Everything you and your family need to know about moving to Switzerland, from how to move your household possessions and integrate into Swiss culture to mandatory registrations, driving licenses, and insurances.
Many foreigners move to Switzerland for its high life quality, outdoor Swiss lifestyle, and good salaries and jobs, despite the notoriously high cost of living in Switzerland.
Preparing your move to Switzerland requires a long checklist to arrange immigration, accommodation, education, childcare, insurance, and utilities, while other factors must be organized soon after you move to Switzerland, including compulsory registrations with the local authorities, getting a social security and tax number, organizing mandatory Swiss health insurance and getting a TV license.
In this guide, we explain all the necessary preparations and legal arrangements required for moving to Switzerland. The checklist includes:
- Moving your belongings to Switzerland
- Immigration and registration after you arrive
- Health insurance and social security benefits
- Opening a Swiss bank account
- Paying tax in Switzerland
- Finding employment in Switzerland
- Where to live and find accommodation
- Setting up utilities and communications
- Enrolling in Swiss education
- Driving licenses
- Finding Swiss childcare
- Required insurances in Switzerland
- Choosing a language school
- Retirement and Swiss pensions
- Swiss culture and social life
Moving your belongings to Switzerland
You can bring your household goods, personal effects, pets, or your car into Switzerland tax-free, so long as you can prove that Switzerland will be your new place of residence (students are exempt from the residence rule). There are strict regulations about health and transportation when importing animals to Switzerland. If you need help relocating, Expatica has a directory of relocation and moving companies in Switzerland. For more information, see relocation options for moving to Switzerland.
Immigration and registration after you arrive
Almost all EU/EFTA citizens have the right to move to Switzerland under the Freedom of Movement Act, although they have to register to work and apply for a residence permit for stays of over three months. Following spikes in immigration, in 2017 Switzerland invoked the safeguard clause to put quotas in place for citizens of Romania and Bulgaria.
Almost everyone else needs a visa to enter Switzerland for a long-term stay (more than three months), which typically has to be applied for from abroad because approval is necessary on several levels (federal and cantonal) and the long term visa will allow you to receive a Swiss residence permit. It’s important to plan enough time for the processing, which can take between three and six months, depending on the embassy and your personal situation.
Once you are in Switzerland you have 14 days to register with the Residents Registration Office and get your residence/work permit at the cantonal migration offices. For more information on all aspects of immigration, see Expatica’s complete guide to Swiss visas and permits.
Health insurance and social security benefits
It is mandatory for all foreigners living or working in Switzerland to take out Swiss health insurance once they are official residents, although some exemptions exist. Before you can do so, you must sign up to pay Swiss social security contributions and register with a health insurer.
Depending on the Swiss canton you move to, at times even the commune, the exemptions can be regulated differently. In either case it is recommended to start the process early, as you will have to prove either your adequate insurance or that you fulfill the reasons for exemption. In both cases you have a maximum of three months to sort things out, after which the authorities can force an insurance on you. It is important to note that you must be insured from the beginning of your residency, even though you have a three-month grace period to find one.
European Union (EU) citizens visiting less than three months can access state Swiss healthcare using their European Health Insurance Card, but also need to join the Swiss health insurance scheme once a registered or employed resident.
If you’re a cross-border commuter (for example, you reside in Germany or France but work in Switzerland), you have the option of being insured in either country. It’s still important to clarify your options, however, as you cannot simply change once the decision has been made.
Self-employed people, as well as unemployed workers, will also need to take out accident insurance, plus social security and unemployment cover. Those on higher incomes must also take out insurance with a pension institution; this is optional for self-employed.
Other exemptions apply in certain circumstances; read more in our guides to the Swiss healthcare system, Swiss health insurance and social security in Switzerland and claiming your benefits.
Opening a Swiss bank account
You can open an account with a Swiss bank before you arrive in Switzerland but you’ll have to provide extensive, authenticated documentation, although online banks may offer other options. It’s generally easier to walk into a Swiss bank when you arrive and open an account in person. In major cities, banks usually have a member of staff who speaks English.
There are national banks and cantonal banks. The latter are intended only for residents of the canton, so if you move out of the canton you may be asked to transfer your account and if you move internationally, the bank will probably ask you to close the account. Swiss post offices also offers standard banking services.
Find out how to open a Swiss bank account.
Paying tax in Switzerland
After you move to Switzerland, you will be regarded as a Swiss tax resident from either:
- the date of your registration with the canton’s immigration office
- your arrival in Switzerland if you’re staying ‘permanently
- from the date you receive a resident permit
You’ll pay tax to the Swiss Federation, to your canton and commune. Taxes are based on worldwide income and collected through the canton; the rates and processes vary from canton to canton.
Swiss citizens, foreigners with a permanent residence permit C, or foreigners married to a Swiss citizen need to file a Swiss tax return each year. An annual tax return is also due if you are working as a self-employed person or as an employee of a foreign employer.
Read Expatica’s complete guide to Swiss taxes for expats.
Finding employment in Switzerland
With an exceptional quality of life, high Swiss salaries, excellent working conditions and low unemployment, Switzerland is a great place to work. Although competition can be fierce and there are quotas for those coming from outside of the EU/EFTA, there are Swiss jobs available, especially for skilled workers in engineering and technology, pharmaceuticals, consulting, banking, insurance and IT, with financial analysts, business analysts and systems analysts also in great demand. Some of the world’s largest multi-nationals and many international organizations are also headquartered in Switzerland.
While most jobs are advertised, lots of positions are filled through contacts or by speculative applications directly to companies, so networking and being pro-active are key. Read our step-by-step guides on how to find jobs in Switzerland and how to write a Swiss CV and interview tips.
Where to live and find accommodation
Zurich’s high quality of living, multi-cultural Geneva or the historical capital city of Berne – each city has its own character and appeal, but which one’s for you? You can find details in Expatica’s guide on the best cities for expats in Switzerland.
Around 60 percent of householders in Switzerland, up to 80 percent in Geneva and Zurich – and most expats – rent property rather than buy. As a result, rents are high and in most cities demand outstrips availability. Find out how to get to the front of the queue when it comes to renting a Swiss property.
EU/EFTA citizens with resident permits and non-EU C permit holders can buy property as a primary residence in Switzerland as freely as Swiss citizens; other categories may also be able to buy but with some restrictions. Desirable properties can be hard to find, it’s a long procedure and can affect your tax position but as renting is hyper-competitive, buying a house in Switzerland can be a good option, especially with the help of a good real estate professional. As the quality and services of professionals may vary, it is often recommended to get a second opinion before a final purchase.
Setting up utilities and communications
Once you move in Switzerland to fixed accommodation, utilities and communications may not be connected. In Switzerland, the standard utilities are electricity and water; gas is rare due to the high cost. Heating and water (but not electricity) are usually included in the rental contract for apartments but not houses. If not, you’ll have to register with each supplier. If you want to watch TV – even through a computer or mobile or satellite transmissions from abroad – you must register with Billag for a license. For more information, read our guide to getting connected: utilities, phone, internet, and television in Switzerland.
Enrolling in Swiss education
Each of the 26 cantons is responsible for its own education, so everything – the age at which children start school, curriculum, and timetables – varies according to where you live. In general, compulsory education in Switzerland lasts around nine years and consists of primary (from six or seven years) and lower secondary education (up until age 15). For information on all aspects of Swiss schooling, see our guide to education in Switzerland.
Children must go to a school in the local area (if public), which might make a difference to where you choose to move to Switzerland – and if you move to another area, you will have to change schools. At age 16, students can move onto upper secondary academic schools (Maturitätsschulen) to study for universities or vocational schools (Berufsfachschulen), where students have to find a position as an apprentice in a company alongside schooling. To register your child for a state school, you’ll need to contact the education authorities in your canton.
Private and international schools
Private and international schools in Switzerland can be an option if you aren’t moving to Switzerland for very long or you have older children who can’t speak any of the Swiss languages. Read how to choose which school in Switzerland is best for your situation.
Generally students need to hold the matura/maturité (the Swiss university entrance qualification) or the equivalent foreign school-leaving certificate qualifying students for university (e.g. 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. Read Expatica’s complete guide to studying in Switzerland and universities in Switzerland.
As long as you are over 18, you can use your foreign driving license for the first 12 months after moving to Switzerland, alongside an International Driver’s License or an International Driving Permit if the license is not in German, French, Italian or English.
You must get a Swiss license before the end of the 12 months. Citizens from EU/EEA countries can exchange national licenses for a Swiss license; everyone else to take a driving test, possibly a theory test and a first aid course, for which there are fees, within a period of three months. For more details, read how to get a Swiss driver’s license and the rules for driving and parking in Switzerland.
Finding Swiss childcare
Childcare in Switzerland may not be as readily available as you are used to, and there are always waiting lists, so start looking as early as possible after you move to Switzerland (or even before).
In some cantons nursery or kindergarten is compulsory and free of charge from around four years. You need to apply in writing to your local kindergarten.
There are around 2,000 children’s centers (crèches/krippe, KiTa or kindertagesstätte), mostly privately run and subsidized by the canton. Prices depend on your income and the hours of daycare depend on the individual setup. With a variety of options and varying setups, it’s important to get detailed information as soon as possible to ensure a place in your preferred centre.
Child-minders/tagesmutter/maman du jour will look after children for longer, and fees may also be subsidized by your canton. See the Swiss childcare association Kiebesuisse for registered child-minders in your region.
Some workplaces have daycare facilities, which may also accept children whose parents don’t work for the company.
If you have children of primary school age, you may also have to organize childcare when school closes for its two-hour lunch break. While some schools provide lunch and organize childcare, many don’t. Contact your local school authority or social services to find out about provision.
More is explained in our guide to childcare in Switzerland.
Required insurances in Switzerland
If you own a property, you must have buildings insurance, which includes fire insurance. If you are a tenant household insurance is not mandatory but is sometimes a landlord’s requirement. You can also take out personal liability insurance, for when you cause loss or damage to another person and have to compensate them. All cars must be covered by third party insurance. Read more in our guide to insurance in Switzerland.
Choosing a language school
Being able to speak one of Switzerland’s official languages will help you integrate better. You can learn German, French, and Italian at language schools in Switzerland, as well as at adult education organizations, such as the Migros Club School, which are usually reasonably priced.
Some education authorities offer intensive language courses for children starting in Swiss schools. Some cantons offer free language lessons to newcomers to Switzerland. You can ask for information at your local commune office.
Retirement and Swiss pensions
Switzerland is always among the top of the Natixis Global Retirement Index (GRI) of the best countries in the world for retirement. So many expats retire to Switzerland that the Swiss government introduced a Swiss retirement residency program. There’s a relatively open policy for retirees but you must meet certain criteria, depending on your nationality and the canton in which you wish to live.
If you’ve worked for at least one full year in Switzerland and have made contributions into the Swiss retirement scheme (AHV) you may be eligible for a Swiss state pension. Read the conditions in Expatica’s guides to retiring in Switzerland, understanding your Swiss pension as a foreigner and pension problems for women: how much pension will I get?
Swiss culture and social life
The Swiss are very big on integration; it’s a small country with four national languages and about 25 percent of the population are foreign. Many cantons have Integration Offices, providing practical advice about day-to-day living, leisure activities, free or inexpensive language courses as well as holding welcome events and social get-togethers (ask your local canton, e.g. Zurich).
Understanding Swiss culture and etiquette can also help you settle in, as well as getting out to explore the top places in Switzerland and trying the top Swiss foods, with French, German, and north Italian influences. See our short guide to culture and etiquette in Switzerland or quirky, informative 35 facts about Switzerland.
After work drinks aren’t common so it’s important to make an effort to get to know people through a particular interest, at clubs and social groups, expat clubs and networks, or join (or start your own) Meet-up group to find like-minded people.
Experience the countryside’s local traditions and national pastimes: Swiss summer and autumn customs – wine, cows and foklore festivals, Swiss spring and winter customs – the festival high seasons and the best of Switzerland’s festivals.