Thursday, April 23, 2009

Selling a car in Switzerland

Like most people, I have an uncanny tendency to be generous in criticism and frugal in praise. However, I think that the vehicle registry system in Switzerland, compared to neighboring countries, is so simple and well designed that it merits a few paragraphs of kudos.

Every car in Switzerland needs to be registered with the Vehicle Registration Service (VRS). As proof of such registration, the car owner gets a card colored in gray, called the "gray card". If and when the police stop a car, they always ask for the driver's driving license and the vehicle's gray card. The VRS will deliver a gray card for a given vehicle if and only if the vehicle is insured for damages caused to third parties. Anyone can register any car; all you need is an insurance certificate. In particular, you don't need proof of ownership.

License plates are the personal property of the owner with a distinct lifecycle than that of the vehicle. For example, when you unregister a vehicle by depositing the gray card at the VRS, you can keep the license plates! Moreover, your registration is still valid until midnight of the same day. Why does this matter?

Well, it matters because it allows for very a smooth procedure for selling or purchasing cars. Given a signed sales contract, as the owner or a representative of the owner, you can unregister a vehicle at the VRS, deliver the car to its new owner located anywhere within a day of driving range, pocket the agreed sum of money, unscrew the license plates from the car and drive home (in another vehicle). At no time is there overlap in the responsibility of the car owners. The fact that anyone in possession of the gray card can unregister a vehicle simplifies things to a large degree. A friend or your friendly neighborhood garage can perform all registration operations at the VRS on your behalf.

Considering the complexity of the issue, and the broken practices of other countries, Switzerland is a shining and rare example of an efficient bureaucracy. I mean efficient in the sense that it efficiently renders a service to the public. Other bureaucracies seem to be efficient at perpetuating their own existence.

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