Whether you’re planning a quick day trip during a bank holiday or a more extensive journey across the Swiss cantons, driving is a great way to discover Switzerland’s bustling cities and beautiful mountainous landscapes. For one, you won’t be tied to a specific timetable or route. But driving in Switzerland is really about having the freedom to explore even the more remote parts of this Alpine wonderland.
The idea may seem a little daunting at first, especially if you’re not used to driving through mountain roads. But if you familiarize yourself with the requirements and regulations and get a sense of what driving is like in Switzerland, you’ll be ready to hit the road for the trip of a lifetime.
- What are the main requirements for driving in Switzerland?
- A few useful rules and practices for driving in Switzerland
- What are the Swiss speed limits?
- What’s a vignette and why do you need one?
- What are the roads and driving like in Switzerland?
What are the main requirements for driving in Switzerland?
The minimum driving age in Switzerland is 18. As long as you’ve reached that age and hold a valid foreign driver’s license, you can drive across the country for a maximum of a year. Following this time limit, you’ll need to get a Swiss driver’s license. Your license also needs to be either in English or in one of the official languages spoken in Switzerland — namely German, French or Italian. If that’s not the case, you’ll need an international driver’s license, which may ultimately prove useful if you want to go on a road trip throughout Europe.
Finally, you’ll need to ensure that you have a warning triangle within immediate reach at all times while driving.. If you hire a car in Switzerland, a warning triangle should normally be provided by default, but it’s worth double-checking.
A few useful rules and practices for driving in Switzerland
Let’s start with the basics. People in Switzerland drive on the right side of the road, just like in most countries in Europe. All passengers must have their seatbelts fastened whenever the car is moving. Less expected is the fact that you need to turn the headlights on when driving a vehicle, even during daylight hours.
Some other rules to keep in mind:
- In terms of drinking, the maximum blood alcohol content you’re allowed when driving is 0.05%.
- Drivers must follow the priority to the right rule unless stated otherwise or in the presence of traffic lights.
- Pay attention to cyclists and pedestrians, especially around crosswalks, which are marked by yellow stripes. Pedestrians have priority over drivers and all vehicles must therefore stop before crosswalks when there are pedestrians around. This rule is particularly enforced at tram stops in Swiss cities.
Traffic fines tend to be costly in Switzerland, which is perhaps unsurprising for a country known for its high cost of living. As an example, not having your headlights on while driving may result in a fine of 40 Swiss Francs (around €41). And if you exceed the allowed blood alcohol level, you may even have your driver’s license withdrawn. So, it’s definitely in your best interest to abide by traffic laws, beyond mere safety on the road.
What are the Swiss speed limits?
In Switzerland, speed limits depend on the type of roads and vehicles. Here are the main speed limits for a standard car:
|Type of road||Speed limit|
|Highway||120 km/h (about 75 mph)|
|Expressway||100 km/h (about 60 mph)|
|Urban areas||50 km/h (about 30 mph)|
|Rural areas||80 km/h (about 50 mph)|
Cars with trailers cannot go faster than 80 km/h (about 50 mph), while mobile homes of 3.5t or less can go up to 100 km/h (about 60 mph).
What’s a vignette and why do you need one?
While Swiss motorways don’t include tolls, this doesn’t mean they are tax-free. Instead, a tax is levied in the form of a sticker called a vignette, which goes on the inside corner of your windshield.
Rental cars in Switzerland are usually provided with a vignette. But if you’re driving your own car, you’ll need to buy one at a border crossing, a gas station or a post office before getting on a motorway. A vignette costs CHF 40 and is valid until January 31st of the following year. For example, a vignette bought on January 15th, 2023 and one bought on November 15th, 2023 will both have the same expiry date on January 31st, 2024. However, vignettes bought on or after December 1st, 2023 will be valid until January 31st, 2025.
What are the roads and driving like in Switzerland?
The road system in Switzerland reflects the unique geography of the country, especially outside of cities. If you want to reach one of Switzerland’s beautiful lakes, it’s quite likely you’ll need to take a few mountain roads. These are usually narrow, steep and curvy, but even highways rarely exceed two lanes. So, you may want to prepare yourself for the unavoidable sharp turns and be ready to drive at a slower pace — particularly when crossing mountain passes!
You’ll also find many tunnels along the way to go through mountains. Just short of 17 kilometers (about 10.5 miles) in length, the Gotthard Pass Tunnel is not only the longest tunnel in Switzerland but also the fourth longest in the whole world!
In Switzerland, snow can come as early as October and usually sits on the ground until April. During those months, winter tires are highly recommended, even though they’re not mandatory. If you drive through the mountains, you may also spot road signs mentioning chaînes à neige obligatoires, in which case you’ll be legally required to have snow chains on for that specific road section.
If you drive in big cities like Zurich, you’ll need to pay attention to using the correct lanes, as there are many tram tracks and bus lanes. You’ll also encounter a lot of roundabouts. Upon entering one, you don’t need to use your signal, but you do need to give priority to the oncoming traffic already in the roundabout. You also need to signal when you’re about to exit the roundabout.
There are also many traffic lights in Swiss cities. These lights have one small difference from the traffic lights you may be used to if you’re from the United States: They don’t switch directly from red to green, but from red to yellow to green. The yellow color serves as a transition, to indicate that you’ll soon be ready to start driving.
Hit the road in Switzerland
Driving in Switzerland is a great way to discover the country, especially if you wish to explore its extraordinary landscapes. But first, make sure you’re well-equipped with knowledge of the rules and practices. Oh, and be ready to take on the steep, winding roads and long tunnels typical of this Alpine country!