To study abroad in Switzerland, learn about the top Swiss universities, required qualifications, how to apply, fees, scholarships, accommodation and student life.
If you want to study abroad in Switzerland at some of the top Swiss universities, you’ll find plenty of opportunities for international students.
Swiss universities offer a wide range of courses at Bachelor, Master and Doctorate level and in four different languages. University education in Switzerland is very international, the educational standards are high, and tuition fees are comparatively low, attracting many foreign students who want to study abroad.
Top universities in Switzerland
Switzerland has some of the world’s best universities. Out of its 12 doctoral/research universities, one – the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH Zurich) – is ranked 13th in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2014-15 and another six are ranked in the top 200. They are the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (34), University of Basel (75), University of Zurich (103), University of Geneva (107), University of Bern (132), and University of Lausanne (136). That’s not bad for a small country of around eight million people.
Additionally, in Times Higher Education‘s comparisons, Switzerland’s two federal technology institutes were ranked as the world’s two most international universities, referring to the proportion of international students, faculty and publications. The Federal technology institute ETH Zurich was ranked first, with Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL) in second place and the University of Zurich in 15th. This is partly helped by the widely spoken English, as well as Switzerland’s ranking as having the greatest proportion of international staff and publications with international co-authors, both at 62 percent.
Higher education in Switzerland
Swiss universities attract students from all over the world. In 2013/14, more than 229,000 students graduated from Swiss universities and about a quarter of these were international students. Università della Svizzera italiana (USI) is the ‘most international’ university with 65 percent of its students coming from 100 different countries. Now about a third of undergraduate and around half of post-graduate students in Swiss universities are from abroad.
Bachelor programmes are usually taught in the national language of the region (German, French or Italian and some bilingual courses). Some universities offer English-language programmes, for example, at ETH Zurich, some degree courses are taught in German for the first year and then in English in the second and third years. Master’s programmes are being increasingly taught in English.
The academic year is divided into two semesters of 14 weeks: the autumn semester runs from calendar week 38 to week 51; spring semester runs from calendar week 8 to 22.
Types of universities in Switzerland
In Switzerland, there are 12 doctoral/research universities, 8 universities of applied sciences (UAS) and 20 universities of teacher education (UTE). Most universities are state-funded, except one of the UAS is private/state-recognised and 14 UTEs are independent.
Many degrees – all humanities and some science degrees, for example – are only available at academic universities; others, like health sciences, can only be studied at universities of applied science. Swiss higher educational policy values quality over quantity and you may find some universities specialise in certain subjects, and smaller universities may only offer a small selection of disciplines.
The doctoral/research or academic universities, which include the 10 cantonal and two federal institutes of technology, offer a wide range of Bachelor’s, Master’s and Doctoral (PhD) degrees programmes at a high scientific and theory-based level and carry out research.
The universities of applied sciences usually offer Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees (and sometimes Doctoral degrees) related to scientific and professional education and carry out applied research.
International students are not allowed to study medicine in Switzerland as there are limited places and these are almost always reserved for Swiss students.
Other university level institutions include: Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies (IHEID) in Geneva, the Swiss Graduate School of Public Administration (IDHEAP) in Lausanne, the Institut Universitaire Kurt Bösch (IUKB) in Sion and the Distance Learning University Switzerland.
Contact each institution directly for detailed information on each course and admission criteria – there are links to all the universities in Switzerland at the end of this article. You can find out what university courses are available throughout Switzerland at ‘swissuniversities‘.
MBAs, EMBA, MAS: business degrees and programmes in Switzerland
There are numerous types of business degrees, diplomas and certificates from Swiss universities which can help executives and leaders strengthen their knowledge and make them better managers – but only if they choose the right programme, whether it’s an EMBA, MBA, DAS or even CAS.
Universities and other educational institutions have responded by developing broader, more advanced programmes to better prepare business students to become the leaders of the future. Rochester-Bern Executive Programs, for example, offers a number of higher education programmes in Bern, Switzerland in cooperation with the University of Rochester, New York.
Qualifications awarded in Switzerland
Swiss degree courses follow the Bologna ECTS (European Credit Transfer and accumulation System), which allows student mobility because credits can be accumulated elsewhere and transferred. The system includes:
- Bachelor degrees usually last three full years and earn 180 ECTS.
- Master’s degree programmes require students to already hold a Bachelor’s degree, last between one-and-a-half to two years and earn 90–120 ECTS.
- Doctoral degrees are usually only awarded by academic universities, require students to already hold a Master’s degree from a doctoral/research university and last for between three and five years.
- Swiss universities also offer Master of Advanced Studies (MAS) – earning 60 ECTS for one year full-time study – to students with a first degree but MAS does not grant admission to a Doctoral degree programme.
Students at the universities of teacher educations graduate with a teaching certificate allowing them to teach at the various grades within the Swiss education system, from primary to post-compulsory education, and an academic title (Bachelor or Master).
Exchange programmes and scholarships in Switzerland
Some Swiss universities offer scholarships to international students, such as exchange scholarships with selected partner universities. You must be already enrolled at the partner university abroad and nominated for exchange. You can contact your university’s international office to help transfer between accredited universities.
In response to the Swiss vote to limit immigration, Switzerland has now been excluded from full membership of the EU’s Erasmus+ student exchange programme. For the time being, the Federal Council is funding its own interim solution Erasmus+/Swiss-European Mobility Programme (SEMP) whereby students from certain foreign universities can get assistance to come and study at a Swiss university. For details see the websites of individual Swiss universities.
The Swiss government also offers Excellence Scholarships to foreign scholars and artists through the Federal Commission for Scholarships for Foreign Students (FCS). These are postgraduate scholarships for doctoral or postdoctoral research in Switzerland. The type of scholarships available depend on your nationality. For more information for the academic year 2016-17, including eligibility criteria and the application procedure, see the State Secretariat for Education and Research and Innovation (SERI).
US students may also be able to come and study in Switzerland through the US Fulbright-Swiss Scholarship Programme.
Student visas and permits for studying in Switzerland
If you’re from a country in the European Union (EU) or European Free Trade Association (EFTA – Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, and Switzerland) you can enter and study in Switzerland without a visa; you just need to register with your local Residents’ Registration Office within 14 days of arrival to get a residence permit. See Expatica’s guide for EU/EFTA citizens moving to Switzerland.
If you’re from outside the EU/EFTA then you will probably need to organise a student visa from the Swiss embassy or consulate in your home country before coming to Switzerland (allow at least eight weeks). For more information on immigration, see Expatica’s guide to Swiss student visas and permits.
Applying to a Swiss university
You have to apply directly to each university in Switzerland. Entrance requirements for most Swiss universities will be the same for the whole of Switzerland but each university makes its own decisions on student admission. You can usually complete an application form online via the university website (see all links to Swiss universities below). Once you have received written confirmation of your application, you can hand in your application fee and any documentation required by the university.
For most academic universities, the application deadline for autumn courses is 30 April; dates vary for spring admissions, and for any other type of university or institution. You can find a list of deadlines for applications for each university here. Contact the universities’ international and admissions offices if you need help or have any questions. Remember to check the language requirements for your course.
If you are already resident in one canton and wish to apply to go to university in another canton, you have to apply to your cantonal authority.
Everyone living in Switzerland for three months or more needs basic health insurance. If your home country provides international health coverage (eg. the European Health Insurance Card or EHIC), or you have an insurance policy from your home country that meets Swiss health insurance requirements, you can apply for an exemption. You can do this when the local authorities contact you to prove that you have health insurance coverage. If you are not exempt, you must take out a Swiss health insurance plan.
Qualifications needed to study in Switzerland
To gain admission to study for a Bachelor’s degree at a Swiss academic university, you should hold a matura/maturité (the Swiss university entrance qualification) or the equivalent foreign school-leaving certificate which qualifies students for university, such as the International Baccalaureate (IB), European Baccalaureate, British A levels or the US High School Diploma. You can find specific admission requirements for your own country of origin here. If you want to go to a university of applied science, you may also need to prove that you have experience or special aptitude in your chosen field.
To gain admission to a Master’s programme, you need to hold a Bachelor’s degree with a minimum of 180 ECTS points or the equivalent qualification from an internationally recognised university. Individual universities will decide whether or not a particular foreign Bachelor’s degree is valid or not, and may also have further requirements for foreign students such as an entrance exam. There is no independent body responsible for recognition of these qualifications for admission to university programmes.
Universities of Teacher Education (UTE) require students to hold a matura/maturité, an EDK-recognised teaching diploma, or a degree from a university of applied sciences for the Bachelor course. If you want to teach at upper secondary level you must hold a Master’s degree in one or two school subjects.
Language skills for admission to Swiss university
You should be able to speak the teaching language of the university (French, German or Italian) to a reasonable standard, although some Master’s programmes are taught in English. You may be asked to sit a language test or gain a language certificate before being accepted into a course. Some universities offer free language courses for foreign students during the summer holidays and/or during the academic year. Others offer low-cost language courses through their language centres.
Cost of studying in Switzerland
Most Swiss universities are publicly funded which makes studying at a Swiss university relatively affordable. Private universities charge higher tuition fees than public universities.
Fees vary between universities but they are generally lower than many other countries, ranging between CHF 500 CHF and CHF 2,000 per semester. Some universities apply a surcharge for foreign students, for example, CHF 500 per semester for students on a Bachelor’s programme and CHF 100 on a Master’s/PhD programme. If you are coming to Switzerland on an exchange programme between your home university and a Swiss university, you do not pay any tuition fees.
You do have to be able to support yourself while you’re studying in Switzerland – and the cost of living in Switzerland is very high. About CHF 10,000 (EUR 9,500) per semester should cover books and materials, health insurance, accommodation, meals, excursions and other expenses.
Student accommodation in Switzerland
Some university campuses have furnished rooms to let at subsidised rates to foreign students. Ask your university, as most have an accommodation service to help students find somewhere to stay during their time in Switzerland. These services can provide language assistance, give basic information on housing and tenancy laws and will have an online database of regularly updated vacancy adverts.
Other useful student accommodation links are www.wgzimmer.ch, www.students.ch/wohen and the Swiss Rector’s comprehensive list of apartment and room finding services for students in Switzerland.
Working while studying in Switzerland
Students can work up to 15 hours a week throughout each semester and full-time during holidays, although if you are from outside of the EU/EFTA you must wait for six months after the beginning of your course to do so. All foreign students must inform the immigration authorities if they wish to work. You can find work through newspapers, student associations or through the university job websites.
Tips on student life in Switzerland
Courses usually consist of lectures and seminars and workloads can be heavy. Students can expect to invest around 25–30 hours of study (attending lectures, working on assignments, background reading and exam preparation) to gain 1 ECTS – and need to get around 30 ECTS per semester. Many Swiss students go home at weekends so it can be quiet on campus at these times.
List of top Swiss universities
- University of Basel
- University of Bern
- University of Lucerne
- University of St Gallen
- University of Zurich
- École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL)
- Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich (ETH Zűrich)
- Bern University of Applied Sciences (BFH)
- University of Applied Sciences Northwestern Switzerland (FHNW)
- University of Applied Sciences Eastern Switzerland (FHO)
- University of Applied Sciences Lucerne (HSLU)
- Kalaidos University of Applied Sciences
- Zurich University of Applied Sciences (ZFH)
- Università della Svizzera italiana (USI)
- Scuola universitaria professionale della Svizzera italiana (SUPSI)
- University of Fribourg
- University of Geneva
- University of Lausanne
- University of Neuchatel
- Haute école spécialisée de Suisse occidentale (HES-SO)
- Les Roches-Gruyères University of Applied Sciences (HES-LRG)
For details of the universities of teacher education and other university level organisations, see the swissuniversities’ list of recognised higher education institutions in Switzerland.
- State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation (SERI): oversees education at national/federal level.
- Swissuniversities: the Rector’s Conference of Swiss Universities represents the interests of all higher education institutions in Switzerland and their website has lots of useful information.
- Swiss Conference of Cantonal Ministers of Education (EDK): coordinates education across the 26 cantons.
- Swiss student portals: www.students.ch, www.etudiants.ch, www.semestra.ch.
- www.uniability.ch: portal leading to information about studying in Switzerland with a disability.