How to open a Swiss bank account
Find how to choose a bank in Switzerland, and how to open a Swiss bank account before or after you arrive in Switzerland
If you're moving to Switzerland, the first step to getting your finances in order is to open a Swiss bank account. Swiss bank accounts are often portrayed as a sign of a secret identity or criminal activity but how hard is it to get an account in this highly regulated country?
A prosperous and economically advanced nation, Switzerland has among the world’s highest gross domestic product (GDP) per capita. There are hundreds of banks in Switzerland, ranging from large multinational banks to smaller banks serving single communities or selective clients. Considered the world’s largest offshore financial centre, the Swiss banking sector was historically known for its privacy, stability and protection of customer information and assets, although recent law changes are changing the Swiss banking scene. The Federal Banking Commission (FBC) regulates these banks.
This article focuses on Swiss bank accounts for day-to-day banking, such as credit cards, current accounts, paying bills and rent. If you're looking to invest a significant sum in Switzerland, check out Expatica's guide to banking in Switzerland.
Banking in Switzerland
For new arrivals to Switzerland, it's best to start sorting out a Swiss bank account straight away. If you can make your initial visit in person before you move, this is usually best as there is a risk of a Catch-22 situation where it's hard to get housing because you don't have a bank account and hard to get a bank account because you don't have an address.
Swiss banks tend to allocate an individual account manager to each customer, so make a note of who yours is and try to get hold of both their email address and direct phone number to help you with any issues.
Don't ask for a numbered Swiss bank account though, unless you require such services, as they cost around CHF 2,000 per year and have a significant number of restrictions.
Using foreign cards in Switzerland
As in most of Europe, bank card use is widely accepted in Switzerland, although 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.
If you're visiting or new to Switzerland, you can withdraw money from most banks using your foreign cards. Some bureaux de change will offer better rates than banks for exchanging currency, although you need to check all associated fees and commissions. If possible, avoid exchanging your money at hotels, as they are known to have the least favourable rates.
Since Switzerland is not part of the European Union, it is one of the few European countries yet to adopt the euro as their unit of currency. All payments in Switzerland must be made in Swiss francs (CHF), although you may find euros accepted in some places in major cities, the Swiss federal railway, airports, motorway tolls, and some coin-operated phone booths.
The Swiss franc is known as Schweizer Franken in German, franc suisse in French and franco svizzero in Italian.
Choosing a bank in Switzerland
There are two main types of financial institutions in Switzerland that provide everyday banking services: cantonal banks and national institutions. Additionally, there is a number of private banks and investment banks, however these do not typically handle day-to-day spending and accounts. The Swiss Bankers Association (SBA) provides details on the Swiss banking systems.
Swiss national banks
National institutions are Swiss banks that operate throughout the country. The leading Swiss banks include UBS, Credit Suisse, Raiffeisen and the Swiss post office. Information is available online in English (apart from on Raiffeisen's site), French, German and Italian. Under the brand 'Post Finance', Swiss post offices all offer standard banking services and have competitive rates.
Cantonal banks in Switzerland
The 24 Swiss cantonal banks are intended only for residents of that canton. All cantons have banks apart from Solothurn and Appenzell Ausserrhoden. If you move from one canton to another, you may be instructed to transfer your account, and if you move internationally it's almost certain the bank will want to close your account when they find out. Despite this quirk, many of the cantonal banks are well-respected, offer good rates and some of them are considered among the largest banks in Switzerland, such as the cantonal banks in Zurich, Vaud, Basel, Lucerne, St Gallen and Bern.
A list of Swiss cantonal banks:
- Aargauische Kantonalbank (AKB)
- Appenzeller Kantonalbank (APPKB)
- Banca dello Stato del Cantone Ticino (BancaStato)
- Banque Cantonale de Fribourg/Freiburger Kantonalbank (BCF/FKB)
- Banque Cantonale de Genève (BCGE)
- Banque Cantonale du Jura (BCJ)
- Banque Cantonale du Valais/Walliser Kantonalbank (BCVs/WKB)
- Banque Cantonale Neuchâteloise (BCN)
- Banque Cantonale Vaudoise (BCV)
- Basellandschaftliche Kantonalbank (BLKB)
- Basler Kantonalbank (BKB)
- Berner Kantonalbank (BEKB/BCBE)
- Glarner Kantonalbank (GLKB)
- Graubündner Kantonalbank (GKB)
- Luzerner Kantonalbank (LUKB)
- Nidwaldner Kantonabank (NKB)
- Obwaldner Kantonalbank (OWKB)
- Schaffhauser Kantonalbank (SHKB)
- Schwyzer Kantonalbank (SZKB)
- St Galler Kantonalbank (SGKB)
- Thurgauer Kantonalbank (TKB)
- Urner Kantonalbank (URKB)
- Zuger Kantonalbank (Zugerkb)
- Zürcher Kantonalbank (ZKB)
Cantonal banks that provide English information on their websites include: Banque Cantonale de Genève, Banque cantonale du Valais, Banque Cantonale Vaudoise (BCV), Basler Kantonalbank (BKB), St Galler Kantonalbank and Zurich Cantonal Bank. The cantonal banks jointly established the Association of Swiss Cantonal Banks (ASCB), where you can also find more information.
Also relatively localised are regional and savings banks in Switzerland, which tend to detail with business and retail banking.
International banks in Switzerland
While many Swiss banks are major players on the international stage, in contrast there are not many branches of international banks in Switzerland for everday banking; often you cannot simply transfer an account from a non-Swiss global bank such as HSBC to a Swiss branch in your canton's area. All foreign-controlled banks and the branches of foreign banks in Switzerland are members of the Association of Foreign Banks in Switzerland (AFBS).
Opening a bank account before you move to Switzerland
Opening an account can be difficult for non-residents of Switzerland. Swiss banks do not provide day-to-day banking services in other countries, so it's not as easy as walking into Credit Suisse London and opening a current account. However, Swiss banking transactions can be done via correspondence as long as the customers follow bank rules and regulations. Contact your preferred bank online, by phone or by post and ask for an application package. The bank will inform you of the necessary documentation; expect to send correspondence primarily by post (rather than online).
Documentation for opening a Swiss bank account abroad
You will have to prove your identity and address, as well as provide details about your personal and employment history. Extensive documentation is likely to be required and much of it will have to be authenticated. The most common ways to authenticate documents are:
- get a notarised copy or an Apostille stamp;
- visit a local branch of the Swiss bank in question;
- visit a local branch of a 'correspondent bank' selected by the Swiss bank.
Opening a bank once you're in Switzerland
The simplest way to open a Swiss bank account is after you arrive by visiting a bank in person and asking to open an account after you arrive. Accounts typically take from one week up to one month to become active. 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 10 days, once your account is active. The origin of any funds will be checked.
In major cities, most banks will have a staff member available who speaks English. Banks are typically open 9am–5pm, Monday to Friday, although some branches will close over lunch.
Banks can issue a Carte Maestro, a debit card which can be used in nearly all shops and can also be used for withdrawing cash. To obtain a credit card, a security deposit is needed of approximately one to two times the monthly credit limit, depending on the bank. This deposit is returned once the customer has discontinued the credit card and paid all outstanding bills.
The origin of any funds will be checked. US citizens may also be required to sign a document agreeing to notify the IRS of all transfers over a certain amount.
Documents to open a Swiss bank account
Expect to be asked for proof of your identity (ie. passport), residence status (ie. visa), and a recent bill. If you do not yet have a residential address, you may need to prove yourself in other ways, for example by depositing a significant sum (often more than CHF 25,000), getting a letter of reference from your employer, or otherwise proving your reliability and solubility.
Banking for cross-border commuters
Many major Swiss cities are within commuting distance of another country. As a result, local banks have begun to offer accounts specifically tailored to those being paid in one currency and living in another. This often includes separate accounts and cards for Swiss francs and euros. It is possible to withdraw euros at many ATMs in Switzerland, and banks do not typically charge extra for this service.
Normal charges and fees
Expect to pay a monthly fee, typically CHF2–10 for a basic account and up to CHF 30 for a premium one. This may include fees for credit or debit cards, or a savings account. Fees may be waived or lowered if you have a significant sum in the account or in an associated savings account (often more than CHF 10,000), have a mortgage with the same bank, or switch to electronic statements.
There are annual fees for both credit and debit cards, typically up to CHF 30 per year. As a new customer, you may have to make a deposit of one or two times your monthly credit limit in order to get a credit card. This money is invested, and you will be paid interest.
In addition, most banks charge per transaction fee for withdrawing cash using a debit card. Some only charge for withdrawing cash from other banks' ATMs, while others charge a fixed fee (often around CHF 3–5). Cash advances on a credit card tend to attract a variable fee of 2–4 percent.
There may be small charges (eg. CHF 0.30) for paying a bill or making a transfer to another Swiss bank.
Cash, cheques and card: how do you pay in Switzerland?
Credit and debit cards are both common in Switzerland, and almost all businesses that have a phone line and electricity accept both (ie. shops and train ticket machines but not market stalls). Contactless payments have been introduced but, in 2014, were rare. Personal cheques (or checks) have been largely phased out.
Invoicing after delivery is common not just for services (such as window cleaning) but also for goods (including furniture) and even some mail order items. Invoices and bills typically come with a printed pink payment slip. The larger part should be detached and either mailed or taken to your bank, with a standard instruction to pay, or taken to a post office where you can pay by cash, credit or debit card.
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.
Swiss coins are issued in denominations of CHF 1, 2 and 5, and 5, 10, 20 and 50 centimes. Opposite to many other currencies, all Swiss coins are silver except for the 5-centime coin, which is gold.
Transferring money abroad
International bank transfers may result in a fee from both the issuing and receiving bank. Swiss banks typically charge around CHF5–20 for sending payments (which doesn't always include the receiving bank's charges), and generally do not charge for receiving funds. As this is a fixed rate, it is typically cheaper than a money union for large sums and more expensive than online payment systems, such as PayPal, for small amounts. In addition, some banks may not be willing to send funds to certain countries, such as Somalia. Currency exchange brokers are increasingly offering cheaper options for money transfers and currency exchange. You can find out more about how to transfer money internationally.
Closing a Swiss bank 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.
Need advice? Post your question on Expatica's free Ask the Expert service to see if we can help.
Updated 2011; July 2015.