Laws, Customs Etiquette in Switzerland

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It seems there are rules and laws for almost everything in Switzerland. Here's what travelers need to know to avoid embarrassment from the Swiss.

The Jesuit Church and Mount Pilatus from the banks of Reuss river in Lucerne, Switzerland Photo © Getty Images/Marco Bottigelli

Switzerland is one of the safest countries to travel to in Europe, despite a few minor scams and pickpockets, nd there's generally nothing to worry about when it comes to crime and your safety.

In each Swiss canton (state) there are different traditions and ways of doing things, and the mountain villages all have a unique set of rules. Similar to the way laws differ between states in the USA, and even Australia.

Swiss law states general things that each of the cantons must follow, but each canton might do things a little differently. 

National security in Switzerland

For a neutral country, it takes security pretty seriously, and you'd be well advised to be respectful of that. Citizens and visitors in Switzerland must carry identification at all times. If you are stopped without valid identification (a driver's license or photocopy of your passport), you could be taken in for questioning by police.

Switzerland still has National Service in the armed forces, where each able-bodied Swiss man has to spend time each year in a training camp that forms part of the military. Soldiers must keep a gun in their home, which is a part of the military framework in readiness for potential conflict.

Similar to common laws elsewhere around the world, don't take photos of military installations or activities, unless you want to spend a few hours explaining yourself to authorities.

During the Cold War, Switzerland declared that each house must have a nuclear fallout shelter. These are still around, and each citizen has a list of emergency items that must be kept in the home at all times in readiness for a civil emergency.

What's illegal in Switzerland?

Here's what you need to know.

  • It is forbidden to jaywalk or cross the street on a red light. If you are caught by the police, a fine for jaywalking will be imposed on the spot
  • Drug possession is also taken very seriously and there are heavy penalties, jail sentences and fines depending on the type of narcotic found
  • Taking drugs across an international border automatically constitutes drug trafficking and has a heavy penalty
  • The Swiss like the neighborhood to be tidy, and each citizen must keep their home in order. The police have been known to visit homes where washing is not hung out tidily enough on the line
  • Good Samaritan laws are in place in Switzerland, so if you see something bad happen or someone is in trouble, the least you must do is call the police (dial 117). If you do not even try to help out, you could be in trouble

Customs and etiquette in Switzerland

Follow these rules to make a good impression while you visit.

  • The Swiss shake hands on the first meeting but friends greet each other with three kisses on the cheek- right, left, right
  • It's polite to say hello and goodbye when you enter and leave a shop
  • Punctuality is important, and being late is considered rude
  • There is mutual respect for neighbors in Switzerland. This can be taken to extreme lengths, for example, many towns have special party houses in woodlands where people can host events to avoid making noise where they live, potentially disturbing their neighbors
  • Littering is frowned upon, the country has high rates of recycling and everyone is expected to contribute
  • Sundays are particularly sacrosanct, and it is forbidden to use a washing machine or a lawnmower so that the neighborhood is not disturbed. Many who work as concierge at hotels or hostels have become frustrated when foreign travelers ask to wash their clothes on a Sunday – so keep this in mind
  • During winter it is a citizen's responsibility to clear ice and snow from their paths so that people do not fall or slip. If the neighbor is elderly or ill, it is the responsibility of the other neighbors to clear their paths.

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11 Comments

  • Ariane said

    Very interesting.

  • Terry said

    Spent a week in Switzerland and loved every minute, the people were very helpful with directions and an absolute joy to chat with, America can learn a few things from the Swedish.

  • Brier Rose Smith said

    Switzerland is a beautiful place to go to, and full of delicious treats!!!!!

  • Tina said

    The Swiss, not the Swedish!!!

  • Bryan said

    Don't really know why Switzerland has a bad reputation when it comes to the people, every person I've talked to or asked something to, responds in the nicest way possible and always with a smile, anyone here is always willing to help. And the jaywalking one, I always see people doing this ???? weird

  • Gary said

    Typical American, spent a week in Switzerland and still thought the locals were Swedish.
    I heard that you cant was your car in Switzerland, its against the law.

  • Tired of London said

    Hi, This sounds like heaven. I wish to be somewhere where party in woodland instead of outside making noise at all hours also where deal with drug taking etc etc Will be checking out for sure.

  • Arjunan said

    Switzerland is a very nice place. People response others wellness. It's great.

  • Roxanne said

    Is it lgbtq safe tho? I'm bi and I wanna make sure I don't get attached to anyne there and have it be illegal to fall in love with them?

  • Thomas said

    Life is good in Switzerland. The country offers wonderful landscapes and beautiful villages in a small area. The article here brings some clichés to life, which I as a Swiss like to comment on. Yes, we treat each other with respect. On Sunday we actually do without mowing the lawn. After all, this is a day of rest, but many people use it today for sports activities and excursions. However, I also use the day to do laundry - my washing machine is quiet :-) If it wasn't, I would only wash on weekdays. I rarely carry an identity card with me. The law does not require it either. Only when I drive a car, I have to carry my driver's license with me. I've never had to show it. And the police has never asked for my identity card. Although there is not a lot of policemen in this country, they are there when you need them. In which country is it allowed to cross the street on red light? We Swiss sometimes do it anyway when there is little point in waiting. And no, the police don't check if you hang your laundry up properly. Neither do I need to clear the neighbors' garden path, but of course I am allowed to offer my help, aren't I? So, enjoy your stay here, take your time, spend some days at the same spot and let the impressions work on you.

  • Jill lauderbaugh said

    Switzerland has great laws and restrictions. Respect your fellow man and country. Something now very forgotten in the USA. After C19 is over I wish to return for a long time awaited vacation in Saanenland

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