Although Switzerland didn't have its own flag as a country until 1848, when the new constitution of the federal state was adopted, it's still one of the oldest in the world. Until then, the Swiss used to identify themselves by the coat of arms of their canton or community of origin.
Its origin dates back to the battle of Laupen in 1339, when soldiers sew a white cross onto their uniform to distinguish themselves from other confederates.
Napoleon succeeded to forbid the white cross for a short period of time between 1798 and 1803. But his flag with green, red and yellow stripes was immediately abandoned when the Helvetic period ended.
The Swiss Flag is, together with the flag of the Vatican, the only square flag in the world. That's because all flags of the cantons were already square, and one preferred unity in size and shape of all flags.
The size of the flag is not laid down by law, and sometimes one can see rectangle flags too. Whereas the exact dimensions of the white cross and the red colour are set in stone.
Country Code: CH
Population of Switzerland: 8.2 million and growing.
Switzerland is divided in 26 cantons (provinces). Municipalities decline steadily due to mergers with other municipalities. In 2009, there were 2'636 municipalities, in 2012 only 2'485.
We share borders with Germany to the North, Austria and Liechtenstein to the East, Italy to the South and France to the West.
The country is covered to 60% by Alps, 30% by rolling hills of the Mittelland (Middle Land) and 10% by the Jurassic mountains.
Public or national holidays are not standardized. They are celebrated in most, but not all cantons. I marked the ones celebrated throughout Switzerland with *; the rest are celebrated in at least more than half of the cantons:
There are many more regional and local public holidays. Each canton (province) sets public holidays independently, depending on religion or regional celebrations/commemorations specific to the canton.
School holidays are not standardized as well. Did I mention we love diversity? They differ from canton to canton, starting one week earlier or later, but most are around the same time. Just to give you an idea when they take place:
Central European Time zone; Greenwich (GMT) +1 hour;
Daylight Saving Time: GMT +2 hours from last Sunday in March to last Sunday in October.
Switzerland lies 6 hours ahead of New York; 9 hours ahead of Vancouver and Los Angeles; 5 hours ahead of Buenos Aires; 1 hour ahead of London; 3,5 hours behind New Dheli; and 8 hours behind Sydney.
Switzerland has four distinctive seasons with mostly moderate climate but the temperature depends very much on the altitude. Therefore, even if you plan your holiday in the warmest summer months, bring a sweater along with your bathing suite. Nights can cool down quite drastically, especially on higher altitudes. Here's a list I've compiled of average temperatures throughout the year.
Readers ask me quite often: "What's the best time to travel to Switzerland?"
Well, that all depends on your interests. And, unfortunately, there's no short answer or good weather guarantee at any time.
Please find here a page that hopefully will answer your question.
Although Switzerland is not part of the European Union, the Schengen Visa does apply. However, border control is still in effect, no matter where and how you enter the country.
Rather than listing requirements and details of visas and therefore risking not having the newest information listed, here's the link to the most accurate Information on Swiss Visas.
Switzerland is not part of the European Union and therefore has its own currency, the Swiss Franc (CHF). Though many businesses, including hotels, accept EUROS. However, any change will be given in Swiss Francs.
You can change money upon arrival at the airport, at serviced train stations and banks during operation hours.
Debit Cards: ATMs are called "Bancomats" (Bank teller machines) and "Postomats" (operated by post offices) and are widely available. Make sure your bank card is accurately programmed with your personal PIN. Pins with more than four digits are most likely not to work in Switzerland. Most banks charge a flat fee for each transaction no matter how high the amount you withdraw. It makes sense to budget carefully so you don't have to make too many withdrawals. Best you talk with your bank before you leave home. Find out about the fees they charge and if they have a special agreement with one of the Swiss banks.
Credit Cards: Master and Visa are the most popular, though Switzerland still lags behind other countries in accepting Credit Cards. You could run into problems in family run B&Bs, restaurants and small shops. They don't always accept "plastic money". Make sure before you stay, eat or buy if cards are accepted. Also, check fees with your bank. Even if you can make your credit card payments in your own currency, fees can vary from bank to bank.
Cash: It's a good idea to carry some cash. Despite all the plastic available, we still use mostly cash for covering normal day-to-day needs (cheques are unknown). It's uncommon to pay for items up to CHF 20 with credit or debit card. I don't say it is not possible, but if you don't carry enough cash, ask before you buy. You can bring as much cash as you want into the country, but you will have to declare everything above CHF 10'000 at customs (cash and traveler checks). Even though EUROS are widely accepted, most likely you will end up paying more since you get money back in Swiss Francs and the exchange rate is higher than when you change money at the bank, train station or get your cash at ATMs. Keep in mind that a hotel, shop or restaurant is not a bank and can't pay their bills with foreign currency, therefore, the higher exchange rate.
Emergencies: Travel is expensive and emergencies can occur. Not only is cash advance through credit cards expensive, most likely you will need to apply for it (new PIN). Let your bank know about it before you leave. Rather than rely on cash advance through credit cards, have someone wire you money or top up your bank account. Your embassy is maybe willing to advance you money for emergencies, but check before you leave.
Although Switzerland belongs to the more expensive places compared with other European countries, the difference is not as big as it used to be just a few years ago. While gas is cheaper than in neighbouring countries, public transportation, accommodation and eating out belong to the most expensive items.
Although Switzerland has one of the lowest crime rates, pity theft can occur everywhere. Take precaution and don't leave your luggage unattended, lock your bike, pretend to be a local, etc. We've got a saying: "Gelegenheit macht Diebe" (opportunity makes a thief).
I once returned from a four month trip through South East Asia. Nothing got stolen while there, but when I purchased a train ticket in Zürich I got a little careless. I placed my hand luggage a little beside me on the floor, and when I reached for it, it wasn't there. The bigger the crowd the higher the risk.
But really, most visits are trouble free.
Our health system is considered one of the best, but it has to be paid for. Europeans should check with their own health insurance if treatment in Switzerland is included or if they have to top up their insurance for the time of travel.
For everybody else taking out adequate travel and medical insurance is highly recommended. Check with your own health insurance, your bank and credit card provider to see what already is covered before you decide to buy insurance.
No vaccination is needed, except if you arrive from a yellow fever infected area.
However, ticks can be a problem, especially if you plan a hiking vacation. Get information on immunization against tick-borne encephalitis from your family doctor way ahead of your planned vacation. To be protected, you would have to get the immunization at least six weeks before departure. Take precaution while hiking: wear good shoes, cover your ankles and wear long pants. If you are prone to catch ticks, use a spray.
If you take medication, bring your own supply and keep them in their original packages. Do bring a doctor's prescription (with generic names) in case you need to top up your medication. Pack them into your carry-on luggage. Pharmacies are marked with a green cross on a white background. Over the counter medication can also be purchased in a "Drogerie".
You can bring personal, used effects without limitation. But be aware that gifts and new goods over CHF 300 have to be declared. If your items look very new, were never used or you bring expensive jewelry, watches and such with you, bring a bill or an insurance certificate where these items are listed just in case you have to proof ownership and that you bought this items for personal use before you left your country.
Pirated goods are a no-go, and so are most meats, absinthe and narcotics. There are strict regulations on importing animals. Here's an up-to-date list on goods you can and cannot bring with you.
If you have nothing to declare, you can breeze through customs following the green signs.
Public transport is excellent, fast and on time. While single tickets are expensive, there are plenty of discounted options available.
Read more about...
... How to explore Switzerland
... Tips on Train Travel
... Discounted Pass and Ticket Options
... How to calculate the ideal Swiss Travel Pass for your needs
Although Switzerland is a mountainous country, we make great efforts to provide accessibility.
International Airports: For travellers with special needs facilities include accessible toilets and telephone booths, ramps, parking and lifts. Inform your airline when booking your trip if you need assistance. In the departure hall you find a special assistance desk to help you with your needs. Porters for hire are available.
Train Travel: Passengers with special needs can get information at the official SBB Train Travel website. Contact their Call Center if you need assistance when boarding, changing and leaving trains. Help is only available on manned stations. Call toll free 0800-007-102 between 6am and 10pm.
Hotels: Most booking centers offer either information directly on the hotel page or you can filter the search for "rooms for disabled guests".
Skiing: Ski2Freedom Foundation offers assistance in all things ski.
Additional Info:Zürich's Global Expat Network provides a comprehensive list for travellers with special needs.
Compared to North American standards, hotel rooms in Switzerland are handkerchief sized. If you expect king-sized beds or rooms with two queen-beds, you are hard-pressed to find them in regular hotels.
Often, double rooms are still equipped with twin beds.
Air-condition is still not standard, but most windows can be opened to let air circulate.
Space is limited and often amenities are basic. Of course, if your budget is unlimited, the choice is yours.
Make early reservations during the hight tourist season - end of June to end of August, from Christmas to the 1st week in January, February and around Easter. Hotels in Ski resorts often want you to book at least for one week - Saturday to Saturday.
Opening and closing hours are regulated by each canton or even community. They differ quite a bit depending on location. In cities, larger stores, post offices and banks tend to be open during lunch hours, whereas in smaller towns and rural areas, closing during lunch hours is common.
Generally, Thursday evenings, stores are open longer (until 9pm). Most remain closed on Sundays except in larger train stations and small malls/gasoline stations along the motorway.
Department stores, malls: 9 or 10am to 6.30pm during week days; 10am to 4pm Saturdays.
Grocery stores: 8am to 6.30pm; smaller grocery stores still close at lunchtime. Saturdays open until 4pm. (5pm in larger cities and touristy areas).
Restaurants: some open for breakfast, others only open during lunch and dinner hours (11.30am to 2pm, 6.30pm to 10pm). The average restaurant, even if open all day, closes the kitchen for warm meals after lunch (2 or 3pm) until dinnertime.
Post offices: 7.30am to noon and 1.30pm to 6.30pm during weekdays; Saturdays 7.30am to 11am. Main post offices in larger cities tend to be open during lunch time.
Banks: 8.30am to 13.30h, 1.30pm to 5.30pm weekdays; open during lunch in larger city centres.
Tourist offices: Monday to Saturday 8am to 5pm in downtown areas of larger cities; in tourist areas open 7 days a week.
Gas stations and kiosks: usually open daily from 6.30am until 9pm. Most gas stations accept major credit cards and/or Swiss bank notes at their self-serve machines which run 24/7.
Museums: generally closed on Monday, but are often open longer one evening a week (usually Thursday or Friday).
Pharmacies: 9am to 1pm and 2pm to 6.30pm. Downtown pharmacies in larger cities tend to stay open during lunchtime. On each pharmacy window you find a list with pharmacies that are open during night time.
Generally, everything is closed on Sundays and public holidays.
Switzerland is still a developing nation when it comes to free internet access.
If cities offer free internet access, you still need an access code. More and more cities offer Hotspots, mostly in high frequented areas, such as train stations and main squares.
Some restaurants offer free internet access for their paying guests, such as Coop and Migros self-serve restaurants, Tibits (vegetarian restaurant) in Zürich and Bern, Starbucks and McDonalds.
Approx. 80% of hotels offer Internet access to its guest, however, it is not always free or the time is limited.
Zürich Airport offers one hour free Internet access. You'll receive a free access code by scanning your board card at info booths (or log in via mobile phone and receive the code via SMS). If you need longer access you can purchase additional minutes. Basel EuroAirport offers free WiFi Access, although you have to log in every 45 minutes. Geneva Airport offers 90 minutes free access (can be used in several sessions). International prepaid phone and SIM cards can be bought at the post office or at the American Express counter.
The Postal busses offer on more and more routes free access. You will only need a one-time access code. Register with the post bus driver and you will be able to access wireless internet for eternity. Want to know where it's available? Click here.
Tourist offices offer Internet access as well, but some charge exorbitant fees.
Internet Cafés: prices vary.
If you need regular and uninterrupted email and Internet access while travelling in Switzerland, you can get it at SwissCom-, Sunrise- and Orange-stores - either upon arrival at the Airport in Zürich or pretty much in every city and town. In Geneva, you can buy a prepaid card at the American Express counter or the post office.
As long as you find a phone booth that accepts coins, you can use Swiss coins as well as EUROS. But as soon as they have to get replaced, you will need prepaid calling cards (called Taxcards). You can buy them in dominations between CH5, 10 and 20 at post offices, some newsstands (Kiosks), at gasoline stations, larger train stations or any phone provider (SwissCom, Sunrise etc.).
The newest public phones accept Credit Cards as well.
If you can avoid it, don't use the phone in your hotel. Even local calls are very expensive (there are no free local calls in Switzerland). Hotels add hefty fees to the calls you make. Instead, use a prepaid calling card with a toll-free number.
Prepaid international calling cards offer you a wide range of advantages on international calls, and you can control your spendings:
You can buy SIM Cards for your (unlocked) cell phone quick and easy upon arriving at the airport in Zürich (for Geneva see here), or in SwissCom, Sunrise, Orange and Migros stores, located in larger train stations and city/town centers and department stores. All you need to buy a SIM Card is your passport or identification card (drivers licenses don't count as identification cards).
The prices for sending postcards and letters depend on size, weight and speed you choose.
Standard letters and postcards cost at the time of writing this page Economy CHF 1.30 to European and CHF1.60 to all other countries; Priority mail CHF1.40 to European countries and CHF1.90 overseas.
If you send parcels to other countries be aware that export restrictions apply.
Post Shops in larger post offices also provide you with all kinds of products - from stationary to music to special stamp collections and various presents and gadgets. They also sell post bus tickets, even train tickets. But as a traveler, I would recommend to buy all your public transportation tickets at the ticket offices of train stations or ticket machines (or through your SBB mobile app).
Opening hours: Larger post offices in cities are generally open between 8.30am to 6.30pm Monday to Friday and Saturday's until 11am; in most towns and villages, post offices are closed during lunch hours (between noon and 1.30pm. Also, post services in smaller villages are often found in the local grocery store.
"Post Restante": If someone wants to send you mail while you travel they can send it marked with "Post Restante" and your name to the city of your choice (main post office is best). You have one month time to pick up your mail. You will need to show a piece of identification.
We tend to be very private and keep to ourselves. Asking strangers personal questions is considered rude and nosy.
The German speaking population is more reserved than the rest of Switzerland. Maybe one reason is that a lot of us are also shy when it comes to speaking English. Although it's a lot more common nowadays, it's still not spoken or understood by everyone.
It's common to shake hands when we meet people, even amongst friends and acquaintances. We address each other with our last name (Herr or Frau Meier) until one 'receives or gives each other permition' to be on first name basis.
"Proper clothing" (casual) is expected. When I asked a Canadian friend what he felt was the biggest cultural difference between our countries, he replied: "I still can't figure out why you dress up when you go out to fill up the gas tank!"
Smoking has been banned in most public spaces, official buildings, museums, restaurants (with some exceptions), bars, cinemas, stores and sport centres, public transportation and at the workplace.
A service charge in restaurants, hotels, taxis, hairdressers etc. is included in the bill, and you don't have to tip, nor is it expected. But we do tip if we are satisfied with the service. There's no fixed amount - you could round up the bill or give whatever you think is appropriate. The better the service the more we tip. If you pay with a credit card I'd recommend you give the tip in cash.
If the service in a hotel was exceptional, you could leave some change or a small bill in an envelope on the bed. This way room service knows it's for them and not forgotten by you.
Fast food restaurants are not as widely available as they are in North America. Going out means we are prepared to spend a little more money for great quality. You won't find a sign "home cooked style meals", because that is what we tend to get at home. When we eat out we expect the best and maybe something we never would cook at home.
I think the same thing applies to water. It's mind boggling to most visitors that we drink bottled mineral water in restaurants and not our excellent tab water. This is pure speculation by me, but we can drink tab water at home. And because we have to pay for it, we want a bit of 'luxury' here too. And then there is that strange soft drink called Rivella, produced from milk whey. It's available in red (unaltered original produced drink), green (green tea extract added), blue (low calorie) and yellow (soy instead of whey). Although it's on the market since the early 1950s and the most favoured soft drink amongst the Swiss, it never really made it big as an export article. Most visitors reaction to it is… ah, interesting… :) Give it try tough, it's very refreshing. Apple cider - sweet (Süssmost - alcohol free) and sour (Suure Moscht, with and without alcohol), beer and wine are amongst favourites.
Swiss cuisine reflects our agricultural tradition and is influenced by our neighbours. Some of our food is a bit on the heavy side of dairy, bread, pasta and potato. These were staples readily available at all times, and satisfied hardworking people. Each region has a variety of specialties that reflect their specific cultural heritage.
Breakfast includes bread, butter, fruit spreads, honey, cheese, cereals, maybe some cold cuts and milk, coffee or tea. Contrary to believes, the famous Birchermüesli is more often eaten at lunch or as a light supper. But it's served in most hotels and B&Bs with breakfast.
Farmers and labourers still eat 5 hearty meals a day: breakfast, Znüni (a second breakfast at around 9am - sandwiches or similar), lunch, Zvieri (at around 4pm similar food as for the second breakfast) and dinner. Office worker replaced the mid-morning and mid-afternoon snacks with a coffee (or tea) break without food or just nibble on a croissant or a little fruit.
It's still very common, especially in rural areas, to invite each other to a Sunday Zvieri, meaning a Sunday afternoon get-together were coffee, tea and cake (Kuchen) are served - made from scratch of course :) This is probably a left-over tradition when farmers didn't have time for social gatherings around the dinner table because their work day ended (and still does end) around or after 8pm.
Common menus for lunch and dinner include amongst the already mentioned foods above a wide variety of vegetables, salads and soups, various stews, fish and meats - and yes, even horse meet. Fruit, cheese and onion tarts (Wähen) together with soup or salad is a light and quick meal when there's not much time to cook, or as a meatless dish on Fridays, which is still widely followed.
Desserts are all kinds of pastries, cakes, cookies (Guetzli), creams, ice-cream, fruit and fruit salads to specialty cheeses. And of course, chocolate!
They are simply called toilets and are marked with WC and a pictogram for a man or a woman respectively.
You find them everywhere. Keep small change - 20 Rappen/centimes, more often 50 Rappen/centimes and 1 Franc, and if you are lucky you find a free one.
McClean is a chain of public restrooms in train stations, probably the cleanest, but also the most expensive you can find. Almost all are equipped with showers.
If you don't want to break the bank to go to a toilet, you find free ones in department stores, fast-food and self-serve restaurants like Migros and Coop. They are also free in Restaurants, but it's often expected that you eat or drink something. They are still free in most train stations (except in so-called train cities where McClean rules) and of course they are also free in trains.
When you use toilets in Highway service centres, most often you get a receipt and you get the money back if you consume something.
Switzerland works on 230 Volt.
Make sure the electrical specifications on your items show 220-240 volts AC (alternating current), 50 Hz, so a simple adapter will work.
Plugs have two or three rounded prongs.
Nowadays, traveller use all kinds of gadgets, and hotels might not always have enough outlets to load them at the same time. Bring a 240 V World Travel Adapter USB Charger Universal All-In-One power strip to charge all your items at the same time. Use an outlet in the room, rather than in the bathroom to do that.
Bathrooms in older hotels might still have only an outlet for electric shavers that are not strong enough for electrical gadgets, not even for hairdryers.
If you are not a Swiss resident, some of your purchases are tax free. VAT (MWST in German, TVA in French, IVA in Italian) on goods and services (8% standard rate; 2,5% for food, medicine, books and newspapers; 3,8% for lodging) is already included in all prices. Non-residents can claim the tax back on purchases over CHF 300 (does not apply to hotel and restaurant bills).
Zürich: Global Blue Customer Service is located in the transfer and shopping area Gate A at Zürich Airport. You can verify your purchases for later refund also at Zürich Hauptbahnhof/Main train station: Change office.
Basel: EuroAirport Basel has no service booth for refunds. Get your documents stamped by the border control and send it in for refund. Or use the following services: Change Office at Basel SBB, Swiss Railway Station, Zentralbahnstrasse 20, 4051 Basel or Travelex Switzerland, Badischer Bahnhof, Schwarzwaldallee 200, 4058 Basel
Bern: Airport Bern-Belp: No VAT office for refund. Get your documents stamped by the border control or at the Change Office in Bern's train station.
Geneva: You can get the refund at the American Express change office or let your documents stamp at the railway station.
Larger shops (if marked with the tax free shopping sign) can forfeit the VAT if you purchase products over CHF 300 and pay by credit card. If you don't send in the necessary paperwork to the global refund office within 30 days, they will charge your credit card with the tax owed.
You can reclaim the refund until 30 days after purchase date. Invoices have to be attached to the tax free form and you need it stamped by customs or train stations mentioned above if you don't get the refund before you leave the country.
Take receipts, goods and your passport to the customs desk at the airport (or border train station) to get stamped and approved for refund. Then you can reclaim it either directly at Global Blue Customer Services (if there's a desk for doing so - see above) or send in your paperwork (including how to pay, and don't forget to mention your email address as contact).
For more information see Global Blue and click on "Traveller Services"
Your own embassy will provide all kinds of help if needed: emergency assistance, medical evaluation, comfort and assist victims of robbery, finding missing persons and abducted children, transfer funds, replace stolen passports as well as with legal issues. Here's a list if you need to contact your own Embassy in Switzerland.
Get connected with the Expat community InterNations in Switzerland. You will receive useful information firsthand from people who immigrated and can help you with all kinds of questions you might have.
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Last updated: January 2016
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