With the Alps just outside your doorstep, it is easy to imagine the peaks of life in Switzerland. But, every upside has a downside and this little alpine nation is no different. Use this guide to explore the highs and lows that you may encounter.
Pros of living in Switzerland
High quality of life
It’s no secret that Switzerland consistently ranks one of the best places in the world to live. In 2021, the OECD Better Life Index found that Switzerland is above average for OECD countries in subjective well-being, jobs and earnings, income and wealth, health status, social connections, environmental quality, education and skills, work-life balance, housing, and personal security.
Most people living in Switzerland are employed (80%) and earn a good salary. Swiss people live an average of 84 years – four years longer than the OECD average. Above all, they’re mostly satisfied with life. On a scale from zero to 10, citizens graded living in Switzerland at 7.5. The OECD average is 6.5.
If that’s not enough to convince you, Switzerland also nabbed the number four spot on the 2021 US News Best Countries list. The survey ranked countries according to 76 attributes that are relevant to the success of a modern country. Furthermore, Switzerland earned a perfect score for safety and political stability. It also received top marks for economic stability, education, and healthcare.
Organized and on-time
If punctuality is your thing, Swiss culture might be your bowl of fondue. These world-famous watchmakers are serious about being on time. Punctuality pervades every aspect of life in Switzerland. For instance, being on time is important for success in Swiss business culture. You can also expect your public transportation to be on schedule in Switzerland.
Experts credit the precisely planned Swiss train schedules with the fact that travelers make 98% of their train connections. Besides the meticulous scheduling, Switzerland has one of the top railway systems in the world in terms of safety, efficiency, and usage. Simply put, you can expect excellent organization and efficiency to be a big part of your overall experience of living in Switzerland.
Switzerland is a crown jewel of Europe when it comes to natural beauty. Living in Switzerland is certainly ideal for nature lovers, hikers, and winter sports enthusiasts. Of course, the Alps are always top of mind for Swiss scenery and mountains do cover two-thirds of the country. However, the Central Plateau, woodlands, and wetlands are also essential features of Swiss topography. Roughly one-third of the country is forest and just under a quarter of the lands are protected areas. It’s home to around 50,000 different types of plants, fungi, and animals. Furthermore, Switzerland has 6% of the continent’s freshwater reserves, making it Europe’s water tower.
Most importantly, Switzerland has committed to safeguarding its natural environment and fighting climate change. Switzerland has lower greenhouse gas emissions per capita than many other OECD countries. It has a robust recycling system and has pledged to be climate neutral by 2050.
Diverse culture and international community
When you live in a country with four official languages (German, French, Italian, Romansh), you can expect a rich cultural experience. Additionally, with 26 cantons that function almost as autonomous administrative areas, you are sure to encounter a lot of variety for such a small country. Switzerland has also experienced an immigration boom in recent years. In 2019, about 38% of the 8.6 million permanent residents had a migration background. Furthermore, Switzerland is home to many foreign-owned and multinational companies. These companies and the country’s top-ranked universities attract many expats to Switzerland to work or study.
Cons of living in Switzerland
The beginning of this guide did mention downsides to living in Switzerland and probably the most notable is the high cost of living. Switzerland fell to fifth place on the US News Best Countries list when ranked for quality of life because of its dismally low score for affordability (0.4). In fact, the most popular Swiss cities for expats, Zurich and Geneva, are among the most expensive cities in the world.
Swiss residents have more household debt than the OECD average and the trend is getting worse. The OECD Better Life index also found a considerable gap between the richest and poorest Swiss residents. The top 20% of the population earns nearly five times as much as the bottom 20%. Nine percent of Switzerland’s households have disposable income below 50% of the national median. Furthermore, 15% of the low-income population spends more than 40% of their income on housing.
The Swiss are very risk-averse and, as such, require a lot of insurances. Consequently, they spend more on insurance costs than the European average. Your health insurance bill alone can take a big bite out of your budget. Another bill that might leave a bitter taste in your mouth is groceries. Eurostat data shows that Switzerland has the most expensive food and non-alcoholic beverages among the 37 countries measured.
Rigid and reserved culture
While the organization and pragmatism of Swiss culture are easy for most people to appreciate, it can be harder for expats to get used to the rigidness of life in Switzerland. Swiss people are very polite and also reserved. For example, in the workplace, you should use last names and the formal Sie/Vous/Lei until specifically invited by your colleagues or business partners to use their first names. Companies are also typically hierarchical and only the highest people in authority make the final decisions. That said, the French- and Italian-speaking cantons can have a somewhat more laidback business culture.
Such restraint also carries over to personal relationships. In a recent survey of expats living in Switzerland, 62% found it hard to make Swiss friends (compared to 36% globally). This is because most Swiss people stick to their established circle of close friends. They’re also respectful of privacy so they might wait a long time before inviting a colleague to meet outside of work. For an expat who is used to a more outgoing community, this can be a culture shock. One tip for expat life is to be open to making friends from all different backgrounds.
Swiss culture is notoriously slow to change. Of course, everyone loves the idyllic Swiss villages that make you feel as if you’ve stepped back in time. On the other hand, discriminatory laws aren’t as charming. The fight for equality and women’s rights in Switzerland has been a long, uphill battle. The good news is that the movement has picked up speed in recent years. Swiss women won 40% of parliamentary seats in the 2019 election. Switzerland also ranked 18th on the Global Gender Gap Report 2020. Despite these advances, unequal pay remains a problem in Switzerland, with women currently earning 19% less than men. However, under the 2020 Swiss Federal Gender Equality Act, companies will have to repay the wage difference if they’re found to be guilty of gender-based pay discrimination.
Switzerland has also lagged behind in securing LGBT+ rights, ranking 23rd on the latest ILGA-Europe rating of 49 European countries. In 2021, voters will decide on the issue of legalizing same-sex marriage. If the law comes into force, Switzerland will become the 29th country to allow same-sex marriage. The law will also allow lesbian couples to conceive using sperm donation. Since 2020, it is illegal to discriminate against lesbian, gay, and bisexual people in Switzerland. Additionally, lawmakers voted to enable transgender people to change their legal gender on identity documents by making a declaration at civil registry offices.