Switzerland Driving Guide 2021
With an International Driving Permit and an understanding of road rules and best practices, you can enjoy driving in Switzerland on your next European vacation.
October 13, 2020
If you have always dreamed of traveling to Switzerland alone or as part of a European adventure, you should understand all the differences associated with driving in Switzerland before you go. While it is exceptionally well known for the majestic Alps, skiing, and delicious chocolate, it also offers a wealth of opportunities for people interested in history, culture, and more. Although the cities do offer public transportation and you may enjoy one of the incredible Swiss train journeys across the countryside, having access to a rental car will give you the freedom to explore everything during your stay.
A large part of planning a holiday in Switzerland is determining how you will get around to reach everything on your itinerary with enough time for exploration and experience. If you take one of the meandering roads up into the mountains, you will see some of the world’s most beautiful alpine scenery. Stop at the ski slopes for some extreme sports or take a hike through the green countryside with treed hills and rocky cliffs on every side. Then, head into Zürich or one of the other cities to visit museums, quaint street-side cafés, and check out the amazing architecture from hundreds of years ago that still impresses today.
Getting around this large European country can present a challenge if you do not figure out how to get a driving license in Switzerland. What you need depends upon where you come from, your age, existing licensing from your home country, and how long you intend to stay there. Do not consider simply driving in Switzerland on a US license because that is not sufficient to stay on the right side of the law. Prepare in advance to get an International Driving Permit and all other required paperwork well before your plane takes off to bring you on this adventure. Also, get well acquainted with the traffic laws, best practices, and road signs so you know how to smoothly navigate through towns, cities, and the countryside without causing problems for other motorists or getting in trouble with the police. Here’s the guide for your complete travel experience.
INTERNATIONAL DRIVING PERMIT IS A GREAT IDEA FOR SWITZERLAND TRAVEL
One of the first questions that anyone will ask when planning a driving holiday involves, “do I need an international driving license in Switzerland?” Unlike other countries in Europe and around the world, you may be surprised to find out that you do not need an International Drivers Permit (IDP) to stay legal in that country. However, that does not mean that an IDP is not the best option for proper paperwork and identification.
According to Switzerland’s driving laws, you need an International Drivers Permit that clearly shows you are licensed to drive in your country. This must be in English, French, German, or Italian because those are the four official languages in the country. While you could use a US license or similar, having an IDP gives you much greater authorization especially if you are traveling to multiple European nations on your holiday trip.
GETTING AN INTERNATIONAL DRIVERS PERMIT
If you come from a country that does not use one of those languages, or if you intend to travel to other countries in Europe that do require an International Drivers Permit, you should get one anyway. It is also quite useful as a UN-recognized travel document and piece of identification. Having one will make it very easy for you to tour multiple nations no matter when you feel like going on a trip next. The process to receive an IDP is relatively easy.
With the convenient online system, just fill out all necessary identification information, including copies of your official paperwork, and pay a small fee for processing and shipping. Then, you get an International Drivers Permit in a very short amount of time. Doing it with an Internet-based IDP program makes it much easier to get your permit processed faster than if you do it through the mail using a different company or organization. Although driving in Switzerland with US license or one from another country that uses one of the four official languages is allowed, having an International Drivers Permit offers extra assurances that you stay on the right side of the law.
REQUIREMENTS FOR RECEIVING AN INTERNATIONAL DRIVERS PERMIT
As stated above, an IDP is essentially a translation of your existing driver’s license. Therefore, you need a valid license from your home country in order to get one. This proves that you have passed both written and practical driver’s tests and understand how to say safe and legal on the road. The International Drivers Permit process does not test your ability in any way. Instead, it provides acceptable paperwork for driving in Europe and other countries around the globe.
Remember that, when it comes to driving in Europe, American license works for Switzerland. Getting an International Driving Permit requires the following things:
- Access to the International Drivers Association online
- All information necessary to complete the forms and application
- A clear copy of your official driver’s license from your home country
- Two copies of a passport-sized photograph for ID printing
- Some way of paying the affordable fee
As long as you provide all of this information and everything processes smoothly, you can get your International Drivers Permit in a very short amount of time. Any errors or missing information slows down the process. While this may not affect your Switzerland vacation, it will make it difficult to travel to other countries or get a temporary truck driving jobs in Switzerland.
Now that you understand all the rules and regulations about driving licenses and permits for your Swiss vacation, you may wonder what kind of vehicle you will get to use once you land at the airport.
BENEFITS AND DRAWBACKS TO RENTING A CAR AND DRIVING IN SWITZERLAND
If you live nearby in the European Union, you could potentially drive your own car into Switzerland and enjoy all this country has to offer. If you have a temporary resident visa for educational or business purposes, you will have to go through the process of getting appropriate registration with your local road traffic office in the region where you will live. This only pertains to those who are staying for more than two years. Anything up to that length of time does not require any local registration or duty fees. This makes it quite easy to travel from any part of Europe to Switzerland on a regular basis using your own vehicle.
However, if you are having a vacation from the United States, Australia, Japan, or anywhere else in the world, you will probably opt to rent a car instead of shipping your own in Switzerland. Car rentals are available from many large and well-known companies like Enterprise, Hertz, and Sixt from the airport and in other areas around the country.
WHAT KIND OF VEHICLE TO RENT IN SWITZERLAND?
The decision about whether you should read compact car, SUV, or different type of vehicle comes down mainly to how many people are traveling with you, how much luggage you have to bring along, and where you intend to go. It is also important to note that parking may be a problem for some of the larger vehicles if you head to the city. Of course, you can park at your hotel or other accommodations with ease.
Also, if you plan to engage in driving in Switzerland in winter, opting for a four-wheel-drive vehicle or something a bit more rugged and heavier can help you get around more safely. It is important to follow all the recommendations and rules of the road to stay safe to matter what the conditions are.
Why Renting a Car in Switzerland May Not Be the Best Option
Although it seems like a vehicle is necessary to get around anywhere for people coming from the United States and other large, open countries, it may make things a bit more difficult in Switzerland. When asking people who have already traveled there, the general consensus was that using public transportation is probably sufficient for most holiday plans. Not only are these cities and villages quite small and do not have regular roads running through them, but driving is not even allowed in some mountains or other areas of the country.
Is Switzerland Included in EU Driving a Rental Car?
No. Switzerland is not part of the official European Union. Therefore, you cannot simply drive your rental car from there into another country or vice versa without taking additional steps. One of these simply involves letting the rental car company know that you want to travel outside of Switzerland with the same vehicle. Many of them have different cars in their fleet that are registered for EU travel as well as in-country journeys alone. It is of the utmost importance that you get one of these unless you want to leave your rental car in Switzerland and get a new one when you head to France, Germany, or elsewhere.
Also, it is important to remember that while your US driver’s license may work fine in Switzerland, it may not be accepted in a different country. Therefore, getting an International Drivers Permit makes sense for you even get on the plane to head to Europe.
After determining how you get a rental car and an appropriate license to drive throughout Switzerland, you still need to know a lot about the rules of the road and how to be a conscientious traveler and not cause problems.
WHAT SIDE OF STREET DRIVING IN SWITZERLAND?
One of the most important things to discover before heading into any new country with a car is what side of the road do they drive on? When it comes to driving in Switzerland, right-side driving is the standard. This holds true for the majority of the world these days, so it might only seem odd if you come from the United Kingdom, some locations in Asia or Africa, or Australia. If you have people from multiple places coming together for a journey, pics the driving party in Switzerland that has right side road experience.
IMPORTANT RULES OF THE ROAD FOR SWISS DRIVING
Driving a car in Switzerland comes with many different rules and regulations that you must follow if you do not want to cause problems for other drivers, and you want to avoid getting stopped by the police or losing your right to drive completely. Most importantly, use common sense and always drive defensively instead of recklessly. Things like never driving under the influence, avoiding distracted driving, maintaining a proper speed limit, and using seat belts matter no matter where you are driving in the world.
Other important rules in Switzerland include always yielding to pedestrians whether they are in a crosswalk or not. If you venture outside the cities and towns, expect to come across slow-moving farm vehicles and herds of cows, sheep, and even goats. You must drive quite a bit slower and avoid doing any unsafe actions that could put you, other drivers, or the animals themselves at risk.
If you want to know how difficult driving in Switzerland is, take some time to understand all the other essential rules before you get behind the wheel of a car.
What Is the Legal Driving Age in Switzerland?
In order to have a valid driver’s license or use one from your country when you are on vacation, you must be at least 18 years old. Even if you come from a location where you get a license at a younger age, you cannot legally drive in Switzerland at that time. In most cases, you will not come across this problem when you visit the country because you will have a very difficult time renting a car unless you are 23 or even 25 years old.
Am I Required to Bring Along Special Gear?
Unlike some other European countries, Switzerland does not have a long list of different things you must carry in your car at all times. They do require a reflective warning triangle. However, things like reflective vests or jackets, extra car light bulbs, a fire extinguisher, and first aid kit are merely recommendations and not requirements. Still, it helps if you are ready for any potential problems to minimize risk and get you back on the road safely again.
Using a Cell Phone While On the Road in Switzerland
Getting an international SIM card so you can use your smartphone for navigation, destination research, and communication while on holiday in Switzerland makes sense. However, you must recognize that using it while driving is one of the leading causes of accidents caused by distraction. As the Swiss authorities understand this, they have very strict rules about cell phone use while on the road.
In Switzerland, you are not allowed to use your cell phone at all unless you have an approved hands-free device. More than 1000 people every year are injured in distracted driving cases, so these measures are taken very seriously. The only reason for properly using a phone in the car includes mapping or GPS navigation with your device firmly affixed to the dashboard or hands-free phone calls.
Texting or any other physical use of a smartphone or other mobile device gives the police the opportunity to pull you over, give you a ticket and up to a CHF100 (104$) fine. If they catch you sending texts, you may get higher fines or even have your driver’s license taken away from you completely. Repeat offenses may even lead to jail time. Not only do you want to avoid this kind of trouble while on your vacation, but you should follow the rules of the road so you do not put yourself, your family, or anyone else at risk.
Proper Seat Belt Use in Switzerland
It is very easy to understand the rules regarding seat belt use in Switzerland. They do not differ from most other European or even worldwide countries. If you are in the car and above the age that requires you to use a child seat, you must be properly buckled into your seat belt. This pertains to the driver and passengers in both the front and back seats.
It is also important to note that the parents, guardians, or driver of the car are 100% responsible for all minor children. While kids of any age can ride in either the front or back seats, any below the age of 12 or the height of 150 centimeters must be in an approved booster seat, child seat, or infant seat. The decision about which of those to use depends on the specific restrictions put on the product itself.
Switzerland Basic Speed Rules and Speeding Offenses
Whenever you get behind the wheel of your car or other vehicles, it is important to stay safe at all times. One of the leading causes of accidents is excessive speeding. Not only do you put yourself at risk, but you also increase the danger for everyone else on the road with you. If safety is not enough to encourage you to stick to the speed limits, then recognize that you could get pulled over by the police and given a large fine and ticket.
In Switzerland, you have to pay a fine immediately on the spot when you are stopped. If you do not have the funds available, you may have additional problems. Avoid all these issues by always thinking about safety when you step down on the accelerator. Also, understand these general speed limit rules for Swiss roads.
When you are in a residential community with a lot of homes and smaller streets, the accepted speed limit is 30 kilometers per hour or approximately 20 miles per hour. However, it is important to pay attention to the speed limit signs to make sure these numbers are in effect. There are also speed limits in more built-up residential zones of just 20 kilometers per hour or 12 miles per hour.
Areas that are designated residential streets, which are more suburban than urban or located in villages, usually allow you to drive 50 kilometers per hour or 31 miles per hour. Again, check road signs frequently.
Once you leave the residential areas and head out to smaller highways and rural roads, the general speed limit increases to 80 kilometers per hour or 50 miles per hour. Always pay attention to conditions, other traffic, and things like business entryways or turnoffs that would require a slower pace.
On the motorways, freeways, and expressways throughout Switzerland, you can drive up to 120 kilometers per hour or 75 miles per hour. Any large trucks, other vehicles towing trailers, and motorhomes or campers that way over 3.5 tons must maintain a speed limit of 80 kilometers per hour or 50 miles per hour at all times. Because of this much slower rate than other cars will be driving on the motorways, it is strongly recommended that they stay in the right lane at all times.
What happens if you are pulled over by the police for driving over the speed limit in Switzerland? As in many other countries, the police officer has some discretion about whether they will give you a ticket or not. However, if you are doing something wrong, expect to get the fine and all other consequences. Fines can range from CHF 20 for up to five kilometers per hour over the speed limit on a motorway all the way up to CHF 260 four speeds more than 25 kilometers per hour in excess. In general, higher fines are given for less speeding in built-up areas and residential zones.
Along with fines that you must pay immediately, you may also lose driving privileges from a first offense and repeat offenses. For example, if you drive more than 21 kilometers per hour over the speed limit in a residential zone, you will automatically lose your driving privileges for one month. If you do this more than once, you could not only lose your driver’s license permanently but also be required to see a psychologist test your fitness for licensing at all.
Needless to say, these types of fines and driving bans will seriously put a damper on your holiday. When in Switzerland, pay attention to road signs, make sure you understand the speed limits for different types of roadways, and follow the rules exactly so you have a great and safe time.
DOES SWITZERLAND CHARGE TOLLS ON ANY OF THEIR ROADS?
Yes. If you come from the United States, you may be used to toll roads where you slow down at a booth in line with dozens or hundreds of other cars and hand money directly to a toll booth attendant. Sometimes, you even throw coins into a collection basket directly. Other places have special stickers or sensors on your car that allow you to go through the booth more quickly. In Switzerland, you need to pay for a special sticker or vignette that allows you to pay the tolls on the roads you drive.
The Autobahnvignette costs CHF40 and is available in the Switzerland Travel Center, airports and rest stops, and sometimes in other locations. If you are traveling from another European country, you can also purchase one of these stickers at a crossing office. Driving in Switzerland with a motorway sticker allows you to go to any of the national routes or motorways. The cost of these vignettes pays for the upkeep of the roads. It does not matter if you are a Swiss citizen who commutes every day on the autobahn or is just visiting for a week and will stay on the road for an extremely short amount of time. You still need one of these stickers.
Prices vary for motorcycles and other non-car vehicles. Also, you may have to pay an additional toll for other locations like bridges or tunnels. For example, the Great Saint Bernard tunnel from Switzerland to Italy has a separate toll entirely.
DRIVING UNDER THE INFLUENCE IN SWITZERLAND
The official country-wide legal blood alcohol limit in Switzerland is 0.5%. This holds true for cars, trucks, motorcycles, bicycles, motorboats, rowboats, or any other type of recreational vehicle. Even though Switzerland has a lot of delicious wines and beers to sample, you should absolutely avoid them if you are planning to get in your car afterward. Increasing the danger for everyone on the road also puts you at serious risk of being stopped for large fines, tickets, loss of your license, and prison.
If the police in Switzerland suspect that you are driving under the influence of alcohol or any other type of mind-altering substance, they will pull you over, administer certain tests to determine your blood-alcohol level or degree of impairment and give you the appropriate punishment. If your blood alcohol is between 0.5% and 0.79%, you will receive a fine and not be allowed to drive on at that moment. You can switch out to a sober driver in the car or call someone to pick you up.
If you are found to have a blood-alcohol level of 0.8% or more, you will immediately lose your license and all privileges to drive on Swiss roads. This will last a minimum of three months. It is also possible that, if the situation is extreme or includes reckless driving that can put other people in danger, you may end up in prison for up to three years. Needless to say, it is the best bet to stick to delicious hot chocolate, tea, or fruit juices and water if you intend to drive after your drinks.
KNOW WHAT THE SWISS STREET SIGNS MEAN
Although knowing all the rules, regulations, and best practices of driving in Switzerland matters if you want to stay safe and legal, it is equally as important to understand the road signs that tell you more specific information on your journey. These are generally understandable for people from especially other European countries, but visitors from Australia, the United States, and other countries around the globe should be able to figure them out relatively easily.
Four Different Types of Street Signs Used in Switzerland
1. Warning Signs
Any type of potential hazard or unexpected feature on a roadway gets a warning sign at least 50 meters before it. On highways and expressways, the sign is positioned approximately 200 meters away instead. All of these signs are triangular with a thick red border, a white field in the center, and a black icon or picture indicating the type of hazard coming up.
Some of the common Switzerland warning signs may include information about a road turning, narrowing, steep gradients, slippery roads, pedestrian or animal crossings, bicycle traffic, or upcoming traffic lights.
2. Regulatory Signs
These circular signs also have a red border and white center with a black icon or other information. Occasionally, they may have a blue center instead of a white one. Unlike other European countries like Austria, Switzerland does not usually have specific signage to show when a regulatory stretch of road ends. If there is a sign with the same image and a black, red, or striped slash through it, that does indicate the end of the zone. Otherwise, assume that the regulation continues until the next intersection.
Different types of regulatory signs include no entry, motorcycle, bus, or trailer prohibitions, maximum weight limits, speed limit signs, no right or left turn, and snow chain requirements in mountainous regions during the winter.
4. Indication Signs
Square or rectangular road signs are used to indicate certain appropriate behaviors in specific traffic or road situations. They can show everything from an upcoming tunnel to a one-way street, pedestrian crossings, dead ends, parking lots, emergency lanes, and more.
Location or Direction Street Signs
No matter how great your GPS or maps are, you still need to pay attention to street signs and directional information while you navigate the Switzerland roads. These are usually white or blue and have easily understandable images and words on them. A white or green sign with an arrow simply points to a particular town, city, or well-known destination. Sometimes, they show the distance in kilometers, too.
Graphical signs with arrows for different lanes or turnoffs clearly show what part of the road you should be on to get to a different city or point of interest. If you see a red sign with arrows and place names on it, you only have to pay close attention if you are currently writing a bicycle or are on roller skates. These do not indicate driving routes for cars and other vehicles.
If you are driving a large roadway in Switzerland and find yourself running low on petrol, in need of roadside assistance, hungry, or in want of information or a place to stay for the night, look for tall rectangular blue signs with white fields and black icons. You should be able to determine that a knife and fork means a restaurant, an “I” means information, and the gas tank and get you fueled up for more Swiss road adventures.
HOW DIFFICULT IS DRIVING IN SWITZERLAND IN THE WINTER?
If you visit Switzerland in the winter, late autumn, or spring, and head up into the mountainous regions of the country, you will undoubtedly come across some bad road conditions. Because the authorities are so used to snow and ice, they do keep the roads plowed and treated for maximum safety. However, there are locations where it is required for you to wear chains on your tires. There may be service stations near these areas that will put them on for a fee if you are not used to doing it yourself.
When planning your journey, first understand that you will not be allowed to drive on some mountains or in some small villages in the rural regions of the country. You should consider taking the train or other public transportation instead. This also gets you out of the difficulty of navigating snowy roads. If you choose to drive anyway, pull over if you go slower than the locals, only stop where there is sufficient room on the side to be safe, and give way to uphill drivers if you are on a downhill track.
Driving conditions in Switzerland in March are not any better than those in February, January, December, November, and days surrounding this cold season. Proper preparation and care are the recipes for getting to your destination safely. Besides always having winter tires, which are usually provided by the rental car companies if you tell them where you are driving to or show up in the winter months, also make sure to have enough fuel for you head into the countryside, and carry along shovel, ice scraper, and extra blankets and coats just in case you get stuck.
EXPERIENCE THE BEAUTY, CULTURE, AND FUN OF SWITZERLAND BY ROAD
When you choose Switzerland as your next holiday destination, you get access to some of the world’s most beautiful vistas, mountain scenery in the towering Alps, quaint historic villages, and so much more. If you have enough time and want to explore outside of Zürich and other cities, renting a car makes a lot of sense. If you are at least 18 years old, you are allowed to drive anywhere in Switzerland with an English, French, German, or Italian language license. Otherwise, simply apply online for an International Drivers Permit and book your flight.
With a combination of excellent public transport in the urban and residential areas and multiple countryside railways, you may be able to get everywhere you want without a car. However, getting behind the wheel of your own rented vehicle gives you so much more freedom.
No trip to Switzerland is complete without a glimpse of the iconic Matterhorn mountain. Remember to bring your camera and plenty of memory cards for some of the most picturesque Alpine images you can get anywhere. Medieval villages with church spires and cozy clusters of houses will lure you into the rural regions. Head to one of the hillside resorts for luxurious spa experience complete with bathing in natural hot springs. Visit fairytale castles, sparkling blue lakes, and the magnificent Rhine Falls, the largest waterfall in Europe.
Finally, head into the cities for an amazing exhibition of culture, art, architecture, nightlife, and shopping. Do not forget to pick yourself up an exquisite Swiss watch and indulge in this country’s delicious chocolate. You can enjoy all of this and more when you drive safely around this beautiful, accessible, and memory-making country: Switzerland.