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SWITZERLAND EXPLAINED

Five Swiss laws that foreign residents are bound to break

To foreigners, some of Switzerland’s laws— whether national or local – may appear strange, or even overly persnickety. But it's important to know them or you could end up with a hefty fine.

Five Swiss laws that foreign residents are bound to break
Some Swiss laws may seem odd to foreigners. Photo by AFP

Orderly and organised trash

In August, The Local published an article about how to throw your rubbish away in an environmentally correct manner.

Though this may seem trivial to some people, for the Swiss, garbage disposal is a serious matter.

In nearly all towns and villages, trash must be segregated and placed in special bags or in bags that have a special sticker on them, and placed in a designated collection point on assigned days.

Not segregating your trash — for instance, throwing out PET bottles with tin cans or paper, or not putting it out on correct days — can result in heavy fines, the amount of which is determined by each individual commune.

Municipal workers have the right to go through trash bags to identify garbage offenders — and they do.

For the Swiss, garbage collection is not just pure rubbish. Photo by AFP

The offenders then receive fines by mail, which they should not toss randomly in the trash, as they may be breaking the law again.

READ MORE: Trash talk: What are the rules for garbage disposal in Switzerland?

Sundays are sacred

This is not just because many people like to go to church on this day.

Under the law, Sunday is a day of rest in Switzerland, which means you should do nothing to disturb your neighbours, either sonorically or visually.

This means no loud noises like lawn mowing, vacuuming, or recycling. Also, you cannot hang your laundry out to dry, as the sight of your undies may be offensive to your neighbours on a Sunday.

Mowing the lawn on Sundays is not allowed. Photo by AFP

You can’t give your child a ‘ridiculous’ name

It’s important to keep in mind that the cantonal registry offices, where new births must be announced, don’t have to accept very unusual names.

This doesn’t mean you have to name your newborn Heidi or Hans to satisfy local officials. But anything that is bound to distress the child in the future is a ‘no-no’.

Several years ago, for instance, a Zurich court ruled that parents can’t name their infant daughter ‘J’.

In another case, a couple in the canton of Bern were ordered to change the name of their newborn son because their choice – Jessico – was considered too feminine.

Not having a Swiss health insurance is a law-breaker

Health insurance is compulsory in Switzerland for all legal permanent residents.

Anyone who moves here must get health coverage within three months of their arrival. 

READ MORE: Everything you need to know about health insurance in Switzerland

After that date, you will likely receive a letter from the government asking you to provide proof that you took out a policy.

If you fail to do so, your local authority will choose a plan on your behalf and you will have to pay the premiums.

If you don’t, you’ll be placed on a blacklist. Sooner or later (probably sooner) you’ll be caught and will have to pay arrears— the Swiss are very organised and efficient.

You can’t drive without a vignette

If you use Swiss motorways, even if it’s only for a short stretch, you must purchase a 40-franc sticker to affix to the inside of your window shield.

Unlike many other countries, Switzerland has no tolls on their highways, so the vignette compensates for the cost of maintaining the roads.

Swiss vignette: What you need to know about Switzerland’s motorway charge sticker

Vignettes are valid for one year, from January 1st to December 31st, and can be purchased at petrol stations, post offices or online.

If you drive on the motorway without a vignette or if it is not stuck on correctly, you risk getting a 200-franc fine.

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LIVING IN SWITZERLAND

Myth-busters: Five things about Switzerland you should not believe

From dodgy bankers to cuckoo clocks, William Tell to Swiss soldiers, Switzerland is a country where myths and stereotypes abound. We separate the facts from the fiction.

Myth-busters: Five things about Switzerland you should not believe

When you think of Switzerland, you probably conjure up images of cheese, chocolate, Alps, cows, and watches. Add to this image the yodelling and Alphorn playing, and this somewhat idealised (but nevertheless true) picture of Switzerland is complete.

But at the same time, some common beliefs related to Switzerland are as full of holes as… Emmental cheese.

William Tell

Many people firmly believe that this folk hero and expert crossbow marksman who shot an apple off his son’s head, was a real figure who lived in Uri in the early 1500s.

Though he embodies the struggle for freedom and independence — principles that the Swiss hold dear to this day — there is no evidence that Tell actually existed.

Historians investigating the Tell legend didn’t find any evidence that such a person ever lived, or proof that anyone shot an apple off a boy’s head.

Among the arguments against Tell’s existence is that crossbows were not commonly used in the 14th century.

According to one history fact-checking site, “it seems that the origin of the story was in a myth that was popular in Europe, and which was adopted by the people of the Alpine Valleys. It later was used as a foundation myth, by successive Swiss governments, to explain the development of the Swiss Federation”.

Neutrality

Some people take it for granted that Switzerland has been a neutral nation, which didn’t get involved in other countries’ armed conflicts, since its official creation on August 1st, 1291.

However, in the Middle Ages, the country was a military power and its soldiers could be hired for money, fighting on the side of those who paid them the most.

That was long before the Swiss army knife was invented, and the soldiers went to the battlefields with a pike — a long thrusting spear that could inflict a lot of damage on the enemy. 

It wasn’t until 1815 that Switzerland’s “perpetual neutrality” was declared. Great powers of Europe decided that Switzerland would provide a convenient geographical buffer between quarrelling France and Austria, and its neutrality would be a stabilising  factor in an unstable region.

Just over 200 years later, in 1920, the newly created — appropriately enough, in Geneva — League of Nations, officially recognised Swiss neutrality.

READ MORE : Swiss history: When Switzerland was a nation of warriors

Wealth

A common belief is that Switzerland has always been a rich and prosperous country it is today.

Nothing could be farther from the truth.

In centuries past, Switzerland was a pauper nation, where a large portion of the population in this landlocked, mountainous country with no natural resources, struggled to survive. Some people even ended up emigrating to South and North America to escape a life of poverty.

Many of those who did not go abroad moved from rural areas to the cities, where they continued to live in precarious conditions.

According to an official government document, “anyone who was not a citizen of a commune was homeless and lived on the margins of the community or was left to wander the country as a vagrant”.

Not exactly the image we have of Switzerland today.

READ MORE: Swiss history: The country was once so poor, people had to go abroad to survive

Banks

In many people’s minds, Switzerland’s financial institutions are synonymous with dirty money and illicit dealings.

As The Local previously reported, “such images are often perpetuated by Hollywood films,  in which shady characters invariably have a banker in Zurich — an equally shady individual with a thin moustache and a dark suit — who quietly stashes illegally begotten money in secret accounts”.

In reality, Swiss banks don’t quite live up to this notoriety. For instance,  there is no such thing these days as ‘anonymous’ accounts.

To open an account, you must have a valid ID like a passport, verification of your address, and a document to prove the money you are depositing comes from legitimate (i.e. non-criminal) sources.

In terms of banking secrecy, there is some truth to it:  in principle the banks can’t reveal your financial information to a third party.

However, there are some exceptions, as in order to prevent tax evasion, Switzerland has signed agreements with a number of countries to cooperate in exchange of financial information of their respective citizens.

So if you are a foreign national, the government of your country can request Switzerland to release your account(s) information and banks must comply.

READ MORE : Gold, secrecy and wealth: Six Swiss bank myths that need to be busted

Cuckoo clocks and lederhosen

A number of foreign tourists in Switzerland are looking to buy ‘Swiss’ cuckoo clocks, not realising that these clocks originally came from the Black Forest in Germany.

Now, however, many are manufactured in Asia; either way, very few, if any, are hatched in Switzerland.

By the same token, many foreigners associate lederhosen — short or knee-length leather breeches — with Switzerland.

Wrong again.

Maybe it’s because they confuse Switzerland with Austria and Germany (the three countries do look alike, especially in the dark), but whatever the reason, lederhosen is not a Swiss garb.

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