An expat's guide to Swiss taxes
If you're an expat living and working in Switzerland, this guide outlines filing a Swiss tax return and deductions for foreign individuals and companies.
If you are a foreigner living and working in Switzerland, you will likely be liable to pay Swiss taxes. However, when filing your Swiss tax return, you may also be able to claim certain tax expenses and deductions as a foreigner.
The Swiss tax system is quite complex because the confederation – the 26 cantons and approximately 2,300 municipalities – levy their own taxes, which are based on the federal constitution and 26 cantonal constitutions.
Certain circumstances dictate who needs to pay Swiss taxes, and how much, which are outlined below. Despite a complex tax system in Switzerland, this guide will help you through the maze of Swiss taxes.
Who needs to pay Swiss taxes?
Resident individuals or temporary residents in Switzerland are subject to unlimited tax liability. The same applies to Swiss resident legal entities.
Limited tax liability applies to non-resident individuals and companies having economic relations to Switzerland. In these cases, the tax is levied only on specific items of income that originate in Switzerland.
Residence is defined as the place where a person stays with the intention of settling permanently and which therefore provides the centre of his/her personal and business interests. A person will also be considered resident for tax purposes if he/she remains in the country for a protracted period, typically more than 90 days (30 days if working), even if he/she is not engaged in gainful activity.
Companies are considered resident when either their registered office or their actual administration is in Switzerland.
Which Swiss taxes are levied?
Switzerland places taxes on income and wealth (direct taxes), as well as on goods and services (indirect taxes). In addition, most of the cantons levy an inheritance and gift tax (that excludes spouses and direct descendants), a tax on gains derived from the sale of immovable property and certain other taxes and dues.
On an international scale, taxes in Switzerland are relatively moderate, with considerable differences between the various cantons and municipalities.
Different levels of taxation in Switzerland
To understand the Swiss tax system, it is important to know that there are different tax levels. Taxes are levied by the confederation, the 26 cantons and approximately 2,300 municipalities.
The delimitation of taxation powers is governed by the federal and cantonal constitutions. The cantons exercise all the rights of a sovereign state. They are authorised to levy any type of tax as long as the Federal Constitution does not reserve a certain right for the confederation. There are, however, only a few types of taxes for which the confederation claims exclusive taxation authority (VAT, special excise duties, withholding tax, and custom duties). Consequently, the cantons are given wide latitude in the creation of their own tax legislation. The municipalities are empowered to only levy those taxes that are authorised by the constitution of their respective canton.
In addition, the parishes of the three national churches (Roman Catholic, Protestant or Christian Catholic) levy a church tax on their members in almost all cantons, and usually also on the legal entities liable for tax in the canton.
The levels of taxation authority are:
- Federal – governed by the Federal Constitution.
- Cantonal – governed by the canton.
- Municipal – governed by the commune, ie. the town you live in.
- Church – members of one of the three national churches (Roman and Christian Catholic, as well as Protestant) are taxed in almost all cantons.
The following table depicts the income and wealth taxes levied at each level, including the church tax:
Taxes for businesses
Any company with a registered office or administration in Switzerland will be liable for unlimited tax, and foreign companies abroad are liable for limited taxation if they hold real estate or a permanent establishment in Switzlerand. The international comparison shows that Switzerland is a very attractive location for corporate tax payers. Read a detailed guide on taxes for businesses in Switzerland.
Swiss taxes liable on individual income and wealth
Swiss residents or temporary residents performing gainful activities in Switzerland are subject to unlimited (worldwide) tax liability, with tax treaty provisions prevailing. Limited tax liability applies to non-resident individuals having specific economic relations with Switzerland. In such cases, the tax is not levied on an international basis but only on specific items of income having their source in Switzerland (eg. property, permanent establishments, etc.).
It is important to note that Swiss tax laws are based on the principle that the income and wealth of a family represents an economic unit and is taxed together. In other words, one tax return is submitted per household. Consequently, the income and wealth of both spouses in a joint household (and, as a rule, also the income and wealth of under-aged children) are combined with the income of the person who exercises parental authority.
High income earners tax assessment
Foreign employees residing in Switzerland whose gross salary exceeds CHF 120,000 per year (CHF 500,000 in Geneva) are obliged to file a tax return for their worldwide income and assets. The tax withheld from salary is credited interest-free against the assessed tax.
Assests tax assessment
Foreign employees residing in Switzerland whose gross salary does not exceed CHF 120,000 per year (CHF 500,000 in Geneva) but who have additional sources of income or additional assets (eg. income from securities or real estate property) are also obliged to file a tax return. However, in most cantons this is only for the additional income or assets.
Foreign employees: Witheld income tax
Foreign employees (without a C permit) have the fiscal amount deducted directly from their salary each month by their Swiss employer. The rates are lower than the rates of the assessed income taxes because they apply to the gross income. All typical deductions and allowances are standardised and directly included in the tariffs. The tariffs are generally progressive (ie. the more you earn, the higher the tax rate) and take into account whether you are married or single, living with children or subject to church tax.
The tax withheld at source does cover taxes of all tax levels – see the levels of taxation table.
Correction of withholding tax
If you are a foreign employee with tax deducted from your salary and if you are not required to file a tax return, you could eventually reduce your tax burden by submitting a claim for the correction of withholding tax. This may lead to a partial tax refund.
The correction claim can be submitted for the following items:
- Cost of international weekly residence
- Debt interest (consumer loans and credit cards)
- Further education and retraining costs
- Health and accident costs
- Costs associated with disability
- Support payments
- Alimony payments
- Contributions in recognised forms to own pension provisioning (pillar 3a)
- Purchases of contribution years in a pension fund (2nd pillar)
- Exceptional travel expenses (over 10,000km per annum)
- Childcare costs
Such a claim can be submitted in most of the cantons. Usually the cantons provide a special form that needs to be completed and the additional deductions must be properly evidenced. Some cantons require completion of a full tax return in order to have these deductions taken into account.
If a correction of withholding tax is applied for, the application has to be submitted by 31 March of the following year. In most cantons, this is a fixed deadline, which cannot be extended.
Filing an annual Swiss tax return as an expat
Swiss citizens, foreigners with a permanent residence permit C, or foreigners married to a Swiss citizen, need to file a tax return each year. Some cantons have incorporated additional criteria in their tax laws that require an ordinary tax assessment of foreign residents in Switzerland, eg. if real estate is owned in the canton. An annual tax return is also due if you are working as a self-employed person or as an employee of a foreign employer.
In Switzerland, the tax year corresponds to the calendar year. Thus the tax year-end is 31 December. For most cantons, a tax return must be filed normally within three months after the end of the tax period. Most cantons allow one free deadline extension but any additional extension requests will cost you extra.
If the taxpayer fails to file his/her tax return on time, he/she may be subject to default taxation. In such a case, the tax authorities will assess the taxpayer on the basis of a reasonable estimate. This tax base would usually be substantially higher than the actual tax base and is likely to be more expensive for the taxpayer. No appeal is available if action is not taken within 20 or 30 days (depending on the canton) of the issue of this final assessment. Penalties for non-filing may also be issued.
Calculating your taxable income and taxable wealth
Taxable income includes:
- Income from gainful employment and self-employment
- Compensatory income (such as annuities and pensions)
- Secondary income (such as seniority allowances and tips)
- Income from bank accounts/securities and real estate property
- Other income (eg. prizes on lotteries and pools over CHF 1,000).
Expenses relating to the earning of income (eg. professional expenses) are deductible from gross income. In addition, several general deductions (eg. deductions for double income earners, for insurance premiums, for social security and pension plan contributions, for interest on private debt up to a certain amount, etc.) and social deductions (eg. deduction for married couples, for single parent families, for children, for needy persons, etc.) are granted.
In general, total property is subject to wealth tax. Total property comprises all of the taxpayer’s assets and rights that have a cash value. These assets and rights are usually assessed at market value.
Taxable property includes in particular real estate, capital assets, redeemable life and annuity insurances and business assets. The tax base for the wealth tax is net wealth, that is, gross wealth reduced by the sum of the taxpayer’s documented debt, as well as personal allowances and social deductions which vary from canton to canton.
How much tax do I have to pay?
The extent of your Swiss tax burden varies from canton to canton and from municipality to municipality. So the taxes that an expat has to pay depend on where they live or intend to live. The tax scales are generally progressive. There is a reduced tax scale for married couples living together and single parent families. Below you can see some examples of Swiss tax tables to get an idea of liable taxes depending on your situation.
Taxes for married couple with two children
The table below shows the income tax burden of a married couple with two children in the principal town of each canton. For a gross annual (joint) income of CHF 150,000 for example, the lowest tax due is in Zug with 4.15 percent and the highest in Neuchâtel with 15.55 percent.
Taxes for a single person
The table below shows the income tax burden of a single person in the principal town of each canton. For a gross annual income of CHF 150,000 for example, the lowest tax is due in Zug with 12.45 percent and the highest in Neuchâtel with 24.05 percent.
The table below shows the wealth tax due in the capital town of each canton. By way of an example, the annual tax for a net wealth of CHF 500,000 in the canton of Zürich is around 0.11 percent. The maximum individual wealth taxes levied in all cantons varies between 0.13 percent (Canton of Nidwalden) and around 1 percent (Canton of Geneva).
Swiss expat tax deductions you should know
One question often asked is whether there are any tax concessions made for expatriates in Switzerland.
Certain special tax deductions do apply to expatriates, defined as members of management or employees with specialist skills, sent by their employer to Switzerland for a temporary assignment, for a maximum period of five years.
The special tax deductions for expatriates are defined in cantonal and federal laws and guidelines. According to these, no deduction is granted if the employee is on a permanent, timely unlimited, contract. Furthermore no deduction is possible if the employer pays for the additional costs without adding these payments to the taxable gross salary.
The special treatment ends as soon as the temporary assignment is changed into a timely unlimited contract or after five years of residence in Switzerland, whichever is earlier.
Expat deductions include:
- Reasonable costs for accommodation in Switzerland. In some cantons, it is necessary for the expatriate to show that he/she maintains a permanent abode (house or apartment) outside Switzerland during the period of his/her stay in Switzerland.
- Moving costs to Switzerland and back to the home country.
- Travel expenses to and from Switzerland for the taxpayer and his/her family at the beginning and at the end of the employment in Switzerland, respectively.
- Schooling expenses for the taxpayer’s children for a foreign-language private school, if public schools do not offer adequate schooling.
- In some cantons, a lump-sum expatriate deduction (often referred to as OEXPA deduction) has to be taken instead of the above itemised deductions. This is usually equivalent to about CHF1,500 per month.
Alternatively, expats who are not actually employed in Switzerland may be liable to claim a lump-sum tax assessment based on estimated living expenses. Read about 'expenditure-based taxation' below.
Revised Swiss tax regulations 2016
In January 2015, the Federal Department of Finances published the revised wording of the Expatriate Ordinance that became effective on 1 January 2016.
The changes include:
- A more restrictive definition of who qualifies as an expatriate employee, whereby only employees (either in a position of leadership or specialised professional experts) with a home country contract and a letter of assignment may qualify for these deductions (secondment from the foreign employer to Switzerland).
- Specialists or executives with a limited local contract will in future only be able to qualify as expatriate if their employment is a transfer within the group and the foreign employer guarantees a re-employment after the stay in Switzerland.
- Reasonable costs for accommodation in Switzerland will only be deductible if it can be proven that the overseas residence is retained and permanently available for the expatriate’s use. If the dwelling in the home country is rented out during the assignment to Switzerland, no housing deduction can be made in Switzerland. The same condition will apply in order to benefit from the lump-sum deduction of CHF 1,500 per month.
- The deduction of school costs is still linked to the mother tongue of the children and whether the public schools can provide adequate tutoring. Thus, if adequate education in the mother tongue is offered by public schools, international school fees cannot be deducted.
Expatriates who remain tax resident abroad (commuters) cannot deduct moving expenses and school fees; however, they are entitled to claim the costs for their regular trips back home.
More stringent rules as of 2016
In order to improve tax equity and acceptance by the population, the Federal Council has increased the assessment basis and made the conditions more stringent. The more stringent measures will be effective as of 2016 for both the Confederation and the cantons, and include:
- Worldwide expenses should amount to at least seven times the housing costs.
- A minimum assessment basis of CHF 400,000 should now additionally apply for direct federal tax. The cantons must also at their discretion set a minimum amount for the assessment basis.
- In the case of spouses who wish to be taxed on an expenditure basis, both parties must fulfil all of the prerequisites for expenditure-based taxation.
- The existing legislation will continue to apply for a period of five years for persons who were taxed on an expenditure basis at the time of entry into force of the DFTA.
Expenditure-based taxation for expats not employed in Switzerland
For expats that are not pursuing an occupation, or more simply, who do not work or hold a job in Switzerland, an attractive taxation option could be expenditure-based taxation. Expenditure-based taxation, also referred to as lump-sum taxation, is a simplified assessment procedure for foreign nationals who are living in Switzerland but are not gainfully employed here.
The federal and most cantonal tax legislations provide an option to request to be taxed based on estimated living expenses rather than on actual income and net wealth. This lump-sum taxation is a special way of assessing income and wealth. However, regular tax rates are applied in calculating the tax amount.
The basic prerequisite for lump-sum taxation is that the person concerned does not pursue an occupation in Switzerland. This type of taxation is available to those who make Switzerland their tax home for the first time or return after having been outside the country for at least 10 years. Foreigners enjoy this right indefinitely, while it is limited to the first year of residence for repatriating Swiss citizens who are returning from abroad.
The right to expenditure-based taxation expires when a person acquires Swiss citizenship or takes up gainful employment in Switzerland.
This option is available, though less than 0.1 percent of taxpayers are taxed on a lump-sum basis in Switzerland.
Lump-sum taxation under pressure
For tax equity reasons, citizens in various cantons voted against expenditure-based taxation in recent popular votes, and the practice was abolished in these cantons: Zurich, Schaffhausen, Appenzell Ausserrhoden, Basel-City and Basel-Land. Some other cantons initiatives aimed at abolishing the regime were rejected. These cantons however, implemented stricter rules. The following graph shows the current status.
A popular initiative entitled 'Stop tax privileges for millionaires (abolition of lump-sum taxation)' was submitted in October 2012, calling for lump-sum taxation to be abolished throughout Switzerland. The popular vote on this initiative was held on 30 November 2014 and most voters followed the Federal Council's recommendations and rejected the initiative with a 59.2 percent no vote.
Current expenditure-based taxation mechanism
Tax is calculated on the basis of the total annual cost of living expenses by taxpayers in Switzerland and abroad for themselves and their dependents living in Switzerland. For the Confederation and most cantons at present, the expenses in question must amount to at least five times the rental value of the taxpayer’s home or the rent paid.
The law also provides for an additional minimum calculation, according to which the tax may not be lower than the tax on specified gross elements of income and wealth according to the regular tax rate in Switzerland. This income includes all income from Swiss sources as well as income for which the taxpayer claims relief from foreign taxation in accordance with a double taxation agreement concluded by Switzerland.
Significant differences exist between the cantons, in particular, regarding taking into account the taxpayer’s assets, and also whether wealth tax is included in the taxation. Certain cantons have established minimum thresholds for either the tax base or the tax revenue due.
Miscellaneous taxes in Switzerland
In addition to individual and corporate income tax and tax on wealth or equity, you may be interested to know of the other taxes in Switzerland. The most important of these is the value-added tax (VAT), which is by far the lowest rate anywhere in Europe.
VAT or value-added tax
The value added tax (VAT; Mehrwertsteuer / Taxe sur la valeur ajoutée / Tassa sul valore aggiunto) is one of the Confederation's principal sources of funding. It is a general consumption tax levied at a rate of 8 percent on most commercial exchanges of goods and services. Certain exchanges, including those of foodstuff, drugs, books and newspapers, are subject to a reduced VAT of 2.5 percent.
Yet other exchanges, including those of medical, educational and cultural services, are tax-exempt, as are goods delivered and services provided abroad. A special rate of 3.8 percent applies to the hotel and lodging industry.
Although Switzerland is not an EU member state, its value added tax system was structured in accordance with the sixth EU VAT directive as a non-cumulative, multi-stage tax that provides for deduction of input tax. It is designed as a tax owed by the supplier of goods or services and the tax is usually passed on to the customer as part of the price.
Any entity that generates revenues through business or professional activity in Switzerland is liable for tax, including foreign businesses supplying goods or certain services to Switzerland. There is a registration obligation if the taxable revenue exceeds CHF 100,000 per year. If the revenues are less, then the entity is exempt from tax liability. However, any such entity may waive exemption from tax liability.
Federal withholding tax
Federal withholding tax (Verrechnungssteuer / impôt anticipé / Imposta preventiva) is levied at a rate of 35 percent on certain forms of income, most notably dividend payments, interest on bank loans and bonds, liquidation proceeds, lottery prizes and payments by life insurances and private pension funds. The debtor of such payments is liable for the payment of the tax; they must pay the creditor only the net amount.
With respect to creditors resident in Switzerland, the withholding tax is only a means of securing the payment of the income or profit tax, from which the creditor may then deduct the amount already withheld, or request its refund. The same applies to foreign creditors to the extent that a tax treaty provides for it. Other foreign creditors are not eligible for a refund; with respect to them, the withholding tax is a genuine tax.
Stamp duties are a group of federal taxes levied on certain commercial transactions. The name is an anachronism and dates back to the time when such taxes were administered with physical stamps. Stamp duties include:
- Issue tax (Emissionssteuer / Tassa di emissione) – levied on the issue of certain securities such as shares and bonds. Exceptions are made, inter alia, for securities issued in the course of a commercial reorganisation, and the first CHF 1.0m of funds raised are in effect exempt from taxation. The tax amounts to 1 percent of the funds raised and is payable by the issuer. The trade in shell companies (Mantelhandel) is also subject to the issue tax.
- Transfer tax (Umsatzsteuer / Imposta sulla cifra d'affari) – levied on the trade in certain securities by certain qualified traders (Effektenhändler; mostly stockbrokers and large holding companies). The tax amounts to 0.15 or 0.3 percent depending on whether Swiss or foreign securities are traded. Finally, an insurance premiums tax of 2.5 or 5 percent is levied on certain insurance premiums.
Border duties and miscellaneous federal taxes
The Confederation is constitutionally empowered to levy tariffs, which were its principal sources of funding up until World War I, but are now more important as an instrument of trade policy. Additional federal taxes of lesser economic importance include taxes on the import or manufacture of spirits, beer, tobacco, automobiles and mineral oil, as well as on gambling establishments. Citizens exempt from military service are required to pay a tax in compensation.
Other cantonal taxes: Capital gains tax, inheritance and gift tax, profits tax
In addition to individual and corporate income tax and tax on wealth or equity, the cantons are free to introduce others.
Several cantons levy an inheritance tax (Erbschaftssteuer / Imposta di successione) and a gift tax (Schenkungssteuer / Imposta di donazione), although there is a trend towards abolishing those. In all cantons, the transfer of wealth by inheritance to the spouse is tax-free. In most cantons, the same applies for direct offspring and sometimes even for direct ancestors.
Moreover, the cantons are required by federal law to levy a tax on the profit from the sale of real estate (Grundstückgewinnsteuer / impôt sur les gains immobiliers / Imposta sugli utili immobiliari). Except for real estate, there is generally no capital gains tax on private capital such as stocks and bonds.
Most cantons also levy a tax on the value of the property sold (Handänderungssteuer / impôt sur les mutations / Tassa di mutazione) so as to discourage speculation in real estate. Taxes are also frequently levied on the ownership of dogs and motor vehicles, on lotteries, on the sale of tickets to public entertainments, or on overnight stays in certain tourist destinations.
Beat Meyer / Expatica
Beat Meyer is a Swiss Certified Public Accountant and qualified tax consultant. He is owner and CEO of Bonfina Treuhand GmbH / Expat Tax Switzerland (www.expattax.ch).
Need advice? Contact Beat via Expatica's Ask the Expert free service (in the Tax category).
Please note: The information contained within this article is for general guidance only and professional advice will be needed regarding your direct circumstances.
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