Is it legal for Swiss restaurants to charge for tap water?

It is a common practice among restaurants in Switzerland to charge a fee for a carafe of water brought to a table. But sometimes its price is hard to swallow.

Is it legal for Swiss restaurants to charge for tap water?
Tap-to-table: 40 francs. Image by Rudy and Peter Skitterians from Pixabay

Zurich is Switzerland’s most expensive city, so it is perhaps reasonable that eating (and drinking) in a restaurant comes at a price.

But a group of friends dining recently at Osteria Sazio in the city centre were shocked to discover just how much their meal had cost.

As 20 Minutes daily newspaper reported on Wednesday, the group was, at least initially, pleasantly surprised at how (relatively)  inexpensive their food was — 14.50 francs for a pasta dish is a good price for downtown Zurich.

But that positive impression turned to anger when the bill was presented and it turned out that a 2-litre carafe of tap water they didn’t order but which was brought to their table at the beginning, cost 40 francs — that is, more than the meal itself.  

Thinking the restaurant had made a mistake, the group called the waitress back. She confirmed, however, that the price was correct; 40 francs for two litres of water.

“We were all shocked,” one of the customers told the newspaper.

Rather than offer apologies — and a discount — for overpriced water, the restaurant’s manager didn’t budge.

Instead, he said that though the water did, indeed, come from the kitchen tap, it was filtered and chilled which, apparently, justified its price.

He also said that that if customers order wine with their meal, the water is free.

Additionally, the inflated water price compensates for inexpensive food, as well as for high rent and above-average salaries of his staff, the cost of both apparently being passed on to unsuspecting customers via the water.

Is this common?
Many restaurants in Switzerland charge for water, though commonly not more than 10 francs per litre, and often less than that.

The reason, according to Swissrest, an umbrella group for several hundred restaurants in the German-speaking area of Switzerland, is that water is “part of the hospitality service.”

“You get the water in a glass that has to be washed and replaced when broken, and you are dining in pleasant surroundings,” the group explains on its website.

Also, “the restaurant owner has to pay rent, plus heating and electricity costs.”

Nevertheless, “many restaurants still serve tap water, in particular in conjunction with coffee or other orders, free as a gesture of goodwill for their guests.”

Yes, but is this practice legal?
In 25 cantons it is.

Ticino is the only canton that has a law mandating restaurants to serve their guests a free glass of water with their main meals. 

You may argue that 40 francs is too much for a carafe of plain tap water, and you’d be right.

However, restaurants have a right to set their own prices on food and beverages they serve. So a 40-franc price tag may be unreasonable, but it is not illegal.

Still, Sara Stalder, director of the Consumer Protection Foundation, told 20 Minutes that Osteria Sazio must inform customers of this cost and let them decide if they want the carafe brought to their table or not.

“The price of water must also be mentioned on the menu,” she noted, adding that 40 francs is nevertheless “excessive.”

“In the case of a restaurant like this Osteria, one cannot expect such absurd prices.”

Next time, thirsty customers would be better off just drinking — for free — from one of Zurich’s fresh-water fountains.

READ ALSO: Why the drinking water in Switzerland is the best in the world

Member comments

  1. To me, the question is whether their prices for wine are reasonable, as I would expect that wine sales are a major part of the Osteria’s business. I don’t know whether this is mentioned anywhere on the menu or wine list. If not, it should be mentioned.

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EXPLAINED: Is it worthwhile setting up a private pension plan in Switzerland?

Pensions are a hot-button topic in Switzerland right now, as voters are getting ready to weigh in on whether retirees should receive an additional monthly payment. We look at whether it's worth setting up a private pension plan.

EXPLAINED: Is it worthwhile setting up a private pension plan in Switzerland?

On March 3rd, Swiss citizens will weigh in on the proposal, created by left-wing parties and trade unions, which calls for the payout of an additional old-age pension, of the same amount as the ‘regular’ (AHV/AVS) pension received each month.

This move, according to supporters, is a necessary increase to compensate for the inflation-driven higher cost of living and lower purchasing power.

Under Switzerland’s three-pillar pension scheme, AHV/AVS (the first pillar) is set up to provide only the very basic income for retired people.

This means a monthly payment ranging from 1,225 francs to 2,450 francs a month for an individual, based on the salary and the length of employment. Married couples receive 150 percent of the maximum individual pension — that is, 3,585 francs at most. 

Clearly, this is not enough to live on in an expensive country like Switzerland, and this is where the second-pillar pension, called BVG /LPP, kicks in.

It is obligatory for anyone who earns at least 22,050 francs a year.

The combined income from both pensions is intended to correspond to between 60 and 70 percent of the retirees’ last salary.

Whether or not this is enough to live on depends on where the pensioners reside (large city or rural areas), and their spending habits — the thriftier they are, the better off financially they will be.

READ ALSO: What is Switzerland’s ‘second’ pension and how you will benefit from it?

For those who want a more comfortable retirement, there is also an option of a private pension. That’s the third pillar.

Unlike the first two, this one is a voluntary contribution to your pension, whose aim is to ensure an additional income stream after you retire.

In a nutshell, it is a type of a savings account which you can open with a bank or insurance company when you start working (or at any time after).

This article provides all the details about this plan:

READ ALSO: What is Switzerland’s ‘third-pillar’ pension and how can it benefit you?

Should you set up this plan?

The answer depends on several factors.

First, the ‘pros’, the most obvious of which is that you will have more money to live on each month, on top of your two other pension pillars.

Just how much more depends on the amount you contribute to this fund each month; clearly, the more you pay in while you work, the more you will get out of it once you retire.

The  maximum amount that you can pay into this account each year is 7,056 francs. Self-employed people without a second pillar can pay in 20 percent of their income, but no more than 35,280 francs a year.

That’s the maximum which, if you can afford to put aside each year, you will give you a very comfortable nest egg when you retire.

As an example, if you contribute the full amount each year during the 44 years of full-time employment (from age 31 to 65), you will have well over 300,000 francs accumulated in the third-pillar pension when you retire.

Obviously, this is the ‘best-case’ scenario that is not applicable to every employee.

But even if you contribute less than the allowed maximum, and for fewer than 44 years, you will still have extra money saved to add to your two other pillars.

If you opt to open a third-pillar account however, keep in mind that while you are investing in your future, contributing to this fund will leave you with less disposable income while you are still working.

That’s because you will have to put a part of your salary into this account which, depending on what your income is, may or may not be doable.