Home Moving to Switzerland Visas & Immigration Guide to visas and immigration in Switzerland
Last update on June 29, 2020
Gary Buswell Written by Gary Buswell

Moving to Switzerland? Find out whether you need a Swiss visa or permit to live, study or work in Switzerland with our complete guide.

With its beautiful scenery and postcard-perfect cities, it’s easy to see why Switzerland is so popular with expats. If you plan on relocating to the country for work or study purposes, you may need to apply for a Swiss visa. To help you out, this guide to visas and immigration in Switzerland will explain everything you need to know, including information on:

Wisler Legal

Wisler Legal is a Swiss law firm providing German and English services. Based in Zurich, they provide expat-friendly advice on a range of immigration matters, including work permit applications, naturalization, and tax advice. So, whatever your immigration needs in Switzerland, Wisler Legal can offer guidance and support.

Immigration in Switzerland

Switzerland has one of the highest proportion of immigrants in the western world, with just over 25% of residents born outside the country. However, immigration has featured prominently in political debate in recent years, with public votes to limit EU migration and an introduction of stricter conditions for residence permits.

Family life in Switzerland

As it stands, citizens from European Union (EU) and European Free Trade Association (EFTA – which includes Switzerland) nations can travel freely to Switzerland, but will need to meet certain conditions in order to stay. Most non-EU/EFTA nationals will need to apply for a visa to come to Switzerland.

The State Secretariat for Migration (SEM) oversees immigration to Switzerland, although the cantonal immigration offices do much of the administration at the local level.

Switzerland is one of the 26 Schengen area countries that permit passport-free travel between them.

Who needs a Swiss visa?

EU/EFTA nationals

Although Switzerland is not part of the EU, it does belong to the EFTA along with Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Norway. EU and EFTA countries form a united free market area within Europe.

Because of this, nobody from EU/EFTA countries needs a visa to enter Switzerland. However, they have to register to work and apply for residence permits for stays of over three months. See our guide for EU/EFTA nationals moving to Switzerland for more information.

Non-EU/EFTA nationals

Citizens from outside the EU/EFTA will need a visa for stays in Switzerland of longer than 90 days. For short stays of less than 90 days, visa requirements depend on which country you are traveling from. Switzerland grants visa-free entry to a number of countries worldwide, although you will need a valid travel document to enter.

Non-EU/EFTA nationals will also need a relevant visa to work or study in Switzerland. For full information on visa requirements for short and long stays, check the SEM website and search for your individual country.

Types of Swiss visa

Here are the three broad types of Swiss visa:

  • Short-term Swiss visas – these are visas that permit stays of up to 90 days for purposes such as tourism or short-term business;
  • Non-Immigrant visas – these are longer-term temporary visas for purposes such as studying or working on fixed-term contracts, where the holder doesn’t intend to stay in the country beyond a fixed period;
  • Immigrant visas – long-term visas for those who want to stay in Switzerland either long-term or permanently, for purposes such as work or retirement

Full details of these visas along with qualifying conditions, costs, and application processes, are explained below.

Short-term Swiss visas

As Switzerland is a Schengen country, it’s possible to apply for a short-stay Schengen (C) visa which permits travel around the Schengen area for up to 90 days within a 180-day period.

To apply for any short-stay Swiss visa, you will need to provide:

  • completed visa application form
  • your passport/valid ID plus two photos
  • cover letter stating purpose of visit and visit dates
  • sufficient medical insurance
  • proof of accommodation covering your stay
  • evidence of finances to support your stay

Below is a breakdown of the different types of short-stay Swiss visa.

Airport transit Swiss visa

Some foreign nationals need an airport transit visa (known as a Schengen A visa) if traveling through Switzerland and catching a connecting flight. Click here to find out if you need a Swiss transit visa.

Otherwise, most airline passengers in transit to their destination via a Swiss airport don’t need a Swiss visa but must have:

  • a valid passport/travel ID document;
  • an airline ticket for the next stage of your journey;
  • the relevant travel documents and visas for entering the next country.
Family visas in Switzerland

You must stay in the transit area and make your onward journey within 48 hours of arriving in Switzerland.

You must apply for an airport transit visa at least 15 days before you travel and the cost is €60. More information on how to apply can be found here.

Swiss tourist/visitor visa

This Swiss visa permits you to enter Switzerland as a tourist or to visit family or friends for a period of 90 days within a 180-day period.

You can apply for this visa through the Swiss embassy or consulate in your country or make the application online. The cost is €60.

In addition to the general requirements, you will also need to provide a letter of invitation from your family or friends in Switzerland if you apply for a visitor visa.

Business visa

This is a visa for short-term business trips of 90 days or less. The processes and costs for this Swiss visa are the same as for the tourist visa. Additional requirements include:

  • business invitation letter from Swiss company or organization
  • letter from your employer permitting the business travel (if applicable)
  • business bank statement for the last 6 months
  • necessary documentation proving the legitimacy of your business (e.g., Articles of Association or trading license)
  • evidence that you can financially support the business stay

Medical visa

Swiss visa for short-term medical treatment. For this, you will need to provide:

  • medical report from your doctor, dentist or physician
  • confirmation from place of medical treatment in Switzerland that they will treat you
  • insurance to cover medical costs, or proof that you will be covering the fees yourself

Costs for this visa are €60 and the application form can be found here.

Swiss visa for cultural, sport, religious or film events

This visa covers visits made by the likes of artists, sportspeople and religious leaders to attend events, competitions or film shoots in Switzerland. As well as the standard short-stay visa requirements, applicants need to provide event information and evidence of skills or qualifications.

For film crews, details of the film, film-maker credentials and list of film crew members also need to be provided. 

Official visit visa

Members of official delegations visiting Switzerland for an event or conference will need to apply for this Swiss visa. Costs and procedures are the same as for other short-term visas. In addition to standard requirements, applicants will need to give details of the purpose of visit and length of stay.

Short-term study visa

You can use this visa for:

  • short study courses of 90 days or less
  • research carried out as part of a degree or PhD
  • training courses or seminars, including work-related training
  • internships of three months or less

Application procedures and costs are the same as for other short-term Swiss visas. For longer study courses, you will need to apply for a study visa and the necessary Swiss residence permit.

Non-immigrant Swiss visas

All non-EU/EFTA nationals wanting to stay in Switzerland for longer than 90 days will need to get the necessary visa along with a residence permit. EU/EFTA citizens don’t need a visa for long stays, but they will need a residence permit. See our guide to EU/EFTA citizens coming to Switzerland for more information.

The long stay visa for Schengen countries is called the category D national visa. This Swiss visa is issued subject to authorization from the cantonal migration authorities. They can take several weeks or even months to process.

expat students in switzerland submission

If you intend to come to Switzerland for a period of longer than three months but don’t plan to settle, for example if you want to stay for a fixed period of time for work or study purposes, you will need to apply for a temporary residence permit. The two Swiss temporary residence permits are:

  • L Permit – short-term residence permit issued as a biometric card. It is issued for one year and is non-renewable. This permit is typically linked to a specific job or study contract lasting no more than 12 months in total.
  • B permit – initial temporary residence permit issued as a biometric card. It is usually issued for between 1-5 years but can be renewed. They are usually linked to a longer-term job or study contract and will usually require that the holder remains in the canton the application has been linked to. The Swiss authorities restrict the number of B permits issued each year.

Visa application

If you need a long-stay non-immigrant Swiss visa for a fixed temporary period, you should apply via the Swiss embassy or consulate in your home country. Visa costs will depend on where you are applying from but are usually around €60.

Documentation will depend on the type of visa you are applying for, but it will include as a minimum requirement:

  • completed application form (available here)
  • copy of passport/valid ID plus two photos

You can view the exact requirements for your particular country here.

Local Swiss cantons issue residence permits. You will need to apply for one at your cantonal immigration office as soon as you arrive in Switzerland. Make sure you do this within the first 90 days of your stay otherwise you may risk having your visa revoked.

The following non-immigrant long-stay Swiss visas are available.

Student visas

Non-EU/EFTA nationals wanting to study long-term in Switzerland, such as those on degree or post-graduate courses, can apply for a Swiss student visa. You will need to show evidence of:

  • financial resources to cover your stay in Switzerland
  • health insurance
  • confirmation of study placement at a Swiss educational institution
  • payment of course fees
  • necessary educational certificates and qualifications
  • letter outlining your post-study plans

After six months, you can work for up to 15 hours a week during term time and full-time during holidays. If you hold a Master’s degree and will be working at the university you can start work immediately.

See more information in our guide to student visas in Switzerland.

Temporary worker visas

Work visas are only granted in Switzerland to those who already have a job offer. You cannot come to Switzerland on another visa and then look for work. Temporary work visas are available for those employed in Switzerland on fixed-term contracts. You will need to provide:

  • confirmation of job offer
  • health insurance
  • evidence that you have the skills and qualifications to do the job

You can get a temporary work visa to work in Switzerland as an au pair if you are aged 18-25, but you need to get a placement through an agency licensed through the Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO).

See more information in our guide to work visas in Switzerland.

Non-immigrant family visas

If you want to come to Switzerland to stay with a partner or relatives for a limited period of time that is longer than 3 months, you will have to apply for a category D family reunion visa along with a temporary residence permit.

You can do this is you are:

  • the spouse of a Swiss citizen or resident
  • a child of a Swiss citizen or resident
  • a parent or grandparent of a Swiss citizen or resident who is from an EU/EFTA country

You will need to show evidence of:

  • relationship to the family member you are joining in Switzerland (e.g., marriage certificate, birth certificate)
  • health insurance
  • proof of financial subsistence for your stay
  • proof that you can meet the language requirements for the Swiss canton you are staying in (A2 for written, B1 for spoken)

Find out more in our guide to coming to Switzerland to join relatives.

Immigrant Swiss visas

If you plan on relocating to Switzerland or staying for an indefinite period of time, you will have to apply for the category D national visa in much the same way as if you were coming on a non-immigrant visa.

Switzerland doesn’t generally offer permanent visas or permits to anyone unless they have been living in the country for 5-10 years. If you are coming long-term for work, business or family reunion, you will typically have to get a temporary “B” residence permit initially until you meet the requirements for settlement.

Requirements for permanent settlement or full Swiss citizenship vary by canton but generally include:

  • ability to speak and write the national language
  • integration into Swiss society
  • clean criminal record
  • Swiss authorities assessing you as no threat to national security
  • the ability to support yourself without recourse to social welfare

The main types of Swiss immigrant visa are listed below.

Family reunion visas

Children and spouses/partners from non-EU/EFTA countries can join Swiss residents who have either a “C” permanent residence permit or Swiss citizenship using the family reunion visa. If the Swiss resident is from an EU/EFTA country, they can also be joined by parents and grandparents.

Those living in Switzerland on temporary B or L permits don’t have automatic rights to be joined by family members. However, cantons may allow this if it can be proved that family members can be accommodated and will be able to support themselves without using public funds. Students on B or L permits usually can’t bring family members with them.

Children aged under 12, including adopted children, are automatically given a “C” permit for permanent residence when joining parents. They don’t have to meet the residence requirement.

Work visas

If you want to come and work in Switzerland as an employee, you have to secure a work contract before you can even enter the country.
See our guides on how to find a job and apply for a job in Switzerland.

Your future employer will submit a request for authorization to the State Secretariat for Migration (SEM). This authorization is generally only given to non-EU/EFTA citizens who are managers, specialists, or otherwise highly skilled, if the quotas allow it, and if no EU/EFTA person is available to do the job.

For long-term employment contracts, you will initially get a “B” permit which you can renew until you are able to apply for a “C” settlement permit. Once you have a “C” permit, you will be able to move freely between the cantons and apply for any job in Switzerland.

See our guide to work visas in Switzerland for further information.

Business visas

Switzerland doesn’t offer visas for people to come and start their own business. In general, only permanent residents and citizens can work in the country in a self-employed capacity.

However, there is an investment visa for entrepreneurs who are willing to pay an annual lump-sum taxation of between CHF 150,000 and 1 million (depending on canton). You must demonstrate that the business venture will create jobs and economic opportunities.

You will need to provide:

  • proof of available funds to invest;
  • information on how the funds will benefit Swiss citizens and the Swiss economy;
  • information on the company that will receive the funds (e.g. Articles of Association, or detailed business plan if you want to set up a new company)

The business investor visa will entitle you to a Swiss permanent residence permit.

Retirement visa

Non-EU/EFTA nationals can retire to Switzerland on the category D national visa if they:

  • can prove they have adequate resources to support their retirement in Switzerland
  • take out a health insurance policy
  • demonstrate close personal ties to Switzerland, such as family members living in the country, owning real estate or making frequent trips to Switzerland

Successful applicants will get a “B” temporary residence permit with a chance to apply for a “C” permit for permanent residence once they fulfill requirements.

The SEM only issues a limited number of permits each year and they are granted at the discretion of individual cantons. Therefore your chances of a retirement visa in Switzerland depends on the strength of your application.

The Swiss business investor visa is also open to retirees who want to fast-track their visa and residency and are willing to invest the minimum amounts.

Asylum-seekers and refugees in Switzerland

Anyone can claim asylum in Switzerland. You can make an application at the border control of any Swiss airport or at one of the country’s federal asylum centers.

All asylum applications are processed by the SEM and should be accompanied by any available evidence of persecution or threats to safety.

It is not possible to apply for asylum in Switzerland from another country, however it is possible to file a visa request at a Swiss embassy or consulate abroad on the grounds of feeling unsafe in this country. The embassy or consulate will then determine whether a temporary visa should be issued.

Asylum seekers stay in asylum reception centers while the SEM reviews their applications. They get an “N” permit and are allowed to seek employment after 3 months in Switzerland.

The SEM aims to process all asylum applications within 6 months. If applications are rejected, the applicants will be expected to leave Switzerland within a specified time although they can appeal the verdict.

Successful applicants are granted refugee status and will be given a “B” residence permit with the chance of applying for a “C” permit for permanent residence, and eventually full citizenship if they want to, in due course.

If a person has been refused asylum but cannot leave Switzerland for whatever reason, they are sometimes granted an “F” permit for temporarily admitted persons. Years spent in Switzerland on an “F” permit only count as half-years towards residency requirements.

Switzerland had just over 15,000 asylum applications from non-EU nationals in 2018, the 10th highest out of EU/EFTA countries.

More information on claiming asylum in Switzerland can be found here.

Residence and citizenship in Switzerland

Every foreigner staying in Switzerland for longer than 90 days/three months needs a residence permit, even EU/EFTA citizens.

No non-EU/EFTA citizen has a right to residency, and each case is decided on individual circumstances. You have to apply to the local cantonal migration offices where you intend to live.

Although all cantons operate under the same federal law, each canton has some autonomy over immigration into the region. Therefore, individual cantons are the first resource for information regarding requirements for work and residence permits.

Types of Swiss residence permit

  • L permit – short-term residence permit valid for up to a year and not renewable.
  • B permit – temporary residence permit usually issued for one year but renewable.
  • C permit – settlement permit for permanent residence. Available after 5 years of continuous residence for EU/EFTA citizens and nationals of the US and Canada, and after 10 years of residence for other third country nationals.
  • Ci Permit – for relatives of workers of inter-governmental organizations and foreign embassies. Valid for as long as the relative’s visa/permit is valid for.
  • N Permit – asylum-seeker permit.
  • F Permit – temporarily admitted person, for those whose asylum applications have been rejected but who can’t leave Switzerland for some reason.
  • S Permit – temporary conditional permit for other people in need of protection.
  • G Permit – cross-border commuter permit for those who work in Switzerland but live in another country. Annual permit that is renewable but does not grant any residence rights.

Permits need to be renewed at your local cantonal immigration office no earlier than three months and no later than two weeks before the existing permit’s expiry date.

After 10 years of continuous residence, you can apply for full Swiss citizenship if you have a valid “C” permit. This can be done after 5 years if you qualify for simplified naturalization, for example if you are married to a Swiss citizen.

Citizenship allows you certain extra rights, such as the power to vote, but you would have other obligations, for example, all young Swiss men have to do military service.

See our guide to Swiss citizenship and guide to permanent residence in Switzerland for more information.

Arriving in Switzerland

When you arrive in Switzerland you have 14 days to register your stay at your local Residents Registration Office. You will also need to get your residence permit from the cantonal migration offices if you are staying for longer than three months. You should take along your passport as well as your Swiss visa.

Other things you will need to sort out within your first few weeks are:

See our guide to relocating to Switzerland for a checklist of things to do upon arrival.

Appeals and complaints

If your Swiss visa application is turned down, you can write a letter of appeal to the Swiss embassy or consulate in your home country. You will need to clearly explain on what grounds you are contesting the decision. Find out more on the complaints procedure here.

For issues concerning Swiss residence permits, you should contact your cantonal migration authority. If you are unable to get a satisfactory response, you can take the matter to the SEM who oversee immigration and residence permits in Switzerland.

Useful resources

State Secretariat for Migration (SEM) – Swiss federal department that oversees matters on immigration and residence

Swiss Authorities Online – government portal with information in English

Link to Swiss visa application forms