About Switzerland

swiss guide

Switzerland, officially the Swiss Confederation, is a nation of 7.5 million people in Europe with an area of 41,285 km². Switzerland is split administratively into 26 cantons, 6 of which are sometimes referred to as "half cantons," since they stemmed from the split of 3 cantons and have as a consequence only a single representative in the Council of States. Its capital is Berne, the largest city in Switzerland is Zürich (which was named the city with the best quality of life in the world in 2006 and 2007.

Switzerland is bordered by Germany, France, Italy, Austria and the tiny principality of Liechtenstein. Switzerland is multilingual, with four official languages: German, French, Italian and the lesser-known Romansh also called Rhaeto-Romanic, Romansch, Romancio or Rumantsch Grischun. Switzerland has had a long history of being neutral during war and peace-time (it has not been in a foreign war since 1815) and as such hosts various international organisations, such as the United Nations, which, though headquartered in New York City, has many departments in Switzerland.

The titles commonly used to name Switzerland in French (Confédération suisse), Italian (Confederazione Svizzera) and Romansh (Confederaziun svizra) translate as "Swiss Confederation". 

Schweizerische Eidgenossenschaft is the German term and appears on official documents. Its Latin name "Confœderatio Helvetica" (Helvetic Confederation) and its country code "ch" for internet and car-stickers are related to the Helvetii, an ancient Celtic people who inhabited the Alps. It dates its independence to 1st August 1291; historically it was a confederation, and it has been a federation since 1848. 1st August is a national holiday on which banks and Post Offices as well as the public administration offices are closed.


Swiss citizens are subject to three legal jurisdictions: the commune, canton and federal levels. The 1848 federal constitution defines a system of direct democracy (sometimes called half-direct democracy since it is complemented by the more commonplace institutions of a parliamentary democracy.) The instruments of Swiss direct democracy at the federal level, known as civil rights (droits civiques, Volksrechte), include the right to submit a constitutional initiative and a referendum, both of which may overturn parliamentary decisions.

By calling a federal referendum a group of citizens may challenge a law that has been passed by Parliament, if they can gather 50,000 signatures against the law within 100 days. If so, a national vote is scheduled where voters decide by a simple majority whether to accept or reject the law. Eight cantons together can also call a referendum on a federal law.

Similarly, the federal constitutional initiative allows citizens to put a constitutional amendment to a national vote, if they can get 100,000 voters to sign the proposed amendment within 18 months. Parliament can complement the proposed amendment with a counter-proposal, with voters having to indicate a preference on the ballot in case both proposals are accepted. Constitutional amendments, whether introduced by initiative or in Parliament, must be accepted by a double majority of both the national popular vote and a majority of the cantonal popular votes.

Languages in Switzerland

Their populations vary between 15,001 (Appenzell Innerrhoden) and 1,253,500 (Zürich), and their area between 37 km² (Basel-Stadt) and 7,105 km² (Graubünden). The Cantons comprise a total of 2,889 municipalities. Within Switzerland there are two enclaves: Büsingen belongs to Germany, Campione d'Italia belongs to Italy.

In a referendum held in the Austrian state of Vorarlberg on 11 May 1919 over 80% of those voting supported a proposal that the state should join the Swiss Confederation. However, this was prevented by the opposition of the Austrian Government, the Allies, Swiss liberals, the Swiss-Italians (persons of Swiss nationality who live in Italian Switzerland – see map) and the Romands

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