Why the Swiss canton you live in is more important than you think
When it comes to everyday life in Switzerland from schools to police and taxes to drinking alcohol the canton you choose to live in is very important because they have more power than you might have thought.
Switzerland’s 26 cantons are the constituent elements of the Swiss Confederation and oversee many parts of everyday life. But just how active a role do they play in the country’s decision-making?
While Zurich has a population of over one and a half million, there are just 16,000 people living in the canton of Appenzell Innerrhoden. However, regardless of the size and population, each Swiss canton is responsible for many aspects of everyday life within its cantonal and municipal boundaries, such as managing its police force, hospitals, and schools.
Now it may seem impossible for 26 cantons with an even larger number of municipalities to abide by the same rules – and it is. Here are some of the key areas cantons are in charge of:
Attending kindergarten (daycare) is intended to promote children's socio-affective, psychosomatic, and cognitive abilities and essentially, prepare them for entry into primary school. In Switzerland, children enrol in kindergarten at the age of four and while entry into daycare is part of compulsory schooling in most cantons, it is still optional in others. In the canton of Graubünden, for instance, kindergartens must be offered to potential pupils, however, their attendance is not mandatory.
There are also differences in the duration of the kindergarten period, which varies from canton to canton. In most cantons, pupils must attend a kindergarten for one to two years, while the canton of Ticino demands they do so for three years.
In addition to the early years, Swiss cantons also disagree on the rules surrounding homeschooling. Following a court case from 2019, which sought to assert a right to homeschooling under the Swiss constitution, Swiss cantons were given the legislative power to decide upon whether or not to restrict homeschooling.
As a result, homeschooling is permitted in 16 of Switzerland’s 26 cantons – to varying degrees.
At present, Vaud and Neuchâtel are considered to be the most permissive of homeschooling in the country, with hopeful parents only needing to inform authorities of their wish to homeschool.
Other cantons, such as Basel City, are far stricter. In Basel City, parents must show that school attendance is impossible, while Lucerne, Valais, Fribourg, Zug and Schwyz require parents to be accredited as teachers in order to homeschool their kids.
You can see a comprehensive list here.
Health insurance premiums
In terms of healthcare, responsibilities are divided between the federal and cantonal authorities.
The federal government regulates financing of the health system, ensures the quality of care, as well as safety of drugs and medical devices, and promotes research and training.
It also supervises dozens of private carriers to ensure that they comply with the federal KVG / LaMal law, which prohibits discrimination based on age or health status, withholding necessary treatments, and other provisions guaranteeing that every policyholder gets the same quality of care.
The Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH) is also responsible for approving premiums.
Cantons, on the other hand, are responsible for designing health care policies on their territories, licensing medical providers, coordinating hospital services, and setting healthcare premiums.
The reason rates vary so significantly among cantons is that they have different health infrastructure and levels of government funding.
Demographics and statistics also play a role: health premiums in cantons with younger and healthier population will be lower than in those with higher incidence of disease, and older, chronically ill people.
Most employed people in Switzerland primarily pay income taxes, which will naturally depend on their earnings. However, due to Switzerland’s federalist structure, the cantons and municipalities also levy taxes in addition to the federal government. As a result, taxpayers pay different amounts of tax depending on their place of residence and are therefore exposed to a different tax burden.
Take Zug for example, a married couple with two children, where only one spouse is employed, with a net income of CHF 200,000 francs pays around CHF 17,000 francs Zug, which has the lowest taxes in all of Switzerland. To compare, a married couple in St. Gallen would pay around CHF 37,000 francs on the same income, whereas in Bern the total would come to an astounding CHF 42,000 francs.
But why is that? The short answer: Tax competition.
Cantons and municipalities are free to determine their own tax rates and while this may make sense – as only they know how much tax is required to keep everyday life running – it also runs the danger of leading to tax competition and hence, the differences in tax rates.
If a municipality has a very high average income, for instance, it can generate high tax revenues even with very low tax rates.
While parents all over the world agree that children are the greatest gift to mankind – they also cost money. A lot of money. According to the Federal Statistical Office, a couple’s first child costs around CHF 1,000 francs per month without taking into account the loss of wages for the parents. But Switzerland wouldn’t be Switzerland if all cantons marched to the beat of the same drum.
So where should families move to if looking to save money on childcare?
Since 2009, all cantons must pay monthly child allowances of at least CHF 200 francs for children up to the age of 16 as well as education allowances of CHF 250 francs up to a maximum of 25 years. Over half of Switzerland’s 26 cantons grant exactly this minimum amount (and not a penny more). However, once again Zug is the canton to look out for as it pays CHF 300 francs per kiddo.
If it’s generosity parents are looking for, than their best bet is French-speaking Switzerland. While every single French-speaking canton exceeds the minimum amount per child, Geneva decided to go the extra mile and pay monthly child allowances of up to CHF 400 francs and education allowances of up to CHF 500 francs.
As an additional perk, the Romansh cantons also pay a one-off birth and adoption allowance of up to CHF 3,000 francs.
In Switzerland, the official retirement age for men is 65, while women get to retire a year earlier at 64. Though this sounds pretty straightforward, the rule doesn’t apply to Switzerland’s law enforcement due to the dangers of the job, including physical and mental stress endured serving the country.
However, there have even been some changes there. In the summer of 2019, the canton of Thurgau decided to raise the retirement age by two years for both its male and female police officers to 62 years from 2020 onward. A year later in 2021, the canton of Fribourg followed suit, upping the retirement age for its police force to 62 years. Previously, the retirement age for Fribourg police officers, jail wardens and gamekeepers was set at 60 years – still well below the normal retirement age of 65 that applies in many other cantons for civil police employees and other cantonal employees.
The sale and supply of alcoholic beverages to anyone under the age of 16 is prohibited in Switzerland. Fermented alcoholic beverages, such as beer and wine, may be sold to those over the age of 16 throughout Switzerland, while spirits and alcopops may only be sold to people over the age of 18.
Unlike the country’s other 25 cantons, however, Ticino has implemented a ban on selling all alcoholic beverages to people under the age of 18, rather than the national 16 years age limit.