Buying a car in Switzerland

Ultimate Guide for Buying A Car In Switzerland

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If you had asked me a year ago if we’d ever own a Volkswagen, I would’ve said “Nope, never.” But a year ago, we never imagined we’d be living in Europe and buying a car in Switzerland one day.

It’s not that we don’t like the Volkswagen brand. In fact, I tend to think that VW makes solid, quality cars that last for years. But the thought of having a non-Toyota that was also a non-truck or SUV never entered my mind when we lived in the US. If our old 4Runner had ever died, we would’ve just bought another used 4Runner. It was the perfect vehicle for our lifestyle.

Unfortunately, we sold it when we moved to Europe, not knowing we wouldn’t be able to replace it. We didn’t realize until we started car shopping in Switzerland that pickups and SUVs are incredibly scarce because they’re expensive, get poor gas mileage, and tend to have high CO2 emissions.

We still don’t regret not shipping our 4Runner to Europe though. We’ll always miss it, but ultimately we decided it was much more practical and cheaper to find a used car that would fit our new lifestyle. If you’re considering buying a car in Switzerland, some of these tips are bound to be of interest to you.

After car shopping for six months, we finally have wheels again! Thinking of buying a car in Switzerland? We have some tips for you. Click to Tweet
Travis in his beloved Toyota 4Runer in New Mexico
A Toyota 4Runner is the perfect truck for those who want a reliable, roomy, high-clearance rig for wilderness adventures.

For us, buying a car in Switzerland means combining two vehicles in one.

In the US, we had the luxury of owning two vehicles, each for a totally different purpose.

We had the 4Runner for things like hauling kayaks, off-roading, car-pooling with friends, moving furniture, and extended road trips into wilderness areas.

Exploring off road in our 4Runner in the Jemez Mountains of New Mexico
We love exploring rugged roads like this one in the Jemez Mountains of New Mexico.

But we also had a Mazda MX5 convertible, commonly referred to as a Miata.

Super fuel-efficient, it was ideal for commuting to work. With its surprising amount of trunk space and comfy bucket seats, we loved taking it for road trips down the Oregon coast and star-gazing through Montana with the top down at night. We even took it to Yellowstone, cruising past black bears, coyotes, and one lone buffalo on the highway that passed just inches from Trav’s face.

It was just a crazy fun car to drive. I adored everything about it, from the way the engine purred like a contented cat to the shiny cherry red exterior and custom chrome, courtesy of the previous owner.

Thank you, original owner, for paying an obscene amount of money to customize this sweet, sweet Miata, only to trade it in for a Porsche. I’ll always owe you for their desperation in getting a Mazda off their lot.

Carrie's sweet cherry red Mazda MX5 convertible in Springfield, Oregon
I hope the new owner in Oregon is taking good care of my sweet Miata – and having a ton of fun!

Make a list of features you want, and adjust your expectations.

It really never occurred to us that buying a car in Switzerland wouldn’t be fun.

I mean, car shopping can be a bit of a chore, but it should be an exciting thing to buy a new car, even a used one. A car is functional and serves a purpose, but it’s still a luxury to be able to own one. It should be fun to buy – and even more, drive – whatever you decide to buy.

And before you go thinking that’s only for rich people who can afford shiny red convertibles, that’s a bunch of malarkey. We’ve never owned a new car, and we’re as thrifty when buying a used car as in everything else we do.

Consider this:

  • Both the 4Runner and Miata were about $8,000 each when we bought them.
  • I saved up to pay cash for my Miata. Why waste money on paying interest?
  • We drove both vehicles for about 10 years.
  • We got about $10,000 back when we sold them to move to Europe.

It’s entirely possible to have your dream car, even on a budget.

We just expected we would do the same when we bought a car in Switzerland: buy a quality used car we liked, pay cash up front, take good care of it, and get most of our money back a few years later when we left Switzerland and sold it.

Instead, we really had to adjust our expectations.

From the very beginning of our search, we struggled with the host of unfamiliar cars available, from brands we’ve never even heard of (What the heck is a Skoda??) to models that all look pretty much the same. Even after six months of searching, we still haven’t found a single vehicle that meets our few basic requirements:  

  • Price under 5000 CHF/USD
  • Seats four with room in the back for camping/kayaking gear
  • Fuel efficiency of at least 32 mpg, equivalent to 7 l/100 km
  • Diesel for its lower fuel cost

Of course, we’d like to enjoy driving it too and not find it an absolute eyesore, but beggars can’t be choosers.

And yes, among Switzerland’s richy rich elite, these Two Small Potatoes are pretty much beggars.

Our new, used VW car we bought in Switzerland
Travis really likes this VW Golf. With about 212,000 km (132,000 miles), it has fewer miles on it than our 4Runner when we bought it and gets 36 mpg, almost twice as good as the old truck. It’s comparable with my Miata.

Learn what’s available on the auto market in Switzerland.

This probably goes without saying, but we honestly had never really thought about it. The European automotive market is very different from that in the US.

After checking out a few new and used car dealerships and reviewing tons of used car listings on websites like Autoscout.ch and Anibis.ch, we realized it was unlikely we would get an SUV, or at least our definition of an SUV. 

What they call an SUV here is more akin to the newer station wagons back home with many resembling the Subaru Outback. More of a crossover than an American SUV, they’re smaller, lighter, tend to have AWD rather than true 4WD, and have poor clearance indicative of a car chassis, limiting their off-road ability to class 3 or 4 roads.

It makes sense, because how many people in Europe do off-roading or have the urge to drive over boulders up a dry creek bed to find the perfect camping spot?

Of course, what these crossovers lack, they make up for with better gas mileage (referred to in Switzerland as fuel efficiency), lower running costs in gas and taxes, and fewer environmental pollutants.

Most vehicles in Europe are quite small with a whole fleet of funny little “superminis” buzzing along the highways. The vast majority are also hatchback (very few sedans) and are somber, modest colors: black, grey/silver, or white.

Sorry, but it makes buying a car in Switzerland total snoozeville!

Set a budget, stick to it, and pay cash if you can!

Since we wanted to avoid paying interest, we set a budge of 5000 CHF (about the same in USD) and decided to pay cash. That quickly ruled out any of the newer crossovers with insanely good fuel consumption and low taxes.

Several of my favorites – the Mini Countryman, Nissan Quasquai, and VW Tiguan – quickly fell by the wayside since the only ones that cost less than $10k had been totaled in accidents. If you read our post about Car Shopping in Switzerland, you’ll know these cars were very likely for export only.

Next, we looked into either a Nissan X-Trail or a Land Rover Freelander. We saw tons of them for sale for less than 2500 CHF. Then we started reading reviews and discovered that both are notorious for a host of serious mechanical issues.

We also quickly ruled out every other BMW, Subaru, Ford, Chevy, Mercedes, and Jeep in our price range because of high CO2 emissions and poor fuel consumption. Our goal was at least 32 mpg, or 7 liter/100 km.

After several test drives, our final two contenders were the Toyota Rav4 and the Honda CR-V, with the CR-V edging out the Rav4 in fuel efficiency and lower emissions.

Sadly, both consistently boasted price tags hovering between 6000-7000 CHF. Too expensive.

While we could easily have gotten a loan for that amount, we wanted to pay cash for three reasons:

  • It kept us within our budget.
  • We avoided paying any interest.
  • Standard credit card fees are typically between 1% and 3.5%. Those fees are charged to the seller when a customer pays with a credit card. If you pay cash, they avoid those fees, and they often pass off some of those savings to you, the customer. When you’re making any big purchase, it’s always worth asking if they can give you a better price if you pay in cash.
Extra tires in a VW while car shopping in Switzerland
It’s standard for used cars in Switzerland to come with a set of winter tires, which are mandatory.

Accept that the ugliest car may be the best option.

That left us with perhaps the most common vehicle on Swiss roads, maybe even all of Western Europe.

The VW Golf.

I honestly hadn’t seriously considered a Golf because I couldn’t get past how blasted ugly they are.

Like, really bad Yo Mama jokes kind of ugly.

I simply can’t look at a VW Golf without imagining the glorious lime green and brown 1979 Ford LTD Country Squire from the movie National Lampoon. Poking fun at station wagons of the ’70s, it set the tone for future generations of car owners. To this day, station wagons don’t sell well in the US. Clearly I’m a product of my culture.

For the millions of VW Golf owners tooling around Europe, I can only assume that either they have the smaller 3-door hatchback model that isn’t as homely as the longer 4-door station wagon, or they sacrificed their vanity for affordability and practicality. Or perhaps they’re just European and see the aesthetics of a vehicle from a European perspective.

Either way, back in December, a friend of a friend in Fribourg raved about her VW Golf. When a car finally popped up online that met our basic criteria, we took the train to the nearby town of Wallenried to test drive it.

Travis liked it immediately and likely would have bought it that day if I’d been on board.

It wasn’t just the car’s appearance that held me up. As soon as we climbed inside, we were hit by the smell of mildew. It was a cool morning and the inside of the windshield was coated with a thick layer of condensation. Clearly the car wasn’t airtight, hence the mold spreading along the seatbelt.

Considering that the car is 14 years old, maybe I should cut it some slack.

Over a couple of weeks, my resolve wavered – though not my dislike. I simply was tired of car shopping, and we had finally found a functional car that would suit our needs.

Travis called up the seller, an auto body shop, and offered him 4300 CHF from his asking price of 5200. The seller accepted without hesitation.

I think we paid 4000 too much. Even better, he should’ve paid us to take it off his hands. It’s that ugly.

But the deal is done, and we finally have wheels again!!!

Pollo Loco, the mascot for our new VW car in Switzerland

A car needs a mascot.

This crazy chicken was intended to be Touille’s new chew toy.

Instead, Pollo Loco becomes the mascot for our new VW.

Purchase mandatory auto insurance.

Once the deal was made over the phone, we had to get car insurance before we could even drive it from the dealer’s lot.

We already have mandatory renter’s insurance through Helvetia. Since we love our agent, Benjamin Blanc, we called to tell him we were buying a car and asked how to proceed. He instructed us to email him some basic info about the car, along with our driving history.

The next day, he faxed promissory paperwork to the OCN (Office de la circulation et de la navigation), which is the official Swiss vehicle registration office. For us, our local office is in Fribourg.

The paperwork was confirmation from Helvetia that they would be insuring the car so we could complete the registration process. Without proof of insurance, you can’t register a car in Switzerland.

We also made an appointment to meet with Benjamin at our house the following week to review our options for coverage.

It still seems crazy to us that insurance agents in Switzerland make house calls!

When we met with him, we’d officially sign a vehicle insurance policy for the VW. We won’t know the exact cost until we meet with him and decide on coverage, but his estimate was about 500 CHF per year. Not cheap, but it’s in keeping with the “Rule of Halves” – everything in Switzerland costs at least twice as much as in the US.

1000 Swiss franc bills for buying a car in Switzerland
Wonder what 1000 franc bills look like? The only time we’ve ever seen them is when we withdrew cash for buying the VW.

Take care of licensing and registration.

When buying a car in Switzerland, the seller has to submit the Permis de circulation (also referred to as “the grey card,” the equivalent to the car’s title) to the OCN.

The same day that Benjamin faxed our paperwork, the seller met Travis at the OCN so Travis could register the VW in his name.

The OCN in turn issued a Permis de circulation to Travis in his name.

How much does it cost to register a car in Switzerland?

The cost of car registration differs by canton, but our total was 130 CHF. Expect to pay anywhere from 50-150 francs.

This includes the following:

  • 50 CHF for new license plates, which are mandatory when a car is sold. This is different from the US where you can usually keep and use the old plates unless the car has out-of-state plates.
  • 40 CHF for the actual registration fee.
  • 40 CHF for the mandatory automobile vignette, or sticker, that all drivers using Swiss roads are required to buy and put on their windshield. It’s something you’ll have to buy every year.

After Trav paid the fees at the OCN, he stopped at the bank to withdraw 4300 CHF in cash, caught a train to Wallenried, forked over the cash, and picked up our new car.

He pulled into our driveway with our new VW just after dark!

Travis with our new VW Golf in Switzerland

Travis holds the keys to our shiny, new-to-us, used car – a 2002 Volkswagen Golf TDI Comfort4Motion.

It’s a 6-shift manual diesel, so it offers great gas mileage (36.5 mpg or 6.4 l/100 km), but reverse and 1st gear are in the same position, which will take some adjustment.

If necessary, schedule your new car for a Mandatory Vehicle Inspection, or “MFK.”

Vehicles in Switzerland are subject to a regular inspection, which is referred to in German as the MFK (Motorfahrzeugkontrollen) or in French as the expertise.  

Typically, the MFK is required after a car’s first four years on the road, then three years later, then every two years after that.

In addition to this regular inspection, which is quite thorough, an anti-pollution test is required every two years for all diesel rigs and vehicles without catalytic converters. In the future, we’ll have these two inspections done at the same time and place.

For now, we’re set! The seller had our VW inspected shortly before we bought it, so we won’t have to worry about the next inspection until November of 2016.

When you’re buying a car, make sure to ask when the MFK was last done. It’s typical for it to be paid by the seller or for it to be current at the time of sale.

Estimate the annual passenger vehicle tax you’ll owe.

A final additional fee you’ll be required to pay in Switzerland is the annual vehicle tax. This tax is specifically based on how “green” or environmentally friendly your car is. On average, you can expect to pay between 150 and 500 CHF, though fees can be higher.

The tax both penalizes drivers who have more pollutive vehicles and rewards those with more efficient cars. The tax is owed annually and is based on a vehicle’s energy class and CO2 emissions.

Our VW Golf has an energy class of “E” and CO2 emissions of 173 grams per kilometer driven. That’s not good at all, but it’s not as bad as Land Rovers and some of the larger SUVs that fall into energy class “F” or “G” and have higher emissions.

Many of the newer SUVs here have much better energy ratings, but most are fewer than five years old and have a significantly higher purchase price.

The annual passenger vehicle tax isn’t something you pay immediately; you’ll receive a bill for it in the mail. If you want some idea how much you’ll owe ahead of time, you can use this Swiss auto tax calculator for an estimate with the information on your car registration.

If you don’t have your car registration or want to know this before buying a certain car, the easiest way to estimate your taxes is to review this cheat sheet on the OCN site. Note that this is for Fribourg canton, so the amount will vary depending on where you live. If you live in Zurich or Geneva, assume your actual taxes will be higher.

You’ll need to know the tariff class (A-G) and the kW, or power, of the car. We looked up ours with just a general online search based on our car’s make, model, and year of manufacture.

Consumer Tip: A car with an energy class of A-C is more environmentally friendly and will require a cheaper annual tax. A-class cars can cost up to 30% less in annual taxes. Electric cars and hybrids may also qualify for tax discounts.

Time to celebrate with your new wheels!

Once you finally buy a car in Switzerland, it’s time to celebrate.

So what did we do during the first day with our new car?

Kayak ornament hanging from our new, used VW car in Switzerland
Our favorite hobby is kayaking, so my mom gave us a kayak ornament for Christmas ages ago. It hung in the 4Runner for almost a decade. Now it hangs in the VW Golf, ready for adventures in Switzerland!

We didn’t head off to parts unknown or do anything touristy. Instead, we went shopping. If that doesn’t sound exciting, you might be taking your car for granted!

We spent hours at Manor perusing the discounted Christmas decorations and reveling in the realization that if we wanted to, we could buy anything in the store and easily transport it home.

We didn’t spend much, but we finally bought things like plants, ceramic pots, and candles, things that were too heavy or fragile to bother with before when we had to haul them home on the bus or train.

Our second and only other stop was to Qualipet, our favorite pet store in Fribourg. The employees, as usual, smothered Touille with attention, and we stocked up on bulk dog and cat food, litter, and some new toys.

Who wants to haul 30-lb bags of cat litter home on the train?!

Despite the time, effort, and money that went into finding our VW, buying a car in Switzerland was absolutely worth it in the end.

Hallelujah!  These Two Small Potatoes finally have wheels again!

Looking for other personal posts about expat life in Switzerland?

Know Before You Buy
  • Official website for the Swiss OCN, equivalent to the DMV in the United States (FR, DE)
  • The two websites we found most useful for car shopping online are AutoScout24 and Anibis (FR, DE, IT)
  • If you happen to be in the Fribourg area, we highly recommend Benjamin Blanc with Helvetia Insurance.
  • More info about the Annual Swiss Road Vignette (FR, DE, IT, EN)
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