9 things expats in Switzerland need to know about in December 2023
After what has been quite a whirlwind 11 months, many people in Switzerland will likely use December to reflect on the year just passed and wonder about what will happen in 2024. However, the last month of 2023 still has a lot in store for the alpine nation. Here are nine things to know:
1. Expected rise in the reference interest rate
On December 1, the Federal Housing Office raised the reference interest rate for mortgages from 1,5 percent to 1,75 percent. Among other things, the rate is used to determine how much landlords are able to raise the cost of renting a house or apartment in Switzerland.
It is the second time that rates have risen this year, with the first increase coming in June. A 0,25 percent increase will authorise landlords to raise rents by a further 3 percent on approximately half the renting population, regardless of their rental contact. In fact, the Swiss government predicts that rental costs may rise by up to 15 percent before the reference rate comes down and tennants are allowed to apply for a rent reduction.
2. New SBB timetable from December 10
From December 10, Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) will be switching to its new timetable for 2024. In general, the new schedule will mean more trains from Swiss cities in the west to destinations in the mountains like ski resorts. SBB will also start to use larger trains on more popular routes, coinciding with a smattering of changes to regional trains and S-Bahns.
However, many French-speaking cantons have registered their disdain for the new timetable, as it will force a number of Intercity and Interregional trains to run slower and not stop at certain stations in the region. Local transport in the Romande is also affected, with some lines around Lausanne set to be replaced by bus services. For more information about the timetable change, check out the SBB website.
3. Price rises and cuts to regional public transport
At the same time, a number of regional providers have announced cuts to public transport services, most notably in Zurich. From December 10, all tram and nine bus lines in Zurich will run every 15 minutes instead of 10 from 8.30pm every night, and tram line 15 will run every 15 minutes at all times. Adding cost to disruption, prices for tickets in the ZVV tariff region will also increase from December 10.
Similar cuts to bus lines are also being planned in the city of Lucerne, while officials in Bern and Basel have said that while they will be maintaining services, cuts remain a possibility. The reason for the disruption? Transport associations in most cities in Switzerland have reported suffering from an acute shortage of workers and drivers.
4. E-vignette for 2024 goes on sale
Sticking with transport, on December 1 drivers in Switzerland will be able to purchase the 2024 edition of the e-vignette needed to access Swiss motorways. The pass, costing 40 francs a year, is electronically linked to a vehicle’s registration and licence plate - no more having to scrape off the sticker when the year is up!
With most people purchasing their vignettes at the start of the year - long before the first e-vignette was released in August - the 2024 release is seen as a major test to see whether the electronic system can cope with higher demand. Be aware that anyone driving on the motorway without a valid physical or e-vignette from February 1 will be subject to a 200-franc fine. You can get the new vignette via the official government website.
5. Swiss Federal Council and president to be elected
In Switzerland’s last slice of political intrigue for the year, December 13 will see the election of the seven-member Federal Council - the country’s executive branch. The council will be selected at a vote in a joint session of the National Council (lower house) and Council of States (upper house), called the Federal Assembly.
Traditionally, the composition of the Federal Council is beholden to the so-called “magic formula”, which sees two seats given to the Swiss People’s Party (SVP), two to FDP. The Liberals, two to the Social Democratic Party (SP) and one to the Centre Party (formerly the CVP). In what is considered a ceremonial vote, the meeting will also decide who will become president - which if she is reappointed (which is extremely likely) will be Viola Amherd (Centre).
However, the appointment of the executive is expected to be quite the event this year, especially after Swiss President Alain Berset said he would be standing down at the end of 2023, leaving one SP Federal Council seat vacant. After an internal vote within the SP, the position will either be filled by Beat Jans of Basel-Stadt or Jon Pult of Graubünden.
What’s more, despite losing out at the latest election, the Green Party of Switzerland has argued that they should be given a seat on the council since, when combined with the Green Liberals, their vote share is larger than the Centre's. After the FDP’s lacklustre performance at the polls, Greens National Councillor Gerhard Andrey announced that he would try to disrupt the “magic formula” and take one of the seats from the FDP - either Ignazio Cassis’ or Karin Keller-Sutter’s.
6. Swiss ski season gets into full swing
While lawmakers lock heads over who can play the instruments of power, the Swiss ski season is expected to get into full swing in December. The last of the major ski resorts are expected to open up their runs in the next 31 days, and many others are set to officially commemorate the start of the season.
7. Winter school holidays
Schools, out, for, winter; on December 22, schools in practically all Swiss cantons will break for the winter holidays. With most schools ending at roughly the same time, roads, motorways, stations and airports in Switzerland are expected to be very busy on the Christmas weekend and on the weekend of January 3.
8. St. Nicholas Day and Christmas
On December 6, Switzerland will celebrate St. Nicholas Day. Like other nations around Europe and the world, the Swiss version of Santa Claus - called Samichlaus or Saint-Nicolas - is traditionally dressed as a bishop with a red robe, mitre and staff, and travels on a donkey or on foot rather than a sleigh.
Traversing the Christmas markets of Switzerland and handing out chocolates and fruit, Samichlaus is always accompanied by his sidekick and helper Schmutzli. The fairly creepy-looking helper is seen to be the bad cop to Santa's good cop and is meant to scold children if they have been naughty, and is even armed with twigs to whip bad children - although this part of the tradition has been confined to history.
Then, on December 24 and 25, the alpine nation will celebrate Christmas by handing out gifts, cooking raucously indulgent meals and toasting peace on earth and goodwill to all. This is helped by the fact that Christmas Eve falls on a Sunday this year, and Christmas Day is a public holiday across the country.
9. New Year in Switzerland
Finally, the last hurrah of 2023 will come on December 31, when Switzerland will celebrate New Year’s Eve. With no energy or COVID restrictions in sight, most Swiss cities will be awash with events and people ready to welcome 2024 with open arms. Whether you celebrate in the city centre with all the revellers, pop some champagne at home to celebrate or choose to sleep through to a new year, we hope you have fun!