Meeting people in Switzerland
Feedback by Maxwell Forbes, 2011-12 exchange to ETH; Updated by Brendan Redmond, 2015-16 exchange to ETH.
Meeting non-Swiss people - Staying in the WOKO residence at Meierwiesenstrasse 62 was a fantastic way to meet tones of exchange students. There were people from all nationalities, and having a common kitchen / dining room / living area forced people out in the same area and helped us get to know each other. Though the accommodations weren’t as nice as some other WOKO houses (downside = 170 people / 1 kitchen), the amount of people I got to meet because of living at Meierwiesenstrasse was invaluable.
Meeting Swiss people - I’m actually typing this right now at my best friend’s home in Bern. Being able to meet Swiss people and go to their houses was my very favorite part of being here, and I’m extremely fortunate that Sara Pfenninger (the ETH student who did an exchange at my school, the UW, the year previously) was so open in introducing me to many of her friends here, and inviting me to come along with them on everything from dinners to trips to the Swiss Alps and beyond.
General Tips on Living in Zurich
Feedback from Alexis Cheng, 2008-09 exchange; updated by Jake Shoudy, 2013-14, and Brendan Redmond, 2015-16.
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Living (food, cellphone, etc.)
Place to Live - WOKO, the housing that ETH coordinates for you, is really going to be cheapest that you can find. Bulachhof is in Zurich proper, while Dietikon is a 15 minute train ride to the city. As the trains stop at midnight, you should try to stay at Bulachhof if you want to stay out past midnight regularly. There are many opportunities to socialize here, so you will probably want to stay out past midnight. On the other hand, because Dietikon only has one kitchen per floor, you are more likely to meet people in Dietikon, and people in Dietikon usually end up organizing group dinners regularly simply out of convenience.
Another option is Culmannstrasse. It is also in Zurich proper and less than a 5 minute walk from the CS building and extremely close to the city. 60 people live in Culmannstrasse, 20 of which are exchange students and 40 who are full time ETH students. Everyone has their own room and there is one big shared kitchen and common area. Culmannstrasse is great for being social and getting to know both other exchange students (who are usually extremely willing to travel) and more local students.
Residency Permit - You are told that residence permit will be available in 2-4 months, although most people I know got it within 3 to 5 weeks. The permit costs 100 CHF for all visiting students. You will receive an L permit, which means you cannot work (at least, that is the case currently). With this permit, you can travel in and out of Switzerland. It's like a temporary green card for Switzerland.
If you wish to travel before getting the residence permit, you can pay 45 CHF for a temporary re-entry visa about a week after you have turned in the documents for the residence permit. Your documents will arrive at the bureau then, and you can go to the immigration office (near Bulachhof) to get this visa. The one person I know who did this received a multiple entry visa, but he was only staying for 4 months, in which case he might never get his residence permit before he leaves.
Internet Connection - The housing and ETH both provide free internet connections. I've found ETH's to be more reliable. ETH also has an agreement with most (if not all) of the major mobile internet providers in Switzerland, so that once you set up VPN, you can also connect to any of these companies' various internet hotspots.
Insurance - Insurance is compulsory here. I tried asking my insurance provider (not UW) to sign a form A, but they have never even heard of the form. If you go to comparis.ch, you will be able to compare most of the insurance plans. However, they are still expensive. The two cheapest I have heard of are CSS and swisscare.ch. CSS is the one recommended by ETH, and they have an office in Zurich. You will have to call ahead and make an appointment if you to choose to go with this plan. SwissCare is much simpler. You simply go on the website and select "Student Plan" and "ESI Switzerland". Both cost about 80 CHF per month. I don't know how reliable or easy it is to claim at SwissCare, but as my insurance from the US actually includes international coverage, that wasn't a big concern for me.
Grocery Shopping - There are two main grocery shops in Zurich, Coop (spelled as "cope") and Migros. They're quite literally everywhere. Coop is the more expensive one, and Migros is the one everybody likes to shop at because it is cheaper, especially if you buy Migros brand products. If you buy Migros brand products, though, you have to read the labels (which do not come in English) as many products look the same (such as milk, apple juice, and orange juice).
Migros does not sell alcohol at all. (Though, the company does sell electronics, cellphones, stationary, gas, sports equipment, rent out cars, has a chain restaurant and also has a bank, Migros Bank.) Go to Coop for inexpensive alcohol.
I found Migros to be more expensive than Coop. I always shopped at Denner, which was always cheaper than both of those.
Shopping Bags - The grocery stores provide free plastic bags, but they are small, flimsy, and hurt your hands. Some stores, including Denner, sell paper bags for around -.25 a piece. So bring your own shopping bag if you have them at home, use your backpack for grocery shopping, or pay 2.- and get a large Migros shopping tote.
Garbage - Switzerland is very green and garbage is separated into paper, plastic, glass, aluminum, and trash. Trash has to be taken out in special white bags (“Zuri-Sacks”) or the garbage collectors will not collect them. You buy the grey bags at the supermarket by asking the cashier for garbage bags. They come in packs of 10 35L bags, and cost about 20.- per pack.
Note that at most of the WOKO residences, you won’t need to buy Zuri-Sacks.
Cellphone - Which cellphone you get really depends on what your friends have. While I'm here, most of my friends have Yallo, which is an extremely inexpensive prepaid cellphone plan. A cellphone with sim card and 5.- F credit cost me 29.- at the MobileZone, and costs 49.- at the post office. The post office is the most convenient place to get it, if you're in a hurry, but MobileZone is also extremely easy to get to; it's about 2 blocks away from the Zurich Hauptbahnhof (the central train station in Zurich). Sometimes, there are advertisements in Blick (a free newspaper) for a 2 for 50.- deal and other deals for Yallo.
If you have an AT&T phone, you can ask AT&T to unlock it for you so you can use it in Switzerland by just buying a simcard. This is cheaper than having a new phone.
When you have a phone, either memorize your pin or never turn your phone off. The phone will ask you for the pin for the sim card every time it you turn it on. Also, beware calling numbers on ads or of companies, as many of them charge about 1 CHF per minute.
As of 2014, the two main phone companies were Sunrise and Orange. Both offered 1 year contracts but you could also do a pay as you go option where you just refill your phone with money at the post office when needed and you only pay for what you use. Both companies worked great in Switzerland but there are international fees if traveling outside of the country.
As of 2016: most people’s phones are unlocked by default now. I stayed for one semester so I never looked at longer term contracts. I bought a disposable SIM card instead. In Switzerland (and many EU countries I believe), disposable SIM card vendors require you to fill out forms with personal information (be sure to bring your passport). I went with LycaMobile. I bought 1 or 2 GB data packs every month (1 GB was around 7.- and 2 GB was around 10.-), and that was enough for normal internet usage and all communication (basically everyone I met communicated via WhatsApp, it’s much cheaper than SMS and cell phone calls).
Getting Your Stipend - After you meet with the foreign exchange advisor at ETH (she will send you an email and setup a time within the first few days of intensive language courses, if you are taking them, or regular courses if you're not), you will get a student ID. You can get your stipend at the start of each month with your student ID. But you cannot get it before you receive your student ID from your advisor.
The stipend is paid monthly, in cash at the cash desk in HG (the main building).
How Much Money to Bring - When you first arrive at Zurich, you will have to pay for your housing right away (about 1000.-), most likely BEFORE you get your stipend. You will also need to take some public transportation to get to where you live (this depends on where you live, but about 10.-) and probably do some grocery shopping right away (about 50.- to 100.-). To save money, it'll probably also be good to buy the train passes (explained in transportation section) right away (about 250.-). In short, be prepared to spend $1500 to $2000 within the first few days of arrival and before you receive your stipend.
Exchanging Money at the Airport - Do NOT exchange money at the Travelex. Their rates are terrible. Right outside the luggage claim area (past the point of no return), there are other banks. I changed mine at the Credit Suisse counter and the rate was okay. Make sure you look up the exchange rate before going to Switzerland so you have an idea of what it should be.
Exchanging/Withdrawing Money in General - I've had a really good experience withdrawing from my US bank account from the ATMs around the city. The exchange rates are very good and either my bank or the Swiss bank actually swallowed the charges. (I did a large transaction for my initial housing deposit and payment.) However, typically, credit card companies will charge you about 3% for any foreign transaction. Besides, the stipend is more than enough for your monthly living costs and a fair amount of traveling, so there is no need to withdraw more money.
I also could withdraw money from my US debit card from almost any ATM in Switzerland and in Europe. I was charged a $5 fee for every withdrawal and 1% on top of that so it was not terrible but not ideal. For this reason it is better to take out larger withdrawals than many small ones if you do not intend on opening a swiss bank account. I also got an international credit card that had no international charges on payments (but it did on withdrawals). This was a huge money saver and I would highly suggest talking to your bank before leaving for Switzerland to see if they have any similar options.
Opening a Bank Account - For an easy bank account, you can go to the post office and get a post account. It is free, easy, and only requires your passport. Many banks do not like opening accounts for American citizens. If you want a bank account from a major bank, you will have to go to one of the bigger branches in Zurich city.
I actually opened a bank account for Credit Swiss. Because of the American government's policies, we cannot open student accounts. This means that if you choose to open an account there, you will have to pay 6 CHF for it a month. Make sure you go to one of the locations in Zurich city, as the banks outside of Zurich seem unable to open accounts for foreigners. Also, make sure you ask for documents in English when you open your account, or you will get all documents in German.
Having a bank account is very convenient, as you can pay for your rent, insurance (if you buy a policy here), and any ESN activity online instead of going to the Post office and waiting in line every time you need to pay for something.
I tried opening a bank account at a UBS branch near my dorm, and was told that they could only open bank accounts for Americans at the main branch in the center of town. Some other American students said that it was a hassle to open a bank account, and that I might have trouble because I was only going to be there 6 months. So I just didn’t open a bank account, and I kept my stipend in my room. The stipend was enough to cover all my living expenses and travel, so I didn’t end up having to deal with foreign transactions or ATM fees.
Short Intro of Tickets - Transportation in Zurich is slightly confusing. In short, you buy tickets for a zone (or multiple zones) and for a certain amount of time. At the machine, you would enter the code for the area you're traveling to, and it would give you the amount needed for a normal, 2nd class, one-way ticket (valid for 1 hr). The 1st class button makes your fare first class (which means you can get on the first class cars, but the 2nd class cars are plenty nice). The button with the arrows make your ticket roundtrip (valid for 24 hours). And the button with "1/2" written on it makes the ticket half-price, for if you have bought a half-fare card (more explained below).
For example, to travel within Zurich proper for a whole day, you would buy a round trip ticket for zone 10, which would allow you to take the train, tram, bus, and polybahn within zone 10 (Zurich proper) for 24 hours. If you live in Dietikon (like I do), then you'd buy a roundtrip from Dietikon to Zurich, which allows you all the above, as well as taking trains to Zurich from Dietikon and to Dietikon from Zurich for 24 hours.
You can also buy a yearly tram pass that costs ~500 chf or a monthly tram pass that costs ~60 chf. This is a huge money saver if you are catching and paying for the tram every day. However, if you live close enough to school that you do not need to catch the tram every day it is not worth it. I lived in Culmannstrasse and I caught the tram on average about once per week.
If you are caught without a ticket or without the right ticket, you are fined 80.- the first time, and more each additional time (they take down your information).
Also, night trains (special trains which are usually after midnight and written in yellow on the timetables and on the timetable signs in the station) cost an extra 5.-, and you can be fined (the amount above) if you don't have the proper ticket.
Getting to WOKO - From Zurich HB (Hauptbahnhof), take the tram 6 or 7 and get off at the stop before ETH and then walk up the hill on the street until you hit the building.
Getting to ETH - From Zurich HB, you can take the tram 6 or 10 to get to ETH. Or you can walk to the Polybahn station in Central which goes straight up the hill to behind the ETH building, and this is probably faster.
Half-fare card - A half-fare card costs about 185.- for a year and requires your passport and a passport photo (you can bring one or take one at the available photobooth for 8.- for 4 copies). This allows you to buy all public transportation fare within Switzerland for half the normal price. If you plan to travel at all, this card pays itself back very quickly.
Gleis Sieben card - The G7 card costs about 130.- for a year and allows you to travel on the trains only (2nd class) for free after 7pm. However, this does not include the night trains (as explained above). You will still have to pay the 5.- extra for the night trains.
Monthly pass - Monthly passes are great. For youths, it is about 80 CHF a month for 2 zones (if you live in Dietikon) and aobut 50 CHF for one zone, if you live in Zurich. As with any other Swiss train passes, monthly passes can start on any day of the week, so you might as well get one as soon as you can.
Traveling - With the half fare and the G7 cards, you can travel for fairly cheap. The sbb.ch is a great site. You can also get click&rail tickets for very cheap (online, for travel with Switzerland and Europe), though they only seem to sell last minute tickets. Another thing to look into is ryanair. They have very cheap flights from Basel, which is a city about one hour away from Zurich by train.
Easyjet also flies out of Basel and is a great budget airline, just make sure you follow the baggage restrictions and bring your boarding pass to avoid extra fees. Another great option is Meinfernbus. It is a giant bus that goes to many places in Germany and is very cheap. I went to Munich twice for ~20 euros and to several other places in Germany. The bus goes all the way to Berlin and father but in my opinion the bus is a little too uncomfortable for such a long ride.
Germany: If you travel to Germany, it is best to travel in groups of 5. There is a Schoenes Wocheende card for up to 5 people which allows you to travel on any of the local trains (everything except IC and ICE trains) for 37 euros for one day. The Shoenes Wocheende only works on the weekend. In Muenich, you can also buy day passes for the subway for groups of 5. In addition, you can buy a Bayern Regional pass for 5 people for 25 euros, and it includes the bus up to the ticket center for the Hohenschwangau and the Nueschwanstein (Disney) castles. I suspect that many places in Germany are like this.
More on travel cards:
Note that sometimes the halftax gives you less than 50% off because some routes have minimum fares (you’ll only see this on cheap short distance tickets like for a tram). Despite that, the halftax saved me SO MUCH money, even though I was only there 6 months and not the whole year it was valid. Granted, I did do a lot of travel in Switzerland, but I broke even in about a month or two.
If you plan on doing day trips more than an hour from Zurich, get the Gleis Sieben card and plan on returning after 7pm. You’ll break even very quickly. I only did day trips in Switzerland because I had my room to return to (hostels can get quite expensive), and I could return at night for free.
You can also get SuperSaver tickets, which cost 50% of a normal ticket if available (this can even be combined with a halftax card). The catch is that you must ride the trains at the exact times you picked (full tickets can be used on any route for the day you picked), and there are no refunds. These tickets become available around a week before departure (and I’ve never seen them run out, even buying tickets at night like 8 hours before the train is supposed to leave in the morning).
Let’s say you want to go to Zermatt to see the Matterhorn and do some hiking. This is probably the most expensive trip you could do in Switzerland. I just did a quick search:
Round trip ticket: 246.-.
With SuperSaver: 123.- (but you better make the right trains, which is fine on the way out in the morning, but slightly problematic on the return because you limit the flexibility of your day)
With Halftax: 61.5.-
With Gleis Sieben: 30.75
One of the other benefits of these cards is if you buy them early, you’ll be much more likely to travel because you won’t be worrying so much about the cost.
Hiking - There are many trails and hikes you can do here. You can see the Glaciers and go all the way up the Alps. So definitely bring your hiking gear if you like to do that kind of stuff. Even if you're not a hiking-enthusiast, it's worth it to go up to the Alps a couple of times and just see the scenery there (when it's not foggy/cloudy/rainy).
In my opinion the best part about Switzerland is the nature. If you do a lot of traveling in Europe, you will (or at least I did) get a little sick of cities. While they each have awesome parts about them, big cities are often overcrowded and full of tourists. There are countless breathtaking hikes throughout Switzerland and you will notice that it is a very local thing to do on the weekends! Take advantage of it while you can. I did many day trips within an hour or two train ride
My favorite hikes:
Shilthorn. If you are expecting a sunny clear day, go to Lauterbrunnen, and hike any part of the hike up to the top of Shilthorn. I started in the valley and hiked to the top. Took about 6-7 hours to go up. But you can make it as short as you want because there are cable cars and trams along the way (this struck me as very odd, coming from the more untouched mountains in WA, but it seems very typical in Switzerland for mountains to have cable cars to the top). This was the most amazing hike I have ever done. Explore the valley a bit too if you can. There are waterfalls everywhere.
Santis. Very fun hike that is very steep and slightly precarious (there are cables to hold in the more dangerous parts).
Mt Rigi. Very close to Zurich. The mountain has 4 lakes around it.
Skiing / Snowboarding - Skiing is a must. There is a Migros SportXX in Brunaupark in Zurich where you can rent ski equipment for the season. You can take tram 13 to get there. I was told that skiis cost about 110 to 200 franks to rent for the season (starting in mid-October and ending in April).
Daytrips - There are also other great day trips you can make, often to visit other cities. Plan to leave in the morning, and come back after 7... And either bring lunch or plan to spend about 15.- to 20.- on a meal there. Although, it does seem that after a couple of cities, they all seem the same, but still, it's good to visit and to see the museums. Most cities have certain days when many museums are free. Or, if you don't really have a plan, the tourist information desks at each city are very helpful and they have free maps and can make a daytrip-tour for you if you ask them.
Parcel Mailing - If you want to have things mailed to you, especially electronics, you should take it out of its original packaging, so that it looks somewhat used. Otherwise, you will get charged quite heavily for taxes. Furthermore, you should state on the parcel that you are a student (i.e. write "Jane Doe, student of ETH" instead of just "Jane Doe"), as then you will only have to pay about 2/3 of what you would otherwise have to pay.
Floors - Buildings can have either numbers or letters to denote floors. There is typically a ground floor that is the floor where you enter the building. What they call "1st floor" is one floor above that, our 2nd floor, and so on.
Some buildings have letters to denote the floor. The floor you enter is "E", for entrance (or Eingang, I imagine). The next floor up is F, and so forth. But they usually skip the letters "I" and "O". (I haven't been in a building tall enough to have use "U".) So the first basement is level D, then C, B, A, Z, Y... etc.
Shopping - Shopping here is expensive. Don't plan on doing it. And by shopping, I'm including food, clothes, electronics, and basically everything. Decent cheese and bread is cheap. So is bottled water. But that's about it. Meat is terribly expensive.
It was fairly common (at least among the exchange students in Culmannstrasse) to make trips to the German border just to go grocery shopping. The meat is less than half the price and you can use your gleis7 to catch the ~1 hour train for free. If you plan on eating heartily or you are preparing for a bbq, taking the train to either Waldshut or Konstanz is a frugal option.
Computer Usage - For your personal laptop, buy an adaptor. You can get a universal one in the US for about $20. That is much more convenient than getting it here. In case you forgot, though, you can always go to the Migros Electronics store on Lowenstrasse (parallel to Bahnhofstrasse) and get a converter.
You can access computers in most of the labs. (I haven't found one yet where I was denied access.) I've used the one in the main ETH building (which has printing on recycled paper) as well as a couple in the IFW building, one of the computer science buildings (on floors D and C). There are also many computers in the CAB, which is the Chemistry Lab building, but also part of the Computer Science department.
Fax - There is a fax machine in the information room of the RZ building, the computer science building that is connected to IFW through a sky bridge of sorts. Dial 0 to dial out. So if the number starts with 026 ..., then you will dial 0026...