13 January 2008

Cash-Based Society

Switzerland is a cash-based society.

When you open a bank account, you are not issued checks. Instead, you receive a bank card you may use to withdraw money or use as a credit card. When you pay bills, you either arrange the payment online, or you go down to the Post Office, hand them the bill and the cash and they arrange the payment for you.

Credit cards are only recently popular in Switzerland. Most of the touristy-places have accepted them for years, but it is only recently that places like the grocery stores have. And imagine our surprise, the first weekend we lived here, when we stood at the cashier's desk with close to 2,000 chf in computer electronics, only to be told that it was cash only! Fortunately there was an ATM nearby.

For the most part, living in a cash-based society works well. We have grown accustomed to using cash instead of check or credit card. And since the crime rate is so low here, having large amounts of cash rarely presents an issue.

But occasionally living in a cash-based society is a pain in the rear-end.

Take this evening, for instance.

Although we generally either pay with cash or do online bank transactions, occasionally we have United States transactions that require a check. This evening we went out to the Zürich airport to mail a very important document along with a fee that could only be paid via check. We went to the airport because the document was important enough that we wished to send it via FedEx, and the airport drop-off location is open 7 days a week from 5 am until 10 pm.

There is a counter near check-ins that handles drop-offs for several different delivery services. We told them we wished to send something to the United States via FedEx.

Swissport Employee: "Is it a document? We cannot accept packages."

Us: "Yes, it's a document."

SE, peering closely at the small stack of papers: "What is that?" She points at the check.

Us: "It's a check."

SE: "You cannot send a check. That is not allowed."

Us: "What? Of course it is allowed. We have sent checks through FedEx for years!"

She consulted with another employee in rapid Swiss German.

SE: "No, checks are not allowed. It is against regulations. You cannot send money."

We believe the problem is likely that being Swiss, she has had no experience dealing with bank checks and does not understand that it actually isn't money. It is only a document that represents money. And then only to the person who can verify to a bank that they are the individual/organization named on the check.

We finally managed to convince her to accept the document for shipment. But she wrote, in large letters, that the envelope contains a check. Which actually didn't make us happy for security reasons, but such is life. She then wrote down our telephone number in case the people who come to pick it up cannot accept checks.

After verifying that the people who come to pick it up are indeed FedEx employees, who hopefully have a better understanding of such things, we paid for the mailing charges and left.

Who has ever heard of it being against regulations to send a check through the mail???


UPDATED 14 January 2008

Just checked the tracking information online. The envelope was picked up and sent to the USA with no further problems. Obviously sending a check via FedEx is allowed, even in a cash-based society!


Expat Traveler said...

I don't know about sending out from Switzerland via check, but I never had trouble the opposite way (coming)..

I must say I was shocked when my friend told me he sent cash in an envelope all of the time to pay bills.. WHAT??? That is insane!

My Brand New Swiss Life said...

Gretchen, thanks for this post! A good head's up (simple normal check-mailing - who knew??)

Today renting basic wooden sleds at Flums, guess how much the deposit was per person per sled? 50 SF cash, plus a 10 pp rental fee. So a nice little sledding outing is gonna require 120SF in cash upfront for two people. Swiss must just always carry multiples of 100, even on the ski slopes!

Greg said...

We walked by the big post office (Sihlpost) yesterday at Zurich's main train station last night. I was surprised to see that it was still open. Apparently it's open until 10PM or so on a Saturday night. Might be an option for you in the future.

Global Librarian said...

We've tried the regular post office in the past. Problem with that is that even when you pay the huge sum for express delivery service and tracking, it doesn't actually work.


The Swiss Post can only guarantee they will deliver the envelope to the US Postal Service and it only tracks it to the main post office in NYC. After that, it is however long it takes with regular US mail. No more express delivery. No more tracking to verify the envelope arrives.

For the guaranteed express delivery and tracking all the way to the recipient's door you have to go with one of the international services (FedEx, UPS, DHL, etc.)

Learned this the hard way when we had to get a document to the US as quickly as possible. Paid for 2-day express service. It arrived in New York in 2 days. Took an additional 5 days to get to its destination. With us calling daily to ask if it had arrived yet...

Oddly enough, sending express from a US Post office to Switzerland generally works well. Although I suspect that has more to do with USPS getting it to the Swiss Post office and then Swiss efficiency taking it from there!

Our best bet may be to go the FedEx office in Glattbrugg during their office hours instead!

Marcy said...

It only took a few months after moving here for me go without hardly any cash on me ever (in the US) to living up to the "You know you've lived in Geneva too long when..." cliche of feeling broke if I have less than a few hundred francs in my wallet at any time. I do think part of the Swiss aversion to checks is that they're not secure enough for transactions (can be forged easily, and have your bank account number written right on them).

I was shocked to find that the machines we use at UBS actually charge us 50 cents for every bill we pay through them... what the heck else are we supposed to do??? Oh well.

Kirk said...

I always liked that you could buy something like a 2 CHF candy bar, and no one would bat an eye if you paid with a 200 CHF bill.

It was also culture shock to come back here and see how far electronic payments had come in our three years away...when I go out for bagels and coffee, everyone uses their credit/debit cards for $1-$2 transactions, whereas it used to be strange to use cards for anything under $5-$10.

The Big Finn said...

I also had to adjust to using mostly cash when we moved here. Then, about two or three years ago, I noticed that grocery stores began accepting credit cards. I upgraded our UBS credit card, and now I use our card for most purchases so that I can maximize my earnings of UBS Key Club points.
Free wine at Mövenpick Weinkeller! Yippeeeeee!

jessica said...

i find this kind of odd, since i never use cash here. i use my postcard for everything. today i used it for like .97 cents to buy a coke. i also use it for paying the 3 bucks to get out of the parking lot, and to pay for shipping mail. Do you have a postcard?

Global Librarian said...

We didn't go with the Post card. We decided to get a bank debit card (which is taken most places) and use cash for when it isn't.

We've grown quite accustomed to it. Enough so that when we are in the US the people we are with are extremely surprised when we start pulling out the cash, even for large purchases.

Kind of like it, in fact. When I am using a card I don't have a great sense of how much money I am spending. But when I use cash, I am extremely aware of it. Helps me keep within budget.