Banking in Switzerland
Switzerland is known for its sophisticated and discreet banking services, but opening a bank account in Switzerland may prove difficult for non-residents.
Banks and financial institutions play an important role in the Swiss economy. The Swiss franc is among the world’s most stable currencies, and the two largest Swiss banks – UBS and Credit Suisse – are among the world’s leading banks.
The Swiss are world leaders in private banking and asset management for individuals. Private banking provides more than one third of all UBS and Credit Suisse’s net profits. Switzerland has 24 cantonal banks, owned by the individual cantons either entirely or with a majority stake.
The Swiss banking system
A prosperous and economically advanced nation, Switzerland has the world’s largest gross domestic product (GDP). There are nearly 400 banks in Switzerland, ranging from UBS and Credit Suisse to smaller banks serving single communities or selective clients. Considered the world’s largest offshore financial centre, the Swiss banking sector is known for its privacy, stability and protection of customer information and assets. The Federal Banking Commission (FBC) regulates these banks.
Since Switzerland is not part of the European Union, it is one of the few European countries that have yet to adopt the euro as their unit of currency. Therefore, all payments in Switzerland must be made in Swiss francs (CHF), or alternatively via credit or debit cards. The Swiss franc is known as Schweizer Franken in German, franc suisse in French and franco svizzero in Italian. You can, however, expect to get by on euros in major cities as well as the Swiss federal railway, airports, motorway tolls, and some coin-operated phone booths.
Banknotes and coins in Switzerland
Swiss banknotes are issued in denominations of CHF 10, 20, 50, 100, 200, and 1000. They are distinguished according to their size and colour. The smallest, both in terms of size and value, is the CHF 10 note; the largest, the CHF 1,000 note.
Swiss coins are issued in denominations of CHF 1, 2 and 5, and 5, 10, 20 and 50 centimes. Unlike other currencies, all Swiss coins are silver, with the exception of the 5-centime coin, which is gold.
Swiss banks and bureaux de change
Bureaux de change tend to offer better exchange rates than banks. At banks, currency can be exchanged over the counter and cash can be withdrawn via automatic teller machines or ATMs. Banks are open from 8.30am to 4.30pm, although smaller towns may close between 12pm and 2pm. If possible, avoid exchanging your money at hotels, as they are known to have the least favourable rates.
Credit cards in Switzerland
As in most of Europe, credit card use is common in Switzerland. Visitors must consider that some small local shops and restaurants may require cash. MasterCard and Visa are most popular in Switzerland, followed by American Express and Diners Club.
Opening a bank account in Switzerland
To open a bank account in Switzerland, you will need to provide a copy of documents such as a passport or equivalent identification card, residence permit, lease, and work contract. It is not necessary to make an appointment before opening a bank account, and any requested credit or debit cards can be expected to arrive after a week to ten days.
Banks can issue you a Carte Maestro: a debit card which can be used in nearly all shops and can also be used for withdrawing cash. The Maestro card also has an embedded CASH chip that can be recharged with a credit of up to CHF 300. This is most commonly used to pay for services such as car parking, phone calls and public transport. Carte de Crédit is a credit card that can be debited once a month. Banks can charge a commission fee on cash withdrawals made using this card.
How to open your Swiss bank account
Opening an account can be difficult or impossible for non-residents of Switzerland. Foreigners officially residing in Switzerland, however, can open bank accounts easily. Banks require personal information (such as name, address, date of birth, profession, and contact information), identification, a passport-sized photograph, and financial documents, which vary depending on the client’s profession. The origin of the funds will also be checked.
US citizens are required to sign a document agreeing to notify the IRS of all transfers over a certain amount. As Swiss bank accounts for US citizens require additional administrative work, many banks prefer to open these accounts only when large sums of money are involved. Swiss banking transactions can be done via correspondence as long as the customers follow bank rules and regulations. The bank and customer can interact through the internet, telephone or postal mail.
Non-residents are expected to pay a large security deposit. To keep their account privacy intact, US citizens are expected to avoid making business transactions through their Swiss accounts.
A security deposit is needed if the customer wants to obtain a credit card. Approximately 1.5 to 2 times the monthly credit limit is required, depending on the bank that the customer chooses. This deposit is returned once the customer has discontinued the credit card and paid all outstanding bills.
To preserve the customer’s anonymity, some high-security bank accounts are given pseudonyms. This number or name is used wherever the customer is referred to. Failure to respect the customer’s privacy could lead to imprisonment for bank employees.
However, there is no secrecy from tax authorities or the justice department. To prevent money laundering, Swiss banks crosscheck the authenticity of information provided by the customer. Any transfer over CHF 25,000 will be checked. If, during the inspection, the bank finds a potential or existing customer connected to criminal activity, a Swiss judge or prosecutor allows an investigation. This can include an inquiry into tax fraud, insider trading or terrorist financing.
Closing an account
Closing an account is easier than many might expect. No financial penalty is demanded and neither is any money retained, unless a maximum amount has been agreed upon.
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