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LIVING IN SWITZERLAND

5 things foreigners need to know before getting married in Switzerland

Thinking of tying the knot in Switzerland? From paperwork and taxes to venues and Swiss traditions, here are some things you should know about.

Wedding rings.
There are a few things you should know when getting married in Switzerland. Photo: Photo by Sandy Millar on Unsplash
  • Get legally married first 

In Switzerland the state only recognises civil weddings as legally binding.  That means that the wedding must be performed by a local civil authority, traditionally at the registry office.  These are intimate affairs with a small number of guests, lasting around 10-30 minutes. It’ll cost you around 300-400 CHF. 

Couples who want to have a religious ceremony or another symbolic ceremony are still required to have a civil ceremony first. You usually present the civil marriage certificate as proof to the priest or celebrant before your ‘official’ wedding ceremony begins. 

  • Get in early with the paperwork

Assuming you meet the legal conditions required to get married (for instance – being at least 18-years-old) there are several steps, in this order, that you need to take:

  • Notify the civil register office (the local Gemeinde or Commune) of either partner of your intention to marry.  The office will then send you a marriage form to fill out
  • As a foreigner, you will also be asked to provide certain documents, which can vary slightly depending on your residential status in Switzerland and the country you’re from. Generally, you’re required to provide proof of:
  • Identity (your passport, original birth certificate)
  • Residential status (residency permit and/or notarised proof of address)
  • Marriage status (an affidavit or similar documentation from your home country stating you are free to marry) 

Keep in mind that these documents will have to be translated into one of Switzerland’s official languages. Here’s a look at what the process looks like:

  • You and your partner will attend a short interview at the registry office where you declare that you meet the obligations to be married
  • Your marriage application can take up to five weeks to be processed. After processing, you will receive a marriage license (around 200 CHF) which is valid for three months
  • If your civil wedding location is NOT in the same area as the civil authority which issued the marriage license, you’ll have to send the license to the civil authority in the area where you’re getting married

READ ALSO: Revealed: The Swiss canton with the best tax rates for families

  • Incredible locations for a small price 

It’s worth mentioning that these days, most civil authorities offer a list of external locations (beyond the registry office) where couples can get legally civilly married.

For instance, Canton Bern offers couples stunning locations like the Harder Kulm above Interlaken, Schloss Spiez, Schloss Schadau in Thun and the Grandhotel Giessbach on the Brienzersee. You could also get married somewhere a little quirkier: at the Zoo in Zurich, a boat in Canton Vaud or even a circus in Canton Glarus. 

Spiez Castle in Bern.

Spiez Castle in Bern. Photo by Chris Kaeppeli on Unsplash

Keep in mind that you do have to reserve in advance for external locations, with reservations generally opening about 12 months before the wedding. You may also have to be more flexible with your wedding date, as usually only one or two days per month are available for civil weddings-and it could be only on Thursdays (for example). 

Summer is the most popular season for weddings in Switzerland, so those months book out fast. That being said, this is an amazing budget option for couples who can’t afford to splurge on a luxurious local; the price can be as little as 100 or 200 CHF more than the wedding at the civil office. 

  • Think about your taxes

Depending on your income, the tax system for married couples in Switzerland could either work for you or against you.  

Married couples must file their taxes together. Because those in a higher income bracket pay more tax, couples who both earn a lot can be taxed significantly more than if they paid their taxes separately. 

This so-called ‘Marriage tax penalty’, lead some to believe that it makes more financial sense not to get married.

On the other hand, if one spouse earns a low income or no income, then this system may work in the couple’s favour, pushing them into a lower tax bracket. 

This is of course, dependent on other factors such as the canton and municipality you live in. 

READ ALSO: Does marriage make financial sense in Switzerland?

  • Modern Swiss traditions

One playful Swiss wedding tradition to be aware of is, that it is not uncommon for the bride and groom’s close friends and family to ‘decorate’ their apartment, garden or car for the wedding night.  The decorations are designed to be funny and annoying but harmless.

A few years ago, Swiss Radio Station FM1 Today compiled a list of some of their listeners wedding prank experiences. These included changing the doorbell ringer to the tune of popular Swiss love song ‘Ewigi Liebi’, filling the bathtub with toilet rolls or with a goldfish and filling the bedroom with balloons. 

Another common tradition is for family and friends to organise sketches, skits or songs as part of the wedding party celebrations. I got married in Switzerland last August.  My husband’s Swiss cousins changed the lyrics of some Swiss and German songs to perform our love story, while at the same time throwing chocolate at the crowd.  

As in any country around the world, each Swiss family also often has their own unique wedding traditions. For us, that meant receiving a Swiss cow bell engraved with our names and the wedding date on it.  During the wedding festivities, guests could ring the bell in exchange for a coin donation. Anytime we heard the bell, no matter what else was happening, we had to kiss. 

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SWITZERLAND EXPLAINED

Why are things so slow to change in Switzerland?

If you have lived in the country a while, you know that things here change at a snail’s pace. There are several reasons why the Swiss like to take their sweet time — and it has nothing to do with watches.

Why are things so slow to change in Switzerland?

If you come from a country with a more dynamic and pro-active way of doing things, then you may grow frustrated with Switzerland’s careful and measured approach to implementing change.

Part of the reason for this sluggishness is cultural: the Swiss don’t like spontaneity (unless it’s planned) or doing anything on a whim. 

They believe that rushing things and making hasty decisions will have disastrous results, which is why they prefer to take a cautious — even if painstakingly slow — path.

As a general rule, the Swiss have a penchant not only for planning, but for pre-planning as well. They like to thoroughly examine each aspect of a proposed change and look at it from all possible angles.

For instance, before any major decision is made, especially one involving the use of public funds, commissions are formed to look into the feasibility of a given project. That in itself could take a while.

Sometimes, a smaller commission is created to assess the need for a bigger commission to be formed.

Whether at a federal, cantonal, or municipal level, the country is teeming with various commissions, committees, panels, and task forces, each taking its time to come up with proposals / decisions / solutions.

Even during the Covid pandemic, when quick decisions were literally a matter of life and death, Switzerland trailed behind other countries in implementing various rules, while the Federal Council carefully considered the validity (or lack thereof) of each measure.

As The Local reported at the time, “while Austria, Germany and other countries in Europe have taken proactive measures weeks ago to rein in the spread of coronavirus, Switzerland has been dragging its feet in mandating tighter rules”.

Newspaper Blick wrote of this time: “A strange serenity reigns in the political world.”

READ MORE: OPINION: Why has Switzerland been so slow in introducing new Covid measures?

Swiss Interior and Health Minister Alain Berset, wearing a protective facemask, leaves a press conference on Covid-19 in December 2022.

Swiss Interior and Health Minister Alain Berset, wearing a protective facemask, leaves a press conference on Covid-19 in December 2021. Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

The waiting game

Another reason (besides the cultural one mentioned above) contributes to Switzerland’s notorious slowness in decision-making – the country’s political system.

For instance, due to Switzerland’s decentralised form of government, the Federal Council must consult with cantons before a decision can be made at the national level.

That, as you can imagine, could take a while as each of the 26 cantons may drag their individual feet, and there could be no consensus among them.

And then there is Switzerland’s unique brand of direct democracy.

It is fair to say that this system is a double-edged sword: on one hand, it gives the people the power to make decisions that shape their lives, but on the other, it causes all kinds of delays in getting the law off the ground.

That’s because all legislation and constitutional amendments approved by the parliament must be accepted by the voters in a referendum before being enforced.

In a truly Swiss manner, the referendum dates are planned years in advance.

READ MORE: Why has Switzerland set dates for referendums up to the year 2042?

Even after the law is approved, it usually takes at least two years until it actually goes into effect.

All this can help to explain why change is slow to take hold in Switzerland, so you may as well get used to it…and get used to waiting. 

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