A guide to Swiss banks and the banking system, including information on types of banks, payment methods, and what services to expect.
The Swiss are world leaders in private banking and asset management for individuals, with a global reputation for maintaining the privacy of their clients. The top Swiss banks are also key players in the economy of Switzerland.
If you are moving to Switzerland and looking to open up a bank account, here is the key information on banking and banks in Switzerland. In this guide, there are sections covering the following topics:
- The Swiss banking system
- Currency in Switzerland
- Banks in Switzerland
- Swiss banking services
- Opening a Swiss bank account
- Payment methods in Switzerland
- Swiss banking fees
- Offshore banking in Switzerland
- Ethical banking in Switzerland
- Banking security and fraud in Switzerland
- Making a complaint about Swiss banks
- Alternatives to banking in Switzerland
- Useful resources
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The Swiss banking system
Switzerland is known for its strong banking sector which has played a key role in the national economy for over two centuries. Many Swiss banks are investment banks, catering for global investors and focusing on wealth management. However, there are also banks that offer day-to-day financial services.
The banking sector in Switzerland is diverse and consists of four major high street banks and 24 cantonal banks, plus numerous investment banks, regional savings banks, international banks, and one Raiffeisenbank. In addition to this, there are 382 new FinTech companies offering financial services.
Currency in Switzerland
Switzerland has its’ own currency, the Swiss franc (CHF). Most Swiss traders also accept euros, although they are not obliged to do so. The Swiss franc is among the world’s most stable currencies.
There are seven different coins in use (5, 10, 20, and 50 centimes/Rappen/centesimi, plus 1, 2, and 5 francs) and six notes (10, 20, 50, 100, 200, and 1,000 francs). The current exchange rate (March 2021) is 1.29 against the British pound (£) and 0.93 against the US dollar (US$).
Cash machines and ATMs in Switzerland
You can find ATMs all over Switzerland. There are around 6,990 ATMs in the country in total. ATMs are usually located at bank branches in both big cities and smaller towns. Banks dispense CHF but many also give euros, although they may not offer the best exchange rate.
Most machines accept Visa and Mastercard. Some also accept American Express. Withdrawal limits vary but are usually up to CHF 5,000 daily. If you use a foreign debit or credit card in a Swiss ATM, you generally have to pay a fee; check this with your banking provider. Some Swiss banks partner with overseas banks and waive these transaction fees. Again, check with your provider.
National Swiss retail banks
There are a few high street retail Swiss banks that have branches across the country. These banks tend to open Monday to Friday from around 08:00 to 17:00. They typically offer walk-in services where you can withdraw or deposit cash, ask questions, or make an appointment if you want to speak to an advisor or access credit.
Many of the larger banks in the big cities have multilingual staff, although you may want to take a translator as there is no guarantee of English-speaking staff being present.
The main national retail banks in Switzerland are:
- Credit Suisse
- Raiffeisen (co-operative bank)
- Migros Bank AG
- PostFinance (a subsidiary of Swiss Post)
Swiss cantonal banks
Cantonal banks are government-owned commercial Swiss banks. They offer similar services to private retail banks. Most Swiss cantonal banks only offer accounts to residents of the Swiss canton they operate in. There are currently 24 cantonal banks, one in each canton apart from Appenzell Ausserrhoden and Solothurn (which privatized their cantonal banks).
The largest cantonal banks in Switzerland include:
- Zürcher Kantonalbank (Zurich Cantonal Bank)
- Banque Cantonale de Genève (BCGE)
- Banque Cantonale Vaudoise (BCV)
Regional savings banks
Regional savings banks are similar to cantonal banks in that they provide services within a specific geographic region. However, they differ in that they tend to offer more limited services. Most focus on services such as savings accounts and mortgages. As of 2019, there are 60 regional savings banks in Switzerland.
Swiss investment banks
The Swiss banking sector consists of many investment banks. Some of these only offer accounts to wealthy customers who can invest significant amounts of money. Many retail banks also offer investment services. The difference with Swiss investment banks is that they cater exclusively towards investment activities.
Among the biggest investment banks in Switzerland are:
- Julius Bär Group
- EFG International
- Bank J. Safra Sarasin
You can find several big-name international banks in Switzerland, especially in cities such as Geneva and Zurich. They operate similarly to Swiss retail banks and are more likely to have English-speaking staff.
International banks in Switzerland include:
- Banco Santander (Spain)
- Barclays Bank (United Kingdom)
- BNP Paribas (France)
- Citibank (United States)
- Deutsche Bank (Germany)
- HSBC (United Kingdom)
Swiss residents also have the option of using internet banking or mobile banking apps with providers operating within the country. This gives them 24/7 access to their account as well as low-cost services.
Digital banking providers in Switzerland include:
Banking services in Switzerland
Banking products in Switzerland depend on who your banking provider is. However, most high street Swiss banks offer the following services:
- Current accounts: for day-to-day money management, including credit and debit card options.
- Loans and overdrafts: usually offered for the likes of holidays or home improvements.
- Mortgages: a range of lending options for those looking to buy their own home.
- Savings and investments: options include savings accounts, investment stock options, and pensions.
- Insurance: options include car insurance, home insurance, life insurance, and health insurance.
- Digital and online banking: the major national banks now offer internet banking so that customers can manage their finances more easily.
- Mobile banking: some banks also have banking apps so that you can bank from your smartphone or tablet.
- Business banking: if you run a business in Switzerland or work as a freelancer, you can open up a tailored business banking account with the bigger name banks.
- Expat services: some banks offer services and products aimed at the expat community, such as deals on international money transfers or multi-currency accounts.
Opening a Swiss bank account
You can open up an account with some Swiss banks before you move if you are able to provide digital copies of documentation. However, the easiest way of opening up a Swiss bank account is in-person once you arrive.
You will typically need to provide a valid form of identification, proof of your address, and proof of Swiss residency (unless you are opening an overseas account).
Payment methods in Switzerland
Cash is still common as a form of payment in Switzerland. According to the 2019 Swiss Payment Monitor, 47.7% of transactions are carried out with cash, while cash sales account for 26.5% of turnover. Cash is more likely to be used for smaller sales, such as at newsagents and cafés. However, some people still prefer to use cash in larger transactions.
Checks are less widely used in Switzerland than in many European countries. Swiss banks rarely offer checkbooks, although you can usually get them on request. Bank checks are sometimes used for larger payments or money transfers. Most Swiss banks charge for issuing bank checks payable to other banks. This can be between CHF 15–50.
Checks issued to the same bank are usually free and clear on the same day. If you pay or receive a check from another bank, it typically takes two working days to clear. Checks drawn on accounts outside of Switzerland can take five to 10 working days to clear.
Debit cards – often called EC cards in Switzerland – are the most popular form of Swiss payment in terms of turnover, accounting for 28.7% of sales. The introduction of the contactless debit card has increased its usage among young consumers in recent years.
Most Swiss banks issue debit cards with current accounts and they can be used for general payments both in stores and online. The money comes directly out of your account at the point of sale, so you need to make sure you have sufficient funds in your bank. The majority of cards issued are Maestro (Mastercard) with V Pay (Visa) also popular. PostFinance also operates its’ own debit card.
Credit cards are different to debit cards as they allow you to buy goods and pay later, usually via a quarterly or monthly credit card bill. Because of this, they tend to be used mostly for larger purchases. Another difference is that credit cards are not sent out as standard with many Swiss current accounts. Often, you apply for a card and require a good credit rating in order to do so.
Swiss credit cards are available through both Swiss banks and other independent card issuers working in partnership with banks. Visa, Mastercard, and American Express are the most common credit card types in Switzerland.
Credit cards are more expensive than debit cards. Some Swiss banks also require you to deposit up to twice your monthly credit card limit before issuing you with a card. These cards are the third most popular payment in Switzerland with a 22% market share.
Direct debits and standing orders
Swiss residents use both direct debits and standing orders for making regular payments. Direct debits give consent to third parties (e.g., utility companies) to make regular charges of variable amounts directly to your bank. Standing orders, on the other hand, are instructions to your bank to make a fixed regular payment to a third party.
Direct debits are known as LSV payments in Switzerland and are common for utility bills. You can set them up by signing an authorization form usually provided by the third-party company. Standing orders are set up by contacting your bank directly.
Although direct debits are convenient, the one drawback is that companies can charge you an amount without getting your approval first. So, if you have a larger than normal electricity bill, for example, your provider doesn’t need your prior consent before taking the money. However, Swiss banks now offer LSV+, which allows customers to dispute any transactions within 30 days. PostFinance has its’ own direct debit scheme (CH-DD), which uses the same processes and offers the same conditions.
Online and mobile payments
Online payments over the internet and mobile payments using a smartphone app are becoming more common in Switzerland. However, these payment methods still lag behind traditional payment methods in overall terms. Mobile payments currently only account for around 2% of Swiss transactions, although research suggests that as many as 65% of customers see themselves using mobile payments within the next three years.
Most Swiss internet payments are made using debit or credit cards. Mobile apps and payment wallets such as PayPal are also reasonably popular. Contactless mobile payment apps in Switzerland include Apple Pay, Google Pay, SwatchPAY, Fitbit Pay, Garmin Pay, Samsung Pay, and TWINT.
Local money transfers
Although Switzerland is not part of the European Union, it participates in SEPA (Single Euro Payment Area) as part of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA). This enables the speedy and cheap transfer of money across Europe, usually within two days and for less than €5. However, this only applies to the euro currency transfers, not transfers in Swiss francs.
For local money transfers within Switzerland using Swiss francs, most people use local bank transfers. This was the method used for 53% of online payments in 2019. You can carry out a bank transfer by either contacting your bank and instructing them to pay money into another account, or by doing the transfer yourself online. You’ll need the bank account details of the account number you are paying the funds into.
International money transfers
You can send money abroad via your Swiss bank, although they typically charge between CHF 5–20 for doing this. You may also be charged by the recipient’s bank.
Another option is to use an international money transfer specialist. These companies often provide cheaper rates. Providers include:
To check the current rates and deals, you can use Monito’s online comparison tool.
Swiss banking fees
Each Swiss bank has its’ own fee structure, which is generally freely available online or as part of the introductory information pack when you set up an account. It’s worth shopping around and doing your research ahead of opening a Swiss bank account to avoid getting stung by any hidden fees.
Here is a rough guide for what to expect:
- General administrative fees: generally ranging from CHF 5–15 a month depending on type of account. Some high-end accounts or boutique banks can charge as much as CHF 30 a month.
- ATM use: generally free if you use a standard ATM and have a Swiss bank account. You may be charged around CHF 5–10 for transactions if you use cards linked to foreign accounts or currencies.
- Debit cards: annual fees generally between CHF 20–50 a year, plus charges of up to CHF 2.50 if you use your card for transactions outside the country.
- Credit cards: often more variable than debit cards, starting at around CHF 30 a year plus the annual percentage rate charge (APRC). Foreign transactions are usually charged at between 1.2% and 2.5%.
- Loans and mortgages: depends on the APRC plus lenders may apply additional charges.
- Direct debits and standing orders: generally set up for free.
- International money transfers: normally between CHF 5–20 but depends on the destination and the amount transferred.
- Penalty charges: you will likely be charged for any late or defaulted payments or for exceeding an agreed overdraft. Charges can vary greatly between CHF 5–100 depending on the nature of the infraction.
You can compare bank accounts and bank charges in Switzerland through Moneyland.
Offshore banking in Switzerland
Switzerland is, in fact, one of the best offshore banking jurisdictions in the world due to its financial stability, sophisticated banking technology, and relatively low tax rates. While anonymous numbered accounts are a thing of the past, Swiss banks still offer a high level of confidentiality. This alone provides peace of mind to accountholders worried about data protection and fraud.
Most of the major Swiss Banks offer offshore banking options to non-residents, including some of the investment banks. These accounts usually have distinct advantages such as multi-currency options and a wider range of cross-border services. To open an account, you must provide proof of identity and show that funds come from a legal source to show that you are not engaging in money-laundering activities.
Ethical banking in Switzerland
Swiss banks have moved towards more ethical and sustainable business practices in recent years, with the major banks issuing regular corporate social responsibility reports detailing improvements in ethical investments, green practices, and charity support. However, the Swiss financial sector is still lagging in this respect.
A 2018 report by WWF Switzerland analyzing 15 Swiss retail banks found that none of them ranked in the top two categories (visionary or trendsetting). Only three rated as ambitious (Zürcher Kantonalbank, Berner Kantonalbank, and Raiffeisen), while the two biggest Swiss banks (Credit Suisse and UBS) scored as average.
One ethical banking option is Alternative Bank Switzerland (ABS), which was set up in 1990 to provide a more ethical and sustainable financial alternative. ABS focuses its financing and investment on affordable and ecological housing, renewable energy, organic farming, and social enterprises.
Another ethical option is to use mobile banking with a provider such as N26. Mobile banks tend to be more eco-friendly as they operate electronically with a smaller physical footprint. They are also less likely to be linked to large corporations involved in unethical investments abroad.
Security and fraud at Swiss banks
Banks in Switzerland are among the most secure in the world and provide a high level of protection against fraud. However, there are also high levels of fear of fraud and security breaches among Swiss customers. Like anywhere, those using banking services in Switzerland can be vulnerable to scams if they don’t take precautions.
These include phishing and fake email requests. Major Swiss banks, including the Swiss National Bank, have warned about fraudulent e-mails sent out in their name.
You can help protect yourself against banking fraud in Switzerland by:
- Never supplying sensitive or confidential personal information in an e-mail or phone conversation.
- Never clicking on a link to a bank website sent via e-mail. Always type the full website address into the address bar.
- Always using secure and verified payment platforms when making online payments.
- Never entering your PIN number anywhere online.
- Avoiding logging into your online or mobile account on a shared device.
Lost or stolen bank cards in Switzerland
In the event of losing your bank card or having it stolen, you should contact your banking provider. Emergency numbers should be available on the bank’s website. You can also contact the card provider: American Express (044 659 6903), Mastercard (0800 897 092), or Visa (0800 894 732).
See our detailed guide for more information on emergency numbers in Switzerland.
Making a complaint about Swiss banks
If you are unhappy about the behavior of a Swiss bank, you should first try to resolve the issue with the bank itself through its complaints department. If you are not satisfied with the outcome or if you don’t hear back from them, you can file a complaint with the Swiss Banking Ombudsman.
Alternatives to using Swiss banks
Due to the high level of regulation on the financial and credit market in Switzerland, credit unions and mutual savings institutions do not exist in Switzerland.
The closest the country has are the regional savings banks. If you want to access finance in Switzerland but don’t want to, or can’t, use a traditional bank, you can contact a private credit broker for products such as loans or insurance.