We describe novel optical switching schemes operating at femtosecond time scales by employing free carrier (FC) excitation. Such unprecedented switching times are made possible by spatially patterning the density of the excited FCs. In the first realization, we rely on diffusion, i.e., on the nonlocality of the FC nonlinear response of the semiconductor, to erase the initial FC pattern and, thereby, eliminate the reflectivity of the system. In the second realization, we erase the FC pattern by launching a second pump pulse at a controlled delay. We discuss the advantages and limitations of the proposed approaches and demonstrate their potential applicability for switching ultrashort pulses propagating in silicon waveguides. We show switching efficiencies of up to 50% for 100 fs pump pulses, which is an unusually high level of efficiency for such a short interaction time, a result of the use of the strong FC nonlinearity. Due to limitations of saturation and pattern effects, these schemes can be employed for switching applications that require femtosecond features but standard repetition rates. Such applications include switching of ultrashort pulses, femtosecond spectroscopy (gating), time-reversal of short pulses for aberration compensation, and many more. This approach is also the starting point for ultrafast amplitude modulations and a new route toward the spatio-temporal shaping of short optical pulses. (C) 2015 Optical Society of America.