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Living in Switzerland
An Ultimate Guide for Driving on Switzerland’s Roads
Over five million cars are driving around Switzerland and the country’s roads are known to be in excellent condition. Nonetheless, driving in a foreign country is always challenging and it is important to know the rules. Find all the information you need to drive safely in Switzerland in our guide!
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At a Glance:
- Even though winter tires are not compulsory during winter, it is strongly advisable to have them fitted between October and April.
- Switzerland’s road network is very dense and there are often traffic jams, especially in major urban areas, referred to as agglomerations.
- For driving on Swiss highways and expressways, you need a highway toll sticker, the so-called Vignette.
- Speeding or drunk driving is punished severely. Penalties can go from hefty fines to license withdrawal or even imprisonment.
Swiss Winter Wonderland: All You Need to Know about Driving in Snowy Conditions
Despite Switzerland’s mostly alpine geography, driving in winter won’t be much trouble if you’re well-prepared. The roads in Switzerland are well-maintained, regularly cleared of snow, and villages and towns are marked clearly. Most mountains and ski areas are accessible by car but some mountain villages are completely car free like Zermatt. Please note that due to heavy snowfall some roads, especially mountain passes like the San Bernadino pass, are closed during winter. It is not compulsory to have winter tires but strongly recommended. In case of an accident, you may be found liable if the car isn’t equipped properly and also, many insurance companies won’t cover the full damage. Since snow is also possible in spring and fall, it is advisable to have winter tires fitted between October and April. In mountain regions snow chains might be necessary.
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Be Patient: Traffic Jams in Switzerland
Switzerland is a small country and the road network is very dense. It comes as no surprise then, that traffic jams are on the daily agenda in Switzerland. The INRIX Traffic Scorecard shows that in 2015, the Swiss drivers wasted 30 hours in traffic. Only in four other European countries did traffic jams soak up more time than in Switzerland. Especially Zurich, Geneva, Lausanne, and Basel are affected as the places where main highways connect. Severe congestions also often occur in the major agglomerations. The Federal Roads Office (FEDRO) recorded around 3,000 traffic hours on the Zurich – Winterthur northern bypass in 2015.
Therefore, if you’re going somewhere by car, make sure to plan in enough time and check up on the latest traffic information. Also, trips to the south of Switzerland on public holidays can end up with long waiting hours in front of the Gotthard Tunnel, so make sure to plan ahead. You can find information on the current traffic situation on the public radio (SRF 1, SRF 3, and SRF 4 after the news), and on several websites like autobahnen.ch or on the TCS’s website (only in German).
Before Hitting the Road: Rules to Keep in Mind
Driving in Switzerland is not very different from driving in other European nations. As in many other countries, the minimum age of driving is 18 years. And of course, you will need a valid driver’s license. Every vehicle needs to be equipped with a warning triangle and it is recommended to have reflective vests as well as a first aid kit in the vehicle.
Switzerland is a multilingual country, therefore, the language on road signs can change across the country. For example the road sign for “exit”, is called “Ausfahrt” in the German part, “Sortie” in the French part, and “Uscita” in the Italian part of the country. Since January 2014, all vehicles need to drive with the headlights on at any time of day. Driving in Switzerland without headlights on will be fined with 40 CHF.
When driving with you family, make sure that children under the age of twelve or under 150 cm are seated in a special child seat or booster seat. Children over twelve years or 150 cm don’t need a booster seat but must wear a seat belt as any other passenger. Drivers and passengers alike must wear seat belts, otherwise you face a fine of 60 CHF. Furthermore, it is not allowed to use your mobile phone while driving — unless you use a hands-free system.
For driving on Swiss highways and expressways you need a highway toll sticker, which needs to be stuck to the windshield. Without this so-called Vignette, you face a hefty fine. You can purchase the highway toll sticker at most border crossings, gas stations, and post offices. It costs 40 CHF and is valid until the 31 January of the following year. Please note that all motorized vehicles including cars, motorcycles, and trailers need a highway toll sticker. Further, a toll is charged when driving through the Great Saint Bernard Tunnel between Martigny in Switzerland and Aosta in Italy.
Keeping an Eye on the Speedometer
Switzerland is known for its hefty fines for speeding. And with the introduction of the Via sicura (website in German, French, and Italian only) road safety program in 2012, penalties for speeding became even more severe. The program is aimed to reduce fatalities and injuries on Swiss roads. To avoid getting into trouble for driving too fast, here is an overview of the general speed limits in Switzerland:
- 120 km/h on motorways
- 100 km/h on expressways
- 80km/h on roads outside of built-up areas
- 50km/h on roads in built-up areas
However, due to for example construction works or bad air quality, it is possible that the maximum speed limit is even lower. Driving over the speed limit is very expensive and has severe consequences. These consequences range from hefty fines to license withdrawal or even prison. If you’re caught speeding repeatedly, you risk losing your driver’s license for a much longer period. In case of excessive violations, you might even be banned from driving permanently.
Don’t Drink and Drive
Driving a vehicle or a recreational craft, such as a rowing boat or a pedal boat, with a blood alcohol level of over 0.5‰ is prohibited and has legal consequences. There are three different degrees of seriousness for drunk driving:
- If you’re driving with a blood alcohol level between 0.5‰ and 0.79‰, you receive a warning and a fine.
- If you commit a driving offence with a blood alcohol between 0.5‰ and 0.79‰, you will receive a fine or up to three years of prison, depending on the seriousness of the offence. The amount of the fine depends on your financial situation.
- If you’re driving with a blood alcohol of 0.8‰ or more, your driver’s license will be suspended for at least three months and you face a financial penalty or up to three years of prison. Further, the offence will be entered in the register of criminal convictions and can be viewed there for a certain time.
What is more, as one of the stages of the Via sicura road safety program, drinking before driving is prohibited for certain groups including professional drivers, learners, new drivers, driving instructors, and those accompanying learners.
How to Exchange Your Foreign Driver’s License
If you’re moving to Switzerland, you are allowed to drive with your driver’s license from your home country for up to twelve months. Before these twelve months are up, you must exchange your foreign permit for a Swiss driver’s license, otherwise, you could face consequences for driving without a valid license. Since the formalities can take some time, make sure you start the converting process early enough. Depending on the canton you live in, you may be required to take a short control drive which can cost up to 150 CHF. EU/EFTA nationals may be exempt from taking a control drive. The Road Traffic Office in your canton is responsible for the exchange and you must present the following documents:
- application form (can be downloaded on the website of the responsible Road Traffic Office)
- original copy of valid driver’s license
- residence permit
- color passport photo
- certificate from an ophthalmologist (approx. 20 CHF)
- medical certificate (for driver’s license classes C1, C, D, D1, or BPT and for class 3)
The exchange process is subject to a fee. The fee ranges between 80 and 140 CHF, depending on the canton you live in. The Association of Road Traffic offers a list in German, French and Italian with all the Road Traffic Offices by canton.