Switzerland is not part of the eurozone and the currency is the Swiss franc (or franc, or franco, depending on which language zone you are in), divided into 100 centimes, centimes or centesimi. However, some places – such as supermarkets, restaurants, tourist attraction counters, hotels and railways, or ATMs – accept euro banknotes (but not coins) and will give you change in Swiss francs or euros if they have it in cash. Many price lists include prices in both francs and euros. Usually the exchange rate is the official rate, but if it differs, you will be informed in advance. It is essential to change money into Swiss francs (CHF). Money can be exchanged at all railway stations and most banks in the country. After experimenting with a “fixed floor” for the exchange rate (which in practice means that one euro is always at least 1.20 francs), the Swiss Central Bank decided in early 2015 to let the franc float freely again. This decision, along with speculation about the future of the euro and the fact that the Swiss franc is considered a “safe” currency, has led to a dramatic rise in the franc exchange rate and thus in prices for visitors.
Switzerland is more species-appropriate than most other European countries. It is not uncommon to pay bills with CHF 200 and CHF 1000 notes. The number of establishments that do not accept credit cards is decreasing, so check beforehand. When paying by credit card, carefully check the information printed on the receipt (see the “Be safe” section below for details). All ATMs accept foreign cards, so getting cash should not be a problem.
The coins are issued in denominations of 5 centimes (brass-coloured), 10 centimes, 20 centimes, ½ franc, 1 franc, 2 francs and 5 francs (all silver-coloured). 1-cent coins are no longer legal tender, but can still be exchanged for their face value until 2027. Two-cent coins have not been legal tender since the 1970s and are therefore worthless. Remember that most bureaux de change do not accept coins and that at today’s exchange rate, the largest coin (5 francs) is worth more than five US dollars and about as much as five euros, so spend it or donate it to charity before you leave.
The banknotes are available in denominations of CHF 10 (yellow), CHF 20 (red), CHF 50 (green), CHF 100 (blue), CHF 200 (brown) and CHF 1000 (purple). They all have the same width and have different security features.
Since 2016, the Swiss National Bank SNB has been issuing a new banknote series, the ninth series in Switzerland’s modern history. It began with the 50-franc banknote on 11 April 2016. The other five denominations will be gradually replaced over the next few years. All banknotes of the eighth series are valid everywhere until further notice. The current eighth series is due to be replaced by 2020, but will remain valid until further notice and can be exchanged at banks at face value.
Switzerland has been known for its banking system since the Middle Ages. Due to its historic policy of banking secrecy and anonymity, Switzerland has long been a preferred location for many of the world’s richest people to hide their wealth, sometimes acquired through dubious means. Although banking secrecy is no longer as strict as it once was and anonymous bank accounts are no longer allowed, Switzerland remains one of the largest banking centres in Europe. Opening a bank account in Switzerland is easy and there are no restrictions on foreigners with Swiss bank accounts, except for US citizens. Since the recent US sanctions, many Swiss banks refuse to open a bank account for US citizens or people with ties to the US. In some cases, existing accounts have even been closed.
Swiss service staff enjoy a relatively high minimum wage compared to other countries, so tipping is rather modest. By law, a service charge is included in the bill. Nevertheless, if you feel satisfied, especially in restaurants, you can round up the bill and add a few francs, a maximum of 5 to 20 francs depending on the type of establishment, regardless of the amount of the bill. If you are not satisfied with the service, you don’t need to tip at all. If you are only drinking coffee, it is customary to round up the bill to the nearest franc, but some people are still quite generous. Remember that a tip is always your personal contribution and is never required by law.
When planning your travel budget, keep in mind that Switzerland is an expensive country, with prices comparable to those in Norway or central London. Besides soft drinks, electronics and car fuel, many things cost more than in neighbouring countries, including food, souvenirs, train tickets and accommodation. In fact, many Swiss living near the border travel to neighbouring countries to buy fuel and food, as the latter are usually much cheaper; a trend that has only intensified recently with the jump in the franc’s exchange rate against the euro. Although there are no systematic entry controls thanks to the Schengen Agreement, there are also random customs checks within the country as Switzerland is not part of the EU Customs Union, so you have to go through customs. So make sure you comply with Swiss customs regulations when importing goods!
“Swiss-made”: souvenirs and luxury goods
Switzerland is famous for some key products: Watches, chocolate, cheese and Swiss army knives.
- Watches – Switzerland is the watchmaking capital of the world, and “Swiss Made” on the dial of a watch has long been a seal of quality. While the French-speaking regions of Switzerland are generally associated with Swiss watchmakers (such as Rolex, Omega and Patek Philippe), some quality watches are made in German-speaking Switzerland, such as IWC in Schaffhausen. In every major city, there are numerous watchmakers and jewellers who display a wide range of luxury watches in their shop windows, from the very trendy Swatch at 60 CHF to the handmade chronometer at enormous prices. For fun, try to spot the most expensive of these mechanical creations and the ones with the most “dazzle”!
- Chocolate – Switzerland may still be competing with Belgium for the best chocolate in the world, but there is no doubt that the Swiss variety is amazingly good. Switzerland is also home to the giant food company Nestlé. If you have a discerning palate (and a big wallet), two of the best Swiss chocolate makers can be found in Zurich: Teuscher (try the champagne truffles) and Sprüngli. For the rest of us, even the generic branded chocolates in Switzerland always make the Hershey bars you find elsewhere explode. For value for money, try the Frey brand chocolates sold in Migros. If you want to try real, exclusive Swiss chocolate, try the Pamaco chocolates, which are made from the noble Criollo beans and undergo an original and complex refining process that takes 72 hours. However, they are quite expensive: a 125-g bar costs around CHF 8. For Lindt fans, they are available at half price in the Lindt factory shop in Kilchberg (near Zurich). Factory tours are also available at Frey near Aarau, Läderach in Bilten and Cailler in Broc.
- Cheese – many parts of Switzerland have their own regional cheese speciality. The best known are Gruyère and Emmentaler (what Americans call “Swiss Cheese”). Don’t forget to try the wide range of cheeses sold in the markets and, of course, the cheese fondue! Fondue is essentially melted cheese and is used as a dip with other foods such as bread. The original mixture is half Vacherin and half Gruyère, but many different combinations have been developed since then. When you go hiking, you will often come across farms and village shops selling local mountain cheese from the mountain pastures you pass through. These cheeses are often not sold elsewhere, so don’t miss the opportunity to sample some of Switzerland’s culinary heritage.
- Swiss Army Knives – Switzerland is the official home of the Swiss Army knife. There are two brands: Victorinox and Wenger, but both brands are now manufactured by Victorinox since the bankruptcy of Wenger, which bought Victorinox in 2005. Collectors agree that Victorinox knives are superior in terms of design, quality and functionality. The most popular Victorinox knife is the Swiss Champ, which has 33 functions and currently costs around CHF 78. Most tourists buy this knife. The “biggest” Victorinox knife is the Swiss Champ 1.6795.XAVT- It has 80 functions and comes in a case. This knife costs CHF 364 and could become a collector’s item in the next few years. Most shops in Switzerland carry Victorinox knives, including some kiosks, and they make excellent gifts and souvenirs. Unlike the tourist knife, the real “Swiss Army Knife” is not red with a white cross, but grey with a small Swiss flag. The Swiss Army Knife is also made by Victorinox. It is distinguished by the fact that the year of manufacture is engraved at the base of the larger blade and that it has no corkscrew because the Swiss soldier is not allowed to drink wine on duty. Swiss army knives may not be carried on commercial flights and must be stowed in checked baggage.
Ski resorts and tourist areas will sell many other types of tourist items – cow bells, clothing embroidered with white Edelweiss flowers and items related to Heidi. The Swiss love cows of all shapes and sizes, and you can find cow-related items everywhere, from stuffed cows to faux cowhide jackets. If you have a generous souvenir budget, look for traditional arts and crafts such as hand-carved wooden figures in Brienz or lace and linen in St Gallen. If you have a deep wallet, you can shop in Zurich’s famous Bahnhofstrasse, one of the most exclusive shopping streets in the world. If you are looking for trendy boutiques and second-hand shops, go to Niederdorf or the Stauffacher district in Zurich.