While the popular perception of Switzerland may be chocolate, Swiss watches, and confidential bank accounts, the reality is somewhat different…but not necessarily less attractive or charming.
This landlocked country, wedged between Germany, France, Italy and Austria, is home to numerous lakes, quaint villages and the high peaks of the Alps. Its high quality of life makes it an appealing destination to those wishing to relocate.
However, when moving to Switzerland there are steps you need to take and forms to fill out, applications to be made and often huge adjustments to become accustomed to.
Here is a list of 10 of the more important aspects to take care of before you pack your bags – and your “après ski” outfits:
1. Residence Permit
The first thing you should understand is that Switzerland is NOT a member of the EU. But it is one of 26 countries making up the “Schengen” area which have one common visa and no border controls between them, so any of the “Schengen” nationalities can travel freely to Switzerland. This however, does not apply to Americans.
To be approved for a residence permit, you have to have a job offer, and it has to be for a job that cannot be done by a Swiss national. If you are being sent by your company, you need to be “assigned” to work in a department of your company for a certain period of time.
The first two things Americans need so that they can enter Switzerland is a valid US passport, which will enable you to stay for three-months. Submit all your documents, which must include an application, offer of employment (letter from your company stating your “assignment”), two passport photos, your original passport, and the visa fee to the Swiss Embassy in Washington DC as early as possible, since processing takes anywhere from 8 to 10 weeks. Seek specific advice from the Swiss embassy or consulate in your area for your specific circumstances.
Upon your arrival in Switzerland, you have 14 days to register at your local Residents Registration Office and arrange to get your residence permit from the cantonal migration offices.
2. Your Moving Strategy
This is something that should be figured out well ahead of time – even before you submit your paperwork. Shipping your household items such as furniture and appliances internationally takes time and planning. It’s best to engage an international moving company to help you with this, as they will absorb a lot of the stress and pressure, and deal with the bureaucracy involved.
The Swiss government allows you to import belongings duty-free if you intend on living in Switzerland. However, you must fill out form a Declaration/Application for clearance of relocation goods and have it with you to present at the customs office. Visit the website of the Swiss Federal Customs Administration for more detailed information.
3. Bringing Your Pet
You will need a vaccination certificate for any dogs or cats you wish to bring with you, which shows that the animal was vaccinated at least 30 days before entering the country…but no longer than a year earlier. In addition, dogs, cats, and ferrets have to be microchipped for identification purposes.
4. Owing a car in Switzerland
You’ll be allowed to use your valid American driver’s license for up to a year before needing to apply for a Swiss license, but it must have been obtained at least 3 months before arrival in Switzerland.
To drive on Swiss roads, you will need a motorway “vignette” or “Autobahnvignette” sticker on your windshield. This costs 40 Swiss Francs a year (around $42).
Importing your car to Switzerland from outside of Europe can be costly and complicated. American cars, even if they are European models, are built slightly differently from European cars and may be more difficult or expensive to service in Switzerland. This could also affect the car’s resale value which may be 20% under the market price for comparable cars in Switzerland.
You will have to register for Swiss insurance as soon as your car arrives. Furthermore, the sat-nav system in many cars is often faulty or simply does not work because only around 50% of the radio frequencies used by foreign sat-navs work in Switzerland.
Cars must be tested annually at an approved garage for emission controls. General serviceability tests are compulsory every four years.
5. Opening a Swiss bank account
That may sound rather intriguing, but it’s just downright practical. Whilst you should keep at least one bank account in the US, especially if you still own a property and have bills to pay, you’ll want to make sure you open a bank account in Switzerland. This will enable you to draw local currency from ATMs and be able to deposit your salary or other earnings locally. Start researching banks before moving; and possibly even open an account online, transfer some funds, and get a feel of how the bank works.
6. Where to Live
There’s no real ‘bad’ place to live in Switzerland. It really depends on whether you are moving to Switzerland to work (if you’re being “assigned” then you’ll move to the city where your office is). But if, for example, you are looking for the best place to raise a family, your choice is fairly wide. Most of the country is child-friendly, but Lausanne stands out as being popular with young families. To find a house before you move for slightly less than you might elsewhere, Lausanne is considered a good location. It is also regarded as a particularly safe with relatively low crime rates.
Zurich is the economic center with international banking, art and the media and many multinational companies located here. Bern is a great choice for retirees. It is far quieter than many of the other cities in Switzerland and everything is within walking distance. It also boasts a high percentage of English-speaking locals.
The Swiss school system is very different from the American school system, so it can be a tough adjustment, even though it’s a great way for your kids to learn the language and the country’s customs.
Alternatively, you can consider sending your children to international school with programs similar to an American curriculum with the common language spoken at school being English. If that is the route you prefer, you should register your children in an international school as soon as you learn about your move, as they tend to fill up quickly.
8. Finding a Job
If you are not being sent by your company and are expecting to find a job, know that competition for Swiss jobs is fierce and opportunities are more limited for those coming from outside of the EU or EFTA (European Free Trade Association). There are often quotas for foreign workers in Switzerland, even for highly skilled, well-qualified specialists. However, here are selected jobs for skilled workers in engineering and technology, pharmaceuticals, consulting, banking, insurance and IT, with financial analysts, business analysts and systems analysts in great demand. Prospective employers have to prove that the job can’t be done by a local, and permits are limited to managers, specialists and those with higher educational qualifications. For more details, check out this guide to Swiss work permits.
9. Learn the Languages
That’s right – languageS: Switzerland is split up into three regions: German, French, and Italian. Even though most Swiss speak good English, it’s important to try to learn the local language. It will make your integration so much easier. Find out in which region your target city is located and start language lessons as soon as you can.
Swiss living in the German region of Switzerland mainly speak a dialect of German known as Swiss German. Because this is not a formally written language, it can be difficult for foreigners to learn. To start with, learn proper German and you will eventually pick up on Swiss German.
10. Health Insurance
Although some health insurance companies offer coverage when you move to a different country make sure to check with your company.
Even if your health insurance will cover you in Switzerland, you’ll have three months in which to register with the residency office of the canton that you’ll be living in. Each canton within the country offers one or two health insurance providers, known as “sickness funds”, to choose from.
Enjoy your life in Switzerland. Celebrate the local holidays, get to know the new area you live in, and make friends with locals. This will help to make you feel more at home, and will also help you to take full advantage of the very high quality of life in Switzerland.