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Living in Switzerland: The ultimate guide to life in the alpine nation

Living in Switzerland: The ultimate guide to life in the alpine nation

So you're thinking of packing your bags and moving to Switzerland? It's a good choice, but before you book your tickets and get ready to upsticks, you may be wondering what the pros and cons are of living in the alpine nation. From the high quality of life to the equally high cost of living, here’s all you need to know about what life is like in this picture postcard of a country!

Life in Switzerland

For most expats, life in Switzerland is like living inside a very pleasant bubble. Things happening outside the bubble do have a small impact, but little tends to change in the country on the day-to-day - mainly because things are pretty good to begin with!

Switzerland remains one of the top destinations for expats, so much so that as of 2021, 24,6 percent of the population are not Swiss citizens but internationals who came to the country from abroad.

Living in Switzerland: What’s it like?

While seen by tourists as a land of chocolate, cheese, watches, on-time public transport and mountains, there's a lot more to living in Switzerland than the stereotypes would suggest. To show you, here are some of the things that make the alpine nation unique as a place to live:

Working in Switzerland

Most expats tend to describe working in Switzerland as "a lot of work, and a lot of rewards." The standard working week is between 40 and 48 hours - although those who work in banking, finance and insurance often break the rules and work as much as 70 hours a week!

In terms of work itself, the Swiss working environment is similar to other countries in Europe. Some unique aspects include the 9am and 4pm snack breaks - Znüni and Zvieri - and the generous breaks over lunch which can last up to two hours, although this time is usually taken back by starting earlier, ending later, or working over lunch. While possible, the vast majority of people do not work on Sundays, and most shops and businesses close on the day as a result.

Above all, responsibility, punctuality, and hard work are all expected in the workplace. While this seems tough, salaries are the highest in Europe, and the value of the Swiss franc remains high compared to other currencies around the world, so hard work is rewarded in kind.

Standard of living

Switzerland also benefits from an extremely high standard of living, with the country and its cities regularly ranking as some of the best places to live in the world. The high levels of disposable income, thanks to high salaries, allow families and individuals to go on more holidays, spend more and indulge in all the things to do in Switzerland.

In 2021, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development reported that Switzerland ranks above average for well-being, jobs and earnings, income and wealth, health status, social connections, environmental quality, education and skills, work-life balance, housing, and personal security. Life expectancy is also high, hovering around 84 years on average. 

Living standards are maintained through excellent public services like world-beating healthcare and public transport. The environment also has its role to play: with lakes and rivers to swim in, mountains to climb and stunning landscapes to explore, after-work activities in Switzerland can feel like a holiday in themselves.

Cost of living in Switzerland

Of course, this high standard of living comes at a price, with the cost of living in Switzerland often being rated as the highest in the world. According to Numbeo, as of August 2023 living costs for a family of four stand at roughly 6.000 francs a month without rent, 60 percent more than average living costs in the United States.

A combination of a relative lack of price competition and the fact that most food and goods are imported means prices are usually much higher in Switzerland than they are just across the border - so much so that many Swiss residents go to Germany and France to do their shopping.

The biggest factor, however, remains the high salaries. In many cases, the higher prices are there to balance out the salaries that the country provides.

Swiss culture

Swiss culture can be split into two halves. First, you have the old-fashioned stereotypical culture that tourists tend to associate with the country: cheese, chocolate, yodelling, traditional views, neutrality, isolation, banking secrecy and Swiss army knives.

While it’s true that the country maintains these traditions, many people across Switzerland have adopted a far more modern, cosmopolitan outlook on the world. Especially in cities like Zurich, Geneva and Basel, like-minded people have come together to create a bohemian culture that fuses modern ideas (like LGBTQ+ pride, female empowerment and other social causes) with Swiss norms - although, like most of the world, many aspects are still inspired by American culture.  

Swiss people

It’s often said that Swiss people seem to have a hard shell that needs to be cracked if you genuinely want to be friends with them. In expat surveys like those run by InterNations, the Swiss are usually regarded as friendly, polite and punctual, yet also reserved and judgemental. While this is sometimes accurate, it all depends on attitude.

If an effort is made to try and speak the local language, and respect is given to them, you will find the Swiss as affable as any other nationality. The commonly-held idea that expats never make Swiss friends is also misleading. While it may take time to connect, once opened up the Swiss are kind, compassionate and - contrary to stereotypes - quite funny.

Is Switzerland safe?

Switzerland is very safe indeed, with the country having one of the lowest crime rates in the world and regularly featuring in the top 10 of the World Peace Index. While there are still cases of petty crime, especially in larger cities, the police and other emergency services are well-trained and able to deal with most issues.

Pros and cons of living in Switzerland

While living in Switzerland can be a great experience, it doesn't always run as smoothly as melted cheese. Here’s a guide to the pros and cons of living in Switzerland:

Benefits of living in Switzerland

Living in Switzerland has a number of benefits. Here are some of the main ones:

High salaries

As mentioned before, any expat with a confirmed job in Switzerland stands to benefit from some of the highest salaries in the world. In 2020, the Federal Statistical Office confirmed that the country offered the third-highest disposable income in Europe, just behind Luxembourg and Norway.

In 2020, the median gross salary in Switzerland was 79.980 francs a year, or 6.665 francs a month - you know you’re on a Swiss salary when you return to your home country on holiday and marvel at how much you can afford to buy.

Well-connected and on-time 

Switzerland really does run like clockwork, with public transport services that are regularly on time and well connected. Swiss Federal Railways (SBB), the federal transport provider, is so confident of their punctuality that they often recommend transfer connections of less than five minutes when booking tickets.

Situated in the heart of Europe, the country is also well-connected to the rest of the continent via motorways and rail links. For those who have come to the country from further afield, Swiss airports provide a wealth of direct flight connections to the rest of the world.

Nature

If you are a person who loves exploring the outdoors, Switzerland is definitely for you! From the peak of the Matterhorn to the wide blue expanse of Lakes Constance and Geneva, the country’s best things to do usually involve immersing yourself in nature.

What’s more, the country has created a strong and well-maintained network of paths, meaning you are able to experience all that nature has to offer by bike, on foot, or even in a kayak.

Great food

Swiss food is both hearty and delicious, taking influences from Italian, French and German cuisine. Rösti, Älplermagronen, raclette and, of course, cheese fondue are all firm and traditional favourites.

Plus, what would Swiss food be without something sweet? Swiss chocolate is known the world over for its delicious taste, high quality and long history. Did you know that milk chocolate was invented in Switzerland?

Strong expat community

If you choose to make Switzerland your home, you’ll soon discover a large and vibrant expat community, especially in the larger cities. As you walk down the streets of Zurich and Geneva, English is sometimes heard more often than German and French.

These expat groups have deep roots and offer a good and easy way to start your social life in the alpine nation. Long-term expats also provide excellent advice and guidance when navigating all the official issues you need to handle once you’ve arrived.

Reasons not to move to Switzerland

It can’t all be sunshine and rainbows, though; here are the reasons not to move to Switzerland:

Cost of living

When arriving in the country for the first time, one thing soon becomes clear and obvious: everything is so expensive! Despite salaries being high, some things are more unaffordable than abroad and it can take a while to adapt to seeing double-digit prices for things that only cost a few coins back home.

Swiss cities are regularly named as some of the most expensive places to live in the world, so be sure to check whether your salary will accommodate your needs - all the more important if the firm you work for is not based in the country.

Hard to connect with locals

One of the biggest complaints expats have about Switzerland is how hard it is to connect with the locals. Especially if you don’t have a grasp of the language, being able to build friendships can be tricky - and if you are fluent in German, Swiss German is a Sprache all to itself.

As a result, the first few months in Switzerland can feel quite lonely. However, with the right tips and tricks, a friendship circle of both expats and locals should develop given time.

Housing shortages

Another issue regularly felt by expats is the limited options when it comes to renting a house or apartment. Many internationals have to trade-off between being close to work and schools, and being able to afford a home that suits their needs. As top expat destinations, housing shortages in Zurich, Geneva and Basel are the most acute.

Rigid residency rules

Finally, expats who lose their jobs are left vulnerable to Switzerland's rigid residence rules. Prolonged periods of unemployment can put your residence permit at risk, especially if you are a citizen from outside the European Union or European Free Trade Association.

The lowdown: Is Switzerland a good place to live? 

With all this in mind, the question remains whether Switzerland is a good place to live. We hope this article convinced you that, despite its flaws, the answer is a resounding yes!

Jan de Boer

Author

Jan de Boer

Editor for Switzerland at IamExpat Media. Jan studied History at the University of York and Broadcast Journalism at the University of Sheffield. Though born in York, Jan has lived most...

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