Home About Switzerland The Basics Swiss country profile: Switzerland facts
Last update on February 26, 2019
Written by Nannette Ripmeester and Lina Zedelius

Basic facts on Switzerland, including climate, population, currency, languages and recent history, provided by Expertise in Labour Mobility.

Switzerland facts

Switzerland or Confoederatio Helvetica (Swiss Confederation) is situated in Central Europe and shares a border with Germany, Austria, Liechtenstein, Italy, and France. The country has a surface of 41,285 square kilometres. Bern (approx. 123,000 inhabitants, 2011) is the capital. Other main cities are Zurich ( approx. 1,319,901 inhabitants), Geneva (approx. 460,670 inhabitants), Basel (approx. 169,516 inhabitants), and Lausanne (approx. 133,491).

The Alps take up the central and southern regions of the country and the Jura Mountains straddle the border with France in the Northeast. Over 60 percent of the Swiss territory is mountainous and a quarter of it is covered with forest. The Dufour summit (4634 metres) of Monte Rosa is the highest peak; the Matterhorn (4478 metres), however, is better known.

Climate in Switzerland

The mountains are mainly responsible for the variety of local and regional microclimates but, in general, Switzerland has a moderate climate. There is constant snow cover at altitudes above 3000 metres.

Swiss population

Switzerland has a population of approximately 7,639,961 (2011), out of which 65 percent are Swiss German, 18 percent are French, 10 percent are of Italian origin, 1 percent are Romansch inhabitants, and the remaining 6 percent consists of other ethnic groups.

Languages in Switzerland

Switzerland is a linguistic melting pot with three official federal languages. Swiss German is spoken by 65 percent of the population, French by 18 percent and Italian by 10 percent. A fourth language, Romansh, is spoken by 1 percent of the population. Six percent of the population speak other languages.

Swiss currency

The monetary unit of Switzerland is the Swiss frank/franc/franco. One franc consists of 100 rappen/centimes/centesimi.

Swiss national holidays

New Year’s Day, 1 January
Good Friday, varies
Easter Monday, varies
Labour Day, 1 May (not a national holiday in all parts of Switzerland)
Ascension Day, varies
Whit Monday, varies
Swiss National Day, 1 August
Christmas, 25 – 26 December

Recent Swiss history

While the rest of Europe was fighting in the Thirty Years’ War, the Swiss remained neutral and, at the end of the war in 1648, they were recognised in the Treaty of Westphalia as a neutral state. Nevertheless, the French Republic invaded Switzerland in 1798 and established the Helvetic Republic. The Swiss revolted against the centralised control and Napoleon was finally defeated by the British and Prussians. The ensuing Congress of Vienna guaranteed Switzerland’s independence and permanent neutrality in 1815.

In 1848, a new federal constitution was agreed upon and is still largely in place today. Bern was established as the capital and the federal assembly was set up to take care of national issues. Switzerland developed industries predominantly dependent on highly skilled labour. Networks of railways and roads were built, opening up previously inaccessible alpine regions and helping the development of tourism. In 1963, the international Red Cross was founded in Geneva.

The federal republic maintained its neutrality throughout the 20th century. Zurich grew to become an international banking and insurance centre and many international bodies, such as the World Health Organisation, based their headquarters in Geneva. Afraid that its neutrality would be compromised, Switzerland declined to become a member of the United Nations (though it currently has ‘observer’ status) or NATO. It did, however, join EFTA (the European Free Trade Association). Facing other EFTA nations applying for EU (European Union) membership, Switzerland finally made its application in 1992. As a prelude to full EU membership, Switzerland was to join the EEA (European Economic Area), but the citizens rejected the EEA in a referendum in December 1992.

At the end of the 20th century, growing doubts about Switzerland’s past and future emerged. Many Swiss questioned the country’s traditional ‘bunker mentality’ in a Europe at peace, with open borders. Particularly troubling for Switzerland was an international debate during the 1990s about “dormant accounts” (assets left by foreign Jews in Swiss banks during the Nazi era but never returned), a controversy that challenged Switzerland’s self-image. Furthermore, with many United Nations (UN) and international organisations headquartered in Switzerland, there was a growing debate about whether Swiss neutrality was secured or enhanced by its refusal to join the UN. Finally, after nearly 60 years of non-membership, Swiss voters, taking the lead of the major political parties, endorsed entry into the UN in 2002.

Switzerland reached an agreement with the European Union related to the free movement of persons; on 1 January 2001, this agreement came into force. From that day onward, there was an equal treatment for EU workers and Swiss nationals. Furthermore, long-term (five years) and short-term (up to one year) residence permits were introduced. In 2003, the preference for Swiss employees and all disadvantages regarding wages and other working conditions favouring Swiss employees were abolished. In 2006, the Swiss government eradicated the quotas for EU workers and border areas for frontier workers. Since December 2008, Switzerland has been part of the Schengen passport-free zone. Nevertheless, people originating from a Schengen nation had their passports checked until March 2009, upon arrival to Switzerland.