Switzerland is a land of picturesque beauty and Alpine charm. Consistently ranked as one of the best destinations for expats, this wealthy country is acclaimed for its economic prosperity, skilled labor force and strong entrepreneurial ideals.
Advanced in almost every way, expats can look forward to an exceptional standard of living. While often labelled as a slightly conservative nation, a Swiss national identity is somewhat difficult to define due to the various loyalties and ways of life that stem from its multitude of regions and cantons. Bordered by Italy, France and Germany, Swiss culture, customs and language are often determined and influenced by a region’s proximity to neighboring countries.
While the cost of living is high, Switzerland has the world’s highest GDP per capita and expats will likely enjoy high financial rewards and all the perks of a reliable healthcare system, celebrated schools and well-organized public transport.
This guide will help expats acclimatize to life in Switzerland, offering basic information on everything from healthcare, schools, banking and taxes, to accommodation, cultural norms, social etiquette and visas.
Individuals from countries on a visa-waiver list, which includes EU states, will not need a visa to enter Switzerland for stays of up to 90 days. Nationals of countries not on this list and who wish to visit as a tourist require a Schengen travel visa.
For those wanting to stay longer or who wish to work, there are a number of different options available. Short-term residency visas allow for stays of a year or less while initial residence permits are for those expats whose contracts are set for 12 months or longer. The residence permit has a validity of five years and may be extended dependent on the status of employment. Permanent residence visas are granted to foreign nationals who’ve stayed in Switzerland for an uninterrupted period of ten years.
Housing in Switzerland consists mostly of apartments, especially in Zurich and Geneva. Detached houses are available, but they remain far more expensive and are usually found quite a distance out from urban areas.
When renting, expats will find that most accommodation comes unfurnished. Lease agreements normally last for 12 months, with the tenant paying up to three months’ rent as a security deposit. They’re also responsible for paying their own utility bills.
Depending on which canton one stays in, third party liability insurance may be compulsory. Because prices are generally very high, it’s also recommended that expats request a housing provision from their employer.
The Swiss public school system is generally considered to be excellent, mostly due to a heavy national focus on education. These state institutions also prove popular with expat families as they are free and operate at equally high standards when compared to private schools. Some operate on a bilingual basis, but the languages chosen are mostly dependent on the region.
Private schools come with both elite reputations and very high tuition costs. These prestigious environments offer smaller class sizes and modern facilities, teaching both the Swiss curriculum as well as the International Baccalaureate.
International schools, mostly found in the large cities, are also an option, with establishments available that may offer classes in the curriculum of the child’s home country. Primarily the choice of families who aren’t staying long term, they’re a perfect way to bridge the gap before returning home. Like private schools, the fees can be extremely expensive.
Switzerland enjoys a temperate climate, but the weather can vary dramatically from region to region, with glacial environments encountered in mountain top areas and even Mediterranean conditions gracing its southern tip.
Summers are warm, with the sun shining from June through September. While expats will experience cold winter temperatures, snow generally only blankets the mountain top regions of the Alps and the Jura Mountains, with winter fog instead found in Zurich, Geneva and Basel.
Swiss culture is diverse because of regional affiliations that stem from its proud cantons. Much is determined by location, so those who live near Germany and speak German adopt many of those values, while the same goes for residents who live closer to France or Italy. However, the Swiss are, on the whole, fairly formal and family forms a core part of society. Often, family outings will include spending time in nature or active hobbies like cycling, skiing or hiking.
Switzerland has four major languages: German, French, Italian and Romansh. Expats will find more French in the west, more Italian in the south and German in the north, east and central regions. The dwindling Romansh language is spoken in the south east. Most Swiss speak English, especially in the big cities.
Swiss cuisine is a glorious mixture of German, French and Italian influences. However, it’s often rich. Cheese may be the most iconic ingredient, dominating many meals, whether it’s simple and hearty countryside bakes to classics reinvented with modern gourmet flair.
Potato röstis are fried potato cakes originating as a breakfast for Bernese farmers. However, they’re now found all over the country, with an especially delicious version involving bacon, fried eggs and melted cheese found in the canton of Valais.
The country has become world-famous for its delicious and unique confectionaries, honed and perfected by generations of skilled chocolatiers. Indeed, Switzerland’s Daniel Peter and Rudolphe Lindt were pioneers in the field of milk chocolate.
Raclette is made by melting the eponymous cheese over an open fire and eating this cheese with breads and potatoes. Perhaps the most famous gastronomic export would be cheese fondue. While perhaps a little cliché, it nonetheless remains a tasty indulgence.
For those with a sweet tooth, the bündnernusstorte is a pastry, usually filled with cream, walnuts and caramelized sugar. Markets filled with fresh and seasonal produce are ubiquitous and most Western expats will have no problem adjusting their diets.
In terms of the general attitude towards drinking, Switzerland takes a very European approach. Drinking in public isn't illegal or considered taboo, so expats shouldn't be surprised to see beer, wine or other spirits enjoyed outside the usual cafes, bars and restaurants.
Toasting in Switzerland isn’t too dissimilar to countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States. When gathered in a group, one should wait until everyone has a drink, make eye contact and clink glasses with each person, each time exclaiming “prost!” No eye contact means bad luck.
Swiss wine may not have the reputation of its French or Italian neighbors, but it’s equally excellent. While white wine is dominant, rosés and reds are also produced. And the Swiss do love their wine, existing as one of the world’s top wine consuming countries. Having said that, the German part of the country is, perhaps predictably, extremely fond of its beer.
Holidays in Switzerland are primarily based either on the Christian religious character or days of national significance. There are some holidays which are regional, specifically amongst its 26 cantons. Employers may allow time off for seasonal celebrations, such as equinoxes and solstices, even though they aren’t official.
New Year’s Day – 1 January
St Berchtold’s Day – 2 January
Good Friday – March or April
Easter Monday – March or April
Labor Day – 1 May
Ascension Day – 10 May
Whit Sunday – May or June
Whit Monday – May or June
National Day – 1 August
Christmas Day – 25 December
St Stephen’s Day – 26 December
The telecommunications sector of Switzerland is what one would expect from a dominant and thriving Western economy. Its internet speeds are fast while both its landline and mobile sectors are well established.
The three biggest players in the mobile sector include Swisscom Mobile, Sunrise and Salt. Contracts offer cheaper call rates but require proof that one is on a long-term visa. Pre-paid SIM cards can be purchased by anybody, however, regardless of residency status. The main landline service provider is Swisscom, who must install and activate the fixed network.
Connectivity is extremely widespread in Switzerland, boasting some of the highest rates of broadband per capita on the planet. Internet speeds are also right up there with the world’s best, with Switzerland consistently being ranked highly. Some internet providers include Sunrise, Swisscom, Cablecom, DFi and Green, amongst others.
The job market for foreign nationals in Switzerland is tough, primarily because the country operates on a quota system. This means that expats will only get a position if it can be proven that a local cannot adequately fulfil it. Consequently, foreigners working in Switzerland tend to have to be highly skilled and extremely well qualified. Popular industries of expat employment in Switzerland include financial services, information technology and biotechnology. A residence permit is required in order to work in Switzerland.
Income tax is made up of three levels of taxation: federal, cantonal and municipal. Federal taxes, ones paid directly to government, are structured to ensure the same tax return, meaning Switzerland employs a progressive tax scale. Rates can vary from 1 to 11%. Different cantons and municipalities are allowed to set their own rates, with some setting flat rates.
If an expat stays in Switzerland for 180 days or more during a 12-month period, they are classified as a resident for tax purposes. Residents for tax purposes are taxed both on their local and international income. Income tax will be deducted directly from salaries by employers.
While taxes are low, the cost of living in Switzerland remains high. This makes it an attractive retirement destination for only the very wealthy. Its agreeable climate and beautiful landscapes are difficult to resist, with Alpine resorts and warm southern towns allowing for safe and diverse getaways.
Most foreigners end up retiring in Switzerland having gone through the process of acquiring a residency permit and subsequently a permanent residence permit. Expats over the age of 55 can become retirees if they’ve got the requisite financial resources, close connections to the country and aren’t seeking employment.
There’s nothing drastically different in the Swiss business environment compared to most of Europe . Swiss businesspeople are very much focused on completing the job at hand with as little fuss and small talk as possible. Meetings are brisk and to the point, with presentations being detailed and well-prepared.
Punctuality is extremely important, with lateness deemed to be very rude. Explanations are expected if one is running behind schedule. Handshakes and polite smiles are acceptable when it comes to greetings. In terms of authority, Swiss business culture operates on a strictly hierarchical structure.
English should be sufficient when it comes to the workplace, but it’s suggested that expats learn the basics of their canton’s dominant language. In general, the attitude of the Swiss is fairly conservative and formal, and consequently one should be careful about approaching others with personal questions until establishing a genuine rapport.
Switzerland’s public transportation is extremely fast and reliable, boasting one of the best systems in Europe. Train and bus routes crisscross the country, operating on metronomic schedules that take passengers from city to city or through the beautiful countryside. While both function at high standards, the railway is far more comprehensive in its destinations. Taxis are also available for getting around town but are quite expensive.
Due to the excellence of public transport, driving is an unnecessary luxury. But it’s still a treat, as the roads are both safe and picturesque. Mountain passes provide panoramas of deep valleys and snowcapped summits, as one travels en route to Switzerland’s classically European small towns, resorts and cities. Note that the Swiss drive on the right and expats will need a Swiss driving licence after 12 months.
The official currency is the Swiss franc (CHF), which is divided into 100 rappen.
Money is available in the following denominations:
Banking in Switzerland is highly advanced, stable and straightforward. Harboring a reputation for being discreet, they’re currently attempting to become more transparent. While expensive for expats, banks nonetheless offer superb customer service with the big national banks providing service in English in addition to local languages.
Opening a bank account is easy, with most banks asking expats for a passport, proof of address and an employment contract. The leading banks in the country are UBS, Credit Suisse, Swiss Raiffeisen, Zurich Cantonal Bank and Julius Bär.
Switzerland is extremely expensive to live in, with three of its cities (Bern, Zurich and Geneva) placing in the top 10 of Mercer’s 2017 Cost of Living Survey. But it translates well for residents as the costs are offset by rewarding Swiss salaries, highly efficient but pricey public transport and an excellent standard of free public education.
Cost of accommodation can be heavy on the wallet, with an apartment shortage ensuring rental rates keep going through the roof. Expats should also be aware that health insurance is compulsory, and that premiums depend on locality rather than income. As expected, living outside the big cities and towns sees prices and expenses drop.
The biggest chains in Switzerland are the grocery stores Coop and Migros. Lidl and Aldi are ideal for those consumers who don’t want to overspend, while premium shoppers will enjoy high-end franchises like Manor Food and Globus Delicatessa.
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