20 Surprising Differences between living in Switzerland and USA

When you move from one place to another to start your life in a new city, you notice small differences in people’s lifestyle, traditions, customs, culture and general functioning. If you are gumptious enough, you can perceive these distinctions even when you head out from your town on a two week holiday, or move to to go to college. So, imagine how many things differ between two places on two continents!

As you already know, we are the family who travels the world, and we’ve visited more than 80 countries by now. However, our temporary home right now is Switzerland. We moved here from the United States, and for the first few years, we were all about noticing what’s different. Even if we set aside the fact that people here speak mainly French and German and that we are living in a new time-zone with unfamiliar climate, there are still hundreds of subtle differences that have affected our lives tremendously.

We’ve outlined the most important and the most interesting ones that represented significant changes in our American way of living. We hope these will help you grasp the beauty of the diversity that exists in the world, even among western cultures. This might also help you prepare yourself for your new life if you are planning to move to Switzerland!

Switzerland vs. the USA

1. Shopping hours
When you come from America, you are used to shopping at any time, any day of the week. In Switzerland, you won’t have such commodity. During the week, almost every shop closes at 18.30, and only if you are lucky you can come across some that work until 19-19.30.

You usually get your bread for the morning late at night? Well, in Switzerland, you can forget about that. Of course, some stores are open 24/7, but they are usually located at train or gas stations.
Another important note – expect everything to be closed on Sundays. If you are used to a different lifestyle, this might be inconvenient at first, but soon you will realize how great that policy is. It allows families to spend more quality time together, and reserves one day a week exclusively for relaxation. As a bonus, kids don’t study during the weekends either. By the law, teachers cannot give them homework on the weekends.

2. Take your time to enjoy your meal
In the USA, the proverb “time is money” is taken seriously and everything is rushed. So, when you come to Switzerland, you will notice that everything takes time. This goes especially for the food prepping. When you go out for a meal in a restaurant, you will wait quite some time before you get your food. Also, no one will come to you every 5 seconds to ask you how’s the meal or to check if you need anything.

Everything takes a long time; you can eat slowly and enjoy the course in front of you. At last, as there is no rushing, you will have to call the waiter and ask for the bill.

3. Forget about free refills
As a family who lived a significant part of their lives in America, we are used to getting gigantic cold drinks with free refills. So, when we came to Switzerland, we were surprised to find out there are no free refills here, and the drinks you get are super small in comparison to the ones you would get in the USA. This can be confusing at first, but if you are looking for a silver lining, this can keep you away from consuming large amounts of unhealthy sugary drinks.


4. How about some ice?
Getting a brain freeze from all the ice in your drink? Completely normal in America, but not going to happen in Switzerland. You will rarely get any ice in your drink here, and even if you ask for it, they will look at you as if you were the odd one. Apparently, they are not such a huge fans of cold drinks.

5. Food and cars don’t get along in Switzerland
Not only in Switzerland, but in most of the countries in Europe, take-away drinks or food are not supposed to be eaten in the car. It’s a bit of taboo. The first thing you’ll notice is the difference in terminology. Swiss use the term “takeaway” instead of “to-go.”

Also, as we mentioned earlier, Swiss people take time to enjoy their foods and drinks. We learned this on one occurrence when we asked for drinks to-go. They gave us an actual glass, and even though we insisted on to-go cups, we soon realized they don’t have any! The waitress was a bit annoyed with our to-go order, so she sent us away with our drinks in regular glasses.
We accepted the majority of Swiss implicit social norms, but not this one. We still eat in our car and carry our to-go cups on the streets. We enjoy doing so, and we believe it is practical, but still, many people tell us “You guys are such Americans!”

6. Learn to deal with narrow streets and roundabouts
Everywhere you go in Switzerland; there will be a lot of extremely narrow streets and roundabouts. On one hand, this is great because there’s no waiting at stoplights when you are going through a village or a city, as everything flows. On the other, you have to get used to driving really tightly close to other vehicles, which means you’ll be a bit scared at the beginning. However, you will master driving on the Swiss roads in no time.

7. Passing lane is strictly for passing
If you’ve spent at least a few years living and driving in America, you know that cars tend to hang in the passing lane of the highway. However, if you do that in Switzerland, fellow drivers will be coming right up to you, flashing their lights, warning you to move over. The passing lane on the highway is really just for passing and Swiss respect that rule.

8. Radars are everywhere
Getting a speeding ticket from a radar is not a surprise here. There are hidden radars everywhere, and if you go even, just a little bit over the speed limit, you will get a ticket. For example, last June, we drove only 4 km over the speeding limit, and we had to pay 40 bucks for that violation.

Swiss don’t mess around with their rules. However, this is understandable. You will pay only 45 francs annually, to use all the roads in Switzerland. This is extremely affordable, so our guess is that the strict rules on speed limits and handing out tickets is how they make money for their roads and maintain the safety at the same time.

9. Air-conditioning? What is that?
Switzerland seems to be the country that still hasn’t discovered AC. They rarely have it anywhere, even though temperatures go well over 30 degrees during the summer, and it gets very humid and hot.

When you are living in Florida, you don’t leave your home without carrying a sweater, because as soon as you enter at any supermarket, store or cinema, you will freeze. However, in Switzerland, this is not a problem, because they don’t have AC, and even if they do, they don’t crank it so cool that you end up freezing.

10. Cash rather than card
This is a cash society. Everywhere you go in Switzerland; you can expect to pay in cash. A lot of places do take cards, but if you are buying a coffee, ice cream or something similar, you should have some money on you. Some shops and restaurants won’t accept your card if your bill is under 20 francs. Swiss people use big bills and carry cash on themselves all the time.

11. The traffic lights might confuse you
When we first came here, the traffic lights seemed a bit odd to us. There are a few things you should know. For starters, when you stop at a traffic light, you will notice a lot of cars around you will turn off. They do that a lot, which is great because it saves energy and protects the Earth.

The other thing is, the traffic light goes from yellow to red, and then back to yellow and finally green. So, you can actually start going when the yellow light is switching to green. This was kinda new to us, and even though we’ve traveled a lot, we’ve never seen that other than here in Switzerland.

12. Use at your own risk
In America, wherever you go you will see excessive warnings. On the other hand, in Switzerland, everything is used at your own risk. They rely on people’s common sense and responsibility. The logic is following - if you are dumb enough to touch something that is hot, that’s your own fault.

At first, this was really surprising to us. When we arrived in Switzerland, they organized candle making for kids. Big pots of hot wax were set, and the kids were dipping their candles in them. Our daughter was five years old at the time, and we were shocked and terrified seeing her so close to potential danger. Later that day, we got to the top of the mountain, and there were no barriers of any sort. Younger kids could literally just walk off the cliff if you left them unattended, but that is just how Switzerland works. You are expected to take care of yourself and the people around you.

13. Alcohol is the part of everyday routine
In Switzerland, the legal drinking age is 16 for beer and wine, and 18 for spirits. Also, the Swiss are allowed to drink on the streets openly. This means you can expect to see minors and adults with alcohol everywhere. However, this doesn’t say Switzerland is full of alcoholics, and everyone is drunk all the time. Here, drinking is part of socializing; people don’t drink until they get drunk like they do in America. It is a casual part of Swiss culture.

14. You won’t get a shopping bag
As you already know, Switzerland cares about environment and cleanliness, which means they don’t waste plastic. For that reason, you won’t get free shopping bags in any store. You can buy them if you want, but if you're going to live like a true Swiss, bring your own bags. Little portable bags that fit in your purse or backpack are practical, and they come in various cute colors. Also, you should be aware that the cashier won’t pack your bags for you, you should do that on your own.

Switzerland had been functioning this way for more than 30 years, and the rest of the world should learn from their example.

15. Be polite and say “Hello!”
Here in Switzerland, people expect you to say “Hello” first before you ask them something. It is common decency, really, and when you think about it, it is not so surprising. However, it was a bit weird for us in the beginning. When you go up to the cash register or somebody in the store you must say “Hello” first and then ask them for help instead of opening conversation with “Excuse me, can you tell me….” If you skip greeting them, you will be considered extremely rude.

People often intentionally wait for you to say hello before they start providing you with the service you need. This has happened to us, a few times at the supermarket when the cashier wouldn’t start charging our groceries until we greeted her first.

16. You are safe here
Switzerland is one of the safest countries in the world. They have low crime rates, and they are community oriented. They watch for their neighbor’s back. Because of that, you can see people hitchhiking everywhere, kids walking to school on their own at the age of six and playing in the parks by themselves.

For example, last year, our kids went on a sailboat. Typically, in the USA when you enroll your kids in any activity you have to fill out different forms, sign off on it and give them your ID. Here, it is much more casual. They only ask for children’s first names and tell parents when to come pick them up.

People trust each other much more. The schools here have no gates, and anyone can walk onto school property or in the school building, without any problem. This gives parents an opportunity to mingle and talk to each other more.

17. Cleanliness is the priority
Switzerland is much cleaner than the USA, probably one of the cleanest countries you’ll see. Street cleaners are everywhere, and people are conscious of their duty to keep their country neat. You can notice this by simply taking a look at the pictures of Swiss cities, and there are plenty on our Instagram account.

18. You’ll have to pay for the bathroom
In Switzerland, wherever you go - gas, bus or train stations, etc., you can expect to pay for using the bathroom. This can cost up to one franc, so don’t forget to keep some pocket change on yourself, because when you gotta go, you got to go.

19. Be quiet
The Swiss are very quiet people, and they have the quietest transportation system we’ve ever seen. When you use any public transportation, you will notice - nobody’s talking, and they will warn you to be silent too. Both kids and grownups are supposed to behave in this manner. Also, for the same reason, you can not do your recycling on Sundays. It makes noise and, as you know, Sunday is a restful day, which means noise is unwelcome.

20. Dieting is almost non-existent
America has a massive problem with obesity, and everyone is on a diet or some special nutrition regime. In Switzerland, there are no diets and no need to go on a diet either. Everyone is eating rich foods, baguettes, and bread, but their everyday lifestyle gives them an opportunity to burn all of those calories. Swiss walk everywhere and that is one way how they stay physically active.

Also, Switzerland has got hardly any fast-foods. People take time to eat and make more home-cooked meals. There isn’t the fast-processed junk-food you would get in America. This is a significant health concern, and one of the reasons we left America in the first place. If you want to lead a healthy lifestyle in the US, you will be considered an alien. If you don’t bring your food from home, you won’t have much choice, but to eat the same junk-food as everyone else and destroy your health, which is worrisome.

We came to the end of our list! These differences show the beauty of both countries, but they give some advantage for life in Switzerland, for sure. However, we would like to hear your opinions. Have you ever lived on two different continents, countries or cities? Have you noticed any differences between them? Perhaps you lived in both Switzerland and the US, just like us. Do you agree with our list? Would you like to add something?

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