Can I travel to Switzerland? Are the airports open? Can I drive to my holiday home? Here’s an overview of the latest border situation in the small Alpine nation.
Owing to the positive evolution of the coronavirus in Switzerland, many of the unprecedented lockdown measures have been relaxed, including the easing of some border restrictions.
As part of further easing, on May 27 the Federal Council (executive body) announced that it aims to restore free movement of people with other European Schengen zone member countries by July 6. Swiss Justice Minister Karin Keller-Sutter said it is not yet possible to allow travel from outside the Schengen zone.
The government also reaffirmed plans with France, Germany and Austria to lift all travel restrictions among the four countries on June 15. But it has told southern neighbour Italy that lifting border controls from June 3, a decision announced by Italy, is prematureexternal link. Currently only cross-border workers can cross into Switzerland from Italy.
In an earlier move, on May 15, the borders between Switzerland, Germany and Austria opened again just for unmarried couples, and for those wishing to visit relatives or attend important family events. The rules do not yet apply to France or Italy. Those wishing to make use of the new rules must complete a self-declaration form and present it at the border. The form can be downloaded from the websites of the respective ministries and printed out. Further details are in the statementexternal link.
Previously only couples who were married, in registered partnerships or who had children together were allowed to travel to see each other under restrictions imposed in March due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Swiss authorities have been processing the backlog of applications made by non-Swiss citizens to work or rejoin family in Switzerland since May 11. From this date, business executives could also enter Switzerland for very important business meetings or the signing of contracts that cannot be re-scheduled.
However, the resumption of international railway links, student exchange programmes or cross-border shopping trips will have to wait for the next phase in the Swiss government's Covid-19 exit strategy.
Further efforts to relax border restrictions may come into play after June 8 but for the moment border controls remain in place.
Switzerland’s frontiers have been closed and strictly controlled since March 13, when the government limited land border crossings from Italy to curb the spread of the virus. Restrictions on entry by land and by air were later extended to all Schengen and non-Schengen states.
Despite the announced relaxations, the existing strict rules prevail: only Swiss citizens, Swiss resident permit-holders, those entering the country for professional reasons (e.g., those who work here and have a permit to prove it), essential health workers, those transiting through or “in a situation of absolute necessity”, can currently enter the country.external link These measures have been in place since March 25.
+ Over 50,000 denied entry to Switzerland since borders tightened
Cross-border traffic, which was down by 70% compared to pre-crisis levels, has picked up since April 27 when some easing measures were introduced.
Vehicles continue to be channelled through the largest customs postsexternal link for checks, while some 130 other border crossing points across Switzerland are closed. But some other checkpoints have been re-opened recently to facilitate cross-border traffic.
In canton Geneva, which accounts for around 100,000 workers from neighbouring France, cross-border activity has continued and increased as businesses have restarted. Seventeen border posts are currently open or partially open to let people drive to work.
But traffic has been intense, with drivers having to wait up to one hour to cross the French-Swiss border, according to customs administration spokesperson Donatella Del Vecchio.
Meanwhile, Switzerland’s main airports – Zurich and Geneva – have been at a standstill.
At Geneva airport, the main terminal’s lights are on but there is literally no one present. Around 30 SWISS and Easyjet planes sit idle on the tarmac. In April and May, there have been roughly eight flight movements (departures and arrivals) a day, mostly SWISS, Lufthansa and Alitalia flights to destinations such as Frankfurt, London, Rome, Lisbon and Amsterdam.
“We count around 50-300 passengers a day, compared to 40,000-60,000 normally,” Geneva airport Director André Schneider told the Le Temps newspaper. Meanwhile, air freight was reportedly down by 62% in April compared to the same month last year.
Zurich Airport traffic has also been severely reduced by the virus to around 25 flight movements a day in April.
The airport saidexternal link 26,913 passengers had passed through the airport in April, or a decrease of 99% compared to the same month last year. The last time passenger numbers were this low was in 1952, four years after the airport opened.
A handful of airlines continue to guarantee flights to destinations such as Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Porto, London, Berlin, Abu Dhabi, Doha and Newark in the US.
However, the flight situation in Europe looks set to slowly change soon (see below).
Summer holidays abroad?
“Whenever you say easing, everyone thinks of summer holidays abroad,” the justice minister, Keller-Sutter, declared on April 30. “But the question is, can you get into another country?”
After extreme caution, European countries are slowly opening up. On May 13, the European Union pushed for a gradual reopening of borders within the bloc, saying it was not too late to salvage some of the summer tourist season while keeping people safe.
This followed agreement between European ministers of justice and home affairs, including Keller-Sutter, to a coordinated step-by-step lifting of travel restrictions between Schengen states while reaffirming the priority of protecting citizens against the virus.
“Initially, the progressive reopening of Europe’s internal frontiers must take place. Only after that will a step-by-step reopening of the Schengen external borders be possible to allow the entry of people from third states,” the Swiss justice ministry said in a statementexternal link.
The flight situation in Europe looks set to slowly improve. Zurich Airport said on May 28external link that airlines such as Swiss International Air Lines (SWISS) and Edelweiss Air plan to restore a substantial part of their services in the next few weeks to offer over 350 flights from Zurich and Geneva to some 70 European destinations. Easyjet external linkhas also announced that it plans flights between Geneva and Lisbon, Porto, Nice, Bordeaux, Nantes and Brindisi from June 15. No Easyjet flights are planned out of Basel-Mulhouse airport for the moment.
Andreas Wittmer, head of the Center for Aviation Competence at the University of St. Gallen, predicts European air traffic to slowly pick up in the second half of the year. By contrast, it is likely to be 2021 before the long-haul networks are up and running again, and it will then take several months to years before the entire network is reactivated, depending on how demand recovers and develops, he told the Tages-Anzeiger newspaper.
Keller-Sutter continues to advise Swiss citizens to “stay in the country for their holidays”. In this way we can contribute to helping the national tourism economy recover, she says. Traditionally, three-quarters of Swiss residents take their holidays in a European country over the summer.
Links to further sources on travelling to and staying in Switzerland
The State Secretariat for Migrationexternal link: updated information on the situation at the Swiss borders, with a helpline to answer questions about refusal of entry into Switzerland and the exceptions.
The Swiss foreign ministryexternal link: information in French, German and Italian about the situation regarding foreign travel and the steps to be followed by Swiss citizens going abroad
The Federal Office for Public Health (FOPH)external link: live updates of the national situation, as well as recommendations, public safety measures, and details of upcoming announcements.