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January 10, 2019

Switzerland: Stein am Rhein and the Swiss-German Border

Stein am Rhein

The Rhine River and its connected large lakes loosely define the border between Switzerland and Germany. The border here matters for trade. Unlike much of Europe, the countries of Switzerland and Liechtenstein are not part of the Eurozone. Though Switzerland is a signatory to the Schengen Agreement meaning travelers can pass freely across the border without immigration checks, goods don’t pass without import/export restrictions and tariffs.

History and modern agreements have created some peculiarities in the Swiss-German border configuration. One of the quirkiest of the border quirks is the German exclave of Büsingen am Hochrhein (“Buesingen on the High Rhine”). This small three square mile German township on the northern bank of the Rhine is entirely surrounded by Swiss territory. This exclave remained German after World War I despite 96% of Büsingen’s voters voting to join Switzerland. The will of the people did not matter and Büsingen stayed part of Germany.

The German commune of Büsingen am Hochrhein (the red bordered area) is surrounded by Switzerland.

A Swiss-German border checkpoint

Europe has several other places like this where history has left one countries territory landlocked inside another. In most of these cases the consequences are minor; both countries are in the Eurozone and the trading rules are similar. But Switzerland is not part of the Eurozone. And thus the German city of Büsingen is treated differently. Unlike the usual situation between Germany and Switzerland there are no customs stations at Büsingen’s German-Swiss territorial borders. Here trucks carrying goods travel barrier-free between Switzerland and Germany.

Being in the Swiss economic zone benefits the residents as Büsingen applies the lower Swiss 7.7% value added tax (VAT) rate rather than Germany’s 19%. The tax advantages make the area popular with German retirees.

With Büsingen’s peculiar geographic arrangement there are complications. The Euro is the official currency in Büsingen. Nevertheless much of the economy functions on the Swiss Franc, as many of the residents work in Switzerland and are paid in Francs. Letters can be sent to Büsingen using either a Swiss or German postal code (CH-8238 or D-78266). The police duties are divided between the Swiss and the Germans. Residents have the option of taking out health insurance in either Switzerland or Germany. There’s also a choice of sending your children to a secondary school in either Germany or Switzerland.

Swiss border patrol on the Rhine in Stein am Rhein: Both sides of the Rhine River here are in Switzerland.

I imagine that the border arrangements could be initially confusing for someone moving to Büsingen. But the choices clearly are advantageous to the residents.

Another advantage for those living in the area is the weather. On the German standard, the climate is temperate in this area of the country. Indeed the Rhine River Valley at the border of Switzerland and Germany has numerous fruit and vegetable farms.

Dotting the landscape among the vegetable farms are classic Germanic towns. Historically fishing and river transport were the regions source of money. The towns along the Rhine grew up around these economies.

Today there is no significant goods transport on this section of the Rhine and large quantities of fish are better obtained elsewhere. The changes have left behind numerous old towns sequestered from modernization. Passing through the area by car we stayed at one of the picturesque villages in the area, Stein am Rhein.

Stein am Rhein

Stein am Rhein sits on both sides of the Rhine.

Stein am Rhein, as the name suggests, sits on the banks of the Rhine River. The center of the old town is a postcard-worthy collection of half-timbered buildings many with intricately painted facades. It is the home to a number of buildings that are listed as heritage sites of national significance by the Swiss Federal Council. Stein Am Rhein is striking, but we couldn’t help but think that many of the other towns in the region must also be appealing.

The municipality of Stein am Rhein sits in one of the places where the border alignment between Switzerland and Germany is unusual. Here there is a ten-kilometer wide polyp of Swiss land protruding north of the Rhine into what is usually the German territorial side of the river. Logically Stein am Rhein would be in Germany but countries’ borders, here and elsewhere, don’t always follow the plan laid out by natural barriers. Undoubtedly there are historical reasons for this border quirk but in modern times they are obvious.

Nevertheless, with the advent of Schengen, the lines between the countries in Europe are blurred. For travelers borders seem pointless and inconsequential. Stein am Rhein appears Germanic. It is not easily identifiable as particularly Swiss or German.

Stein am Rhein

There is one way that quirky border alignments cause confusion to travelers. Cells phones in this area of the world struggle to decide what country they are in. Our phone provider was constantly sending us text message updates telling us that we’ve just entered Germany or Switzerland and giving us the relevant roaming rates. Sometimes when we hugged the border there was a continual stream of messages as the anxious phone alternately picked up signals from towers in Germany and Switzerland. Though the border details are inconsequential to us, they weren’t to our very confused cell phone.


Painted facades in Stein am Rhein

We visited this area of Germany and Switzerland in late May of 2018.

On the way to Stein am Rhein we stopped briefly to see Reichenau Island. UNESCO inscribed the “Monastic Island of Reichenau” on its list of World Heritage sites in 2000.

One of the old churches on Reichenau Island

St. George slaying the dragon is a common motif throughout Europe.

1 Comment »

  1. […] the process of looking for a place to stay in Switzerland somewhere between Stein am Rhein and La Chaux-de-Fonds a room at the resort hotel on the Bürgenstock ridge popped up in a […]

    Pingback by Switzerland: Bürgenstock | Another Header — January 11, 2019 @ 8:27 pm

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