Crossing the border

We live in France, just across the border from Switzerland. Geneva is our closest big city and we’re as often on the Swiss side as we are in France. Work is in Switzerland. So is the airport, the bigger department stores and many of our favorite restaurants.

Crossing the border is no big deal. In fact, it has become largely a technicality, since the Schengen accords abolished the need to control the borders between 26 European countries.

La Haute Savoie

La Haute Savoie

In our corner of Lake Geneva, the border weaves a crooked line through hills and along rivers. When you’re driving around, you may change countries without even realizing it.

Recently we had visitors from Canada who wondered: how can you tell which side of the border you’re on?

It’s not all that obvious. Here in the Haute Savoie part of the French Rhône-Alpes region, we have a toe in Switzerland, a heel in Italy, and a long history of belonging to various sides. Like our sister region, the Savoie, our departmental flag is almost identical to the Swiss flag. Geneva was taken over by France during the revolution and at one point in history, the area where we now live was supposed to be part of French-speaking Switzerland.

« Entrée Savoie » par Florian Pépellin

Sign from our sister department, La Savoie « Entrée Savoie » par Florian Pépellin

But Switzerland is another country. Other than the Swiss flag itself, which proudly flies at every border outpost, here’s what to watch – and listen – for when you cross the border into Switzerland:

  1. Prices in Swiss francs
    One of the first things you will notice is the prices in Swiss Francs. Even if you don’t notice it right away, you’ll soon feel the pinch. One Swiss franc (1 CHF) is worth about .80 EUR cents, but the cost of just about everything is much higher than the exchange rate seems to justify.

2. Bus stops and public transit
The Swiss are great believers in public transit. Even small villages on the outskirts of big towns are well served by buses and trains. Ferry boats run by the CGN (Swiss national navigation company) take commuters from France to the Swiss side of Lac Léman (Lake Geneva).

3. Better roads and cleaner streets
Everything is well maintained in Switzerland. Which may be one reason why prices are higher.

4. Recycling bins
Even in public places like train stations and on the street, you often see bins specifically for recyclables like plastic.

5. Accent
The French like to make fun of the Swiss Romand accent, a kind of lilt that makes the phrases go up at the end. But then again, the French make fun of accents from everywhere – even within their own country.

 6. English spoken
After so many years in France, it surprised me at first to hear so much English spoken just across the border. You will notice that many different languages are spoken in Switzerland, but most commonly: French, German, Italian and English.

Caninette  7. Dog poop
Along with cleaner, better maintained streets comes a certain mania for picking up. Stoop-and-scoop bags are available pretty well everywhere in Switzerland. And beware of fines if you don’t pick up after le chien!

8. License plates
The plates on Swiss cars begin with the two-letter abbreviation of the Canton: GE for Geneva, VD for Vaud or ZH for Zurich, for example.

9. Vignette
You can’t drive on the Swiss motorways without paying an annual highway tax. I love the efficiency of it – a small price to pay instead of all those annoying tolls in France. La vignette (which you must display on your windshield) costs 40 CHF (33 EUR) and the borders on the main roads (ie, Bardonnex in Geneva) are often patrolled to catch visitors who haven’t paid up.

10. Frontaliers
You will also notice a lot of French license plates on the Swiss side. That’s because jobs are more plentiful and better paid. Les frontaliers, those who live in one country and work in another, are an unpopular bunch: Disliked by the French, who assume there’s something illegal or immoral about earning more money or paying less tax; and tolerated but not really liked or trusted by the Swiss.

I should know. I’m one of them.

What about you? Ever been confused about which side of the border you were on?



  1. davidprosser · August 14, 2014

    Frequently Mel since I live almost on the border between England and Wales. The only time I ever hear Welsh spoken in England is when we cross over to Chester- our nearest City- to do some shopping. But English is spoken everywhere in Wales, predominantly in areas like mine where sometimes it seems half Merseyside has come to live or take a job. Their distinctive accent is so prevalent that some holiday makers think they’re still in England without noticing the grass is suddenly greener.
    There was such a glut of housebuying by the English at one time it sent house prices soaring beyond the means of locals though the holiday home sensation seems to have died down a lot now.
    Work being so hard to come by for the whole country it seems some single people thought they might as well be unemployed in nicer surroundings and moved here.
    At one stage, landlords with bedsits to let along the coast actually put cards in prisons of all places to fill their places which did the crime rate no good at all.
    It’s also strange that holiday parks tend to be full of holidaymakers from specific area as though they don’t want to mix and be tainted. Camps are either full of those from Liverpool, Manchester or Birmingham and heaven help the interloper.
    At least the money remains the same both sides of the border but in Wales if you make a purchase you pay 5p or 10p for a bag which just over the border is free.
    xxx Massive Hugs xxx

    • MELewis · August 14, 2014

      Thanks for such a colorful and informative comment. I never cease to be amazed by my own ignorance, and how much we can learn from our fellow bloggers. Mea culpa, David, for assuming that England and Wales were pretty much the same culture and identity! Clearly the Welsh language is different but I did not realize it was so widely spoken. Of course, the French also resent the Swiss (and others, including the English) for raising property prices by buying in droves. But I love being able to move about this great continent without borders, so if that’s the down side, so be it. Bises xx

  2. Osyth · August 14, 2014

    I loved my time on Lake Geneva – I lived split time between Nyon, Gstaad and Juan Les Pins on Cote d’Azur for a year a few years back … the biggest menace for me here in France is the fact that people don’t pick up after their furry friends (I do and I swear they think I’m nuts out here in sticksville, Massif Central) … the Swiss have that one absolutely right – provide the equipment, make it unavoidably obvious and fine the life out of those horrors who ignore. I do wish that ethos would hop over the border and spread nationwide in France.

    • MELewis · August 14, 2014

      You got it! The Swiss make it so easy to do the right thing that even renegades (comme moi) toe the line. I’m not sure that mindset is exportable, though, at least not to France. Sounds like you’ve lived in some nice places – quite the contrast to Massif Central!

      • Osyth · August 14, 2014

        Agreed on the mindset … that would be impossible! I’ve been really lucky to have lived in some great places. The next one on the list for a few months is Boston … not sure how THAT will be after here either!!

      • MELewis · August 14, 2014

        Culture shock, I’d say. Although, Boston is probably more European in feel than a lot of US cities. Looking forward to reading about your adventures state-side.

    • Multifarious meanderings · August 15, 2014

      In this region (Hérault) the poop bags are there. The few owners who scoop then chuck the bag back on the floor. Is that what they call containing the problem?

  3. Dana · August 14, 2014

    Ahh, I live for the day when the French pick up their dog poop! A girl can dream!

    • MELewis · August 14, 2014

      What I find most frustrating, as a dog owner, is to be told off by people for even walking my dog on or near their property…and to have so many public places in France ‘interdit aux chiens’. Seems the bad behavior of those who don’t pick up after their pets spoils it for everyone!

  4. Multifarious meanderings · August 15, 2014

    I used to love coming out of the Gotthard tunnel and paying for the vignette in Euros and getting Swiss change back that just stayed in the car until our next run through Switzerland and Italy to the French Riviera.
    We lived in the Alsace, and often went to Germany for shopping on the great French jour férié when the fridge was as empty as the Gobi desert. In winter the German police sat there and waited to fine the French motorists as they crossed the border in Kehl – German law demanded winter tyres whereas in French law it was optional. They always went home with a smile.

    • MELewis · August 15, 2014

      Ha! That’s vicious. Wonder why shopping always seems so much better on the other side? The Swiss come to France to shop for food, especially meat which is much cheaper. But they’re only allowed a certain quota and they also get caught on the way home. And I just love shopping in Switzerland, even though it’s usually more expensive.

  5. Colin Bisset · August 15, 2014

    When I was young Switzerland was seen as over-priced, staid and for old people. Maybe that’s what I’ve become because now I really enjoy its beauty and the way everything works. A really great book on the country is Diccon Bewes’ Swiss Watching which combines an insider’s explanation at why it all works and an outsider’s bemusement at its oddness.

    • MELewis · August 16, 2014

      Thanks for the book tip, I’ll check it out!

  6. wanderingcows · August 16, 2014

    That’s quite an illuminating post about those little shifts that tell you that you’re across the border. I’ve never thought about it from that perspective.

    • MELewis · August 18, 2014

      I sometimes wish we lived in a world without borders! Cheers 🙂

  7. Maison Bentley Style · August 18, 2014

    We lived in Varese for three italy, about 15 minutes from the Swiss border. We always noticed a better adherence to the speed limit in Switzerland…..!


    • MELewis · August 18, 2014

      How lovely to have lived in that part of Italy! Yes, the Swiss are a law-abiding lot, which does make for safer roads if not wild parties.

  8. Caro · August 27, 2014

    Great post, love it and can relate as a frontalier and neighbour in Haute Savoie, just over the border!

    • MELewis · August 28, 2014

      Oh, that Savoie sign is misleading. We are also in Haute Savoie. Maybe we’ll cross paths one of these days!

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