (REGA 1414 and the european emergency number 112).

READ ALSO : Should you buy supplemental health insurance in Switzerland?

Take practical equipment for your hiking conditions and the proper footwear too. In a backpack, take as little as possible but as much as necessary, aiming to keep it light but full of valuable things such as sun protection, a first aid kit, rescue blanket, water and a mobile phone.

The most common cause of accidents is falling because of slipping or tripping, so be sure to walk on marked paths (reducing the risk of getting lost) and keep a sure foot and safe pace.

Don’t forget to take regular breaks not only for eating and drinking (necessary to maintain performance and concentration) but also to enjoy the landscape.

Be responsible for the children in the group, treks that require long-lasting concentration are not suitable for children and in passages with risk of falling, and one adult can only look after one child, according to the Swiss Alpine Club. Small groups are the best for hiking because they ensure mutual assistance and flexibility at the same time.

Rega on a rescue mission in the Swiss Alps. Photo by FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP

The PACE checklist

The so-called PACE checklist helps hikers keep track of the most important things. PACE means plan, assess, consider, and evaluate, Swiss Alpine Club SAC says.

READ ALSO: Five beautiful Swiss villages located near Alpine lakes

Plan your route and duration and give yourself extra time and alternatives. Inform someone else about your trip. Assess if the hike is suitable for you, and do not undertake challenging trips yourself. Consider if you have what you need for the walk, like sturdy hiking shoes, protection against harsh weather and food and water supplies.

Finally, evaluate while hiking. See if you are too tired, keep eating, drinking and resting regularly and pay attention to the time you need and any changes in the weather. Do not leave the marked trail and turn back in time if necessary.

What to do in case of an accident?

If there are accidents during your hike, you should first provide life-saving help to anyone seriously injured and then call emergency services. Do not leave the wounded alone and do not put yourself at risk.

Mark the accident area clearly and give signals. The international emergency call sign consists of giving a sign (such as a flashing light or waving a cloth) six times a minute and then repeating it after one minute.

READ ALSO: Rega: What you need to know about Switzerland’s air rescue service

For helicopters, holding both your arms up (making a V shape) signals that you need help, while keeping one arm up and another down (forming a diagonal line with your arms) means you do not need help.

If you see animals, keep your distance and do not disturb them. (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)

What do I do if I see animals on my hike?

It’s common to find animals while hiking in the Swiss alps, especially cows in the pastures. A cow will protect their calves, so keep your distance. Do not touch the animals, and keep dogs on a leash.

Slowly and carefully move around at a distance and continue your trek.

You may occasionally find herds that dogs protect. It’s possible to inform yourself online in advance to find out where these herds are and avoid them. Still, remember that packs and their guardian dogs should be disturbed as little as possible. So stay calm and keep your distance – avoid any brisk movements.

If you are hiking with your dog, put it on a leash and slowly and calmly detour around the livestock.

If a guard dog barks and runs in your direction, try to stay calm and give the dog time to assess the situation. Stay far from the herd, don’t run or make sudden movements. You can use a stick to keep the dog at a distance by stretching them out, but don’t raise it or wave it around.

Once the dogs have accepted your presence and stopped barking, continue at a slow pace on your way.

Don’t forget: the Swiss rescue number is 1414 or you can also reach them using the European emergency number 112.

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