Is there any advantage to buying my travel pass before arrival? Does it require a photo?
No photo, as it is a very short term product. You will have to show your passport to prove you are not a Swiss national, because they are not eligible to buy it (they actually get much better deals). If you are arriving by plane, its just as easy to buy there, since you will not have to jump through the many credit card vetting hoops for an on-line purchase, or waiting for it to be mailed to you.
No advantage or disadvantage, you pay the same price both ways. No photo needed, it has your name on it, and if they want to check they ask to see your passport.
- If you want it in advance, buy from the SBB website, and print it out at home: https://www.sbb.ch/en/leisure-holidays/travel-in-switzerland/international-guests/swiss-travel-pass.html
- If you buy when you arrive, you can do that at any major station, including airport and border stations.
The one issue is if you are arriving by train. If you already have your pass you do not have to get off the train at the border to buy your pass.
You can also buy it on this website, which will send you to Rail Europe. ( I do not usuallybrecommend them, but for Swiss Passes it can work out to your advantage as shown below).
Depending on the Foreign Transaction Fees charged by your credit card, it may come out cheaper (assuming you are getting a "print at home" consecutive day pass which does not require shipping fees, and that you meet the minimum purchase requirement for no Rail Europe service fees).
For example, a 4-day (consecutive) pass from Rail Europe is $287. The same pass from SBB is 281 CHF, which converts to $285 at today's rate. If you credit card provider charges even 1% as an FTE, that pushes the cost of the Pass bought from SBB over the price of the one bought from RE.
I bought it when I arrived in Geneva in the office. It came as a boarding pass size card with a protective plastic sleeve with a color map with the area a validity. I guess that is an advantage.
Some have bought it online pointing out that you can print it again from your email if you happen to lose it as the advantage of doing it that way.
I imagine if you lost your pass after buying it in person that you could go to an SBB office with your receipt and have it reprinted.
Before you put much more time into the deliberation, be prepared that the online site just may not work for you. This happened to us in November, and we tried everything that the OP's here recommended: changing browsers, computers, credit cards, alerting banks in advance, etc. It seems hit or miss, but the folks with American Express cards were slightly luckier. We were trying to purchase the 4-day consecutive Pass.
Once on the ground in Zurich, we purchased our Passes quickly and easily, with the same credit cards we had tried earlier. And- it was so convenient to have the Passes, and use the efficient and dependable Swiss transportation systems.
The credit card issue with online purchases from SBB is another reason I suggested buying from Rail Europe (this Pass specifically, not regular train tickets!). But you can only avoid their delivery fee if you use the print at home option.
Most US Visa cards do not have the 3D security required for online purchases from many European train websites. In-person transactions are not a problem with the same card, assuming you have notified your bank of your travel plans. ( Note to self: time to do that for our upcoming trip!).
American Express works best for online ticket purchases, In my personal experience.