One of the key organisations you’ll get to know while living in Switzerland is your local council (Gemeinde). Local councils are at the heart of local life in most counties (cantons), providing services to the entire community. There are currently over 2.900 different local councils in Switzerland, each covering between 9 and 400.000 people
What is a Gemeinde?
A Gemeinde is similar to an English council, tasked with running basic services for the community alongside cultivating a strong community spirit. The system of government in Switzerland places a large amount of responsibility on local authorities. In many cases, your local council will be responsible for the maintenance of many everyday basic services, from utilities and emergency services to public transport and Swiss passports.
For expats, the council is the place where much of the registration and permit application process takes place. Financially, councils also represent the largest beneficiary of the Swiss tax system.
Although supported by a large selection of civil servants, the leaders of the local councils are selected through Swiss elections. It is the most local and immediate point of contact for government services and the place to go when you arrive and when you leave Switzerland. Although mostly independent, some local councils in smaller towns do share services with each other or unite into a multi-village council.
How to find the nearest Gemeinde?
Typically, every community in Switzerland has some form of council. It is important to do most of your business with your local council to avoid registering or even paying taxes in the wrong place. The Swiss government has a service where you can find your nearest council.
Facts about Swiss local government
Switzerland has always placed high priority on local government. Ever since the old Swiss confederation, much of the administration of Switzerland was localised within communities. This is reflected in the large amount of power local governments have. Each council is stylised with a coat of arms, used to reflect the old Swiss tradition of having a local flag placed on the weapons and armour of soldiers from each town.
The largest council is the city council of Zurich, with 420.000 citizens. The smallest in Switzerland is Corippo in Canton Ticino, with only nine residents as of 2019.
Services provided by councils in Switzerland
Swiss councils provide many important functions for expats wanting to make Switzerland their home. It is integral to the first few months of coming to Switzerland as the Gemeinde handles the majority of immigration and settlement needs for newcomers. Some of the key services provided are:
- Completing registration
- Supplying your residence permit
- Renewing your Swiss passport
- Reviewing applications for social security
- Registering a birth
- Registration when changing address in Switzerland
- Access to cheap tickets for train, tram, bus and boat
- Managing most Swiss taxes
- Controlling the Swiss school system
- Certifying documents when buying a house
Registration in Switzerland
If you are planning to stay in the country longer than the length of a visa, your local council should be the first place you go to register to live in Switzerland. This should be done at the council where you are living. The council is responsible for the first stages of your application and will always serve as the go-between for you and the migration authorities of the canton.
Swiss residence permit
Once you have completed registration and have been accepted by the migration authorities, your council will then provide you with your residence permit for Switzerland. This permit is confirmation that you are able to live and work in Switzerland for the foreseeable future. The council will supervise your residency status for the duration of your time in Switzerland. They will also be the main organisation to contact should your permit need renewing.
Taxes by local government in Switzerland (Steueramt)
Over half of your taxes in Switzerland go to your local council. The council uses this money to fund basic and emergency services in your community. The local council is responsible for the county and local taxes and is where you submit your local tax return. Once you have paid your taxes, your council is also responsible for any rebate you might receive in the future.
Daily travel passes
As part of a local government initiative, some local councils now offer travel passes for Switzerland at reduced rates. This allows you to use Swiss public transport for an entire day, including the entire network of rail, tram, bus and boat services. These can be up to 150 Swiss francs cheaper than an all zone pass for the whole of Switzerland. These must be applied for at the local council office and need to be pre-booked. Contact your local council for more details.
Some of the other services that the council provides are:
- Coordination and funding of emergency services
- Road maintenance and local transport funding
- Distribution of the family allowance
- Applications for building projects and planning permission
- Funder of leisure facilities such as swimming pools and BBQ sites
What to expect when visiting a Gemeinde in Switzerland
It is generally expected for you to speak the official language of your canton while visiting a Gemeinde. All transactions and services are done in the local language, so be prepared for staff to not speak English. If you have a specific service in mind, ask at the front desk and they will point you in the right direction. Each Gemeinde has multiple offices devoted to specific functions of the council.