Upon arrival in Switzerland, you are either:
- an expatriate for professional reasons
- an expatriate for family reasons
- a student expatriate
You will find in this article practical advice to settle successfully.
Expat with experience
For expatriates with solid experience, a position in Switzerland is often a professional achievement. If you have already travelled the world with international jobs, Switzerland may seem to me to be just another destination but it is not; Switzerland is a country apart. Living in Switzerland is a unique experience.
Living in Switzerland is a unique experience. The number of expatriates who, at the end of their term try everything to stay shows this. The large number of those who stay and live in Switzerland permanently reflects this.
Those wanting to settle for longer periods of time often have children already in their teens. While at the end of their studies, the student expatriate is strongly sought after by new international professional opportunities, with age, the quality of life of the whole family is increasingly taken in consideration.
A family with teenagers will focus on the quality of higher education, the ease of daily life, the respect of ‘living together’, the security, and the standard of living. These are important advantages over living in megacities like London, New York…
The economic dynamism of Switzerland opens up opportunities for young graduates, PhD students, in the private sector or within international organizations.
A first working experience in a job market full of opportunities is a good choice. The expatriate who is starting out is not necessarily likely to stay in Switzerland for long.
International opportunities in Asia, the Americas and Africa often lead these first expatriates to leave the Confederation after a successful first professional experience there. However many of them return to Switzerland when children are born.
The Student Expat
Switzerland welcomes high school students from all over the world in excellent boarding schools before entering university. This is the tradition of Alpine Colleges located in ski resorts or near lakes.
There is also a large number of student expatriates joining the well-known universities in Switzerland such as EPFZ, EPFL, MBA, ST Gallen or other universities (well positioned in the Shanghai world ranking); admission criteria is strict and tuition fees remain competitive in comparison with universities in other countries such as the USA.
As the European Community has excluded Switzerland from the Erasmus exchange program, SEMP (Swiss European Mobility Program) has been set up.
Swiss establishments can be more multicultural than Anglo-Saxon ones (lessons are taught in English and a Swiss national language (French or German) is added. University studies in Switzerland can be the starting point of an expatriate career with a succession of international positions.
Competition is tough
For professionals, being appointed to Switzerland, a country regularly ranked among the most pleasant to live in, with very high salaries, has advantage and disadvantages – competition is tough. In a country that is increasingly offshore outsourcing your employer has no choice but to compare the costs of the local activity and an offshore option.
With a strong Swiss franc, the high exchange rate means that local development must be carried out efficiently. You will need to be operational and to produce quality and results quickly.
For student expatriates, the competition is fierce. Completing higher education in Switzerland is increasingly valued in a CV. The academic level is high. This is the result of an increasingly international recruitment of professors and a student screening process that starts early. An additional requirement is to master a second language alongside English.
Pleasant but often isolated
Being an expatriate in Switzerland often means not having much contact with Swiss citizens whereas when you are a student, the contacts are easy. When you are older and have a family, it can be even more difficult.
That leaves the nearby expatriate community, in the same town, the same company, and the same children’s school… The Canton of Zug with its large concentration of companies is an international financial, economic and commercial centre with vibrant expatriate communities.
Lausanne and its start-ups in the EPFL Innovation Park or the multinationals in Zurich are driving forces fuelling an international dynamic that encourages the creation of links between expatriates.
On the other hand Geneva is under pressure from the reduction in UN budgets but the number of expatriates is still large enough to keep their communities alive.
Expat or Swiss integration?
For those expatriates who are not students, integration with a vibrant expatriate community can take precedence over the need to be fully engaged with the Swiss citizen. Beyond a certain age, apart from attending school events for young children or joining cultural and sports clubs, you will seldom have the opportunity to establish ties with locals.
The starting point for any local integration is the knowledge of the language of the canton.
In some countries, the practice of English, the language of expatriates, is more than enough to integrate. This is not the case in Switzerland. Of the 4 official Swiss languages (German, French, Italian, Romansh), there is at least one that must be mastered: German, French, or Italian. Without mastering one of these languages you will remain an outsider.
Reduced expat ‘benefits package’
Expats arriving for professional reasons have a ‘financial package’, which has been greatly reduced over the past decade. It used to include the cost of housing, cars, children’s schooling, and health insurance – housing rental cost is no longer fully covered. Neither is the private school, nor the services of a relocation agency. UN agencies have also had their budgets drastically reduced. NGOs face scrutiny of their operating costs by donors.
Where to settle in Switzerland?
In a country with rents as expensive as in Switzerland, not benefiting from an employer’s financial contribution can make finding accommodation particularly difficult.
Subletting is becoming more common, especially since in Switzerland, the tenre of the is usually 5 years.
A tenant who leaves the flat before the end of the lease must find a replacement so be careful not to sign up for a flat that is too expensive. It may be difficult to sub-let your accommodation at the same price as you are renting it you would have to pay the difference to the landlord, until the end of the lease.
The Covid pandemic changed the housing situation. Expatriates based in Switzerland had to fly regularly for business. Proximity to airports was then important. This is much less the case now.
Remote working has contributed to an increase in the search for accommodation in small towns on the outskirts of large urban centres such as Zurich, Lausanne and Geneva.
The Covid crisis created constraints on travel and border crossings thus reducing the demand in the cross-border housing market.
Declaring your arrival in Switzerland
Arriving in Switzerland there are a series of administrative procedures to be made. Depending on the context of the move, some of these tasks may be taken care of by the employer. The university student will be on his own with the formalities, whereas the family of the high school student at an Alpine College will be helped by the school administration.
Helped or on your own you must acquire a minimum knowledge of the administrative procedures for living in Switzerland. This requires familiarity with the conditions of residence.
Insurance requirements in Switzerland
Individual responsibility is a pillar of Swiss values. This applies to insurance obligations. For the majority of insurance policies, there is no difference in obligation between a newly arrived expatriate and the Swiss.
Home insurance (household insurance), auto insurance (CASCO insurance) are all insurances that apply equally to all residents in Switzerland.
Furthermore, insurance obligations vary from canton to canton. Sometimes the fire insurance for your home is separate; sometimes it is included in the household insurance.
The importance of legal protection cover depends on the individual’s appreciation and familiarity with Swiss procedures and obligations. It should be noted that more than 60% of residents in Switzerland consider it necessary to have legal protection cover.
Individual health insurance cases
For health insurance and accident insurance, each case is specific. There are some exceptions to the obligation to take out compulsory health insurance in Switzerland.
Expatriates from certain international organizations benefit from access to specific insurance policies. Some multinational companies cover their staff with an insurance that can replace the Swiss compulsory insurance. Other companies expect their employees to take individual responsibility for their choices. They only make a contribution.
The majority of companies do not intervene in any way in the choice of health insurance for their employees, who will be covered by the compulsory Swiss health insurance.
Students and high school pupils at the Alpin Colleges often change countries to return home for holidays or exchange semesters. For them, the choice is an international insurance that covers Switzerland and the world.
The field of taxation is very different depending on whether you are a diplomat, an international UN official, an employee of an NGO (Non Governmental Organisation), an employee of a multinational company, and a student with a part-time job working a few hours…
In some cases, there is no income tax whereas in other cases, the income tax is paid directly by the employer or there is a deduction at source by the employer with the possibility of adjustments later.
Taxation is often considered in conjunction with pension provision and retirement planning.
In Switzerland, the values of individual responsibility apply to pension provision with funded pension systems. The expatriate can take advantage of this to prepare for retirement, depending on his status.
The Swiss School System
At a time when expatriate packages were particularly extensive, enrolling children in private schools seemed like a natural choice but with the reduction in employer contributions, this is less the case.
It should be noted that in the lower grades, the academic level in Switzerland is less accredited. This assessment is reversed in the Orientation Cycle (12 to 15 years old) and becomes really excellent at the secondary school also called Gymnasium (from 15 years old). An orientation and selection process helps maintain a standard of excellence at the Gymnasium.
Private schooling could therefore be justified for the lower grades and the orientation cycle. Paying high fees for secondary school is less justified. The state secondary school – gymnasium is a reference! In addition, teenagers at the state secondary school are well prepared to enter higher education after graduation.
Choosing the Swiss state school for secondary school and gymnasium is an option to consider if your child is comfortable in the language of your home canton. Otherwise, consider a bilingual class or a private school that offers international diplomas (International Baccalaureate or French Baccalaureate).
The Alpin College, year-round boarding schools mainly located in the ski resorts of the Alps, have another vocation. They accommodate children of parents who live outside Switzerland. They combine academic studies, sports and the opportunity to learn new languages.
Who has not thought about settling in Switzerland?
After a few years in Switzerland, before leaving for a new assignment, maybe the family will surely ask why not stay here.
In order to prepare for this happening, you first need to master the language of your canton of residence. You also need to build up a network in Switzerland to be able to seek out local job opportunities.