Whether you have just relocated or are thinking about moving to Switzerland, there’s one small secret to a successful integration in the land of milk and chocolate: following the rules. And there are plenty of them!
Although things may vary from canton to canton – with the French and Italian speaking usually being considered more relaxed and laid-back and the German speaking more uptight – swiss people love their rules. And they will make sure you follow yours.
Almost every aspect of the daily life is regulated in some way around here. This can be daunting at first, especially if, like me, you come from a country where the basic rule is to break the rules. But with time, and maybe some effort, you will probably start cherishing all the norms that keep life running smoothly for everyone. You might even begin to see your neighbor’s remarks as a civic duty and not just plain rudeness. Well, most of the time anyway.
But worry not. I am here to guide you through some of the swiss laws and regulations, as well as a number of unwritten rules, in particular those in force in the canton of Zurich, where I live. (Switzerland is a federation, with each state, or “canton”, having a big autonomy in terms of legislation, so things can be a little different in other places.)
And number one goes to:
Punctuality – In Switzerland being punctual means arriving earlier. If you have a job interview or a business meeting be sure to be there at least five minutes earlier. There’s also no polite late for social interactions. If you were invited for a dinner party at 7 your host will be awaiting you at 7, not 7.30. Of course there are exceptions, but generally speaking you can expect the same concern with punctuality from public and private services. Your train is 2 minutes late? They will apologize and explain the reason for the delay. You have a doctor’s appointment at 4? Your physicist will see you at 4, not one hour later as happens so many times in Portugal. So if you have a problem with being on time, you better go buy yourself a swiss watch.
Greetings – Greeting your neighbors is a must do in Switzerland. In the countryside, it is also very common to salute anyone you pass by on the street. So if you are moving to the German part of Switzerland you may as well start practicing your “Grüezi” or “Grüezi mitenand” (for more than one person): you will need it a lot.
Additionally, when engaging in a conversation with a neighbor or an acquaintance, remember to use the formal “Sie”. In the German language “Du” is reserved for close friends and family.
Resting time – Nights (from 10 pm to 7 am), lunch time (from 12:00 to 2:00 pm), Sundays and holidays are considered resting time in Switzerland. This means all kinds of noisy activities, including vacuum cleaning, doing the laundry, taking out the garbage, playing an instrument or even taking a bath or a shower (until 6 am), are forbidden, especially if you live in an apartment building. On Sundays and holidays you are also not allowed to hang your laundry to dry outside.
Garbage – Living in Switzerland will make you pretty aware of the amount of waste you are producing. First of all, your undifferentiated household trash must be thrown into a homologated garbage bag you can buy at any supermarket in your town. In Switzerland you pay all your taxes locally, so trash bags from other municipalities won’t be picked up and you risk a big fine. Once this official bag is full – the most common size is 35 liters, so this can take a while – it must be placed in your building’s or neighborhood’s bin container.
Now, since you pay for the garbage sacks, the more you recycle the less you pay. Card, paper, glass bottles and plastic containers can and should be separated for recycling, if you want to protect the environment and save some money. Card and paper are just left in front of the building for collection on assigned days. For the glass there are recycling bins usually separated by glass color. Plastic containers and pet bottles, as well as old lamps and batteries, are collected at most grocery stores, so you just have to remember to take them with you next time you go shopping. You can also separate your daily organic waste and throw it into the green garbage bin from your building or neighborhood. This way you avoid unpleasant odors at home.
Again, taking out the garbage or recycling on Sundays and holidays is strictly forbidden. Depositing your trash bag in another building’s bin container is also not allowed and, at the very least, you risk being admonished by a zealous neighbor.
“Walk left, stand right” – Other cities around the world and in Switzerland have implemented the “walk on left, stand on right” rule for escalators, but apparently with not so great success as in Zurich, where the only people you see standing on the left are tourists. So mind this little rule, especially when in busy places such airports and train stations.
Dogs – This one is my favorite. Owning a dog in Switzerland is a big responsibility, as it should be everywhere else. Before buying or adopting a puppy you must take a theory test and make sure pets are allowed in your building. Once you have the dog you must take it to a veterinary, for a microchip and registration on the national dog database. You have to register it also in your municipality and pay a dog tax, as well as liability insurance. Finally, you and your dog must attend a mandatory practical training course.
After all this process, you can proudly take your dog with you almost everywhere in Switzerland, including public transports, restaurants, cafés and many stores. Just don’t forget to always pick up its poop – some public parks even have free little bags for this purpose.
Although some may find it excessive, this regulation definitely has its merits, namely making hard to find any abandoned dogs wandering on the streets. Unfortunately for cats the scenario seems to be a bit different.
Church – Even during religious services, the swiss trust their human rules to avoid the chaos and the unpredictable. Receiving Communion takes place in an orderly manner, with each parishioner’s bench addressing the altar and returning to their seats in turn. This certainly contrasts with the “first come, first served” system in other countries.
Driving – Switzerland has strict driving rules and severe penalties for the offenders, particularly for speeders and drink drivers, which can include permanent loss of driving license, jail or even deportation. Driving above the speed or alcohol limit is simply not tolerated, and being a tourist or a foreigner is considered no excuse.
Driving with lights on during the day is compulsory since 2014 and changing for winter tires in October/November, although not mandatory, is highly recommended for safety and insurance reasons.
Maybe because of all the regulations, fortunately you don’t see much road rage in Switzerland when compared to other countries, so do as the locals do and try to keep it together behind the wheel.