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Moving to Switzerland: A step-by-step guide

Moving to Switzerland: A step-by-step guide

As a country that offers an exceptional quality of life, high salaries and great things to do, it’s no surprise that many people want to make Switzerland their home. Are you planning on moving to Switzerland but aren’t sure where to start? Check out our ultimate guide to immigrating to the alpine nation.

Is Switzerland a good place to live?

It's no surprise that Switzerland is a popular destination for expats. Simply put, living in the alpine nation means benefitting from some of the highest living standards on earth, with the country often placed in the top 10 for best places to live in the world. Switzerland has some of the best health and public transport services, alongside some stunning scenery, with amazing lakes, mountains and cities to explore.

Jobs in Switzerland are known to come with more generous salaries than other nations in Europe - although prices are also higher in the alpine nation. It is also rated as a great place to raise a family, with high levels of security and a wealth of domestic and international schools to choose from.

How to move to Switzerland in 10 steps

However, before you pack your bags and head to the airport to start your new life in Switzerland, it’s important to know whether you are actually able to come, and if so, what needs to be arranged to make sure that you and your family can settle in properly.

To help budding expats along, here’s a 10-step guide to moving to Switzerland.

Find out if you are eligible to come to Switzerland

First, and most importantly, anyone who wants to come to Switzerland needs to make sure they are eligible to come. The alpine nation has fairly stringent rules regarding who is able to live in the country and who can’t.

While citizens from the European Union (EU) and European Free Trade Association (EFTA) are able to come to look for work - so long as they have the adequate financial means to do so - people from outside these nations (known officially as “third country nationals”) can only come and live in Switzerland with a pre-approved work contract or job offer from a Swiss-based company.

In most cases, third-country nationals will also have to prove a high level of competence in their field and proficiency in the language they will work in, while the company employing them has to prove that no other resident of Switzerland is willing and able to perform the same job. The country also has a strict quota system that only allows a certain number of third-country nationals to resettle each year.

Before travelling to Switzerland, you also need to confirm that you have the right to enter the country. Again, while EU, EFTA and a number of other nationals are able to stay in Switzerland for up to 90 days visa free - see the government's website to see if this applies to you - many newcomers will have to apply for a visa ahead of time in order to be able to enter and apply for their residence permit. 

Get the right documents ready to enter the country

If you are eligible to come to Switzerland, it’s vital that you have the right documents ready when you enter the country. Having the right paperwork to hand will also make it easier to register yourself and apply for things like residence permits, insurance, banking and rental accomodation.

Some important documents you should bring with you when moving to Switzerland include your passport, birth certificate, medical records and - depending on your reason for coming - your university letter of enrolment, your work contract, or your education certificates. Bear in mind you might need to get some official documents translated and / or certified, depending on your country of origin. 

Find somewhere to live

It's important to try to find somewhere to live in Switzerland before you actually make the move. You'll need a fixed address to register and begin applying for your residence permit. Due to the cost of buying a house, expats and locals alike tend to rent houses and apartments during their time in the alpine nation. 

Finding a long-term let before you move to the country permanently is the best solution, but if this is not possible for visa or other reasons, temporary accommodation is also possible in the short-term. However, if you end up applying for residence and receive your permit while still living in temporary housing, you will have to re-register once you've changed address.

When looking for a property, it’s important to think about how close you want to be to work, school and amenities. Also bear in mind that, especially in the larger Swiss cities, demand for housing is high and you may have to apply for multiple properties before you are able to call one your own. 

If you are unable to visit Switzerland ahead of time, or aren't sure where to start, it might be beneficial to contact a relocation company. Alongside helping with visas, residence permits and other important tasks, relocation experts will be able to assist in helping you find the right home for your needs.

Move your belongings to Switzerland

Once you have found somewhere to live, you can start thinking about how you are going to move your belongings to Switzerland. Of course, you could travel light and just bring a suitcase, but if you have a lot of belongings it might be worth contacting a moving company specialising in international moves

International moving companies are especially beneficial when moving to the alpine nation, as they are able to handle the tricky import and customs requirements at the border - a lifesaver if you are trying to move from outside the EU.

If you are bringing medicine along with you, you may need to prove that the medication is for personal use. This can be proved via a medication passport or a note from your GP or pharmacy.

If you’re bringing a pet, make sure you research the guidelines on bringing animals into Switzerland. They will need to be microchipped and have a valid rabies vaccination. Also bear in mind that under a certain age, all dogs need to have passed a training course in Switzerland within a year of their arrival.

Get health insurance for Switzerland

One of the most crucial things to arrange once you arrive in Switzerland is your health insurance. Every resident (including children) needs to have at least basic Swiss health insurance in order to remain in the country and receive a residence permit - health insurance purchased abroad only counts in limited circumstances, so check with your provider before assuming it is valid for long-term residence (not just tourism).

When you apply for basic health insurance, you will also have to select your general practitioner. Under most plans, you will be given a pool of available GPs within a certain radius of where you live. 

Once you have successfully applied you will then receive a health insurance card. Be sure to have it on you at all times as it is how hospitals confirm you have insurance and also contains your AHV social security number.

Basic health insurance guarantees treatment in Swiss hospitals as well as abroad, and providers are unable to reject your application. However, if you want other services - like discounted gym memberships, greater access to specialists, specific GP choices, private or semi-private rooms in hospital and more - then the more pricey supplemental health insurance is for you.

Get your Swiss residence permit

With your home secured and health insurance taken out, you must now register and apply for a residence permit at your local council (Gemeinde) or cantonal immigration office. Every person in your household needs to apply for a permit. In some cases, applying for a residence permit will also involve having to provide a picture and biometric data at your local canton’s immigration office. 

EU and EFTA citizens are able to apply for a residence permit with or without a confirmed job, so long as they can prove that they have health insurance, the means to financially support themselves and proof that they are applying for jobs.

Third-country nationals can apply for a residence permit so long as they have a work contract, health insurance, proof of their competence, qualifications and language proficiency (and in some cases also that they don't have a criminal record or any debts). Any dependents the applicant has, like spouses and children, will also receive permits.

Once you receive your permit, your local council (Gemeinde) will become your hub for administrative matters, from taxes and social security to renewing your permit when it expires. If you move to another town in Switzerland, you must let your Gemeinde know.

Open a Swiss bank account

With the hassle of permits out of the way, it is high time to set up your own bank account in Switzerland. Swiss banks are famous the world over for their excellent customer service and packages that cater to everyone regardless of wealth.

To apply, most banks require proof of address, a residence permit and another ID such as a passport - in some circumstances, they will also ask to see your work contract. Once approved, your new bank cards will be sent to you through the post, and you will able to let your employer know which IBAN to use to pay your salary.

Decide where to send your kids to school

If you are moving to Switzerland with children, it’s important to consider where to send them to school. While public schools are highly rated, if your child is older and does not know one of the official languages of Switzerland (German, French, Italian and Romansh) it might be difficult for them to adapt and learn.

Therefore, it might be worth sending your child to a bilingual or international school. These are exceptional institutions that provide high levels of education, all or partly in English.

Exchange your driving licence

If you plan to drive in Switzerland, new arrivals have a year before they have to exchange their foreign driving licence for a Swiss one. Members of the EU and EFTA, the United Kingdom and a number of other countries have licence exchange agreements with Switzerland, meaning you are able to transfer your licence without having to complete a theory or driving test. Vehicles imported from overseas also have to be registered within a year of arrival.

Get yourself set up for Swiss public transport

One of the great benefits of living in Switzerland is having access to an excellent public transport network. The country has a huge rail, bus, tram and boat system that makes getting around easy and convenient regardless of where you are.

Even if you only plan to take the train infrequently or on weekends, you can save a lot of money by purchasing a half-fare travel card (Halbtax-abo). This cuts the cost of all tickets down by half and costs 185 francs for the first year and 165 francs a year after that.

Those planning to use the train every day or over long distances should consider getting a season ticket for a specific route or a General Abonnement (GA). The GA grants passengers unlimited access to the entire network but does cost thousands of francs a year. 

Immigrating to Switzerland FAQs

Here are answers to some frequently asked questions about immigrating to Switzerland:

Can I move to Switzerland without a job?

Whether you are able to move to Switzerland without a job is based on your nationality. Citizens from the EU and EFTA are able to come to the alpine nation and apply for a residence permit without having to secure a job, although you will need to prove that you have the financial means to support yourself, have health insurance and have proof that you are actually applying for work.

In the vast majority of cases, people from outside the EU and EFTA need to have secured a job in Switzerland before they are able to move.

Is it hard to move to Switzerland?

How hard it is to move to Switzerland really does depend on your personal situation, your career and - unfortunately - your nationality. For those who are EU or EFTA nationals, moving to the alpine nation is a akin to moving to any other nation within the EU bloc - prospective residents are are allowed to move to the country to find work, and once you have found a job, your residence permit is not tied to your employment and takes years to expire.

By contrast, people coming to Switzerland from outside the EU or EFTA need to have secured a job before they are able to move. This means that, usually, only those who are highly qualified, senior or skilled in what they do can move to Switzerland easily.

How much does it cost to move to Switzerland?

Beyond the cost of health insurance and rent, the cost of moving to Switzerland can vary hugely depending on where you move from and where you move to. For instance, moving from outside the EU is likely to cost more due to the distances involved in shipping your possessions to Switzerland.

Second, each of the 26 cantons - and the thousands of local councils - have their own price structures for administrative tasks. While some authorities charge 100 francs per residence permit, others charge 20 or sometimes nothing at all!

However, before you move to Switzerland it’s best to save some money to make sure you can support yourself before your bank account is set up and your first paycheck arrives.

Can an American move to Switzerland?

Citizens of the United States can move to Switzerland but must fulfil the criteria required of a third-country national. While they do not need a visa upon arrival, nationals must either apply for a work visa if they plan to stay for up to three months or apply for a residence permit if they want to stay any longer.

Are British nationals still able to move to Switzerland?

British nationals are also still able to move to Switzerland. However, after the country officially left the European Union on January 1, 2021, UK citizens are now subject to the same rules as other third-country nationals.

However, any British citizen who applied and received a residence permit before the exit date is still considered an EU national and will be treated as such until they apply for citizenship or give up their permit.

Moving to Switzerland: Take it a step at a time

Moving to Switzerland may be hard, but most would argue it is well worth the effort. Once you start ticking things off your to-do list, hopefully, the excitement of moving to one of the most stunning places on earth will take over, and in just a blink of an eye, you’ll find yourself a resident of the picture-postcard nation.

Thumb image credit: gowithstock / Shutterstock.com

Jan de Boer

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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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