Switzerland has a permanent resident population of some 7.7 million, 22% of whom are foreign nationals. It has a relatively low birth rate compared to other European countries, with the number of births averaging 1.4 per woman. In 2008, Switzerland’s population
grew by 1.4%, an increase driven chiefly by immigration. Although the number of single- and two-person households in Switzerland is on the rise, half of the population still live in a family household with children.
; Resident permanent population: Mn 7.7
; Foreign residents: % 21.7
; Population growth: % 1.4
; Population density: Residents/km2 184
; Average household size: No. of persons 2.3
; Private households: Mn 3.3
; Single-person households: % 36.9
; Family households: % 61.8
; Non-family households: % 1.3
; Age groups, 0-15: % 16
15-24: % 12
25-49: % 37
50-64: % 19
65 +: % 16
; Children per woman: No. 1.4
; Life expectancy - Men: Years 79.2
; Life expectancy - Women: Years 84.2
; Social transfers: % of GDP 25.4
(Swiss Federal Statistical Office 2008)
Switzerland is a densely populated country, with most people living on the Central Plateau. However, some parts of the country are sparsely populated, or have no human population at all. One third of the population live in or around Switzerland’s five major cities - Zurich,
Basle, Geneva, Berne and Lausanne. One third live in other urban centres, while the remaining third live in rural areas.
Switzerland is a multicultural and multilingual country. This is due, in no small part, to geography, as Switzerland shares its borders with three major European cultures -
German-speaking Europe, France, and Italy.
Switzerland has four national languages, some of which are spoken more widely than others.
; German (64%): Two-thirds of the population live in Switzerland’s 17
German-speaking cantons. In addition to speaking standard German, each canton
has its own distinct Swiss-German dialect.
; French (20%): Western Switzerland (“Romandie”) is home to the country’s native
French speakers. The cantons of Geneva, Vaud, Neuchâtel and Jura are
exclusively French-speaking, while the cantons of Berne, Fribourg and Valais are
bilingual (French and German).
; Italian (6%): Italian is the official language of Ticino and the southern valleys of
Graubünden. However, the Lombard dialect is generally spoken in rural areas and
in some towns.
; Rumantsch: This language is descended from Vulgar Latin and is spoken in the
only trilingual canton, Graubünden. The other two languages spoken there are
German and Italian. Only 0.5% of the Swiss population are native Rumantsch
speakers, making it the least spoken of the four national languages. Most Swiss speak more than one language, be it another national language or English. Foreign nationals living in Switzerland have brought with them their own languages too. The different cultures within Switzerland are strongly influenced by the countries which border them and whose language they share. Each of Switzerland’s four linguistic regions has its own radio programmes and newspapers.
More than 1.5 million foreigners live in Switzerland. Close to one quarter were born here, making them second or third generation immigrants. Compared to other countries, Switzerland has a relatively high share of foreign residents, which can be largely attributed to its strict naturalisation procedure. During the 20th century, the proportion of foreigners varied considerably, reflecting changes in the economy and the labour market. At the end of the 1960s, the first wave of seasonal workers arrived from Italy. They were followed by workers from Spain, Portugal and Yugoslavia. Today Italians make up the largest group of foreign residents (17.5%), followed by Germans (14.1%), Portuguese (11.8%) and nationals from Serbia and Montenegro (11.1%). The overwhelming majority of Switzerland’s foreign residents (86.5%) are from European countries.
Switzerland is not solely a country of immigration - there are currently 676,000 Swiss living overseas. France hosts by far the largest number of Swiss residents, followed by the
US and Germany. Swiss citizens who are resident in another country can still vote in Swiss referenda and elections via mail-in ballot. The Organisation for the Swiss Abroad (ASO) and the Service for the Swiss Abroad of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA) look after the interests of the Swiss expatriate community.
Switzerland is a predominantly Christian state. According to the most recent statistics, 42% of the Swiss population are Catholics and 36% Protestants. Muslims are the third largest religious group. The share of people who declare no religious affiliation is rising fast, with more than 11% of the current population falling into this category.
Many of Switzerland’s festivals, customs and traditions have religious roots.
Anyone who lives in Switzerland is subject to compulsory health insurance. The first Federal Act on Health and Accident Insurance (KUVG) came into force in 1914. It was replaced in 1996 by the Federal Health Insurance Act (KVG). There are 390 medical doctors in Switzerland for every 100,000 residents. Healthcare expenditure is on the rise: in 2007 it accounted for 11.3% of GDP compared to 8.1% in 1990. There are several reasons behind this increase: a broader range of services covered by the health insurance scheme, greater specialisation and technological advances, and an ageing population.
Swiss pension system
The Swiss old-age insurance system is known as the "three-pillar" system: ; The first pillar is a compulsory, state insurance scheme and comprises the old-age
and survivors’ insurance which was introduced in 1948. At that time, ten workers
funded the pension of one retiree. Today, the ratio is only four to one.
; The second pillar, or occupational pension plan, is compulsory for wage-earners.
Employers and employees pay equal contributions into an occupational pension
; The third pillar is voluntary. It is a private saving scheme, which offers everyone the
opportunity to boost their retirement income. In Switzerland, the statutory
retirement age is 65 for men and 64 for women.
Switzerland lies at the centre of Western Europe. It borders Germany in the north, Austria and Liechtenstein in the east, Italy in the south and France in the west. With a surface area of 41,285 km2 and measuring 220 kilometres from north to south and 350 kilometres from west to east, Switzerland is one of the smallest countries in the world.
What Switzerland lacks in size, it more than makes up for with a highly varied landscape. Lake Maggiore is the lowest point above sea level, with an altitude of 193 metres. At the other end of the scale, there are mountain peaks rising 4,000 metres above sea level and snow-capped all year long. Standing 4,634 metres above sea level, Monte Rosa in the canton of Valais is the highest mountain in Switzerland.
Three geographic regions
Switzerland has three main geographic regions: the Jura, the Plateau and the Alps. ; By far the largest geographic region is the Alps, which occupy 60% of Switzerland’s
surface area. They have shaped the country’s national identity, even though the
economic epicentre is the Central Plateau. A mere 11% of the population live in the
Alps. The myriad mountain passes through the Swiss Alps are important transport
; The Central Plateau occupies only 30% of Switzerland’s surface area but is home
to over two-thirds of Switzerland’s total resident population and to most of
Switzerland’s main cities and towns. The Plateau stretches from Lake Geneva in
the west to Lake Constance in the east.
; The Jura borders the Central Plateau in the northwest and covers over 10% of
Switzerland’s surface area. This limestone mountain range, located on average
700 metres above sea level, is a picturesque highland crossed by river valleys. Climate and seasons
In Switzerland the climate can vary considerably from one region to another. North of the Alps, the climate is temperate, while south of the Alps it is influenced by the Mediterranean and is therefore much milder. The major differences in altitude across Switzerland have created several regional microclimates. Annual rainfall is well above the European average.
The seasons are clearly defined. In spring (March to May) the trees blossom and the meadows become green. In summer the temperature rises to 25-30?C. In autumn (September to November) the fruits ripen, then the leaves turn brown and fall. In winter the snow transforms the landscape.
Switzerland is the source of 6% of Europe’s freshwater reserves. It is therefore not surprising that it is often dubbed Europe’s reservoir. Switzerland is also the source of
many major European rivers, like the Rhone, the Rhine and the Inn, which flow into the Mediterranean, North Sea and the Black Sea respectively. It also has over 1,500 lakes. Lake Geneva which straddles the Franco-Swiss border is the largest lake in Western Europe.
Glaciers cover around 3% of Switzerland’s surface area, the largest of which is the 23-kilometre-long Aletsch glacier.
Crossing the Alps
Switzerland is an important transit country. Freight traffic is particularly heavy on the main artery linking northern and southern Europe. A rail and road tunnel which cuts through the Gotthard mountain connects Italy to Northern Europe. The New Transalpine Rail Link (NEAT) will further shorten journey times on this major route. Currently under construction, the base tunnel is scheduled to open in 2017. At 57 km long, it will be the longest rail tunnel in the world. The Great St. Bernard Pass is the main route between Western Switzerland and Italy.
Towns and cities
Two thirds of Switzerland’s population live in towns or cities. Switzerland can be divided into six so-called metropolitan areas - Zurich, Berne, Basle, Geneva, Lausanne and Ticino - each of which has a population of at least half a million. These six metropolitan areas are responsible for 84% of the country’s total economic output.
1291 The rural communities of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden lay the foundation for the Swiss Confederation. Other communities join them during the course of the following centuries.
1460 Founding of Switzerland’s first university in Basle.
1519 Beginning of the Reformation in Zurich. Switzerland is split into Roman Catholic and Protestant cantons.
1648 Peace of Westphalia and acknowledgement of Swiss independence.
1798 Napoleon invades Switzerland. End of the “old regime”.
1803 New cantons replace the former subject territories and join the Helvetic Republic. 1815 Congress of Vienna. Borders of present-day Switzerland are set and Switzerland’s
permanent neutrality is recognised by the European powers.
1847 Sonderbund war. Protestant cantons defeat Roman Catholic cantons that had formed the separatist Sonderbund league.
1848 Foundation of the Swiss Federal State. New constitution is a compromise between centralised power and cantonal autonomy.
1863 Founding of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Geneva. 1874 Introduction of the optional referendum.
1874-1914 Rapid industrial expansion leads to the construction of the railway network and to the boring of the Gotthard and the Simplon Tunnels, two masterpieces of engineering. The boom in tourism begins.
1891 Introduction of popular initiatives.
1914 World War I: Swiss troops are mobilised and border protection put in place. 1918 General strike.
1919 For the first time, elections to the National Council are based on the principle of proportional representation.
1939 World War II: Swiss troops are mobilised; armed neutrality and maintenance of independent status.
1948 Introduction of the national old-age and survivors’ pension scheme (AHV).
1960 Switzerland becomes a founding member of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA).
1963 Switzerland becomes the 17th member of the Council of Europe.
1971 Women given the right to vote on federal matters.
1972 Signing of free trade agreement with the European Community (EC). 1975 Accession to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). 1978 Part of the canton of Berne becomes Jura: Switzerland’s 26th canton.
1999 First series of bilateral agreements between Switzerland and the European Union. 2000 Entry into force of the new Swiss Constitution.
2002 Switzerland joins the United Nations. Bilateral Agreements with the European Union come into force.
2004 The second series of bilateral agreements with the EU – Schengen and Dublin – are
approved in a popular vote.
Swiss environmental policy builds on the deeply rooted national culture of husbanding the natural environment. Nevertheless, Switzerland has also introduced a series of legally binding measures to guarantee the protection of this precious resource.
Despite its small surface area, Switzerland has an astonishing diversity of plants and animals – some 50,000 different species. Switzerland is committed to preserving its rich biodiversity and in 1994 signed the UN convention on biodiversity.
A number of sites of exceptional ecological importance, such as the Swiss National Park, have been placed under official protection. Located in the canton of Graubünden, the park was established in 1914 and became a designated UNESCO biosphere reserve in 1979, as did the Entlebuch region of the canton of Lucerne in 2001. Ten regional nature parks are already officially designated protected areas.
The first Federal Forestry Protection Act was passed back in 1876. The protection and management of its forest resources continue to play a central role. Some 31% of Swiss territory is covered by woodland. In a mountain country like Switzerland, forests are vital as they help preserve the landscape because their roots help stabilise the soil and prevent landslides, avalanches and erosion.
Protection of its waterways and water sources is a permanent undertaking and has been enshrined in the Swiss Constitution as far back as 1970. The drinking water that comes out of Swiss taps is as pure as bottled mineral water. Thanks to excellent water purification technologies, you can bathe in any of Switzerland’s lakes and rivers without fear of pollution. Total daily water consumption in Switzerland is around 400 litres per head (households, industry and manufacturing).
The two main planks of Swiss energy policy are to promote the use of renewable resources and to encourage efficiency. Switzerland has very few traditional energy sources, with the exception of hydroelectric power and firewood. This means that it has to import 80% of its energy.
The energy consumed in Switzerland comes from a variety of sources: half of our energy needs are covered by crude oil products, one fifth comes from nuclear power plants, while hydroelectric plants and natural gas each cover 10%. More than 15% of the total energy consumed in Switzerland is from renewable sources.
In 2000, the Swiss parliament approved the Federal CO2 Act which aims to cut Switzerland’s carbon dioxide emissions to 90% of their 1990 level by 2010. As part of the
second round of Bilateral Agreements with the EU, Switzerland became a full member of the European Environment Agency in 2006. Its membership means that it will be able to take part in pan-European studies, contribute to the development of environmental protection measures at European level and harmonise its activities in this area with those of its European neighbours.
Recycling and waste management
The Swiss attach a lot of importance to recycling. All householders pay a tax based on the volume of rubbish they put out for collection. Half of all waste in Switzerland is recyclable, the other half is destined for the incinerator.
Switzerland owes the high productivity of its economy to its liberal market system, political stability and close ties with foreign economies.
The national currency is the Swiss Franc (CHF). In 2008, Switzerland’s gross domestic product (GDP) was CHF 541,827 mn.
Switzerland is primarily a service economy. 72% of the workforce are employed in the tertiary sector (services), 24% in the secondary sector (industry) and 4% in the primary sector (farming). The main service sector industries are insurance, banking, trade and commerce, and tourism. The secondary sector is dominated by the machinery, electronics, metals and chemical/pharmaceutical industries. The agricultural sector is undergoing changes due to the growing demand for organic produce and more
environmentally-friendly production methods.
The real mainstay of the Swiss economy is its highly specialised and flexible small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). They make up more than 99% of all registered companies in Switzerland, and employ two-thirds of the total workforce. Many foreign firms and Swiss multinationals have their headquarters in Switzerland and are major players in the Swiss economy.
Switzerland has some of the longest working hours in the world: some 1,800 hours per year per worker. Unemployment is low and industrial relations are generally pretty harmonious and stable. But it was not always so. The turning point came in 1937 with the signing of the “labour accord” by the trade unions and employers in the metal working industry. It stipulated that all future disputes would be settled through arbitration rather than strikes.
As Switzerland is a small country, its home market is limited. It is a big exporter and importer of goods. Trade in goods and services accounts for a comparatively high percentage of its GDP.
Most of the goods and services produced in Switzerland are exported, chiefly to the European Union (two-thirds of all Swiss exports). Its main exports are chemicals, machinery, precision instruments, watches and jewellery.
Well-developed industry and services, as well as the high innovation potential in growth industries like microtechnology, biotechnology and pharmaceuticals mean that Switzerland has what it takes to produce state-of-the art, quality goods.
; Road: Switzerland has one of the densest road networks in the world. In 2007
there were 1,800 km of national roads in operation, of which 1,400 km were
motorway, 18,000 km A roads and 51,500 km B roads. There are over five million
motorised vehicles registered in Switzerland, 4 million of which are passenger
vehicles alone. Around 80% of households in Switzerland own at least one car.
; Rail: Switzerland has a 5,100 km-long rail network and has one of the highest
capacity utilisations in the world. Every year, Swiss Railways (SBB) transports
around 290 million passengers and 60 million tonnes of cargo. In 2008 each
person in Switzerland travelled an average of 2,422 km by train. The centrepiece of
the Swiss rail system will be the New Transalpine Rail Link (NEAT), which should
speed up the flow of north-south traffic. It is currently under construction.
; Air: Switzerland has three international airports – Zurich-Kloten, Geneva and Basle.
In 2008, all three observed a rise in passenger numbers, including transit
passengers on scheduled and chartered flights. Traveller numbers in 2008 were
22.1 million for Zurich, 11.3 million for Geneva and 4.2 million for Basle.
; Shipping: The Rhine is Switzerland’s only navigable route to the world’s seas. In
2008, over 7.2 million tonnes of freight were transported along the Rhine.
Switzerland’s sea-going fleet is stationed in Basle. 200 passenger ships operate
across Switzerland’s lakes and rivers, carrying around 13 million passengers every
year. There are also close to 100,000 recreational craft registered in Switzerland. Tourism
In Switzerland, tourism is a key economic sector, generating 6% of its gross domestic product. The catering and hotel industry employs around 225,000 people in some 30,000 businesses. The Swiss hotel industry, which also includes sanatoria, recorded 37.3 million overnight stays in 2008.
Switzerland’s tourist infrastructure is extensive, making it a year-round destination. There
are a great many winter and summer resorts to choose from, not to mention thermal baths and conference hotels. Yet, Switzerland’s most important tourist attractions are its untouched and diverse landscapes as well as its vibrant cultural life. The national tourist board Switzerland Tourism and regional tourist organisations work tirelessly to ensure that Switzerland remains an exciting and attractive tourist destination.
Information society and media
Switzerland’s multilingualism and cultural diversity has given rise to an equally diverse media sector.
; Radio, television and multimedia: The Swiss broadcasting corporation, SRG SSR
idée Suisse, runs a total of eight television and 18 radio channels in the four
national languages, as well as websites accompanying each of these channels and
a teletext service. There are a further 40 local and regional TV channels as well as
some 50 private radio stations. Over 85% of Swiss households have cable TV,
giving them access to at least 50 domestic and foreign channels. Three out of four
households also have a computer with internet access.
; Press: No other country has as many newspapers in proportion to its size as
Switzerland. Admittedly, the number of daily newspapers has fallen to 84; there
have been several mergers in the newspaper sector. Nevertheless, over 200
newspapers with a total print run of 3.8 million copies are still in circulation.