Interested in moving to Switzerland? This is our simple Switzerland Immigration Guide, containing all the info you need to get started. From getting a visa to finding work and (eventual) citizenship – it’s all here. Read on!
- Bordered on all sides (by Germany, France, Italy, Austria, and Liechtenstein), Switzerland is a relatively small country, at 285 sq. km (15,940 sq. miles). Has a population of ~8 million.
- With most of the country occupied by the Alps, the majority of residents live on the Swiss Plateau (the flat part of the country in between the Alps and the Jura mountains).
- Officially the Swiss Confederation, a parliamentary republic divided into 26 cantons. Bern represents the seat of federal authority in Switzerland.
- Widely recognized as one of the wealthiest countries in the world – Switzerland has the 6th highest GDP per capita in the world. Has the highest wealth per adult in the world, according to Credit Suisse.
- Major Swiss cities (e.g. Zurich, Geneva) are typically found in world Top 10 lists for their high quality of life.
- Known worldwide for its cheeses, chocolates, and associated concoctions (e.g. fondue).
- Manufacturing is the main Swiss industry – the country is a major exporter of high-tech, precision, health, and pharmaceutical goods (as well as chemicals). Produces half of the world’s watches.
- While Switzerland has a very high foreign-born population (~25%), it’s not easy to move here, particularly for non-EU/EFTA nationals. There are strict quotas on the number of skilled workers allowed in annually (in 2012, the limit was 3,500 residency permits and 5,000 short-term permits).
- Currency: Swiss Franc (CHF)
- Spoken languages: Switzerland has four different official languages: French, German, Italian, and Romansh. Spoken by ~65% of the population, German is the most popular (followed by French, at ~23% population share). Most people understand English.
- Major religions: Roman Catholic (~38%), Swiss Reformed Christian (~28%), and other Christian (~6%). 21% of the population is non-denominational.
- Largest cities: Zurich, Geneva, Basel, Bern, and Lausanne.
Why move to Switzerland
- Switzerland is one of the safest countries in the world. Criminal activity is very low, and strict laws (coupled with reliable police presence) keep life safe and secure for residents.
- Has a strong economy, with one of the lowest unemployment rates in the world (3.2% in 2013). Has the second highest annual average wages in Europe (after Norway), at ~59,300 CHF, or ~67,200 USD. The Swiss not only have great wages, but also high purchasing power.
- One of the cleanest countries there is – major cities are well run and maintained. Little to no pollution, with fresh air year round.
- Financial security provided by strong banking system. Switzerland’s neutral stance on politics, military, and finance has made it an attractive choice for the affluent.
- Good food is readily available. Swiss cuisine draws on French, Italian, and German recipes for inspiration – and it shows in the variety of dishes (especially when it comes to pastries, chocolates, and desserts). There are over 450 varieties of cheese, 200+ types of bread, and a great year-round selection of beers and fine wines. The Swiss eat healthy – there is a strong preference for local, seasonal ingredients.
- While not cheap, Swiss education is world-class (from kindergarten to university). Healthcare is also excellent (though it does come at a price).
- Public transport is excellent and efficient, both within cities and between them. Trains, buses – everything runs on time (precise, Swiss time). In general, municipal services are dependable and well-managed.
- Has one of the lowest overall tax rates in the developed world, and is appropriately dubbed a “tax haven” by many. While the individual cantons have their own cantonal tax rates, the standard (federal) income tax tops out at a maximum of 11.5%.
- For those who love winter sports and mountain escapades, Switzerland is a top choice. Skiing, snowboarding, and mountaineering are the most popular sports here.
- When it comes to all things business (and bureaucratic), the Swiss are no-nonsense and do not waste time. Professionalism is the norm, and a culture of punctuality can be a breath of fresh air for those moving from comparatively chaotic societies.
REASONS NOT TO MOVE TO SWITZERLAND
Note: these are common expat complaints, and may not apply to you.
- Switzerland is one of the most expensive places to live in. For example, a 1 bedroom apartment in the center of Zurich will set you back ~$1800-2300 per month. Unless you are moving here from a major Scandinavian city, expect to pay considerably more for consumer goods, groceries, and eating out.
- The Swiss are known for being stuck-up and overly serious. There are strict rules for almost all aspects of life – including on what you do inside your own home (example: limitations on hosting parties after a certain time at night).
- Being a foreigner in Switzerland is, in many ways, an uphill battle. The term for naturalized immigrants is ausländer (meaning “foreigner” or “alien”). There seems to be an (unspoken) dislike of immigrants – the Swiss simply prefer their own kind, and are not shy about showing it. While there are always many exceptions (especially in the major cities), it is not something an expat can hope to avoid entirely. Recently, there has been an even greater push to enact legislation that would further limit the number of new immigrants (the “Ecopop” initiative aims to limit new annual migrants to at most 0.2% of the total Swiss population).
- Naturally, there is a language barrier – one must become fluent in Swiss German (and some Swiss French) to have a hope of ever fully integrating into Swiss society.
- Obtaining Swiss residency and citizenship is notoriously difficult (even for highly skilled professionals). One can live here for decades and still not be considered a citizen (more on this below).
- While the overall unemployment rate is low, finding a job can be tough for a newcomer (and you are pretty much limited to international companies in Zurich, Geneva, and Bern). This applies especially for spouses/partners of those who have been relocated here for work. It is also hard for foreigners to find an apartment for rent (newcomers are encouraged to do this through a rental agency).
- Given that the Swiss mostly keep to themselves, it can prove difficult to meet friends and like-minded people. Most end up coping by integrating into the local expat communities.
VISAS AND FINDING WORK
- Work permits in Switzerland are issued by canton. Your eligibility for a Swiss work permit ultimately depends on your nationality and professional skill-set. With set annual quotas on the total work permits issued, there is heavy competition.
- For EU/EFTA nationals: you may enter Switzerland for up to three months while looking for work (this can be extended to six months if you can demonstrate that you are actively seeking employment). The short-term (L) permit is issued to those who plan to work in Switzerland for less than 12 months, and is issued to EU/EFTA nationals after they are present in the country for over 3 months. EU/EFTA nationals who plan to work in Switzerland for less than 3 months may not need a work permit (but should register online prior to commencing employment).
- For everyone else: obtaining a work permit for non-EU/EFTA nationals is considerably tougher. Your prospective Swiss employer must first demonstrate that they were unable to find a suitable local candidate – and that a serious attempt to do so was made (prior to extending a job offer to a foreigner). Priority is given to highly skilled professionals and specialists (e.g. company transfers of upper managers/executives) with post-secondary degrees and proof of professional experience. In most cases, priority is given to those who can already speak one of the official languages. Those who pass all the requirements will be issued a short-term (L) residence permit, valid for 1 year (with possible extension to 2 years) and tied to the employment contract. Foreign students and workers receiving professional training also fall under the short-term (L) residence permit category.
OBTAINING RESIDENCY AND CITIZENSHIP
Obtaining a residence permit in Switzerland is its own challenge, and the process is different depending on whether you are a EU/EFTA national or from a “Third State” (e.g. any other country).
- Residence permits for EU/EFTA nationals: the first step is to obtain a “B” permit (initial residence) – this is given to those with a work contract of at least 12 months, and is valid for five years. “B” permits are also given to EU/EFTA nationals if they can prove financial self-sufficiency (e.g. enough funds) while they are settled in the country – even without being employed. EU/EFTA nationals are eligible for permanent residency after an uninterrupted stay of 5 years in Switzerland – the permanent residence (“C” permit) does not expire, and allows one to freely move cantons/employers.
- Residence permits for everyone else: nationals of other countries have it harder. “B” permits (initial residence) are limited by an annual quota, and are only valid for one year at a time (extendable by one year each time). The “B” permit also ties the holder to the canton that issued it (they may not live elsewhere, or change employers). Permanent residency (in the form of a “C” permit) is only available after one has lived in Switzerland for 10 uninterrupted years (5 years, if from the United States or Canada). is In all cases, cantons must first obtain federal approval before issuing a permit.
Obtaining Swiss citizenship is a long process – the most common ways are through birth (if one, or both, parents are Swiss) or naturalization:
- A permanent resident may apply for citizenship after having lived in Switzerland for 12 years (and for at least three of the five years prior to requesting citizenship). One must also demonstrate proficiency in German, French, Italian, or Romansch (this depends on the municipality one is applying for citizenship to). Candidates must also show that they have successfully integrated into the Swiss way of life, pose no danger to the country, comply with all laws, and adhere to local habits/customs/traditions.
- One may also apply for citizenship after being married to a Swiss citizen for over three years (and having lived in the country for at least five years). If living abroad, the minimum marriage length requirement is six years.
STARTING A BUSINESS IN SWITZERLAND
- Self-employment: EU/EFTA nationals may apply for a permit that will allow them to live and be self-employed in Switzerland for up to five years (this can be revoked if it is determined one is no longer able to cover his or her living costs). Applicants must first register a company in Switzerland, provide a business plan, and provide proof of regular income. Nationals of other (non-EU/EFTA) countries are typically not eligible for self-employment permits.
- Starting a business in Switzerland: it is relatively easy to start a business in Switzerland – anyone may do so (without any special authorization). There is a free and open economic climate, and business earnings do not have to be reported. To operate the business while in Switzerland, however, one must first obtain a work and residency permit (see above).
- Note: if you have plans to start a sole-proprietorship or a partnership (general or limited), you may register the business (online) while outside the country. Please see the official government resource on Small and Medium Businesses (SMB) for the most up-to-date information and procedures: SME Portal (available in German, French, and Italian).
FURTHER READING & RESOURCES
- Swiss Life: 30 Things I Wish I’d Known – an expat’s experiences
- English Forum Switzerland – Swiss expat discussion forum
- Federal Office for Migration – official website
- Federal Authorities of the Swiss Confederation – official website
- Canton of Zurich – official website
- Germany Immigration Guide
- Netherlands Immigration Guide
- Spain Immigration Guide
- France Immigration Guide