Banking in Switzerland

Banking in Switzerland

Almost as famous as the country’s chocolate and clocks, the Swiss banking system is famous (or infamous) throughout the world for its efficiency and strict privacy laws that don't make it easy for governments and agencies to access the financial data of Swiss nationals without consent. Setting up a bank account in Switzerland is usually stress-free so long as you have the right documents to hand and is an essential part of working in Switzerland.

Major banks in Switzerland

Swiss banks are diverse in what they offer to the customer and you will certainly be able to find a plan to suit your requirements. Larger banks are probably your best bet if you are not familiar with one of the languages of Switzerland. The largest ones have branches all around the world and will be able to serve you in English.

Main Swiss banks

The following banks all have branches nationwide (and even worldwide):

  • UBS
  • Credit Suisse (now a sister firm of UBS)
  • Raiffeisen
  • Migros Bank
  • PostFinance

Digital & Mobile banks

The following banks specialise in digital and mobile banking for internationals and expats in Switzerland:

Regional Swiss banks

Switzerland is unique in that almost every one of the 26 counties (cantons) has its own county bank (Kantonalbank / Banque Cantonale). All deposits into a Swiss regional bank are guaranteed by the state in order to add another layer of financial security for you and your family. Although these banks are great if you need a bank branch right at your door, in some parts of the country it is unlikely that they will speak English.

Some of the major cantonal banks that do speak English are:

  • Zürcher Kantonalbank
  • Luzerner Kantonalbank
  • Berner Kantonalbank
  • Basler Kantonalbank
  • Banque Cantonale de Genève
  • Banque Cantonale Vaudoise
  • BancaStato

Private Swiss banking

Switzerland prides itself on having some of the most esteemed private banking firms in the world. They are able to provide a far more personal service and are highly experienced in managing large assets. They also offer more options for investing and can secure excellent returns on large investments. Some of the most well-known private banks are:

  • Julius Bär
  • Clientis
  • Vontobel
  • EFG International

Opening a bank account in Switzerland

Opening a bank account in Switzerland can be done either online or in person. Particularly if you have large assets or are looking for work and are set to earn a higher salary, it is best to book an appointment with a financial advisor to make sure you get the best service for your needs in order to maximise your work contract.

Opening a private Swiss bank account

Opening a private Swiss bank account is the simplest way to start banking in Switzerland. To set up an account you will need:

Once this is complete and you have been accepted, your card and pin number will be sent out separately to you by post.

Confirmation of identity online

Sometimes when applying online, your bank may ask to confirm your identity. This could be done via a video call or simply by asking you to upload proof of your identity, such as your passport and proof of address. Be sure to have these handy and scanned onto your computer should your bank require further identity checks.

Applying for a Swiss bank account without a permanent address or residence permit

Applying for a bank account while still living in temporary accommodation is permitted by most banks, provided that as soon as you move to a more permanent home you inform them of your new address. Proof of residence is required in the form of a rental contract or a deed to buy a house.

It is impossible for foreign nationals to set up a private Swiss bank account without a residence permit. This may differ for investment accounts and people with larger funds. It's always best to check with your bank before applying.

Setting up a business bank account

As part of registering a business in Switzerland, or having decided to become a freelancer, you must set up a business bank account. This is essential in order to deposit the correct amount of money required to start a new business. This involves a similar process to opening a private account. Talk to a representative from your bank who will be more than willing to take you through the process step by step.

Can I do my Swiss banking entirely online?

Although Swiss banks have been slow to embrace banking through the internet, some functions are available online. Those that do offer online services are usually the larger banks, and so these services are mostly available in English. Some of the things you can do online are:

  • Check your bank balance 
  • Make online payments
  • Transfer between your accounts
  • Use certain investment tools
  • Apply for mortgages

You still need to visit a bank to:

  • Set up direct debits and standing orders
  • Change your account
  • Close your account

SecureSign and Identification Software

Most banks that offer online services require a specific app to be installed on your phone in order to complete online purchases. This involves scanning a QR code-like image on your screen in order to receive a unique code from the bank. This makes online transactions and online banking safer and more secure. Some older banks also use mini-pagers to generate codes to enter your accounts.

What is TWINT?

TWINT is an app run by major banks that you can use to make payments online, in Swiss stores and between two TWINT users. You can use it by downloading the app onto your phone and registering it with your specific bank. It makes paying for things as easy as scanning a QR code at the till or on a pin machine.

Which banks use TWINT?

Almost all Swiss banks now allow their customers to use TWINT. The app is easy to set up and could save you a lot of time on financial transactions. If you’re thinking of registering, check out their website for more information.

Applying for a loan in Switzerland

Applying for a loan in Switzerland is a major route to getting the finances you need to invest and start a business. There are a huge, diverse range of loans on offer, with different terms and costs that are based on several criteria. These are:

  • Age: You can only apply for a loan in Switzerland if you are over 18 years of age and some banks may even have a maximum age to apply for a loan.
  • How long you have lived in Switzerland: Some lenders will also allow residents of Liechtenstein to apply for loans.
  • Canton of residence: Some regional banks require you to be resident in the canton they serve.
  • Residence permit: Expats with C- and B-permits are far more likely to be accepted for a loan than those with L- and G-permits.
  • Your reason for getting a loan.
  • Your employment status and income.
  • Your ZEK credit score.

ZEK Swiss credit score

The Central Office for Credit Information (Zentralstelle für Kreditinformation) or ZEK is the central database that lenders use to access the financial information of Swiss residents. The system is available to credit lending companies such as banks, credit card and loan providers and is used to determine your likelihood of repaying a loan.

Some of the factors that influence your score are:

  • Personal information like age and civil status such as a marriage or civil partnership.
  • Use of credit cards and your history of credit card repayments including blocked cards.
  • Details on your credit history which includes previous loans, previous applications for loans, account overdrafts, cash income and expired loan agreements.
  • History of rental contracts and house purchases.
  • Bankruptcies and court attendances.

As an applicant for credit, you are allowed and entitled to view your ZEK data at any time. You can do that by accessing the ZEK website. Do bear in mind that the website is only in German and French.

Applying for a credit card in Switzerland

Taking out a credit card in Switzerland is an excellent way of improving your ZEK credit score. Most banks provide an option to apply for a credit card while setting up your private bank account. Your possibility of acceptance is based on the same ZEK score you receive for applying for a loan. Please consult your bank on whether you are eligible for a credit card before you apply.

You can compare credit cards on the website.

Important things to know about banking in Switzerland

Swiss banks take the security of your account very seriously. That is why it is important to understand how each bank protects your account and what all the terms on your account mean. This will make your banking in Switzerland even more secure.

It is also possible to get a credit card directly from an international supplier such as American Express.

What is an IBAN number?

An International Bank Account Number or IBAN is a number that is unique to your account. The number is universally recognised throughout most of the world. In Switzerland, the number is 19 digits long and begins with a CH. You can use this number to receive payments from an employer or from another account in Switzerland or abroad. You can find this number on most bank statements and sometimes on the back of your credit or debit card.

What is a BIC or SWIFT code?

A BIC or SWIFT code is a code that banks use to recognise each other during financial transactions. Each bank around the world has a recognised SWIFT code that is used to track which bank is being used for transferring money. You will need this code while setting up any form of direct debit or receiving a wage or payment. You can usually find this number on your bank statements.

What is a Swiss PostFinance card?

A Swiss PostFinance card is a debit or credit card that is exclusive to the bank associated with the Swiss postal service. The card allows for free transactions within a post office and is becoming widely accepted in businesses across Switzerland. You may also choose a PostFinance card that allows for transactions in euros.

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