All about Driving and Buying a Car in Switzerland : Expat guides

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Although public transportation is impeccable in Switzerland and gives you great connectivity along with comfort, cars still do remain popular. Amidst the pandemic, a lot of folks switched to driving a private vehicle and avoided public transport despite the efficiency or the safety.  For our family, longer routes by car are more cost efficient as compared to trains and hey, the scenic route is the cherry on the top!

Post the spike in the sales of private vehicles during and post COVID prompted us to write this article on the “driving and buying a car” scene in Switzerland. Read on as I break down all the nitty-gritties that you need to know about buying and driving a car in Switzerland. 

Well, first things first, to own a car you must know how to drive (duh), so let’s tackle that.

Driving in Switzerland

Who can drive in Switzerland?

If you’re an expat, your foreign driver’s license is valid and usable in Switzerland for up to 12 months of moving in as long as you are at least 18 years old. Once the 12 month period is up, you will need to exchange your license for a Swiss driver’s license at your cantonal road traffic office. If you’re from the EU/EFTA,  you’d be able to exchange your foreign driver’s license for a Swiss equivalent without having to take a test, as long as it is exchanged within 12 months of taking up residence in Switzerland.

Those from outside the EU/EFTA areas need to take a practical driving test in Switzerland after 12 months in order to exchange their license.

How to get a Swiss Driver’s License 

The entire process takes a few weeks so it’s always recommended to start things well in advance of the deadline (like always)

To get your Swiss Driver’s License, you will need to provide the following:

  • Application form. Find it here based on your canton or collect it at the office. 
  • Original foreign driver’s license (with translation, if applicable)
  • Eye test certificate from a registered optician
  • Two passport-sized photos (in color, not black and white)
  • Proof of residency and/or visa
  • Valid ID

The fee for exchanging your license varies depending on the canton. After handing over your foreign license and taking the necessary steps, you will be issued a Swiss driving license on a three-year trial basis or with a license that has no expiry date. Your Swiss driver’s license is sent by post and of course, the time to obtain it can vary canton to canton.

For info on Swiss driver’s license, driving in Switzerland and more, you can checkout these resources: 

Swiss Authorities Online – Government portal with information on driver’s licenses in Switzerland.
Federal Office of Roads – FEDRO (Bundesamt für Strassen – ASTRA) – Swiss authority for roads and traffic.
ASA: Association of Automobile Services 

Apart from just knowing about how to get a Driver’s license in Switzerland, here are a few other things which you need to know before you start your driving journey here as a newbie. 

Pro tip – Despite being a seasoned driver, my husband decided to enroll himself into driving classes to obtain his license. The advantage of this, well, having lived in India – moving from right hand to left hand driving is tricky and uncomfortable and it is important to learn the traffic etiquette and rules under professional guidance. This seemed to have helped him a ton! I can highly recommend the classes!

The Basics of Driving in Switzerland

Well, as mentioned…these are the BASICS, so some things might seem very obvious to people who’ve been living in Switzerland for a while. But for all those who are just moving here, someone has to put it out there, isn’t it? No matter how simple and obvious it might sound 😉

Some of this information may seem obvious, but it’s good to go over the basics! Here are some basic questions you may have about driving in Switzerland.

  • You drive on the right hand side of the road.
  •  Switzerland is a part of the Schengen Area. So, in case of driving in and around Switzerland, there are border patrols between its neighboring countries of Italy, France, Germany, Austria, and Liechtenstein. If you follow me on Insta, you must’ve seen how convenient it is for me, as a Baseler, to just go explore the neighboring French and German cities over the weekends.
  • The Swiss streets can be very narrow – yes, even the highways. The highways are mostly only two or three lanes here. So, if you’re used to driving on extra wide 5-6 lane highways, brace yourselves.
  • If you’re going to be on the hilly side, super loooong tunnels are very common throughout the Alps. Be completely sure you have enough gas to get through long tunnels.
  • While driving in cities, especially crowded cities like Zurich and Basel, go slow and pay attention to the lines on turns. The ground is full of tram tracks and bus lanes, so one can get confused. 
  • Cities also have tons of traffic lights, so be attentive and ready to stop and go as you make your way to your preferred parking area.
  • Traffic fines are expensive in Switzerland. So, just out of precaution, drive slower than you think you should because the Swiss traffic police is also very particular about speed limits – especially in residential areas and towns. 
  • For more info on driving rules, traffic and signages, click here

Now that we have the basics out the way, let’s move on the exciting part – actually buying or owning a car in Switzerland.

Owning and Buying a Car in Switzerland

Importing your Car to Switzerland

If you are moving to Switzerland long-term, you can bring/import your car duty-free if it has been used for at least six months outside Switzerland. You must register your vehicle with the road traffic office in your canton. You will need to complete a clearance request form and your vehicle will need to pass an inspection within a year. After this, you will be liable for Swiss vehicle tax.

Vehicles owned for less than six months are charged an import tax. It is necessary to provide official documentation to confirm the value of the car and its country of origin. The import duties include customs duties, 7.6% VAT, 4% vehicle tax and a fee for a report required for vehicle registration.

You can find a list of customs offices in Switzerland from the Swiss Customs Administration.

Driving and Buying a Car in Switzerland | An Expat Guide | My Swiss Story
All about Driving and Buying a Car in Switzerland : Expat guides

If you’re not keen on importing your car and prefer buying one…you can purchase new or used cars from dealerships, online sales sites, and private sellers.

Buying a New car in Switzerland 

Buying a new car is quite expensive…especially for expats who have JUST moved into the country and are just settling in. The reason people prefer buying a brand new car is that they get the peace of mind of knowing what they’re purchasing. Plus, if you buy from a dealership, they may offer follow-on support, discounts, or maintenance, and some Swiss dealerships will also insist on buying car insurance before they allow you to drive the car from the showroom.

Some dealerships allow you to pay in monthly installments or even offer leasing options, but you will need to demonstrate a good credit history through your bank. Furthermore, many dealerships are willing to provide a discount for immediate or cash payments, so there’s always room for negotiation.

Buying a second-hand car in Switzerland

Like I said earlier, new cars can cost a bomb, but you always have the option of buying a second-hand car. The major reason why people prefer opting for used ones is that cars less than two years old are often sold at a fraction of their original price. However, there are a lot of things you need to be cautious about when purchasing a car used by someone else. Before you lock your purchase, you need to make sure you’re secured and you know exactly what you are getting. One way to ensure this would be to buy from an established dealer or a significant online broker. 

Since most expats and new-movers prefer buying a second hand car to test waters with driving around the city and explore the finances initially, let’s look at a few steps that you need to take to get one. 

A concise step by step guide to buying a Car in Switzerland:

  • Define your criteria. Do you want a sedan, SUV, van, hatchback or something else? Base this selection based on your travel needs, family and budget. 
  • Get your research hat on! You can check out these websites to get updates on latest models and compare among them to get the best pick.
  • Contact the seller/ dealership to view the car. 
  • Checkout the car but do keep exploring other options, alternate dealerships and sellers to get the best price.  When you find the one that fits your criteria, be prepared to sign the contract on the spot. 
  • Get the car inspected and get a vehicle report.  In Switzerland, a technical inspection is mandatory when selling a used car. You can also run a Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) to check for accident history, mileage, etc. The information can also be found in several VIN decoder portals online by entering the VIN. Click here for more info
  • Before taking the car, you must register it/ get license plates. In order to do this you must first obtain insurance, and the vehicle certificate (from the seller).
    To checkout info for Register your car in Switzerland, click here
    To know all about car insurance in Switzerland, click here
  • Go to the Department of Motor Vehicles in your city/canton and register your new car!
  • Get a Parking Permit. Buy a parking permit/ parking disc in your city if you wish to park on the street. If you already have a private parking spot, you’re already set! Click here to find all out about Parking permits in Switzerland.

How much will you spend as a Car owner in Switzerland?

Registration – The cost varies between cantons but can be around CHF 50-300 for license plates, registration certificates, and inspections.

  • Vehicle tax – It usually costs around CHF 100-800 per year. This too, varies between cantons.
  • Motorway toll – You must buy a special sticker (vignette) for your car if you want to use certain roads; it costs around CHF 40 per year.
  • Vehicle insurance – This costs around CHF 300-400 per year for third parties to CHF 1,000-2,000 for fully comprehensive policies. Again, this totally depends on the kind of insurance plan you choose. 
  • Fuel costs  
  • Vehicle inspection – Like mentioned earlier, this is needed after four years and then every three years after that, and it costs around CHF 130.
Driving and Buying a Car in Switzerland | An Expat Guide | My Swiss Story
All about Driving and Buying a Car in Switzerland : Expat guides

Last but not the least, once you have your car and you’re ready to drive, let’s look at some things that you MUST have in your car at all times.

Important things to keep in Your Car in Switzerland

When purchasing a car, make sure to keep these things handy in your car at all times:

  • Motor equipment certificate
  • Car registration certificate
  • Motorway toll/vignette sticker, attached in your rear window
  • Warning triangle (in case of an accident)

I hope this covers everything you need to know about buying, owning and driving a car in Switzerland as an expat. This is really a topic which needs intensive research before you dive in and make the big move. I’m glad you stumbled upon this article and am happy to help you in this journey. I would recommend that you read a few more articles on this topic, the kinds of car you want (I would’ve suggested if I knew THAT much about car models) and pricing across different platforms. I’ve shared this info out of my personal experience of owning a car in Switzerland…and even though we love the public transport situation in Switzerland (from punctuality to connectivity), it is always good to have the comfort of having your own private vehicle so as to just hop in and drive around for a getaway or wherever you want to go to.

Stay tuned to more such expat living articles in our Expat living section.

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