Are you an American moving to Switzerland or Zurich? Expat blogger Kathy lists the things to think about before relocating to Switzerland from the USA.
A little while ago a friend said he was thinking about moving to Zürich. Really? That’s wonderful! We sang the city’s praises; we gushed; we cooed. It was a little like a couple confronted by a single friend who may have finally met his future bride. Yes, yes! You should absolutely get married in Switzerland! You two are perfect together!
I’m not sure what kind of psycho-social glitch causes this kind of join-our-club reaction, but a little later in the evening we moved on to the giving-practical-advice stage. We got rolling pretty quickly, practically shouting a rapid-fire list of Dos and Don’ts.
I could see my friend’s eyes start to glaze over and realized we were losing sight of the mission. We stopped giving advice. But ever since then I’ve had the urge to offer unsolicited advice about moving here to Switzerland.
Here it is: a short, messy, incomplete list intended mainly for those moving to Switzerland on the basis of a work contract. If you’re moving to be with the love of your life, that’s a whole different set of advice.
1. It’s ungodly expensive to live here
Food is expensive, renting in Switzerland is expensive, health insurance and healthcare are expensive. Transportation is expensive. I think you get a lot for your money here, and the quality of life is very high. There is a lot to love about living in Switzerland. But if you’re not moving from an expensive city like New York or London, you will need to figure just how much more expensive it’s going to be to live here and negotiate hard to get that salary in Switzerland.
2. Your spouse is not going to able to find a job right away
Okay, of course that’s not universally true. I can think of two exceptions right away. However, if you are not coming from the EU/Schengen Area and you do not get a B permit (which automatically entitles the spouse to a Swiss work permit), your spouse will need to have the skills, languages, and experience to convince an employer to go to the hassle of sponsoring a Swiss work permit. Adding to the challenge: gender and age bias in hiring are not illegal here.
Can your spouse find a job in Switzerland? Absolutely.
But think about getting a job in terms of 12–18 months, not three to six. Alternatively, it can work really well for both of you to line up work contracts before moving.
3. Expat taxes are a pain
Get tax advice before you sign your employment contract. Line up Swiss and home tax advisers as soon as possible. If your employer is offering to pay for tax advice, inquire closely as to the limits of that contract. (For example, our US employer’s contract with a tax firm did not include filing the FBAR.) If part of your compensation is in equities, understand how your company handles taxes on these transactions.
If you’re an American and you’ve negotiated that comfortable salary to meet the high cost of living in Switzerland, you will almost certainly have to pay some US taxes – quarterly, and in cash. You will have to file an annual US tax return, regardless of money owed, and you will have to file an FBAR. And you also have to pay Swiss taxes and likely file a Swiss return. It’s a pain.
4. It takes a lot of paper to make a village
Americans especially may not be used to the level of paper documentation needed for everyday life, especially for getting Swiss visas. You will need everything from university diplomas to work history records to marriage and birth certificates. Tax records too, of course. And your will. Children’s records too. You will need to bring this with you when moving. Digital copies may or may not be okay depending on the agency you’re dealing with.
You’ll get lots more paperwork to keep track of once you’re in Switzerland. Get started organizing your life on paper as soon as you think you might want to move overseas. You’ll be glad you did. By the way, a two-ring binder and hole punch (they don’t use three-ring here) make a great welcome gift for newcomers.
5. Sell it all
If you can sell your house and anything you don’t want to ship, you will make your life here so much easier. We moved at the beginning of 2009 – not a good time to sell. That meant lots of stuff to keep track of and pay for back home. The larger the time difference, the harder it is to do this. Definitely, definitely not the ideal scenario.
6. Make an exit part of your moving plan
It really is the same process in reverse. Think about it: you needed a work contract to move here; unless you’re independently wealthy, you’ll need a job when you go back.
In the ideal world, your return to a position with the same company in your home country would be part of the initial agreement. But in the Darwinian world of corporate life, I wouldn’t assume that’s a point you’ll win. So make a job search (internal or external to your current company) part of your plan.
How long is your stay here (short-term or renewable permit, open- or closed-contract)? How long do you think it will take to find the new position? Decide where you want to go next. Another international posting? A job in your home country but in a different city? Back to your home town?
If you’re returning to the US, both partners should try to set up jobs that start upon return. Otherwise, one of you could get caught in a pre-existing condition gap. This is especially important if you have a chronic ailment (even a minor one) or might become unexpectedly and inconveniently pregnant while uninsured.
Thinking about when and how you will leave Switzerland will also help you decide things like how much of your own furniture to bring. Just like when you moved here, you’ll have to decide what to ship and what to sell. If it’s an heirloom or beloved keepsake, you are probably going to have to pay to ship it back. Here’s a hint: Bring as little as possible and learn to love ersatz modern. (I heart Ikea!)
So there it is. A bunch of unsolicited advice.
If you’re thinking that was way too long and most of it didn’t even apply to you. If you’re young, single, have a six-figure work-contract offer, have no attachments, no mortgage, no debt to speak of. Well, hell. Sign on the dotted line and get on that plane. Switzerland is awesome. You’re gonna love it!