Switzerland > Moving

How To Move To Switzerland - The Definitive Guide

Click a link to go directly to a specific section:

Apply For A Visa
Find A Job
Rent Property
Buy Property
Register For Healthcare
Open A Bank Account
Learn The Language
Choose A School

Apply For A Visa

[back to top]

A visa is required for a continuous stay in Switzerland that exceeds 90 days. You may be eligible to enter Switzerland without a visa if visiting as a tourist or for business reasons, and if a citizen of certain countries (further details below). However, if this exemption does apply, the stay can last no longer than 90 days and you can face heavy fines on leaving Switzerland if you do overstay.

Under the Free Movement of Persons right, bilaterally signed by the EU and by Switzerland, EU citizens are legally entitled to remain in Switzerland if employed, self-employed or of sufficient independent means; if a student; or as a dependant of individuals accepted under these conditions. This includes the newer EU-8 member states, but certain restrictions currently remain in force with regard to first-time employment for EU-8 state members until 2014. Normal regulations concerning visa application and registration in Switzerland must still be followed by all non-Swiss nationals.

Switzerland is a member of the Schengen Agreement and participates in the Schengen visa scheme. A Schengen Visa covers travel in all countries that are Schengen member states. These include most European countries but NOT the UK or Ireland.

Short Stay Schengen Visa

This is not required by holders of EU passports/identity cards or EEA passports/identity cards. It is also not required by those in possession of a passport of a number of other countries including USA and Canada. A full list of exemptions can be found on the VFS Global website. Note that regulations with regard to US Green Card holders changed in 2008 and a visa will be required. Visit http://www.eda.admin.ch/ and navigate to the pages for your country of residence for more information if you need a short stay visa to enter Switzerland. In the US, the processing time for a short stay visa is normally 10 days.

Long Stay Visas (Residence Permits)

Student Visa

UK residents must apply for a student visa in order to study in Switzerland. This must be applied for in person at the Swiss Embassy in London. There are strict guidelines which must be adhered to with regard to what is required and how many copies. These are available via VFS Global here (PDF file).

US residents wishing to study in Switzerland must apply for a student visa at one of the official Swiss visa desks in the USA. Locations are listed here and application requirements here (PDF file).

Work Visa

To work in Switzerland, UK residents must apply for a work visa. This must be done in person at the Swiss Embassy in London. There are strict guidelines which must be adhered to with regard to what is required and how many copies. These are available via VFS Global here (PDF file).

US residents who have secured employment in Switzerland must apply for a work visa at one of the official Swiss visa desks in the USA. Locations are listed here and application requirements here (PDF file).

Dependant Visa

UK residents wishing to join a husband, wife or parents in Switzerland must apply for a dependant visa. This must be done in person at the Swiss Embassy in London. There are strict guidelines which must be adhered to with regard to what is required and how many copies. These are available via VFS Global here (PDF file).

Family Regroupment Visa

US residents need a Family Regroupment visa to join a Swiss or EU/EFTA spouse or parent. This must be applied for at one of the official Swiss visa desks in the USA. Locations are listed here (PDF file).

Following processing of your successful application you will be issued with an entry visa. Allow 8 to 12 weeks for this in the UK, 8 to 10 weeks in the US, other countries may vary. This will be exchanged for the appropriate permit following registration in Switzerland with the Foreigners Police / Town Registrar.

Application fees apply, but are waived for spouses and children of EU nationals and for children under six. Reduced fees may apply for children over six, UN and CERN employees, and citizens of certain countries. Full details can be obtained from the organisation responsible for issuing Swiss visas in your country of residence.

Residents of Australia should make visa applications to the Consulate General of Switzerland in Sydney. Residents of New Zealand should contact the Embassy in Wellington. The Swiss embassy for residents of Ireland is located in Dublin and applications must be made in person.

Useful Resources

Embassy of Switzerland (UK)
16-18 Montagu Place, London W1H 2BQ
Tel: +44 (0)20 7616 6000

Embassy of Switzerland (Ireland)
6, Ailesbury Road, Ballsbridge, Dublin 4, Ireland
Tel: +353 1 218 63 82/83
Email: dub.vertretung@eda.admin.ch

Consulate General of Switzerland, New York
633 Third Avenue, 30th floor, New York, NY 10017-8164
Tel: 212-599-5700

Consulate General of Switzerland (Australia)
101 Grafton Street cnr Grosvenor Street, Tower 2 Level 23, Bondi Junction NSW 2022 Australia
Tel: +61 2 8383 4000
Email: syd.vertretung@eda.admin.ch

Embassy of Switzerland (NZ)
10 Customhouse Quay, Level 12, Wellington 6140, New Zealand
Tel: +64 4 472 15 93

Find A Job

[back to top]

Finding a job in Switzerland may be difficult for a foreigner. Competition in the job market is high and to fulfil the employment process you need to have a work permit issued by an employer. For most jobs you will also need to speak the local language. Almost half of the unemployed people in the country are foreigners. On the plus side, if you do manage to find a job, the salaries are amongst the highest in the world, the economy is stable and according to the law, foreigners have to be employed under the same salaries and work conditions as citizens.

The average unemployment rate reached 3.4% in November 2016. You have to note that looking at different parts of the country separately, you will see how divided it is in terms of the unemployment rate. While in Zurich the percentage is around the national average, in Geneva it reaches as high as 5.6%. There are many factors that cause this. Cultural differences, for example, or the local language – French is considered more demanding and more difficult to perfect than German. It may also be a result of incomplete data, due to the fact that not everyone who is unemployed will be registered. While in Geneva, over 60% of unemployed people are registered as such, in Zurich only 39% are. This might be simply caused by differences in approaches to unemployment.

Employment can commence only after you are registered and have obtained Swiss health insurance. An employer cannot hire you without your insurance card number and any work performed before that, even after your work permit is granted, is considered illegal. Hiring a person illegally can result in heavy fines or even prison for the employer and a fine for the employee. Also, no payment will be allowed for the work done in the illegal period.

English is usually required for work, but is not necessarily a big advantage to have over other candidates. Switzerland has four official languages: German, French, Italian and Romansh. In big international companies English will be used on a daily basis, but most likely a local language will also be required. In smaller companies you might be asked for fluency in more than one of the local languages. On top of that most Swiss people speak very good English, so unless you want to become a teacher and you’re a native English speaker, sticking to only this language might not get you any further in the job search. There are of course exceptions: if you’re skilled in engineering and technology, pharmaceuticals, consulting, banking, insurance and IT, financial analyses, business analyses and systems analyses, you might get a job based only on the English language. Some of the international companies that have headquarters in Switzerland and hire English speakers are: Nestlé, Novartis, Zurich Insurance, Roche, Credit Suisse, Adecco, Swiss Re and Glencore. There are also many international organizations that post job offers for English speakers: United Nations, the World Trade Organisation, and the International Red Cross.

The best way to look for a job is online. Just look for “Jobsbörsen” in your search engine and you will find websites which post job offers. They offer customised job searching and an application form. The most well-known are:

Job Agent and
Job Is Job.

Once you have chosen where you want to apply, prepare a CV and a cover letter. Both of these should be written in the language of the advertisement. If English is also required, make a copy in each language. If you have any certificates or references, they will need to be translated as well. Before you send your application off, ask someone to check the spelling and grammar. In your CV, put all the information that is relevant for the job and accentuate the skills that you have gathered and the reasons why you are a perfect candidate. Internships and extracurricular activities are also appreciated, so don’t be afraid to mention them. If you choose to send your application by post, make sure all the documents are printed on good quality paper and look presentable.

Other places where you can search for jobs are:

Newspapers and magazines – the most popular newspapers with job sections are “Temps", "24heures” and “Tagesanzeiger”. Job sections are called Stellenmarkt or offres d’emploi and you can find them in daily, weekly or monthly magazines, Online Newspapers and Zeitung list all of the online newspapers.

Employment agencies – are called Arbeitsvermittlungen or agences de placement and they are commonly used but might have some restrictions on the residence permit. What is worth noting, is that they cannot apply for your residence or work permit. The top two agencies in the country are Manpower and Adecco.

Career fairs – this is an opportunity for employers and candidates to meet, chat and exchange contacts. For many events like this you will need to send your CV first and wait for confirmation. You might also be able to schedule an interview with a particular employer in a certain time slot.

Speculative applications – another approach to job searching is to contact a company directly, without going through the particular application system. Search for the most interesting Swiss companies and check for which positions they are hiring at the moment. Prepare the cover letter, giving the reason for your application, and pass it on with your CV to the head of the human resources department (Personalabteilungsleite - Directeur de Ressources Humaines). You can find a list of the biggest Swiss companies here.

Chamber of commerce – try to search through your country’s Chamber of Commerce – they are also providing job offers on behalf of employers.

Temporary work is a good solution if you can’t or don’t want to find a full time job. You can find a temporary job in all the major economic sectors now, including construction, industry and services, including banking, communications, healthcare, retail, transport, hotels and restaurants. In Switzerland, you can register yourself with an online agency, such as staff-finder.jobs/public/work-temporary-en or swissstaffing.ch/en/branche/temporary-work. The agency looks for potential employers and is a buffer between both of you, so you don’t need to worry about payments and formalities.

Good luck!

Rent Property

[back to top]

The process of renting a flat or a house in Switzerland may vary depending on your destination. The most popular locations in the country are Zurich, Geneva and Basel, where the number of flat seekers surpasses the number of available spaces to rent and so the prices are higher. In general, the amount of offers and possibilities can be intimidating. The number of apartments being sold and rented at the same time is very high. Before you begin your quest of searching for the perfect place, think about the time you are willing to stay for, the location, and preferably do a little research about the areas you like. No matter how much luck you have during the search, be patient and don’t settle for just anything, especially if you are looking for a comfortable yet not too expensive place of your own for a long period of time.

The typical lease term is twelve months. Unless it is noted in the contract, it cannot be terminated by the tenant. If the contract doesn’t state the period of time, it is assumed to be for an unlimited period. In order to terminate such a contract, notice needs to be presented. Traditionally, tenancies could only start or end on a quarter day which is around 25th of March, June, September and December. This tradition is still continued in several areas of the country, so be sure to check before you make any plans. It is also not acceptable in some places to start or finish the tenancy on a quarter day in December, because of Christmas.

Depending on where you plan to live, the prices for one room in a flat or a house will range between 1000 - 1300 CHF per month, over 1500 CHF for two rooms and over 2200 CHF for three rooms. Note that the number of rooms does not include the kitchen or bathroom, but does include the living room. Long-term rentals are usually for unfurnished apartments, which sometimes can be misunderstood by expats at first glance. Swiss unfurnished flats come without furniture and often they require light fittings to be installed together with the stove/oven, a dishwasher and a washing machine. In most cases they will also come without any decorations or curtains. Although it is possible to find apartments with the above features, you should always look for those details in the offer and later in the reading of the contract. A deposit is usually required and it can be equivalent to up to three months’ rent. The deposit is meant to be returned after the contract ends, however if the apartment needs any repair work, cleaning or redecorating, part or the total amount from the deposit might not be returned. It is worth noting that common practice, which can also be a requirement listed in the contract, is to clean the flat (often with the help of professional cleaning services), fix small holes or scratches and repaint the walls when the contract is ending.

When it comes to the actual contract, possibly the most important thing that you should keep track of is the cost of the rent and all the additional payments. Things like garbage disposal, cleaning or renovating the building, heating and water consumption will be counted as additional payments. The second most important thing is the length of your contract and the amount of notice which needs to be given. This can be between three to six months. Also important are the value of the deposit and when it must be paid, conditions of possible rent increases and rules of redecorating after the previous tenant or for the future one after you leave. Pay attention to the protocol and inventory of all the things that are included inside the apartment when the contract is signed.

If you don’t plan to stay long enough to consider a long-term lease, try looking for temporary housing or a sublet, which is legal and common in Switzerland. Although it is always possible to skip renting and arrange to stay at a hotel instead, it is very pricey. Booking a flat or a house for a short time also has some benefits, such as renting a fully furnished and equipped place without any additional payments like trash disposal, cleaning the building area, arranging the internet connection, redecorating or fixing the utilities. There are a few websites that offer rental of fully furnished flats and houses for up to a whole month, such as eshortrental.com or ums.ch. Websites like airbnb.com and tripping.com might also be helpful when you’re looking for subletting and budget friendly options. Availability of a place like this for a longer period of time can however be an issue. Try to reserve the place for at least a few weeks before your arrival.

The general advice for renting a flat is to be fast, organized and prepared. Start looking as soon as you can, preferably even before you cross the border. If possible, schedule visits before you move over, and come to see the apartments in person. Be optimistic but don’t rush into things.

For more detailed information, visit Rental-law.ch.

Buy Property

[back to top]

On finding a house that you would like to buy in Switzerland, your next step will be to check that you will be able to obtain a mortgage that, when combined with your savings, will be sufficient to cover the purchase price of the house. (You can ask the mortgage provider to value more than one property for you if you are still deciding between properties.) Be sure to factor in any necessary renovation costs and the co-ownership charge, if a shared building.

If you are satisfied that the property is affordable, you will need to put in an offer. If you are using an estate agent, they will handle this part of the process. If a private sale, you can contact the owner directly by phone or, if they require an offer in writing, by email. If your offer is accepted you may be asked to make a deposit to the seller via the notary, which will then be deducted from the purchase price. Ensure you have an agreement in writing that specifies that this will be fully refunded should the seller subsequently decide not to sell to you.

If buying off-plan, the process is similar except that the purchase price will be fixed and you will need to put down a deposit to secure your reservation and to sign a preliminary contract. There is likely to be an arrangement to pay this deposit and the remainder of the purchase price in stages, corresponding to the stages of completion of the property. Some new-build properties will involve annual payment of interest on the land (Baurechtzins), which is similar to buying a property leasehold rather than freehold. To remove this obligation you would need to buy out the lease but legal advice will need to be sought. Buyers are therefore advised to fully inform themselves of the consequences of purchasing a property that involves this arrangement. On completion of the purchase of a new-build you will receive a home warranty giving your protection against construction flaws for the next 5 years, extended to 10 for hidden defects.

You will now need to negotiate a date for moving. In Switzerland it is more common than in some other countries to have a period in which you own two properties, i.e. your new home and the former home you are selling. If you wish to avoid this, you will need to discuss with the seller whether they are willing to delay their own move. At this point you will also need to consider whether you would like to buy any fixtures, should the seller be willing to part with these on moving out. If there is any necessary work to be done as a condition of sale, and the seller has agreed to these conditions, you should also ensure that this is specified in writing.

Both your interests and those of the seller will be represented by a public notary. Once the mortgage formalities have been completed with your mortgage provider and you are issued with proof that you have the funds to buy the property, you will visit the notary’s office (Notariatsamt) with the seller to agree on the contracts. If all is satisfactory to both parties and the notary has no concerns, contacts can be signed. The notary will charge up to 5% of the purchase price, depending on the canton. Even where lower, the notary cost is unlikely to be less than 4.5%, however in some cantons it is normal for the notary costs to be split equally between the buyer and seller. Note that you can appoint the notary yourself and are not obliged to accept the notary recommended to you. If you so wish, you can additionally appoint your own legal advisor.

Your notary will take care of the property transfer tax and paperwork. The tax rate will vary (and is not applicable in the cantons of Zurich and Schwyz) but will be covered by the notary fee. The notary also ensures the Land Registry deeds are changed, at which point you become the new legal owner of the property.

Buyers need to bear in mind that estate agents and sellers do not have a legal obligation in Switzerland to alert you to problems with a property or location, and are likely to gloss over these. You will therefore need to be alert to potential issues before purchasing a property. You will receive a copy of the architect’s valuation which will give you some detail. Structural surveys are uncommon in Switzerland but you are within your rights to have one carried out if you have any concerns.

Useful Resources

Directory of notaries covering 14 cantons of Switzerland (including Zurich, Geneva and Basel Stadt)

Les notaires romands
Directory of notaries in French-speaking Switzerland

Register For Healthcare

[back to top]

QUICK LINK: Switzerland health insurance

Health care in Switzerland is considered one of the best in the world. It is accessible for everybody and there is a vast choice of experienced specialists to choose from. On top of that, the majority of them speak English and there are almost no queues to get an appointment. The downsides are the costs.

Health and accident insurance in Switzerland is a must. If you are a EU citizen, in the first three months of your stay, you are allowed to use your European Health Insurance Card (EHIC), otherwise you must have your own health insurance policy, travel insurance or a company healthcare plan. After three months (or actually, as soon you become a registered resident), you are obliged to get authorized Swiss health insurance, which will be paid by you in monthly fees, as opposed to insurance paid with taxes or by your employer. Authorized means you will be able to choose the insurer yourself, from public and private companies. There is not much difference between the two and in both the waiting time is relatively low. Each family member has to be insured separately, even small children, in the first three months after their birth. It is common that basic healthcare is supplemented by some private healthcare services. The average cost for an adult per month is around 400 CHF.

Hospitals in Switzerland are very high quality and considered to be among the best equipped in the world. They are called Krankenhaus / Spital / Hospital / Ospedale and are signed with a letter H on a white background. Doctors and staff will be most likely able to speak English, often to a very advanced level. Apart from in emergency situations, in which case you will want to visit an accident & emergency unit, you will need to obtain a referral from the doctor first. You will also be limited to the hospital noted in the referral, which will most likely be located in the same canton. If you have private health insurance in Switzerland, you can choose your own doctor and get a private room. If you only have basic Swiss health insurance, you will be covered for medical and nursing care and outpatient follow-up, although you will be asked to pay a fee per day towards these costs.

In emergency situations, the European emergency telephone line is available at 112, there is no charge and the operator should be able to speak English. Other important numbers are: 144 for an ambulance, 118 for the fire service, 117 for police and 1414 for the Swiss Rescue. The last one is organized by cooperation of private and public civilian and military partner organizations and its main purpose is to rescue people in occasions such as earthquakes or searches in the mountains. Emergency treatment is covered by basic health insurance and it’s up to you when it comes to the choice of a hospital. Most hospitals will have a twenty-four hour A&E or ER (Notaufnahme / d’urgence / pronto soccors), where you will be asked about your health insurance details.

Swiss people are leading the way when it comes to life expectancy, which shouldn’t come as any surprise considering their lifestyles. Excellent health care, good eating habits and high participation in sports are visible everywhere throughout the country. The statistics show that the most common things that lead to death in Switzerland are heart disease and cancer. Dementia among older citizens, is also fairly common. On the bright side, Swiss people have a very low obesity and diabetes index.

Smoking is usually prohibited indoors, but that can differ depending on the canton. Some parts of the country are home to many smokers and smoking in restaurants won’t be a surprise, while others, like Valais, tend to be strict about their non-smoking policies. The only exception are trains, where all the wagons are smoke free, and also offices. Outside spaces, such as terraces, café gardens, bus stops and train platforms are usually spaces where smoking is allowed. If you’re interested whether a particular place has a smoking or non-smoking policy, look for signs indicating whether smoking is allowed, which should be shown in the area. Ashtrays on tables also indicate that smoking is allowed.

Counselling in Switzerland is easily available for English speakers. Some counsellors host sessions through Skype or by telephone, so there is no need to limit yourself to someone in the place where you live. For more details on the subject and variety of therapists, go to the Swiss Association for Counselling.

Open A Bank Account

[back to top]

Switzerland is known for its banks, just as much as for its cheeses and chocolate. Not only are there hundreds to choose from, but they are known as the safest in the world. The buildings are usually large and modern and the customer services can be easily found in English.

The main local banks are UBS, Crédit Suisse, Raiffeisen Bank, PostFinance and cantonal banks (Kantonalbanks) – banks specific to each canton and available only for residents of that canton.

UBS and Crédit Suisse are the biggest in the country, however are chosen less often by expats, due to high service fees. PostFinance is the banking service provided by Swiss Post. It is considered very expat-friendly as the fees are quite low, usage of ATMs is free of charge and any post office works as a branch. You can also find international banks in Switzerland, many from the US – like Citibank, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase or State Street Corporation and the UK – such as Barclays, IG Bank, HSBC or Lloyds Bank. These banks offer international accounts which can be opened in different currencies and might be a good solution if you need a bank account prior to moving.

The accounts available in the aforementioned banks are usually personal current accounts for managing payments and finances, regular savings accounts and special savings accounts for young people and for retirement purposes, time deposits and investment funds. Current accounts are available in several different currencies, usually in Swiss francs, US dollars, British pounds or euros. Personal accounts are provided in Swiss francs, however there is an option of opening an additional account in euros. PostFinance bank allows the opening of private accounts in other foreign currencies and special accounts for children and their guardians. Special options for students can be free of any fees. All mentioned accounts have internet banking services available.

To open an account, you will need to prove your identity with a passport, present your visa or residence permit and a recent bill. You will also need a residential address; if you don’t have one you might be asked to deposit a sum of money or a reference letter to prove your accountability. If you’re not a resident yet, you might find it harder to open an account. It is possible though in the biggest banks like UBS or Crédit Suisse that you will need to deposit a certain sum of money - usually over 50 000 Swiss francs to open an account. Almost all of the banks have the possibility of creating an account online. After you register, the bank sends you your documents and you just need to go to the bank to verify all the necessary things mentioned above.

Banks are usually open from Monday to Friday, from 08:00 to 16:30. Some banks are open even later and during the weekend. Smaller banks might close during the lunch break. In big cities you might be able to find 24 hour service centres where you can exchange currencies, withdraw money, buy travellers’ cheques and make money transfers.

Debit and credit cards like Visa and MasterCard are accepted almost everywhere. You can pay with them in shops and restaurants. It is rare that somewhere doesn’t accept payments by card, but there are numerous ATMs everywhere so you won’t have to worry about withdrawing cash. It is worth noting that some merchants will charge you additional fees for using credit cards, while debit cards won’t be charged at all. To make sure you don’t need to pay additional fees, ask the merchant about it before paying. When it comes to applying for a card, many accounts will have the option of a free debit or credit card, while others will require a small fee or regular payments into the account. To obtain a credit card, a security deposit is needed of approximately one to two times the monthly credit limit; the amount depends on the bank. This deposit is returned once the customer has discontinued the credit card and paid all the outstanding bills. Be careful when paying abroad with your Swiss credit card as it will be charged with additional fees and exchange rates will be unfavourable. In these situations it is always safer to withdraw cash from an ATM.

To get a loan in Switzerland you have to meet many criteria set by lenders. This usually includes a specific age; you have to be over 18 years old. Sometimes there is also a maximum age. Loans are available for expats for the benefit of buying a property. There will have to be some part paid as a deposit though, usually about 20% of the payment, and the mortgage agent will make a valuation of the property, so only this amount will be given to you. The most affordable loans are the low cost ones. The rule is, the shorter the terms of payment and the lower the loan, the more affordable it is. The interest rates will vary between 4.5% and 10% per annum. An overdraft is common with credit cards and can be assigned from the very beginning with a limit of up to a few thousand Swiss francs. Don’t be surprised if you get an overdraft even if you didn’t apply in the first place.

Learn The Language

[back to top]

According to expats living in Switzerland, there is no need to worry about your language skills before arrival. Most people in the big cities speak excellent English and survival without knowing any of the local languages is possible. It will be totally up to you to decide if you want to give learning a new language a chance. There are many benefits to learning a new language, though, so you might want to give it a try.

Depending on the region, Switzerland has four official languages: German, French, Italian and Romansh (also known as Rumantsch, Romansch Rhaeto-Romanic or Romance). The division is quite natural and is based on geographical influences. German is spoken in eastern and central areas, French in the west, Italian in the south-east and Romansh only in the canton of Grisons, which lies in the south-east of the country. The majority of Swiss people (63.5% of the population in 2013) are officially German speakers, followed by French (22.5%), Italian (8.1%) and Romansh (0.5%).

What is worth noting is that the official and written language in the majority of Switzerland is the same German language as the one taught in Germany (Hochdeutsch, also known as High German). However the language used unofficially and verbally is Swiss German, called Schwyzerdütsch and depending on the canton (Swiss division unit with the similar power as a state in America) where it is being used, may sound totally different due to local dialects. While in the French-speaking parts, the dialect differences are slowly disappearing, the differences between Swiss German dialects are very noticeable and may cause misunderstandings even to a native.

English is slowly becoming the unofficial fifth language of Switzerland, mainly due to the influence of technology, international television and advertising. It is possible to communicate in English, mostly with the younger generations. Communicating with older people and in official situations such as a doctor’s office or the post office may require the knowledge of at least a little German or French. In the workplace, even though English is becoming more and more popular and is used as the primary language by many international companies, there is a high chance that your employer will require the knowledge of at least German or French as a base. There are of course exceptions; a person can be hired without knowledge of any other language simply because of exceptional skills or in environments like IT, where most of the technical terminology would be covered in English anyway.

While it is possible to get through everyday life and necessities only in English, especially in the bigger cities, it is highly recommended to get the knowledge of the language of your region of choice. For an expat, learning the language of the natives is not only life improving but also opens up a lot of wonderful opportunities. It will be easier to meet people, make friends, read the local magazines, listen to the radio, catch the latest news or watch movies on TV and in the cinema. In the German-speaking parts of Switzerland most of the foreign movies and programs, in both television and cinema, are dubbed. The exception might be cable TV if the channel has the option of switching the audio and subtitles. In the rest of the country there is usually a choice between French dubbing or subtitles in German and French. To make sure you find a movie with audio in English, you can search for special theatres or screenings for English speakers.

The most common languages to speak at home and at unofficial events are Swiss German, French, Standard German, Italian and English. Due to an increasing number of immigrants from many parts of the world, a number of other languages are also commonly used, including Portuguese, Albanian, Serbian and Croatian, Spanish, and Turkish. Speaking more than two or three languages is not rare in Switzerland, however it is not accurate to assume that all people are fluent in all four official languages. Children are taught at school in the language of the canton they live in, while the teaching at universities is covered in German or French (and Italian in the Ticino canton).

Knowing the local language can also prove useful when shopping, using public transport or when away in rural areas. If you choose to study the local language, depending on the region where you live, you can attend the free language classes covered by each canton separately.

The most affordable private schools come under the umbrella of the supermarket chain Migros, called Migros Klubschule (www.klubschule.ch); you can find classes in German, French and Italian and the quality of teaching is very good. Another option is Volkshochschule which is usually meant for teaching the natives the other official language. Classes are offered in German, French, Italian and Romansh (vhsbb.ch, vhszh.ch, vhsbe.ch) On the more pricey side there is Berlitz, where you will find an excellent quality of teaching. Some of the other schools worth checking out are Inlingua and Alemania, however the reviews vary depending on the location. Other than that there are plenty of language schools offering more intensive courses as well as individual tutors offering their services through newspapers and the internet. One of the most interesting options when you’re on a budget but also want to interact with another person is Tandem, a free language exchange program where you are matched up with another person and meet to study together.

If you wish to become a paid tutor yourself, you can try searching for students on your own, through advertisements in the newspaper or internet, or join a language school. Note that you might be required to present a CELTA certification to do so. You will be able to take CELTA or DELTA (more advanced) certifications through a six month standard course, or a faster, more intense one. If you have a relevant degree (MA) in English, you might not need to present this certificate.

Choose A School

[back to top]

Swiss education is ranked very highly in the worldwide rankings and has one of the highest scores of university attendance. Public schools are free and available to anybody. Even the most prestigious universities are not expensive compared to universities in the US, where people have to save money for years to pay off the tuition fees. Public kindergartens, primary and secondary schools are completely free of charge. Private schools can be expensive, especially boarding schools, like Le Rosey boarding school that attracts candidates from all over the world and offers luxurious accommodation and attractions, such as a winter ski camp. Schools are managed separately by individual cantons, so you can find many differences in education between regions.

Compulsory education starts between the age of four, in some areas, and seven in others. The difference is caused by the implementation of the compulsory kindergarten policy two years before the start of formal school education. Basically, every registered child between the age of six and fifteen needs to be enrolled in elementary school. Almost all of the country has the compulsory kindergarten rule. Elementary school, called Volksschule, usually lasts nine to eleven years. Sometimes there is a possibility of taking an additional year after completing elementary school, to help figure out future possibilities and which school to choose. After elementary school, you have the choice of a Gymnasium for general education, or vocational education and training (VET), or apprenticeships. Vocational trainings are internships with the addition of attending a vocational school for one or two days a week. At the end of this level of education, students will present a thesis and will have to pass a series of examinations. The result will be a diploma called matura or baccalaureate, which is necessary for further education at university or Federal Institutes of Technology.

Schools are divided into local, private and international (public or private). Most Swiss children (80%) go to local schools which are free and have a great reputation outside of the country. Local schools teach in the language of their cantons, so a foreign child might expect some language tests at the very beginning. This is why international schools are popular in Switzerland as they take away the stress of learning a new language and interacting with other children in their mother tongue. This has a big impact on a child’s education. You can find French, English, German, Spanish, Italian, Dutch and Swedish schools in most of the big cities in the country. In private schools, you can expect extended hours, smaller classrooms, more freedom and more extracurricular activities than in the local schools, however, they can be quite expensive. It is also worth noting that you cannot actually choose your local school before enrolment. It will be assigned according to available space and location.

For enrolment in a local primary school, you will need: a birth certificate, health and accident insurance, residence permit and sometimes proof of accommodation (a lease contract can be used). You will also need to follow the dates and requirements specific to a particular school and canton, as they may vary. Usually the enrolment process will close with the beginning of the term, so if you’re planning a relocation, check the necessary information with the school first. Be aware that the process of enrolment can be significantly different in private and international schools.

School hours always include a lunch break. That means, after a few hours of morning classes, usually two hours between 08:00 and 12:00, kids are free until lunch time and are able to go home to eat it. Most of the schools and kindergartens are closed during this time. After the two hours of lunch time, children go back for another two hours of classes. In older classes children might have additional lessons before 08:00 and after 15:00. The school year starts between mid-August and mid-September, has two terms or semesters and around 12 weeks’ holiday a year, including the summer holidays which last for 10 weeks. The exact dates differ depending on the canton the school is located in.

Extracurricular activities are mostly focused on sports. Skiing during the winter season and swimming all year round are the most popular, followed by tennis and gymnastics. Apart from that, each school will have their own options in the program, like music lessons, dancing classes or cooking and knitting. Although extracurricular activities are usually not covered by public schools, you may still find companies and clubs that can provide them for you.

English only speakers will be forced to look for a private school, which is not hard to find, however they might be expensive. While public schools’ tuition is around 500CHF per semester, tuition in a private school would be a few thousand francs.

Compared to the UK or US education systems, Swiss compulsory schooling takes longer. Children go to school one year later than in England and ‘graduate’ from higher-secondary education two years later. Also, things like reading, writing and maths are taught much faster in the UK, so comparing the first years of elementary school, English children learn those things earlier. In the next few years the rate of progress equals out. The real differences, however, are seen in middle and high school. Swiss children receive the full spectrum of education that is supposed to prepare them properly in every subject, which is later tested in the final exam – matura. In England, children are given the choice of what they want to focus on, so they can also develop their artistic side and soft skills. When it comes to personal development, there are some differences too, such as: eating lunch together in the UK compared with eating at home in the middle of the day in Switzerland. Also, switching between class groups depending on the subject compared to one class throughout the whole school day. In both systems you can finds pros and cons and it is really up to personal choice to decide which one is better.

In order to study for a degree in Switzerland, you need to be fluent in the language of your university of choice. The German speaking universities are Universität Basel (BS), Universität Bern (BE), Universität Fribourg (FR), Universität St. Gallen (SG), Universität Zürich (ZH). The French speaking universities are Université de Genève (GE), Université de Lausanne (VD), Université de Neuchâtel (NE). There is also one Italian speaking university: L’Università della Svizzera italiana in Ticino (TI). This doesn’t mean that all classes are non-English, but you will need to be able to speak the main language of instruction. You might also be required to take a language test before you enrol, even if the course is in English.

Useful Resources

Swiss Federation of Private Schools (SFPS)
Hotelgasse 1, Postfach, CH 3000, Bern 7
Tel: +41 (0)31 328 40 50
Email: info@swiss-schools.ch

Swiss Group of International Schools (SGIS)
Email: info@sgischools.ch

Expat Health Insurance Partners

Cigna Global

Cigna has worked in international health insurance for more than 30 years. Today, Cigna has over 71 million customer relationships around the world. Looking after them is an international workforce of 31,000 people, plus a network of over 1 million hospitals, physicians, clinics and health and wellness specialists worldwide, meaning you have easy access to treatment.