12 important tips for newcomers to Switzerland

12 important tips for newcomers to Switzerland

When you move to Switzerland, there are many important things that need to be done before you can settle into your new life. Your new job or university course may be starting, you need a residence permit and a bank account, and it is likely that your new rented apartment will be unfurnished.

To help guide you through the first few weeks of living in the alpine nation, here are 12 tips for newcomers to Switzerland:

1. Finding a place to live in Switzerland

If you are an expat moving to Switzerland for the first time, finding a place to live should be a top priority. It’s important to either have a property or area in mind before you leave or have signed a rental contract before you make the move. In Switzerland, especially in the cities where expats are most likely to live, like Zurich and Geneva, housing can be in short supply, so make sure you scout ahead. For some expat-friendly places to rent, check out IamExpat Housing.

When looking for places to call home, see whether the property has an official "move-in day." Each Swiss canton has its own move-in and move-out days for vacant houses, so be sure to check whether the date aligns with when you are planning to relocate.

Once you have secured a home of your own, you are able to register with your local council (Gemeinde) and begin the process of acquiring your residence permit. If you have already applied for a residence permit while living in temporary housing, be sure to change your address once you’ve found your new house or apartment to make sure you are paying taxes in the right area.

2. Setting up a Swiss bank account and downloading Twint

Once you have an address to send post to, it is a good idea to set up a Swiss bank account to pay for health insurance and taxes, and to receive your salary. Swiss banks offer a range of different deals and services, so be sure to shop around before you commit to one.

To open a Swiss bank account, you will either have to visit your local branch in person or apply online. To apply, you will need proof of residence in Switzerland (like a residence permit) and up to two forms of identification (driving licence and passport, for example).

Once this is complete, you should receive your requested bank cards and PIN numbers by post. While bank cards are usually accepted everywhere, especially in cities, it can be useful to have some cash to hand, so head to your local ATM to draw out some Swiss francs. 

In addition, shops ranging from huge supermarkets to local farmers' markets are starting to accept “Twint” as a payment method. If you have an account with one of the 40 banks that use Twint, consider downloading it onto your mobile phone to make payments quicker and easier.

3. Take out Swiss health insurance

In Switzerland, it is mandatory to have at least basic health insurance if you plan to live in the country for a while. When applying for your residence permit, the authorities will request to see proof of health insurance or assurances that you will purchase it within three months of applying.

Basic health insurance allows you to receive treatment from doctors in Swiss hospitals and medical facilities abroad. However, if you want perks like a private room in hospital, discounted gym memberships and dental care, consider taking out supplemental health insurance.

4. Buying a travel ticket for Swiss public transport

If you choose to live in and around one of the major Swiss cities, you may not need a car, as Swiss public transport is regularly voted one of the best and most efficient networks in the world. Alongside a comprehensive transport network, some cities are also starting to make it harder to drive and park within their limits, so it's important to consider the cost of a train, bus, tram or boat ticket as an alternative to the insurance, parking, tax and fuel cost of a car.

Public transport tickets can be quite expensive without any discount cards, so if you do plan to use the train more than once a fortnight, it is best to apply for a Half-Fare Travel Card (Halbtax-abo). This card allows you to buy tickets at half price for a year, so can really help to reduce costs. 

If you are planning to use a certain public transport route or zone of transport every day, consider applying for a GA (General-Abonnement) for the zone or route you desire. This gives you unlimited travel on the designated route, but can be quite expensive so be sure to calculate whether you will use the card enough to justify the price.

Finally, if your work or lifestyle necessitates a trip from Zurich to Geneva and then Zurich to Basel every other day, consider getting a GA for the whole network. However, bear in mind that this costs 3.860 Swiss francs a year for an adult riding in second class.

5. Exchanging your driving licence in Switzerland

If you do plan to drive in Switzerland, make sure you exchange your current licence for a Swiss one. Cars registered outside Switzerland and most EU / EEA and UK driving licences can be used in Switzerland for up to a year, but it is recommended to get your licence converted as soon as possible.

Depending on the nation that issued your licence, you may also have to take a practical and theory test in order to exchange it. For more information about how to do this, check out our guide to diving licences in Switzerland.

6. Finding the right furniture

Once you have found your new home, it’s time to start filling it with furniture and personal items. Most apartments in Switzerland come unfurnished, so you will have to deck your place out with next to everything, from kitchenware to curtains.

While Switzerland is home to many luxury furniture brands (Pfister, Maison du Mode and Livique) and some more cost-effective stores like Ikea and mömax, it can be a good idea to shop around at a thrift store (Brockenhaus or Broki). These are located across Switzerland and usually have some great deals on substantial items of furniture.

Another good alternative can be looking on online classifieds like eBay or Etsy to find some good furniture at a fair price. Finally, the bolder amongst us can look to the Facebook marketplace or Facebook groups to find a good deal on unwanted items.

7. Get connected to the internet and buy a Swiss phone

It’s practically a necessity in this day and age: if you want to keep in contact with family or friends abroad, it’s important to get connected to the internet as soon as possible. Getting yourself signed up with a mobile telephone and internet provider should be one of the first things you do after moving in.

Most mobile phone providers use a contract system where data, messaging and phone privileges are given for a set period of time. Make sure you pick the deal that’s right for you, whether it is free data allowances in the EU or further afield, or a limit on data usage for a cheaper price.

When choosing an internet package, many providers like to bundle landlines, TV packages and internet connections into one deal. Many companies also offer in-store or online deals with special perks and gifts, so be sure to shop around before you make your choice.

Finally, if you do plan on using a SIM card from a country outside of Switzerland, make sure to check whether you are allowed to use your data, phone and messaging package in the alpine nation and for how long, as costs can spiral.

8. Do a shop before Sunday

Sometimes, it can feel like everyone has left Switzerland on Sundays as the vast majority of businesses and shops are closed, workers need official permission to work during the day, and staff are richly rewarded through overtime for doing so. 

This means that it is important to make sure that you have enough food and essentials to get yourself through the day. If you do need to do a shop, stores at train stations and airports are allowed to remain open on Sunday.

9. Start learning a Swiss language

In Switzerland, there are four national languages that you can learn: German, French, Italian and Romansh. The borders between language regions are fairly static, so make sure you check what language is spoken in your area.

A general rule of thumb is that if you are in the west you speak French, if you are in the east you speak German, if you are in Canton Ticino you speak Italian, and if you are in a small village in the Swiss mountains, you might have to speak Romansh.

While English is widely spoken, especially in large cities, locals appreciate attempts to learn the language. It also can be beneficial to learn a Swiss language to expand your options when looking for a job.

10. Try local Swiss food

Once you are settled into your new home, it's a good idea to start learning how to make and trying some traditional Swiss food. As the country is home to German, Italian and French speakers, there is a hugely diverse range of different delicacies to try.

Some of the best national dishes you have to try include fondue, alpine macaroni (Älplermagronen), raclette and rösti. Of course, you wouldn't be a local of Switzerland without also trying some famous Swiss cheese or chocolate. 

11. Finish the tourist attractions and go for a hike

Ask a Londoner how many times he visits the British Museum, or how often a New Yorker visits the Empire State Building - not much would be the reply. The same applies to locals in Switzerland. Once a mountain railway has been ridden, a museum is visited and a picture is taken in front of the Matterhorn, you may be wondering what residents of Switzerland do once the historical sites are done.

The short answer is anything to do with the great outdoors. Walking, cycling and swimming are very popular pastimes in Switzerland - perhaps unsurprising given the sheer number of stunning mountains, lakes and rivers. The country has hundreds of officially maintained hiking, biking, mountain biking and kayaking trails, which you can see on the Switzerland Mobility website.

12. The world is your oyster, travel the rest of Europe!

While there are plenty of things to do within Switzerland, the country is right in the heart of Europe, making it really easy to visit other countries. Be it through Swiss airports in Zurich, Geneva, Basel and Bern, or via the extensive night train network, the world is truly your oyster!

Do you have more advice for newcomers to Switzerland? Add it to the comments below!

Jan de Boer


Jan de Boer

Jan studied in York and Sheffield in the UK, obtaining a master's in broadcast journalism and a bachelor's in history. He has worked as a radio DJ, TV presenter, and...

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