Residency in Switzerland

Index

I. Introduction

Congratulations on your decision to take residence in Switzerland. We will be delighted to welcome you, and hope that you and your family will feel at home here very quickly.

You will of course have a whole list of different things to sort out when you arrive, and even beforehand. On this page, you will find some general legal information intended to provide an overview of each topic. Please contact us for detailed information tailored to your specific situation. We all know the saying “The devil is in the detail”, and Swiss law is no exception.

Lastly, we would encourage you to learn the language of the canton in which you will be living. It will make the whole integration process so much easier.

II. General information

With an area of 41,285 square kilometres (15, 940 square miles), Switzerland is a small country, but it is extremely diverse. The cultural, geographical, ethnic and linguistic landscapes are rich, with four national languages (French, German, Italian and Romansh) and around 8,300,000 inhabitants, one quarter of whom are foreign. Living proof that Switzerland positively welcomes newcomers! Around half of the country’s foreign residents are German, Italian, Portuguese or French.

According to the latest World Happiness Report from the UN (March 2017), Switzerland is the fourth happiest country in the world. Also according to a recent survey, 90% of foreigners reported being “satisfied” or “very satisfied” to live in Switzerland. In addition, in a survey on the quality of life in cities across the world, three of the cities ranked as the top ten are in Switzerland (Zurich, Geneva and Basel).

There are many reasons for these excellent result: the nature and landscapes Switzerland has to offer, competitiveness and the ease of doing business, security and a reliable legal system, a central position in Europe, the absence of corruption, high-quality medical care, modern, reliable infrastructure, a commitment to the environment and more generally the very high quality of life enjoyed by residents.

In addition, Switzerland is without doubt one of the most participative democracies in the world. The ultimate political authority lies with the people. They give their opinions on everything, all the time, through the referendum and popular initiative systems. They also elect representatives to the Swiss parliament, the Federal Assembly, which is the highest authority at federal level. The Federal Assembly is bicameral, and is made up of the National Council and the Council of States.

The Federal Council is the Swiss Confederation’s supreme executive authority. Federal departments and offices are subordinate to it. The Federal Council is comprised of seven members who are elected for a four-year term by the two chambers of the Federal Assembly together. Each Federal Council member heads up a department of the federal administration.

The Federal Supreme Court is the country’s highest court. It represents judicial power in Switzerland.

To guard against abuse, the principle of separation of powers applies in Switzerland. A single person cannot simultaneously hold office within different federal authorities.

Switzerland is a federal state. This means that the power of the state is divided between the Confederation, the cantons (26) and the communes (around 2,400). The cantons and communes have extensive powers and their own sources of revenue. Each canton has its own constitution, parliament, government and courts. Communes have a parliament and an executive.

Switzerland has three levels of laws (federal, cantonal and communal) in addition to international law, which can make things quite complicated!

Did you know? Even today, at certain popular assemblies (Landsgemeinde) in central Switzerland, elections are decided and popular decisions made via a show of hands.

The federal, cantonal and communal laws and the Swiss and cantonal constitutions place certain obligations on everyone living in the country. These include paying taxes, sending children to school, taking out health insurance, etc. At the same time, all individuals have fundamental rights. These include the right to bodily integrity, to be treated equally (in particular by the justice system), to freedom from discrimination (for example, on the basis of sex or nationality), to marriage, and to freedom of expression, beliefs and opinion.

Cities with populations of over 100,000 are Zurich, Bern (the federal city), Basle, Geneva, Lausanne and Winterthur.

III. Swiss residence for EU/EFTA nationals

A. Applicable law

The 21 June 1999 agreement between the Swiss Confederation and the European Community and its member states on the free movement of persons (hereafter AFMP, RS 0.142.112.681) and its Protocol set out for European Union (EU) nationals wide-ranging rules governing the free movement of persons. They mainly cover arrival in the country, admission, residency, gainful activity and family reunification.

New EU member states are also covered by the AFMP. Transition arrangements were put in place for Bulgaria and Romania, but on 1 June 2016 nationals of these countries gained the same rights to free movement as nationals of the other 25 EU countries (subject to the application of a special safeguard clause). With the entry into force of Protocol III to the AFMP on 1 January 2017, Croatia has also become a party to the agreement. The legal status of Croatian nationals is covered by the AFMP, subject to transitory provisions concerning access to the job market (quotas and specific conditions for accessing the job market) defined in Protocol III. These provisions will remain in force until 31 December 2023 at the latest (subject to a specific safeguard clause applicable until 31 December 2026).

The provisions of the 21 June 2001 agreement amending the Convention of 4 January 1960 establishing the European Free Trade Association (EFTA, RS 0.632.31) are almost exactly the same as those in the AFMP and its protocols. This agreement applies, for example, to Norway and Iceland.

The AFMP and its protocols apply to:

  • nationals of EU member states;
  • EU/EFTA citizens’ family members, regardless of their own nationality, who, under the provisions of the AFMP and its protocols on family reunification, are entitled to reside in Switzerland;
  • workers who, regardless of their nationality, are posted by a company incorporated under the law of an EU or EFTA member state with its registered office, central administration or main site within the EU or EFTA, with a view to providing a service in Switzerland and who prior to this have been integrated long-term into the legal job market of an EU or EFTA country (i.e. who for at least 12 months have held a residence permit or permanent residence permit).

Nationals of EU/EFTA members states are only subject to certain provisions of the Federal Act on Foreign Nationals (FNA; SR 142.20), when the AFMP and the Federal Council’s implementation measures do not provide for any dispensation or when the terms of the FNA are more favourable.

For example, the Agreement and its protocols do not cover the issue of settlement permits (permit C). The rules governing this are found in the Swiss authorities’ directives on foreign nationals.

Generally, authorisations under the AFMP and its Protocols are granted by the cantonal authorities. The State Secretariat for Migration (SEM) does however retain the fundamental jurisdiction to refuse an EU/EFTA residence authorisation in a specific case.

B. Entry into Switzerland

Nationals of the EU 28 and the EFTA covered by the AFMP and its protocols require only a valid passport or identity card to enter Switzerland. They can only be refused entry if their personal presence poses a threat to security and public order.

Family members who are not EU or EFTA nationals are bound by the travel document and visa requirements of the Ordinance of 22 October 2008 on entry and the issue of visas (OEV, RS 142.204).

Family members holding a valid, recognised travel document accompanied by a valid residence permit issued by a Schengen Area country do not require visas for stays of less than 3 months.

C. Work permit for gainful activity

Under the AFMP, EU nationals (subject to transitory regimes such as that applicable to Croatia until 31 December 2023) and EFTA country citizens have a right to live in Switzerland for the purpose of carrying out gainful activity. To exercise this right, theoretically they simply need to sign a contract of employment with an employer in Switzerland or set up in the country as a self-employed worker.

To work in Switzerland, they are required to notify the authorities (for periods of up to 3 months, or 90 days in each calendar year) or seek authorisation (for longer periods).

They are required to inform the commune in Switzerland where they have taken up residence that they have arrived, and apply for the relevant residence permit by presenting all the documents required to the cantonal administration department (within 14 days of their arrival and before taking up any gainful employment).

If they take up employment in Switzerland and their situation is not covered by the notification system, they will receive a short-term residence permit (EU/EFTA permit L) or a residence permit (EU/EFTA permit B) depending on the length of their work contract (short-term residence permit for up to 364 days, and residence permit for longer periods). They can begin working once the cantonal authorities have received their application.

For EU 27 and EFTA nationals, the only documents that can be requested by the authorities are an employment declaration by the employer or a work certificate.

These documents must include the employer’s and employee’s personal details, the length of the contract and the basis (full-time, part-time, etc.).

The authorities will examine part-time contracts very carefully before granting an authorisation. If the activity is so limited that it is considered to be no more than marginal and of minor importance, the worker may be required to top it up with one or more other part-time contracts so that, once they have been granted an authorisation, they are able to provide for themself and their family without needing help from the welfare state.

Did you know? One third of Switzerland’s income is earned through trade with the European Union

EU 27 and EFTA members who move to Switzerland with the intention of carrying out independent gainful activity will be granted an initial five-year EU/EFTA residence permit so long as they provide proof of their activity when submitting their application. Since 1 January 2019, Croatian nationals who settle in Switzerland with the intention of carrying out independent gainful activity are granted an EU/EFTA residence permit under the same conditions as those applicable to self-employed nationals from the EU 25/EFTA.

If there are serious doubts as to whether their independent activity in Switzerland is genuine, and whether they are actually producing a sufficient and regular income which meets their needs, the cantonal authorities can demand, at any point while the authorisation is valid, additional proof. If the conditions under which the authorisation was granted are no longer fulfilled, it may be revoked.

The fact that a person has created a company in Switzerland and is carrying out an economic activity they will be able to live on long-term is considered sufficient proof. They will simply need to present ledgers (accounts, orders, etc.) to prove the existence of their business.

EU/EFTA short-term residence permits, EU/EFTA residence permits and EU/EFTA settlement permits are valid in all areas of Switzerland (geographical mobility). EU28/EFTA nationals and their family members are not required to repeat the authorisation procedure when they move their home or business to a new canton. However, the new address will need to be mentioned on the EU/EFTA permit.

EU/EFTA residence permit holders have the right to change from being employed to working independently or change their employer (professional mobility). In the latter case, they do not have to notify the authorities. This professional mobility applies both to EU 27/EFTA nationals and to Croatian nationals holding an EU/EFTA residence permit, including short-term permits.

EU/EFTA short-term residence permit holders have the right to change their job or profession, so long as they remain employed. If they move to an independent activity, they are required to notify the authorities and will require a new residence permit (EU/EFTA permit B, valid for 5 years). This legislation applies both to EU 27/EFTA nationals and to Croatian nationals.

EU 27/EFTA nationals working independently in Switzerland retain their EU/EFTA residence permit if they become employed. Croatian nationals still require authorisation, however, to transfer to an employed gainful activity. A short-term EU/EFTA residence permit or an EU/EFTA residence permit will be granted, depending on the duration of the employment relationship, and so long as a quota unit is available.

If the holder of an EU/EFTA residence permit (including short-term permits) has their employment contract terminated involuntarily, the holder’s right to live in Switzerland terminates six months after they cease working. If the worker’s employment benefit entitlement extends beyond this six-month period, their right to live in the country ends six months after their benefit entitlement ends, so long as they had been living in Switzerland for at least 12 months when their employment relationship ceased. For holders of short-term permits, the right to live in the country ends when the holder’s unemployment benefit entitlement ceases in all cases. The worker must be registered with the regional employment office.

Lastly, it is important to note that compliance with the requirement to give notice of vacant positions (see below) does not affect the rights of EU/EFTA nationals to live in Switzerland. There is no change to the AFMP or your rights under it. Consequently, the authorities should not check, before they issue a short-term residence permit, residence permit or cross-border permit to an EU/EFTA national, whether the employer has communicated the vacant position to the regional employment office, even if the type of profession concerned makes this a requirement. The residence permit cannot be refused on the grounds that the vacant position has not been notified when this was a legal requirement.  

Please note that specific rules apply to the cross-border supply of services. The AFMP’s provisions on these are not exactly the same as those in place under the four freedoms of the EU internal market. It only includes partial liberalisation of the supply of cross-border services linked to people.

It is important to distinguish between areas where a specific agreement on the provision of services is in place between Switzerland and the EU/EFTA or will be signed in the near future, and areas where there is no specific agreement. In the latter case, the AFMP includes a right to provide cross-border services in another contracting state for 90 days per calendar year. For more details, please see our brochure on “short-term gainful activity and posted workers in Switzerland”.

D. Work permit without gainful activity

Legislation on the free movement of people without gainful activity covers the following groups: retired people, students and trainees and anyone not carrying out a gainful activity (such as people of independent means and job seekers). It also includes people who are in Switzerland as users of services (stays for the purposes of medical or spa treatment, etc.).

EU/EFTA nationals who come to Switzerland for a maximum of three months in any six-month period but do not carry out a gainful activity are not required to declare their arrival or notify the authorities.

Beyond this period, they are entitled to stay with family members, so long as they have sufficient financial resources to meet their own and their family members’ needs and they have taken out sickness and accident insurance covering them for all risks.

Unlike other people not carrying out gainful activity, people in education or training are simply required to prove that they have sufficient financial resources to meet their needs. In addition, they must be registered with an approved educational institution in Switzerland to follow a general or specific professional course as their main occupation. Access to higher education institutions and training colleges, and the allocation of grants, are not governed by the AFMP.

In theory, financial resources are considered to be sufficient if a Swiss citizen with the same resources would not have the right to claim welfare payments. To assess your situation, you should refer to the directives issued by the Swiss Conference of Social Action Institutions (CSIAS directives). New entrants to Switzerland who are already retired and in receipt only of social welfare payments from a foreign country should check that their financial resources exceed the amount that would give a Swiss citizen who applied for them the right to receive additional payments under the Federal law of 6 October 2006 on payments in addition to AVS (retirement and survivors  insurance) and AI (disability insurance) (RS 831.30, LPC).

Generally, the initial residence permit issued to people without gainful activity is valid for 5 years. In exceptional cases, the authorities can require the permit to be reconfirmed after two years, if they deem this necessary. For people in education or training, the permit is only valid for one year. It will be renewed every year until the course is completed, so long as the person continues to meet all the conditions.

Under the AFMP, EU/EFTA nationals have the right to spend a reasonable period (generally 6 months) looking for work in another contracting state.

EU 27/EFTA nationals in education (students, trainees, etc.) who have been issued with a student residence permit can carry out a gainful activity on a part-time basis for up to 15 hours a week.

They are however required to notify the canton residence permit authority of their employment. Term-time work must be limited to 15 hours per week. During the holidays, students can work full-time, so long as the authorities are notified.

The same applies to PhD students and postdoctoral researchers from the EU 27/EFTA countries who work part-time (up to 15 hours a week) in a domain which may or may not be linked with their thesis.

A PhD student or postdoctoral researcher concretely working on their studies or research for over 15 hours per week must be issued with a working person’s residence permit (EU/EFTA permit L or EU/EFTA permit B, depending on the duration of the activity).

Lastly, it is possible for an EU/EFTA national to be granted an EU/EFTA residence permit (without gainful activity) for an exceptional reason, even if they do not fulfil the conditions laid down in the AFMP, in particular if they do not have the required financing, or, in extremely serious situations, for family members who do not have entitlement under the family reunification provisions (for example, brother, sister, uncle, nephew, aunt or niece). This practice is however limited.

E. Settlement permit

The AFMP and its protocols do not cover settlement permits (EU/EFTA permit C); they only cover EU/EFTA residence permits and short-term residence permits. For more information about settlement, you should refer to the provisions of the FNIA (law on foreign persons) and settlement treaties and agreements (see below).

The AFMP entitles EU/EFTA nationals holding an EU/EFTA settlement permit to a more favourable legal status than they have under the FNIA due to their settlement permit. This applies, for example, to reasons for which the permit can be revoked, and to repatriation measures.

Did you know? In 2016, Switzerland opened the world’s longest rail tunnel (57.1km).

F. Family reunification

The AFMP is based on the principles of the European law on family reunification which were in force when it was signed on 21 June 1999.

EU/EFTA nationals’ family members have the right to live in Switzerland, regardless of their own nationality.

Family members means:

  • spouse or civil partner;
  • descendants: children aged under 21, or older if they are dependants;
  • ascendants: dependant parents and grandparents.

For EU/EFTA nationals living in Switzerland to pursue a course of study, family reunification is limited to the spouse/partner and dependent children. The circle of family members eligible for family reunification is also wider than it is for third country nationals.

Please note that EU/EFTA nationals’ family members carrying out a gainful activity under the notification procedure cannot claim the right to stay in Switzerland under the family reunification provisions of the AFMP.

Under the principles of the AFMP, anyone intending to bring their family to Switzerland under the family reunification programme is required to have suitable accommodation for the whole family. If the EU/EFTA national with the original residence rights is employed, there is no need to provide proof of financial resources. The right to family reunification is decided based on whether suitable accommodation is available.

EU/EFTA nationals not in gainful activity (persons of independent means, people in education, users of services and other non-working people) are required to prove that they have sufficient financial resources to meet their needs and those of their family. People who were admitted to work on a self-employed basis and who no longer do, those who have lost their employed status, and job seekers are also required to have the financial resources to support their family members.

Family members accepted under the family reunification programme will be issued with the same type of residence permit as the EU/EFTA national with the original rights.  Their residence permits will expire when the original rights holder’s permit expires.

If the EU/EFTA national in Switzerland has the right to a settlement permit, by analogy the admission conditions for their family members are those set out in the AFMP for residence permit holders (EU/EFTA permit B), unless the conditions in the FNIA are more favourable.

Spouses and children admitted under family reunification rules are entitled to access the job market regardless of their nationality.

Inverse family reunification is also accepted: the foreign parents of an EU/EFTA child aged under 18 can join their child if they have custody.

IV. Swiss residence for a non-European Union (EU) country citizen

It should be noted in advance that Switzerland has a rather restrictive approach to residence permits for non-EU citizens, particularly since the beginning of the economic crisis.

Applicants must submit an outstanding dossier (irreproachable behavior, advanced level of education or training, willingness to integrate, sufficient resources, etc.), and unlike in many European countries (Portugal, Malta, Cyprus, and the United Kingdom, among others), residence in Switzerland cannot be obtained simply by investing a predefined amount.

A distinction must be made between residence with and without gainful activity.

A. Applicable law

The FNIA entered into force on 1 January 2008. It governs the rights of non-EU/EFTA citizens to enter Switzerland and live in the country, whether they are carrying out gainful activity or not, with the exception of asylum situations. There are several implementation ordinances. They are:

To coordinate practices, the State Secretariat for Migration issues directives and comments which are very useful for the authorities and others working in this domain.

Looking to international law, the following apply:

Applicable law also includes residence treaties (which are however now obsolete) and residence agreements which give rights to a settlement permit (permit C) after a certain number of years of residence (see below).

There are also agreements on the exchange of interns (signed with 32 countries), agreements on cross-border workers (signed with Germany, Italy, France and Austria) and agreements on recruitment (signed with Italy and Spain). In practice, the effects of the latter two types of agreement have been limited since the AFMP came into force.

B. Entry into Switzerland

To enter Switzerland, foreign nationals must:

  1. have a valid travel document enabling them to cross the border, together with a visa if one is required;
  2. have sufficient financial resources for their stay;
  3. not represent a threat to security or public order, nor to Switzerland’s international relations;
  4. not have been subject to any repatriation or expulsion measure.

If their stay is to be temporary, the foreign national must provide proof that they intend to leave Switzerland.

Any foreign national who enters the Schengen Area can stay there, without pursuing any gainful activity, for three months (90 days) out of a six-month period (180 days), unless the duration of their visa (if they are required to hold one) is shorter.

As a general rule, anyone required to hold a visa must submit an application to the Swiss representation local to where they live. The representation will contact the relevant authority in Switzerland (the Confederation or a canton) for authorisation to issue the visa.

C. Types of residence permit

A foreign national required to hold a residence permit will, if their application is accepted, receive a residence permit for the specific authorisation granted to them. A residence permit must include a photograph, and it must be signed. It gives details of the holder’s status. The main types are:

  • Permit L (purple) for short-term residence with gainful activity and other temporary stays;
  • Permit B (grey) for long-term residents;
  • Permit C (green) for people who are settled.

The first point to note is that the issuing authority will decide which authorisation is issued. Applicants cannot choose between a short-term permit, a residence permit and a settlement permit. Also, the foreign national is bound by their undertakings made during the authorisation process (and in particular if an integration agreement has been signed, see below) and by their declarations, in particular as regards their reasons for being in Switzerland.

Temporary residence is granted, for example, to foreign nationals in Switzerland for medical treatment, a course of study, internship or other type of training programme or for temporary employment.

A short-term permit (permit L) is generally issued for a short-term stay of one year or less. It can be extended to be valid for up to two years in total. Short-term residence permits can be issued not only for short-terms stays with gainful activity of one year maximum, but also for other stays of up to two years, for example to interns, students, school pupils or medical patients. A new short-term permit cannot be issued until the person has left Switzerland for the appropriate amount of time theoretically one year (renewal: this is different to an extension in that it is a new period of residence which does not follow directly on from the previous one). A change of job will only be accepted with very good reason.

Short-term permits are issued for a specific purpose and there may be other conditions attached. If the purpose of the stay changes or a condition set when the stay was authorised is no longer fulfilled (for example, a change of job or project), a new short-term residence permit application must be made to the relevant cantonal authority. The admission conditions will be reassessed.

For longer stays, the authorities will issue the foreign national with a residence permit (permit B). The initial authorisation is generally issued for a period of one year maximum. It can then be extended for subsequent two-year periods if this is justified by the person’s personal situation. After a certain amount of time (which varies according to the foreign national’s country of origin, see below), they will be issued with a settlement permit (permit C). When the permit is granted or prolonged, the authorities will take into account the degree to which the foreign national is integrated into Swiss society when setting the duration of the permit (see below). Residence and settlement permit holders can change jobs without authorisation, except in specific cases such as a “conditional” permit B. If the residence permit is granted for the purposes of a specific job is explicitly linked to a condition relating to the labour market, a request to change jobs must be submitted to the relevant cantonal authority.

Residence permits are issued for a specific purpose and there may be other conditions attached. If the purpose of the stay changes (for example, family reunification → gainful activity) or if a condition set when the authorisation was granted is no longer fulfilled (for example posted worker → permanent position or a change of business sector), the foreign national must submit an application for a residence permit under the new conditions to the relevant cantonal authority.

If a residence permit holder who was admitted to the country to carry out an employed gainful activity wants to carry out an independent gainful activity, they must obtain authorisation.

There are also other permits, such as permit G (brown) for cross-border workers, permit N (dark blue) for asylum seekers, permit F (light blue) for foreign nationals and refugees admitted on a temporary basis, permit S (light blue) for people in need of protection and permit Ci (red) for the families of the staff of intergovernmental organisations (IGOs) and foreign representations carrying out a gainful activity.

Short-term residence permits, residence permits and settlement permits are only valid in the canton in which they are issued. A foreign national holding a short-term residence permit or residence permit must obtain a new permit before changing cantons. The same applies to settlement permit holders.

Foreign nationals who hold residence permits are permitted to change cantons so long as they are not unemployed and no reason exists for the permit to be revoked. Settlement permit holders are entitled to change cantons so long as no reason exists for the permit to be revoked. Short-term residence permit holders are not permitted to change cantons.

Did you know? The Swiss flag is square. It consists of a white cross on a red background

D. Integration

All foreign nationals are subject to integration provisions. There are specific provisions for holders of residence and settlement permits.

A gradual model is used when assessing the foreign national’s personal situation, meaning that the requirements become more stringent as the rights attached to the status for which the person is applying increase. This particularly applies to language requirements.

To define a foreign national’s degree of integration, the authorities look in particular at the following criteria: 

  • respect for the Swiss constitution;
  • respect for public security and order;
  • contribution to the country’s economy or continuation of education (the person must be capable of supporting themself, either by working or through education);
  • language skills.

Language skills generally means the ability to communicate in a national language in everyday situations. The foreign national must be able to understand and communicate in the language spoken in the area where they live.

The language requirements laid down by federal law for the various types of residence permit are set out in the ASEO (for example, for an early permit C the requirement is oral level B1 and written level A1 of the common reference framework).

A foreign national is considered to have fulfilled the language requirement in the following cases:

  • the language spoken in the area where they live is their native language;
  • they completed at least three years of their compulsory schooling in a Swiss national language;
  • they have completed a course of upper secondary or tertiary level education taught in a national language;
  • they have a language skills certificate confirming their written and oral skills, based on a test which meets generally accepted quality standards.

To be accepted, the language skills certificate must be based on a test that meets international standards, such as those laid down by the Association of Language Testers in Europe (ALTE). To obtain this, the applicant needs to contact the administration department of fide, a body set up by the Swiss federal authorities. A foreign national can obtain a language passport in three different ways: by sitting a fide language test, by producing a recognised language skills certificate or by presenting a B1-level validation file.

Foreign nationals who have recently arrived in Switzerland and who wish to make their long-term home here are invited to attend an initial information interview. This is an opportunity for the canton authorities to quickly spot any specific integration needs and decide whether an integration agreement should be signed.

If it is clear that there are gaps in the person’s knowledge (for example, they have difficulty understanding everyday language), the authorities may require the foreign national to sign an integration agreement.

This clearly sets out what is required of the person. It defines goals, how they are to be measured, and time scales. The goals set may relate to language skills, integration into the school system or employment and the acquisition of knowledge about the Swiss lifestyle, economy and legal system.

When the authorities impose an integration agreement, a residence permit will not be granted or extended until the agreement has been concluded. It then becomes a condition for the issue or extension of a residence permit to a foreign national.

Integration agreements can also be incorporated into a permit so that they become part of the permit itself. In this case, they are an integral part of the permit.

If the foreign national chooses not to comply with an integration agreement, their permit may be revoked or their application to extend it refused.

E. Residence permit without gainful activity

Subject to exceptions, any foreigner who intends to exercise a gainful activity in Switzerland must hold a residence permit, regardless of the length of his stay. He must apply for this permit with the relevant authority at his planned place of work.

As a general rule, anyone required to hold a visa must submit an application to the Swiss representation local to where they live. Before it can issue the visa, the representation has to contact the relevant authority in Switzerland, which will authorise the visa to be issued once it has accepted the application for a residence permit.

If a foreign national submits an application to carry out a gainful activity subject to authorisation after arriving in Switzerland, the cantonal authorities can require the applicant to wait in a foreign country until the decision to grant the residence permit has been made.

Consequently, foreign nationals are recommended to apply to the authorities in the location in which they intend to work for assurance of a residence permit before arriving in Switzerland. In addition, obtaining this assurance will simplify border formalities (no customs clearance will be required for family furniture transported).

Foreign nationals who need authorisation for their stay are required to notify the authorities in their place of residence of their arrival within a given timescale. They must notify the communal authorities (or the department nominated by the canton) of the location of their principal centre of interests (family, social and personal relations).

1) Procedure

Federal and cantonal authorities divide tasks related to residence permits. Permits are generally established by the cantonal immigration authority (in Geneva, the OCPM), after a preliminary decision by the local authorities of the labor market (in Geneva, the OCIRT) which is approved by the State Secretariat for Migration (SEM) in Bern.

The immigration authorities are bound by the decisions given by the offices of admissions on the labor market. However, even after a positive preliminary decision or favorable opinion given by these offices, the immigration authorities may refuse to authorize permits based on considerations other than those relating to the situation of the economy or the job market.

2) The notion of gainful activity

The authorities interpret the notion of gainful activity (whether employed or self-employed) very widely. Any activity which would normally be remunerated is considered gainful, even if it is carried out on a voluntary basis or remuneration covers only the person’s basic physiological needs (food and accommodation). The distinction is made based on objective rather than subjective criteria. However, business meetings are not viewed as a gainful activity, and nor is administering one’s own assets unless there is a distinct gainful or speculative element to this.

3) Salaried employment

A foreigner may be admitted to Switzerland to exercise gainful salaried employment if all of the following conditions are met:

  1. admission of the foreigner is the interests of the Swiss economy as a whole;
  2. an application from an employer has been submitted;
  3. the maximum number of residence permits has not been surpassed;
  4. it is demonstrated that (order of priority) no suitable worker corresponding to the required profile was found in Switzerland, nor any national of a State with which it has concluded an agreement on the free movement of persons;
  5. the usual compensation and working conditions are met in terms of the workplace, the profession and the industry;
  6. the foreign national is an executive, a specialist, or a qualified worker;
  7. the foreigner’s professional qualification from abroad, his ability to adapt professionally and socially, his language skills and his age should all indicate good chances for long-term integration in the professional and social environment;
  8. suitable accommodation is available.

Exceptions are provided for certain categories of workers, including investors and entrepreneurs who maintain existing jobs or create new jobs, recognized figures from the world of science, culture and sports, persons with specific professional knowledge or skills, provided their admission responds to a documented need, executives who are transferred by internationally active companies, persons whose activity in Switzerland is indispensable for economically significant international business relationships.

*****

Generally, a person will only be authorised to stay in the country to carry out a gainful activity if they have fulfilled the requirement relating to existing personal aptitudes. Depending on the profession or specialisation, these aptitudes can have been obtained at a variety of levels: university or higher education diploma; vocational training together with several years of experience; vocational diploma together with additional training or exceptional language skills that are indispensable in specific areas.

When looking at this requirement from the point of view of the jobs market, the authorities will often assume a foreign professional’s aptitudes based on their role, for example if they are called upon to create or manage businesses which are important to the job market.

*****

During the evaluation of the country’s economic interests, the following factors are taken into account: the labor market situation, long-term economic development, and the foreigner’s ability to integrate.

The authorities do not wish to admit low-skilled workers ready to work for low wages, nor to support special interests. Foreigners who have recently arrived in the country must not compete with Swiss workers by causing social dumping, by accepting less favourable remuneration and working conditions. The authorities base their decisions on this point on legal provisions and the salary and working conditions for a similar post in the same company and the same sector. Salary calculators are provided for employers to use.

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The priority accorded to workers already integrated into the Swiss labor market is intended to increase the chances of native job seekers and to limit the entry of new foreign workers.

The principle of priority for native workers is meant to apply in all cases, regardless of the state of the economy and the labor market. It is upheld in favor of Swiss workers and EU/EFTA nationals, whose status is governed by the Agreement on the free movement of persons. Native workers include, in addition to Swiss citizens, settled foreign nationals (Permit C) and foreign job seekers already living in Switzerland and authorized to work. Consequently, third-country nationals can only be admitted if no native worker or EU/EFTA national can be recruited to fill the job in question.

Employers are required to inform regional employment offices (ORPs) as quickly as possible if they have a vacant position and believe that they can only fill it by using staff from abroad. Employment offices play a key role in making optimal use of the resources available on the labour market across Switzerland. The employer is required to take all the necessary steps to find a worker for the position – by advertising the position in the daily and/or trade press, using digital media or contacting private recruitment agencies.

Employers must be able to demonstrate credible efforts, carried out in a timely and appropriate manner, in order to assign the position in question to local worker applicants or EU/EFTA national applicants. Third-country nationals may only be contacted in the event that such efforts are unsuccessful. These efforts must be undertaken sufficiently early in the process and within an appropriate period prior to the conclusion of the employment contract. Further, consideration will also be taken to ensure that priority applicants are not excluded on the basis of irrelevant professional criteria such as travel abroad, or linguistic or technical skills that are not essential for the activity in question, among others.

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It has also been compulsory since 1 July 2018 to notify the ORP of vacant positions before a third country national can be admitted to fill them. Consequently, employers are legally required to notify the regional employment office (ORP) of vacant positions in sectors or economic regions where, across the country as a whole, the unemployment rate is 5% or more (8% until 31 December 2019). This currently includes, for example, domestic staff and certain building trades. In principle, an online process is used and positions notified to the ORPs as vacant cannot be advertised for five working days from the first working day after the position appears on the ORP’s registered user portal. The employer may not publicise the position by any other means until the five days have elapsed.

Within three days of notifying the ORP of a position, the employer receives a response from the ORP with relevant job seekers’ details.

The employer examines the details provided by the ORP and indicates which candidates they consider suitable and have called for interview or a skills assessment, and whether they have employed one of the candidates proposed.

If the position has not been notified, the cantonal authority responsible for the labour market will reject the request when carrying out the authorisation procedure.

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The maximum numbers of short-term residence permits and residence permits are divided between the Confederation and the cantons. They are divided between the cantons based on economic and labour market requirements, taking into account the country’s economic interests. The maximum number of authorisations available to the Confederation is used to rebalance the requirements of the economy and the labour market in the cantons.

So, for 2019, the maximum number of short-term residence permits has been set at 4,000 in total. Of these, 2,000 are allocated to the Confederation, 143 to the Canton of Geneva and 176 to the Canton of Vaud. Looking at residence permits, the quota is 4,500 in total. Of these, 3,250 are allocated to the Confederation, and just 89 to the Canton of Geneva and 110 to the Canton of Vaud!

4) Independent professional activity

Independent activity is considered to be any freely chosen, for-profit activity carried out by an individual on his own organization, subject to his own substantive guidance and at his own risk.

This freely chosen organization can be managed for example in the form of a commercial trade, a factory, a service provider, an industry or another business. Independent gainful activity is also considered to include the exercise of a liberal profession such as medical practitioner, lawyer or fiduciary agent.

A work permit for independent gainful activity is granted if it is proven that it will result in lasting benefits for the Swiss labor market. Such is the case when the new business contributes to a diversified regional economy in the sector in question, maintains or creates jobs for the local workforce, makes substantial investments and generates new mandates for the Swiss economy.

The first residence permit is issued for a period of two years. The permit may be extended depending on the achievement, in the terms provided, of the lasting positive effect expected to come from the company’s setup. Permits are extended only when the accompanying conditions are met.

Applications must be substantiated and accompanied by a number of supporting documents. In particular, the applicant must provide details on the proposed professional activities, present a business plan mentioning the number of staff to be hired, in addition to planned investments and expected turnover and profits. Any organizational connections with other companies are also to be indicated. Finally, the memorandum the company and/or business registration extract must be attached.

F. Residence permit without gainful activity

Any foreigner who has legally entered into the Schengen area may reside in Switzerland without gainful activity for three months without authorization, unless the visa indicates a shorter period (nationals of countries requiring a visa to enter must of course arrange for such documents in advance of their entry into Switzerland).

When a foreigner plans a longer stay without gainful activity (specifically for the following: person of independent means, medical treatment, students, etc.), He must have authorization which he must request ahead of his entry into Switzerland from the competent authority in the planned place of residence.

A foreign national who has entered Switzerland legally for a temporary stay and then submits an application for a residence permit must remain outside Switzerland while awaiting the decision. The cantonal authorities can authorise the foreign national to stay in Switzerland during the procedure if it is clear that the conditions for admission have been fulfilled.

1) Education and training

A foreign national can obtain a “student” permit B (or L for a course of study lasting less than one year) with a view to pursuing a course of study or ongoing training in Switzerland if they meet the following conditions:

  1. the director of the educational institution has confirmed that the foreign national has been accepted for the planned course;
  2. they have appropriate accommodation;
  3. they have sufficient financial resources;
  4. they have the level of education and personal aptitudes required to follow the planned course.

The student must submit a personal study plan setting out the aim of the course (certificate, Matura, master’s degree, doctorate, etc.). The application will be compared to the official programme of the institution in question. The institution will be required to confirm that they believe the applicant has the required level of education and the appropriate linguistic ability to follow the planned course of study. In certain cases, the authorities may require the applicant to take a language test.

The authorities make strict checks to see that the conditions for residence are fulfilled and do everything they can to ensure that stays authorised for educational purposes are not abused to avoid fulfilling stricter admission conditions for other types of stay.

Consequently, the following will be checked in each case: the candidate’s personal situation (age, family status, education history and social environment), previous periods of residence or applications and the region they come from (political and economic situation and the job market for higher education graduates in their home country).

In the vast majority of cases (except where there is, for example, no risk of migration, and no doubt about the student’s linguistic ability), students from countries for which a visa requirement is in place will be called to attend the office of the relevant Swiss representation in the foreign country in person.

In general, the Swiss representation in the foreign country will require the applicant to attend an interview during which they will collect the information needed by the cantonal migration authorities to accept or refuse the application. In addition, this interview will be an opportunity to obtain further information about the applicant and their intentions, and to evaluate their level of language (the level required is A1, A2 or B2 depending on the type of course to be studied and the institution).

The request must be accompanied by a certificate from the school or educational establishment at which the applicant is registered, the diploma required for admission, a covering letter, proof of payment of school fees, confirmation that the applicant has sufficient financial resources to cover the duration of the course, a written undertaking from the applicant that they will leave Switzerland once their course is complete (except in exceptional cases), a curriculum vitae, the language skills assessment form completed by the office of the Swiss representation abroad and, lastly, proof of suitable accommodation.

The Swiss representation abroad will send the application to the relevant cantonal migration department.

Generally, the authorities will authorise training courses lasting up to 8 years. Exceptions are only made for very valid reasons (for example to follow the logical path of high school → university → PhD) and an application must be made to the State Secretariat for Migration (SEM).

Residence permits for educational purposes are only granted to people aged over 30 in special circumstances.

To be eligible for a residence permit, a foreign national needs to be registered on a full-time programme of education or training with at least 20 hours of lessons each week. Evening classes are not classified as full-time education or training.

Cantonal offices will check that students have sat intermediate and final exams on the required dates.

Foreign nationals can attend a language school if they need to improve their language knowledge in order to follow their course of study or work in their chosen profession (for example, a university preparation course) and if they have concrete reasons for completing this language study in Switzerland.

Once the foreign national has begun their education or training, they will only be authorised to change course or follow an additional course in exceptional cases and with very good reason.

A foreign national can prove that they have sufficient financial resources to complete their education or training by presenting one of the following documents:

– a letter of commitment and a revenue or wealth statement from a solvent person domiciled in Switzerland (if this person is also a foreign national, they must hold a residence permit or settlement permit);

  • confirmation from a bank recognised in Switzerland that they have sufficient personal assets;
  • a firm guarantee of a student grant or training loan (in a stable currency e.g. Swiss francs, euros, American dollars or yen);
  • other financial guarantees will be assessed on a case-by-case basis (financial guarantees from a higher education institution in hardship cases for example).

As residence for education or training purposes is temporary, applicants must have the intention to leave the country once the purpose of their stay (their course) is finished. If the applicant comes from a country which would make forced repatriation difficult or impossible, the authorities will examine this aspect of the application particularly stringently.

Did you know? Of all the companies registered in Switzerland, 99% are small businesses employing less than 250 people.

A foreign national wishing to stay in Switzerland once their course is complete, or after giving it up, is subject to the general conditions of entry to the country set by the law. In theory, they will need to leave Switzerland and remain outside the country while they wait for a decision, unless the relevant authorities consider that they clearly meet the conditions of residence.

Foreign nationals who are graduates of a Swiss higher education institution can be authorised to take up a post regardless of the order of priority (see above) if their gainful activity is of primary scientific or economic interest. This applies to graduates from Swiss higher education institutions in areas where they can bring to a role a high level of skills and knowledge and where there is a shortage of candidates. It generally applies to research and development, developing applications for new technologies, or areas where the skills they have acquired can be applied to activities that are of primary economic interest.

A gainful activity is considered to be of primary economic interest when the labour market has a demonstrable need for staff in a sector which corresponds to the course studied and when the student is highly specialised and has skills to match the position to be filled.  It also applies to a role which will immediately create new jobs or generate new contracts for the Swiss economy.

Once they have completed their studies, graduates of Swiss higher education institutions are admitted to the country for six months in order to secure a graduate-level job.

The term “higher education institution” covers universities (cantonal universities and institutes of technology, and university colleges eligible for grants) and also university-level vocational colleges.

Foreign nationals studying at a general or vocational higher education institution may be authorised to take up part-time employment in addition to their course at the earliest six months after their arrival, if the director of the educational institution certifies that the work is compatible with the course and will not delay its completion, if they are not employed for more than 15 hours per week in term-time, if they have a proposition from an employer and if the remuneration and working conditions are suitable. They can work full-time during the inter-semester holidays.

Foreign nationals on postgraduate courses (Master of Advanced Studies and PhD students, postdoctoral researchers, etc.) at general or vocational higher education institutions in Switzerland can be authorised to pursue a full-time or part-time gainful activity in their scientific area if they have a proposal from an employer, and if the position complies with the sector’s usual remuneration and working conditions for this role. The activity must be compatible with the course of study or training.

Lastly, foreign nationals undertaking a full-time course of study which includes a compulsory internship element can be authorised to receive payment for their internship if this complies with the sector’s usual remuneration and working conditions for the role and if the internship does not represent more than half of the total duration of the course. In addition, there must be a request from an employer and the applicant must have suitable accommodation.

Students and recipients of student grants studying a course in one of Switzerland’s national languages before beginning their course of study are not permitted to pursue gainful activity at the same time.

2)   Annuitants (persons of independent means)

Foreigners who no longer exercise a gainful activity (neither in Switzerland, nor abroad, with the exception of managing his own fortune) may be admitted into Switzerland if all of the following conditions are met:

  1. they are at least 55 years old;
  2. they have special personal ties to Switzerland; and
  3. they have sufficient financial means.

The existence of strong ties with Switzerland is assumed when the foreigner proves that he has made long or repeated visits to Switzerland in the past (including vacations), that he maintains strong relationships with close relatives in Switzerland (parents, children, or siblings, although this criterion alone is not sufficient, personal or cultural links independent of such relatives are also required) or that he has Swiss origins. However, property ownership or business connections in Switzerland are not decisive in isolation.

An annuitant is deemed to have necessary financial means if he is almost certain to benefit from them until his death (pension, personal fortune, etc.) to the point that we can all but exclude the risk that he will later become dependent on public assistance.

A statement declaring that the annuitant has retired from professional life is required to ensure that this is indeed the case. The annuitant will also be required to no longer exercise a gainful activity in the future, neither in Switzerland, nor abroad.

Annuitants are required to make Switzerland their center of vital interests. The residence permit will not be renewed if it appears that an annuitant’s center of vital interests has not actually been transferred to Switzerland.

Annuitants who wish to settle in our country with a spouse and minor children may also receive authorization. The standard provisions on family reunification apply.

The admission of annuitants is a discretionary decision of the cantonal immigration authority. To this end, it appropriately takes into account the social and demographic development of Switzerland.

If it is accepted by the cantonal authorities, the case is submitted for the approval of the State Secretariat for Migration (SEM), since it is a derogation from the usual admission conditions.

3)   Medical treatment

A foreign national can be authorised to enter Switzerland for medical treatment. They must be able to prove that they have sufficient finance and the intention to leave the country. They may be required to produce a medical certificate detailing the treatment needed and its probable duration.

4) Important public interests

A residence permit without gainful activity may also be granted in the case of an important public interest.

It is an undefined legal concept, but the cantonal authority must demonstrate that it has a particularly important interest, for instance in the field of culture, economy or taxes, in granting the permit. The negotiation of lump-sum tax packages (see below) in exchange for the granting of residence permits is part of this category of authorizations.

In this case, any professional activity can only be carried out abroad, apart from the management of one’s own assets.

Foreigners must prove that they will transfer their center of vital interests to Switzerland and will reside there for the majority of the time.

5) Grave individual circumstances

The cantonal and federal authorities will examine all hardship cases individually. To be recognised as a hardship case, the foreign national must be in a situation of personal distress. This implies that they are living and existing in conditions which are extremely insecure compared to the conditions experienced by other foreign nationals. The authorities will look at whether it is reasonable, on a personal, financial and social level, to require the foreign national to return to live in their country of origin. To do this, they will compare the person’s future situation in their country of origin with their situation in Switzerland.

It is impossible for us to list here all the situations that could lead the authorities to grant a residence permit on the grounds of grave individual circumstances. These are some examples:

  • admitting a person that is highly dependent on a member of their family domiciled in Switzerland;
  • admitting a couple that is living together, with or without children;
  • admitting people to stay for the purpose of preparing a wedding;
  • issuing residence permits for same-sex couples:
  • maintaining permits when a married couple has separated or a family has split.

G. Settlement permit

As outlined above, the authorities will generally begin by issuing a residence permit only, even if the foreign national intends to move to Switzerland permanently.

After a certain amount of time, the foreign national can obtain a settlement permit (permit C). There are no specific conditions attached to this.

The legislation on foreigners and the labour market does not impose any restrictions on foreign nationals with settlement permits as regards their gainful activity. Permit C holders can change canton if no reason exists for the permit to be revoked.

A settlement permit is granted indefinitely. However, for monitoring purposes, the document must be renewed every five years.

Before issuing a foreign national with a settlement permit, the authorities will carefully assess the person’s past conduct, in particular to check whether there is any reason to revoke the permit and to ensure that they are sufficiently integrated (see below).

The SEM sets the date from which the settlement permit may be granted by the relevant cantonal authority. A foreign national only has the right to a settlement permit if this is specifically stated in a residence agreement or by the law (family reunification, etc.). When a foreign national does not have a legal right to a settlement permit, the relevant authority is not automatically required to assess whether it is possible to grant them one.

Residence agreements shorten the time period required to obtain a permit C from ten to five years (for example for Austria, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Portugal and the USA).

To calculate the time period required for an ordinary settlement permit to be granted under the FNIA (where there is no residence agreement), two periods must be taken into account, cumulatively:

  • the foreign national must have lived in Switzerland for at least ten years under a short-term residence permit or residence permit;
  • they must have lived in Switzerland under a residence permit for the last five years, with no interruptions.

Temporary stays (as defined above) are not taken into account when calculating the uninterrupted five-year period. However, stays for educational purposes are taken into account if, once they were completed, the foreign national had held a long-term residence permit for a two-year period without interruption.

The requirements for the initial five years are less strict: all residence permits, including short-term ones, are taken into account, whatever the reason for the stay. Consequently, temporary stays for training or educational purposes are also counted.

Applicants can also count stays for the purposes of the first five years if they were interrupted briefly. However, the interruption must not be longer than the stay in Switzerland. In such cases, only the actual time the person spent in Switzerland is counted.

If a person left the country for a prolonged period during the first five years, the time spent in the country before this absence will only be counted if the absence did not last more than two years and if they maintained social and cultural links with the country while they were absent.

A settlement permit may be granted after a shorter period of time if there is major justification for this (early permit: the applicant must be able to prove that they have lived in Switzerland under a residence permit for an uninterrupted period of five years, that they are well integrated in the country (with a level of language equal to at least oral level B1 and written level A1) and that there are no reasons for the permit to be revoked (criminal conviction, violation of public order, long-term reliance on welfare benefits, etc.). It may even be granted immediately in certain cases (for university professors for example).

The FNIA requires the foreign national to be well integrated in order for a settlement permit to be issued. For this, they must fulfil the settlement criteria. In terms of the language requirement, they must be able to prove that they have skills in the national language spoken in the area where they live equal to at least level A2 (oral) and level A1 (written) of the CEFR. Nationals of countries which have signed a residence agreement with Switzerland are exempt from this requirement.

If a settlement permit has been revoked in application of article 63 paragraph 2 of FNIA (revocation for lack of integration) and replaced by a residence permit, five years must elapse and the integration criteria must be fulfilled before a new settlement permit can be issued. This time period runs from the day after the revocation enters into force.

Did you know?  Switzerland has a higher proportion of people aged over 100 than any other European country (0.01% of the population).

H. Family reunification

The spouse and unmarried children aged under 18 of a settlement permit holder are entitled to a residence permit (subject to the usual conditions: appropriate accommodation, same household, financial resources, non-reliance on welfare benefits, etc.). The spouse seeking to benefit from family reunification must be capable of communicating in the national language spoken in the area in which they live. They must have oral competency at least equal to level A1 of the CEFR. If they do not yet have oral skills equivalent to A1 level, it is sufficient for them to register for a language support programme that will enable them to achieve this level. They will need to prove that they have sufficient language skills when their residence permit is extended, at the latest. This condition does not apply to unmarried children aged under 18. In both cases, the authorities can however require an integration agreement.

Once the spouse has been in the country legally for a five-year period without interruption, they are entitled to a settlement permit if they have demonstrated that their skills in the national languages spoken in the place where they live are equal to at least A2 (oral) and A1 (written) of the CEFR.

Children aged under 12 are entitled to a settlement permit immediately. Children aged 12 to 18 are entitled to a residence permit. Once the child has obtained a residence permit, they can be granted a settlement permit after five years, if they are well integrated into the country, meaning in particular that they must have a good knowledge of the national language spoken in the area where they live.

The cantonal authority responsible for foreigners may grant a residence permit to the foreign spouse and unmarried minor children (under 18 years old) of a person with a residence permit (or a short term residence permit). But in this case, there is no right to family reunification and the cantons may subject the authorization to stricter conditions.

However, in general, family reunification is granted if:

  1. they live with the permit holder;
  2. suitable housing is available;
  3. they do not depend on social assistance.

Applicants for family reunification must also prove that they have language skills equal to CEFR A1 level. If they have not yet achieved this level, it is sufficient for them to register for a language support programme that will enable them to achieve at least this level. The certificate of registration must be presented at the latest when they notify their arrival in Switzerland. This provision does not generally apply to unmarried children aged under 18, unless an integration agreement is signed.

The initial residence permit granted for family reunification reasons is valid for one year, and can be extended for two years. A residence permit holder’s family members are subject to the general conditions for issue of a settlement permit. They can apply for a settlement permit five years after their spouse obtains theirs, so long as they meet the integration criteria.

The application for family reunification must be made within five years; for children over twelve years of age, the application must be made within twelve months. The children’s age at the time of the application is decisive.

A family reunification subsequent to this deadline may be authorized only in the case of important family reasons. This derogation is applied with restraint. Once this deadline has passed, the family reunification of children will be possible only if it is necessary for the well-being of the child.

Only those with family reunification rights can claim the constitutional right to pursue gainful activity. Consequently, family members of Swiss citizens or settled foreign nationals can pursue gainful activity or change employment. without requiring authorisation.

Family members & relatives a residence permit holder do not benefit from the right to exercise a gainful activity However, in view of the general objectives covered by the Federal Act on Foreign Nationals and Integration (i.e., better integration of the foreign population), lawmakers have decided not to require authorization for employment.

Family members of a foreign national holding a short-term residence permit do not have the right to pursue gainful activity. They need authorisation to do so.

Whether family members are authorised to pursue gainful activity will depend on the duration of the authorisation given to the family reunification beneficiary. If the spouse’s residence permit is not renewed, members of their family cannot claim the right to pursue gainful activity.

I. Termination of stay

A residence permit is terminated when the foreign national notifies the authorities that they are leaving Switzerland (immediate effect), when they are granted a permit in another canton, when their stay in Switzerland is complete, if it is revoked (for a criminal conviction, long-term reliance on welfare benefits, violation of public order and security, etc.) or if an extension is refused. For a short-term residence permit, a person’s stay is considered to end once they have spent more than three months abroad; for a residence permit, the period is six months.

A settlement permit is normally terminated when the foreign national notifies the authorities that they are leaving Switzerland or when they physically remain abroad for more than six months.

A stay in Switzerland is also considered to be terminated if the foreign national transfers their centre of interests abroad. A person can be considered to have transferred their centre of interests when they have, for example, terminated their employment, given notice on their rental contract, taken a job abroad, withdrawn their pension fund, etc. In general, for a residence permit to be maintained, the holder is required to be present in Switzerland for the majority of the year.

This requirement may be waived however for people who need to travel outside the country frequently (executives, performers, sportspeople, etc.) so long as their centre of interests remains in Switzerland (family, social and personal ties). This is the case when a person has stronger ties to Switzerland than to other countries, especially when their family is physically living in Switzerland. The same applies to children and young people undertaking a course of study or continuing professional development abroad, so long as they have obtained a Swiss residence permit before they leave and they return to Switzerland regularly (for example, to visit their parents during the school or university holidays).

A foreign national has no entitlement to the renewal of their residence permit unless this is established based on a federal or international law. In particular, when a residence permit is granted subject to participation in a language or integration course and this condition is not fulfilled, the authorities may refuse to extend the residence permit. In general, if the holder loses their job, their residence permit will be extended to cover the period during which they are entitled to unemployment benefits or are taking part in an employment programme. If they begin working again, the general provisions apply.

J. Declaration of arrival

1) Declaration for stays without gainful activity

If a foreign national’s stay will not exceed three months (90 days) in a six-month period (180 days), they are not required to declare their arrival.

For all other stays, they must declare their arrival to the relevant authorities in their place of residence in Switzerland within 14 days of arrival in Switzerland, if they have authorisation to enter.

They must notify the communal authorities (or the department nominated by the canton) of the location of their principal centre of interests (family, social and personal relations).

Landlords are required to notify the relevant cantonal authority immediately that they are providing a foreign national with accommodation in return for payment.

2) Declaration for stays with gainful activity

No declaration is required to pursue gainful activity or provide cross-border services for a total of up to four months in a twelve-month period.

Gainful activity lasting more than four months in total in a twelve-month period may begin as soon as the foreign national has declared their arrival.

Landlords are again required to notify the relevant cantonal authority immediately that they are providing a foreign national with accommodation in return for payment.

V. Setting up a business

For more information about the conditions governing business creations in Switzerland and how the process works, please visit the relevant web page on the subject or contact one of our lawyers.

VI. Foreign nationals' register

Foreign nationals are strongly recommended and sometimes required to register with the consulate or embassy of their home country.

Putting your name on the foreign nationals register will make any future administrative procedures with the relevant authority easier. These may include applying for a passport or identity card, recording a civil status event, registering to vote, etc.

In general, you will be asked to keep the authority informed of any changes to your personal circumstances, such as:

  • a change of postal or email address or phone number;
  • civil status events (birth, marriage, divorce or death);
  • acquisition or loss of nationality;

permanent departure from Switzerland.

VII. Household goods

You can import your household goods without prior notification, duty-free. This covers items such as furniture, crockery, books, vehicles and clothes, so long as you personally have been using the items for the last six months and will continue to use them after you move to Switzerland.

If you are a student, you can bring your belongings in under the same conditions, even if you do not transfer your domicile to Switzerland.

To do this, you will need to go to the entry-point customs office during opening hours with form 18.44 (Declaration/Request for duty-free admission of household goods, available online), a list of your household goods (inventory) and an assurance of residence permit document. Immigrants from the first 25 EU member states and EFTA member states can prove their transfer of domicile by other means (work contract, rental agreement or a document confirming that they have informed the authorities of the country from which they are arriving of their departure).

Specific procedures apply to the importation of animals (including stuffed animals), weapons, objects made of ivory and vehicles which have been on the road for less than six months. These can be used without clearing customs for a maximum of two years from the date of first entry into Switzerland, subject to customs authorisation (form 15.30).

VIII. Registering a vehicle in Switzerland

Once you have completed the required customs formalities, you will need to go to the road traffic office in the canton where you live (Vaud canton automobile and navigation office and Canton of Geneva vehicle office) to register your vehicle. To be driven on the road, the vehicle must have a vehicle registration document and number plates.

Vehicles must be registered in Switzerland within one year of moving to the country for used vehicles, and within one month for new vehicles. In the meantime, you can drive your vehicle with its foreign plates, so long as all the paperwork is in order and it is insured.

You should present the following documents to the vehicle office:

  1. Registration application form, completed and signed;
  2. Insurance certificate from a Swiss insurance company. Third party (RC) insurance to the value of CHF 5m minimum is compulsory. It covers bodily injury and property damage caused to third parties by the holder of the vehicle and the people under their responsibility. Damage caused to the vehicle by the holder is not covered by this third-party insurance, unless additional insurance has been taken out (casco). Passenger insurance is in addition, and covers bodily injury to the driver and passengers. (Note that bodily injury to the holder of the vehicle is covered by the third party insurance if the holder is a passenger in the vehicle and the person driving it is at fault). This insurance can be taken out for the driver, the front-seat passenger or for all the passengers. This cover is to some degree superfluous (although it does offer extended coverage) because all the passengers are covered by the vehicle holder’s third-party insurance and also by other insurance policies, if they are insured against accidents by their employer or as part of their health insurance;
  3. Customs authorisation (forms 18.44, 18.45 or 18.46 as appropriate). The vehicle will be registered in the names of the people listed on the form;
  4. Expert’s report (form 13.20A) bearing a customs stamp and, if required, a federal energy office (OFEN) stamp (CO2 tax payment) if the car has been registered abroad for less than 6 months when it is declared at customs;
  5. Anti-pollution maintenance form obtained in Switzerland detailing the test carried out (there are exceptions);
  6. Technical data for the vehicle and the original documents from the foreign country (e.g. manufacturer’s certificate, purchase contract, foreign registration document, manufacturer’s plate, user guide, etc.);
  7. Holder’s residence permit and identity document;
  8. A European Certificate of Conformity (CoC) is not a requirement but will make the registration process easier.

Once these documents have been submitted, an appointment will be made to inspect the vehicle and issue the number plates and registration document.

IX. Driving licence

Foreign drivers can drive in Switzerland for one year provided they are aged at least 18 years and hold a valid national or international driving licence.

Once you have been living in Switzerland for over 12 months, you are required to exchange your driving licence for a Swiss licence at the vehicle office of the canton where you live. You must make the application before the end of the twelve-month period.

However, if you wish to drive a “professional” category vehicle in Switzerland, you are required to exchange your licence immediately.

Once the twelve-month period has expired, you can no longer drive on your foreign licence, but you can still exchange it. If you have not exchanged your foreign driving licence within a total of five years, you will be required to retake your driving test (note that only licences issued by countries which have signed a mutual recognition agreement with Switzerland can be exchanged without a test).

The documents required to exchange a (non-professional) licence are:

  • Foreign licence conversion application (from the vehicle office in your canton);
  • Identity document and residence permit (originals);
  • One colour passport photograph;
  • Ophthalmologist’s certificate (on the application form);
  • Original, valid foreign driving licence, with an official translation if required.

Speed limits in Switzerland are as follows:

  • Motorways: 120 kmph;
  • Outside built-up areas: 80 kmph;
  • Within built-up areas: 50/60 kmph;
  • Residential areas: 20/30 kmph.

The blood alcohol limit is 0.05%. Certain categories of driver are banned from consuming alcohol (for example professional drivers and drivers with provisional or probationary licences).

A sticker (vignette) is required to drive on the Swiss motorways. It can be purchased from customs offices, service stations and post offices for CHF 40. It is valid for one calendar year.

X. Social security

A. Health insurance

You must subscribe to basic health insurance (LAMal) within three months of arriving in Switzerland or entering gainful activity. No distinction is made between third-country nationals and EU/EFTA nationals. The relevant communal or cantonal departments (in Geneva, the SAM) will check that you have complied with this obligation. (They will ask you to send them a copy of your insurance card or policy.)

Certain exceptions exist to the requirement to take out insurance, for example for students, retired people, cross-border workers and the staff of international organisations, embassies and consulates.

You can choose any one of the recognised health insurance companies. These companies offer the same cover, but premiums vary from one company and canton to another. A recognised health insurance company cannot refuse you cover, regardless of your age and state of health.

Basic health insurance covers the cost of diagnosing and treating illnesses and their consequences, including:

  • treatment carried out by a doctor and prescribed medication;
  • the cost of hospital treatment in a general ward;
  • the cost of maternity treatment;
  • other services, under certain conditions (vaccinations, treatment at home, etc.).

Dental treatment is only covered in certain specific cases (serious difficulty chewing, etc.) and there is very little cover for optical expenses.

Basic health insurance will also cover you for treatment required as a result of an accident if you are not covered by any other accident insurance.

There are three cost components to the Swiss basic health insurance scheme: the insurance premium (which is set according to your age, the excess chosen and the commune in which you live, but not your state of health), an annual excess (of your choice, up to a maximum of CHF 2,500 per year but a minimum of CHF 300 – the higher the excess, the lower the premium) and a contribution to medical costs (a share of around 10%, up to a maximum of CHF 700).

You can take out additional medical insurance to top up the cover offered by the compulsory insurance scheme (to cover a private hospital room, for example). Premiums are calculated based on your state of health and vary considerably from one insurance company to another.

B. Accident insurance

Anyone employed in Switzerland for more than eight hours per week must be insured against work and non-work (leisure time) accidents and against occupational diseases. Part-time workers who are employed for less than 8 hours a week are not insured against non-work accidents.

This does not cover people who are not in employment, for example homemakers, children, self-employed people (who have the option of taking out insurance), students and retired people. These groups must be covered for accidents as part of their basic health insurance.

Premiums for basic accident and occupational disease insurance are covered by the employer. They vary widely depending on the occupation. Premiums for non-work accidents are theoretically paid by employees and also vary for the different sectors of the economy.

C. Occupational benefits system

The Swiss retirement and old age, surviving dependants and disability insurance arrangements are based on what is known as the three-pillar system. It is laid out in the federal constitution.

Old-age and surviving dependants (AVS), disability (AI), loss of income by reason of military service or maternity (APG) and unemployment insurance (AC) are the main elements of pillar 1. It aims to cover an individual’s essential needs. It is compulsory (with an optional element) and is the occupational benefits system organised by the state.

Pillar 2 is the occupational pension system, and is designed to maintain the standard of living of working people and their families.  It is made up of a compulsory element and an optional element.

Pillar 3 is the private benefit system (optional).

Did you know? Pointe Dufour, in the canton of Valais, is the highest point in Switzerland, at 4,634 metres above sea level.

Everyone living in Switzerland is covered by pillar 1, whether they work or not. People working in Switzerland but living abroad are also covered by pillar 1.

The retirement age in Switzerland is 64 for women and 65 for men.

Contributions are split between the employer and the employee (in Geneva, the contribution is 12.45% up to a gross salary of CHF 148,200, split 50/50 between the employee and the employer, plus 2.45% for family allowance (paid by the employer), 0.092% for maternity insurance (50/50 employer/employee) and 5% (generally 2.5%) maximum, based on the contributions paid, for the administration costs depending on the company’s annual payroll).

Self-employed workers pay 100% of their premiums (excluding unemployment insurance, which they do not pay into) at a maximum rate of 9.65% (plus 2.45% for family allowance, 0.046% for maternity insurance and a varying additional administration charge on of the AVS/AI/APG premium).

A special calculation applies to people not pursuing gainful activity who are required to contribute to AVS/AI/APG up to a maximum of CHF 24,100 per year.

If you are domiciled in Switzerland, i.e. you have a settlement or residence permit and fulfil the conditions, you are entitled to claim unemployment benefit. Your nationality is irrelevant.

All employees who are covered under pillar 1 and earn at least CHF 21,330 per year are covered under pillar 2. It is optional for self-employed workers. By law, it is financed by both the employer (at least 50%) and the employee. For the compulsory element, the average contribution is around 13.2% of the insured salary. It can vary from one benefit plan to another. Contributions are deducted on annual salaries of CHF 21,330 and over, with a ceiling at CHF 85,320. Businesses can opt voluntarily to pay contributions on higher salaries.

Any employer employing staff required to be insured must create a benefit plan or join a joint or communal plan. These institutions, which are generally managed by banks, insurance companies or branch associations, insure various companies on schemes, which may be identical or different.

The insurance obligation begins when the work contract begins, provided that the employee is at least 17 years old for the death and disability element and 24 years old for the old-age element.

As regards pillar 2b (optional), employers can organise a scheme at company level which goes beyond the basic legal requirements in order to provide workers and their families with social security benefits over and above the compulsory scheme. For the optional element, contributions can be up to 25% of AVS salary. Average contributions are 15% of insured salary or 12% of AVS salary.

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Private pension schemes can be divided into pillar 3a and pillar 3b:

Anyone who is gainfully employed can pay into pillar 3a, or individual linked protection. However, the rules differ depending on whether the person is already a member of a pillar 2 benefits plan or not. Independent workers who do not belong to any benefit plan can allocate a significantly larger amount to their pillar 3 (20% of annual income to a maximum of CHF 34,128) than those who are already paying into a pension scheme (CHF 6,826 maximum per year).

These payments are tax deductible, up to the ceiling. This is a form of linked protection, which means that the benefits are only available under certain conditions. Funds in pillar 3a can only be withdrawn to buy or build a home for one’s own personal use, set up a business, change to another independent gainful activity or leave Switzerland permanently. Funds can also be withdrawn if the person suffers full disability.

Pillar 3b, or a non-tied individual benefit plan, is open to everyone. Savings in such a plan are not subject to any particular rules. However, pillar 3b offers less tax advantages than pillar 3a.

XI. Buying or renting property

In Switzerland, most people rent their home, either from a private owner or from an estate agency.

Nevertheless, there are many advantages to owning your home, especially at the moment with bank interest rates so low (you need to be able to put down around 20% of the price and you can use funds from your pillar 2). When you own your own home:

  • you do not risk having your rental contract terminated;
  • you can make whatever alterations you like to your house or apartment, subject to the legal rules in place (commune, canton or co-ownership scheme building regulations);
  • rather than paying rent, you are investing in your own house of apartment.

Check the press for property sale and rental adverts. These also appear at estate agencies.

A. Buying

The most common ways of owning residential property are individual ownership, co-ownership (where each owner can manage their share as they wish) and joint property (simple partnership, succession, etc.).

In French-speaking Switzerland, the most popular areas are the shores of Lake Geneva, the Vaud Riviera, Cologny (Geneva) and the surrounding areas, and the mountains: Verbier, Gstaad and Crans-Montana.

EU/EFTA nationals resident in Switzerland have the same rights as a Swiss national when they buy property and do not require authorisation (they are not subject to the Federal law on the purchase of property by people abroad (LFAIE), RS 211.412.41).

Third-party nationals who do not hold settlement permits (permit C) do not need authorisation to buy their main home (for example a family house) or building plot so long as they fulfil the following conditions:

  • they hold a valid residence permit (permit B, etc.);
  • they themselves occupy the property and are domiciled there;
  • if they plan to build their home, they need to start work within one year of purchasing the plot.

Authorisation is required for the following types of accommodation:

  • holiday home;
  • serviced apartment;
  • second home.

It is important to note that a foreign national does not gain any right to a residence permit based on the fact that they own property in Switzerland (see above).

To be valid, a property purchase contract must bear the stamp of a notary. In cantons with independent notaries, buyers can generally choose their notary. Some cantons have official notaries; in this case, the buyer must go through the relevant office. This may be the chancellery, the bankruptcy office or the canton commercial register office.

The purchase contract must be signed by all the parties involved: buyer, vendor and notary. The buyer becomes the actual owner of the property only when the record is entered onto the land register. The notary is responsible for notifying the register of the transfer of ownership (the land register contains information about the owner of a plot, other people who may have rights over it (for example joint use of drives and access roads) and the existence of any possessory liens). You can consult the land register. The price of an extract depends on the information required.

If you wish to build your house or apartment yourself, you will need a building permit. Before construction plans can be approved, the plot needs to be connected to the electricity, water and gas supplies. The commune is responsible for this.

In Switzerland, a second home is defined as a home that is neither used by people domiciled in the commune in question nor used for professional or training purposes (second place of residence, a separate concept). Second homes are generally used for holidays and are often rented to third parties.

The Federal law on second homes (LRS, RS 702) came into force on 1 January 2016: it results from the acceptance, on 11 March 2012, of the popular initiative « Stop the endless construction of second homes” brought by the environmentalist Franz Weber.

It applies to the construction of new second homes in communes where second homes represent over 20% of the housing stock. In these communes, second homes can only be built under certain highly restrictive conditions (e.g. tourist accommodation).

Did you know? Every Swiss citizen is legally required to have their own nuclear fallout shelter. It must be accessible and have an air filtration system. So, don’t be surprised to see a heavy armoured door in the cellar of a Swiss villa. There are over 300,000 shelters in Switzerland, enough to accommodate the entire population in the event of a war.

B. Renting

In Switzerland, the conditions of renting a property are laid down partly by the law (art. 253 to 274g of the Swiss Code of Obligations (CO), RS 220) and partly by the rental agreement itself.

Many property owners engage an estate agency to manage the day-to-day running of their property for them. In such a case, the tenant’s contact will be the agency. Given the current accommodation shortage in the Canton of Geneva, we must draw your attention to the numerous scams that exist, in particular when crooks rent out non-existent accommodation, mainly to foreign nationals and students, in return for payment of several months’ rent in advance. We advise you to always rent through an estate agency and to examine the contract carefully before you sign it.

If you are interested in a property, the first thing you need to do is fill in a registration form. You will be asked to give the family names, given names, addresses and dates of birth of the future tenants, their occupations, employers, incomes and any debt collection procedure against them during the previous two years (you can obtain an extract from the register at your local enforcement office), the number of people who will live in the property and whether any pets will be kept. As a foreign national, you will also be asked for a copy of your residence permit. You can then visit the property in question.

The rental agreement is generally in written form (recommended), with two original copies signed. The rental rules and local customs in the canton where the property is located are attached as schedules to the agreement.

In addition, in certain cantons (Geneva, Vaud, Fribourg, Zurich, etc.), you will be given a prescribed form approved by the canton showing the rent paid by the last tenant, the new rent, the reason for any increase and the procedure for contesting it.

The rental agreement must include, as a minimum, the following:

  • The parties to the contract: it must identify the landlord and the tenant. Only those people who have signed the contract are considered to be official tenants and have the corresponding rights and obligations.
  • The object of the agreement (property rented): the rental agreement must indicate what is being rented, and detail the annexes such as attics, garages, cellars and laundry rooms.
  • Duration of the agreement: this may be a fixed term or ongoing. Most rental agreements have no fixed term. If the parties wish to terminate the agreement, they must comply with the time periods set and certain rules.
  • Rent and service charges: the agreement must state the monthly rent and provide a breakdown (net rent and service charge). If no service charge is mentioned, it is considered to be included in the rent. Generally, tenants pay rent monthly, in advance.
  • Security for rent: tenants are often required to pay a sum, known as a “deposit” in advance. This must not exceed three months’ rent. It is placed in a special bank account (rent security account) in the tenant’s name. It is a form of security for the landlord. When a tenant leaves the property, their deposit, and the interest on it, is returned to them.
  • Sub-letting: a property may not be sub-let without the landlord’s agreement.

Before a tenant moves into a property, a key hand-over process will be carried out. The owner and tenant will look at the condition of the property, and note any imperfections (even very minor ones!) on an inspection document called an “état des lieux”. It is important for tenants to ensure they have a copy of this document.

Lastly, the landlord will inform the residents’ registration office in the relevant communal or cantonal department (for example the cantonal population office in Geneva) of the new tenant’s arrival.

Tenants are responsible for keeping a property clean and performing any indispensable day-to-day maintenance tasks. If a defect occurs for which the tenant is not responsible, the landlord must repair the problem within the timescale laid down by the law. If they do not, the tenant can deposit the rent, reduce the rent proportionately and have the defects remedied.

You are strongly advised to take out household and third-party insurance. This is even compulsory under some rental agreements. These insurances cover damage resulting from flood, act of God, fire and theft together with damage caused by or to a third party. It is possible to extend the policy to cover other risks such as glass breakage, damage resulting from a short-circuit, etc.

Each canton has a compulsory conciliation department which acts as an intermediary in landlord-tenant disputes. This is a free service. A case cannot be brought before the leases court unless conciliation has failed (there are certain exceptions).

To terminate a rental agreement, a landlord must use an official form and also comply with the timescales set out in the rental agreement. If nothing is stipulated in the rental agreement, the normal notice period is three months for a residential lease and six months for a commercial lease. The time period begins on the date the form is received. If the termination of the contract is not notified within the relevant time period, it is not effective until the agreement’s anniversary date. For couples, the landlord must send a form to each spouse, in two separate envelopes, even if only one of them has signed the rental agreement. The official form must also be sent to each co-tenant separately. In certain specific cases, for example if the rent has not been paid, the landlord can terminate the contract after a short notice period. Any tenant whose rental agreement has been terminated has 30 days in which to apply to the conciliation authority (in writing) for cancellation of the notice given and/or an extension of the rental agreement.

The official form must also be completed for all increases in rent, regardless of the reason. The notice period is the termination notice period plus ten days, and the increase must be made on the agreement’s anniversary date. When there are several reasons for the increase, the amount corresponding to each one must be detailed.

The form must also be used if the landlord wishes to unilaterally alter the conditions of the rental agreement originally signed with the tenant. The landlord must detail the change envisaged, and give the precise reasons for it. Again, the notice period is the termination notice period plus ten days, and the change must be made on the agreement’s anniversary date.

XII. Opening a bank account

Any person over the age of 18 is free to open a bank account in Switzerland, by presenting an official document, such as a valid passport or any other document bearing a photo. Foreign nationals are generally also required to produce a residence permit. Certain banks also require proof of address (electricity bill, etc.).

Banks can however reserve the right to refuse customers, for example because establishing a business relationship with someone with political exposure could pose a risk for the bank’s own reputation, or where there are doubts over the origin of the funds. The Swiss Criminal Code (CP, RS 311.0) and the Federal Act on Combatting Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing (LBA, RS 955.0) forbid Swiss banks and other financial intermediaries from accepting funds believed to have been obtained by criminal means (including tax fraud). Certain banks also refuse to open bank accounts for customers whose nationality means that excessive compliance obligations would be involved (for example US nationals).

Broadly speaking, there are two types of bank: private banks which are concerned almost exclusively with managing the assets (in the broadest sense of the term) of wealthy customers, and retail banks which provide all the services you would expect from a “standard” bank (deposits, loans, payments, etc.). Naturally, these two types of bank are available in the large financial centres such as Geneva and Zurich.

In general, customers will be expected to attend an appointment to open a bank account. Sometimes, appointments can be held by videoconference. The bank will check the customer’s identity, make sure they are the beneficial owner of the assets being deposited, verify the origin of the funds (inheritance, sale of a business, work income, gift, etc.) and note the regular transactions required. Generally, documentary evidence will be needed.

Lastly, it is important to note that in Switzerland privacy is protected by banking secrecy (art. 97 of Federal Law on Banks (LB), RS 952.0), which forbids Swiss banks from providing information about their customers to unauthorised third parties. Although banking secrecy has been eroded in recent years due to international pressures, it remains very strong for Swiss residents, including foreign nationals.

Did you know? Switzerland has an unofficial motto “One for all and all for one”, chosen in reference to the alliance between the country’s founders.

XIII. Education

All the cantons of French-speaking Switzerland have signed the HarmoS concordat (Intercantonal concordat on the harmonisation of compulsory education). It entered into force on 1 August 2009, with the aim of harmonising certain fundamental aspects of the Swiss education system.

Cantons are responsible for compulsory education. Communes look after the day-to-day running of schools and ensure that all children can attend the state school of their place of residence.

In principle, compulsory education lasts eleven years. It is free of charge for all children. It is made up of primary level and lower-secondary level. Primary level lasts eight years. This includes two years of nursery school (three years, with a first optional year, in the canton of Ticino) or the first two years of elementary school (in certain German-speaking cantons, nursery school is not compulsory at all, or only for one year; in others, elementary school may last three or four years).

Lower secondary school lasts three years, and four in the canton of Ticino (scuola media).

Children generally start school at the age of four.

There are various types of crèche and nursery for children aged under four, offering different services tailored to families’ needs. However, in certain cantons it can be very difficult to secure a place in these institutions and waiting lists may be very long.

School is taught in the language of the region: French, German, Italian or Romansh, with special rules in Romansh-speaking communes. Pupils are taught a second national language and English during their compulsory education.

Children who do not speak the school’s language when they arrive in a nursery, primary or secondary class are put into a normal class. They may be given intensive lessons to help them integrate linguistically and culturally.

Most Swiss children complete their compulsory education at a state school; only 5% attend a private school. Switzerland has some of the best private schools in the world, but fees are high. It has world-famous institutions such as Institut Le Rosey in Rolle which counts royalty and numerous political figures among its former pupils. These institutions generally prepare pupils for a wide range of different examinations (Swiss Matura, French baccalaureate, International baccalaureate, advanced placement, graduation, etc.).

At the end of their compulsory education, pupils can continue their schooling or undertake an apprenticeship (upper-secondary level). Apprenticeships are very popular in Switzerland, and around two-thirds of young people opt for this kind of training which combines classroom and on-the-job learning. An apprenticeship culminates in a professional certificate of competence or a professional Matura.

Young people who continue their schooling rather than choosing an apprenticeship attend a general school or high school/gymnasium for three or four years, which prepares them for higher education.

Over 90% of the pupils leave with an upper-secondary level certificate. With this certificate, they can seek a job, enter a higher vocational school or, if they have gained a Matura from a gymnasium, specialised or vocational school, enter higher education. In total, 40% of young people gain a Matura.

Tertiary education encompasses higher education institutions (universities, specialised or teacher training) and higher vocational training. Generally, state universities are more prestigious than private universities. The federal polytechnics of Zurich (ETHZ) and Lausanne (EPFL) and the University of Saint-Gallen have particularly high reputations.

In addition, admission fees are very low (between CHF 1,000 and CHF 2,500 per year, except in Italian-speaking Switzerland. Some Swiss universities may however charge foreign students additional fees). It is rare for places to be limited. In general, anyone who holds the required entry qualifications can study the course of their choice. However, a foreign student may be obliged to sit an entrance examination if their foreign diploma is not equivalent to the certificate which would be needed in Switzerland (e.g. a baccalaureate with a mark that is not high enough or a foreign diploma which is not recognised.) The tertiary-level diploma pass rate is 38%. Beyond this, Swiss universities follow the Bologna Process system (bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees).

Depending on where you live, what you study and your own personal requirements, you should budget between CHF 21,000 and CHF 31,000 per year to live as a student in Switzerland.

Did you know? The internet was invented in Switzerland, at the CERN.

XIV. Employment law

The rights and obligations of an employer and an employee are set out in an individual contract of employment. Swiss law does not lay down any specific format for this. A contract can be made orally or even tacitly, except in certain specific cases (for example apprenticeship contracts or commercial traveller’s contracts). Nevertheless, a written contract is always in the interests of both parties. In reality, any special clauses (for example a prohibition of competition or overtime arrangements) must be set out in a written contract of employment. A contract of employment can be for a fixed term (terminating at the end of an agreed period) or permanent (when it can be terminated by either party after a period of notice).

There are four key elements to any individual contract of employment:

  • work to be carried out;
  • a relation of subordination;
  • a duration;
  • a salary.

It is the relation of subordination between the worker and the employer (the employer can tell the worker what to do, when and where) that differentiates a contract of employment from a contract for work and services or a mandate, for example.

The first element of a work contract is an intention on the parts of the two parties, together with:

All stipulations of federal and cantonal law imposed on employers by the state to provide a minimum level of protection for workers (LTr, etc.) take precedence over rules originating in private law (Code of Obligations, clauses agreed between the parties, collective agreements, etc.).

The Code of Obligations distinguishes between absolutely imperative standards (no exceptions possible), imperative rules (exceptions can be made only in the employee’s interest) and provisions.

Did you know? Switzerland has over 7,000km of ski runs, enough to link Bern to New Delhi.

The parties are recommended to draw up a contract which lays down the following:

  • The employee’s role and the nature and location of the work;
  • The probation period (between 1 and 3 months. During this time the contract can be terminated with 7 days’ notice);
  • The length of the contract (fixed-term or permanent);
  • The notice period (1 to 3 months depending on the type of role);
  • Working time (maximum of 45 or 50 hours per week in Switzerland);
  • Overtime rate (at least 25% higher than the salary);
  • Salary and benefits (bonus, profit-sharing scheme, etc.);
  • Annual and public holidays;
  • Reimbursement of expenses;
  • Social insurance and occupational benefits plan contributions (generally split half and half between the employer and the employee);
  • Confidentiality and no-compete obligations (including once the parties no longer work together);
  • Absence for marriage, house moves, death or marriage of close relatives, etc.;
  • Salary entitlements in the event of sickness or pregnancy (100% of salary, except in some cases, for a limited duration calculated using scales based on the length of time the parties have been working together).

When the working relationship is to be permanent or last more than one month, one month at the latest after the contract begins, the employer must provide the employee with written confirmation of the following: the names of the parties, the contract start date, the employee’s role, the salary together with any supplements and the number of hours to be worked per week.

A noter qu’il n’existe pas de salaire minimum au niveau national en Suisse. Neuchâtel et le Jura sont les seuls cantons à avoir instauré un salaire minimum légal (CHF 20/heure indexés selon l’inflation). Minimum wages are however set in the collective agreements of various industries and businesses.

The minimum acceptable monthly salary is generally CHF 4,000, and the average is around CHF 6,500.

After the birth of a baby, women are entitled to maternity leave lasting 14 weeks minimum (16 weeks in Geneva). During this period, they are paid at least 80% of their salary.

One rule which is specific to Switzerland is that an employer is required to provide employees with a reference whenever they ask for one, and not only at the end of a contract.

In addition, Switzerland has a principle of “freedom to terminate” an employment contract. With certain exceptions, an employment contract can be terminated at any time without a reason. In addition, no advance notification is automatically required to terminate a contract. Notice is valid, subject to the contractual notice period, even if the employer has not informed the staff member in advance or has never discussed this with them.

There is no consultation requirement and the employer does not necessarily need a valid reason. However, the party that has given notice is obliged to provide reasons in writing if the other party requests this. Employers often cite economic causes. In addition, the parties must comply with the notice period set out by the contract or by law.

The termination of contract is valid even if the reason given does not correspond or is incorrect. However, abusive wrongful termination does exist, and can give rise to compensation. The law provides a list of unlawful reasons for termination applying to either the employer or the employee. These include termination based on the employee’s age, sex or religion, or because one of the parties has claimed something to which they are entitled under the contract. The employee needs to be able to prove wrongful dismissal, which is sometimes very difficult.

The courts cannot reinstate the employee. However, an employee who has been dismissed can claim compensation, of up to six months’ salary in extreme cases.

In the event of a conflict between an employer and an employee, the parties can bring the case to the courts where the defendant lives/is based or where the employee normally works. Generally, such cases are dealt with by specialised courts. In Geneva, this would be the employment tribunal. Before bringing a case to court, the parties are required to have attempted to resolve the matter at the Conciliation Authority. In Geneva, there is no charge for the case if the value of the claim is CHF 75,000 or less for the original case, or CHF 50,000 for appeals.

XV. Right to vote and to stand for election

There are certain opportunities for foreign nationals to play an active role in Swiss society through the right to vote and to stand for election. However, because Switzerland is a federal country, there are considerable differences between the various regions. Under the Swiss constitution, cantons and communes can make their own rules on granting the right to vote to foreign nationals. This means that your right to take part in democratic life will vary considerably depending on where you live.

To vote or stand for election at federal level, you must be Swiss.

Only two cantons in French-speaking Switzerland (Jura and Neuchâtel) offer foreign nationals the right to vote at cantonal level, and this is subject to certain conditions. They are not entitled to stand for election.

In Vaud, Jura, Fribourg and Neuchâtel, foreign nationals are entitled to vote and stand for election at communal level. Conditions vary from one canton to another, but generally there is a requirement to have lived in the country for a certain amount of time and/or to hold a settlement permit.

In 2005, Geneva granted foreign nationals the right to vote, but not to stand for election, at communal level. (The person must be at least 18 years old and must have been officially domiciled in Switzerland for at least eight years.)

If a foreign national fulfils the legal conditions, their name is added to the electoral role in the commune where they live. They then automatically receive the official material when a communal vote or election is held.

Did you know? Switzerland is considered to have been founded in 1291. The date is based on a pact signed between the cantons of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwald in early August of that year.

XVI. Taxation of individuals in Switzerland

By international standards, Switzerland is not among the countries where taxpayers are the most heavily taxed. On the other hand, there are very significant disparities in the tax burden, not only from one canton to another, but also from once commune to another within the same canton. These differences affect income tax and wealth tax above all.

Switzerland’s tax system is very complex since the Confederation as well as the cantons and municipalities levy taxes. In addition, there are a multitude of different taxes. We will only address the main ones here. Taxation of legal entities, value added tax (consumer tax), as well as withholding tax are intentionally left out of this brochure.

There are currently 36 billionaires and around 1,000 people with net worth of over $100m living in Switzerland.

A) Income tax

Individuals who are domiciled or reside in Switzerland are taxed on their income, both at the federal and cantonal levels.

A person is domiciled in Switzerland for tax purposes if he lives there with the intention of settling in the long term. This notion has both an objective element, long-term residence, and a subjective element, intention. This means that a taxpayer is tax resident in the country where the centre of their personal and economic interests is located. This is first and foremost the place where the family lives. This term covers, primarily, the tax payer’s spouse and children, but also their parents, brothers, sisters and other close family members. The centre of their economic interests is considered to be in the place where they work. If these two centres of interests are in different places, the centre of personal interests is generally considered to be more important than the place of work.

Wishes and preferences expressed by the taxpayer are irrelevant. Also, the person’s centre of vital interests does not depend on fixed indicators such as where they file their paperwork or whether they are registered in a commune or have given notification that they are leaving. This means that it is not possible for a taxpayer to freely choose their country of tax residence. The duration of the person’s stay is not decisive on its own.

A person is considered to reside in the country if he lives there for at least 30 days without notable interruption and exercises a gainful activity or if he lives there for at least 90 days without exercising a gainful activity.

Residence in Switzerland exclusively for educational purposes (university, etc.) or for treatment (clinic, etc.) is not constitutive of either domicile or residence.

Tax liability begins the day the taxpayer elects domicile in Switzerland or begins his residential stay.

Under the principle of overall family taxation, married couples are considered a single economic unit and the income of the spouses are therefore added, for as long as the spouses live in a shared household, regardless of their matrimonial regime. However, a special scale is generally applicable. Others cantons such as Geneva apply the splitting principle, i.e., spouses are taxed on all of their income but at the rate of only half of these revenues. In the Canton of Vaud, the total income of a family unit is divided by a coefficient that varies in function of the composition of the family (for example, a coefficient of 1.8 for spouses living in a common household plus 0.5 for each minor child).

The income of minor children is added to that of the holder of parental authority, with the exception of any product of their gainful activity, which is taxed separately.

The tax is levied on total worldwide income. However, income from professional activities abroad, permanent establishments and real estate properties located abroad are exempt. These income sources are only taken into account for determining of the applicable tax rate. On the other hand, foreign income from movable capital (dividends, interests, etc.) is fully taxable in Switzerland. This income is frequently subject to a withholding tax in the source country. One of the benefits of the tax treaties concluded by Switzerland is precisely to reduce the foreign tax burden by providing substantial reductions of withholding taxes at the source.

Tax withheld on dividends is generally reduced to 15%, 10% or 5%. On interest and fees, it is generally limited to 10% or eliminated entirely.

Where full tax relief is not granted on foreign income, the residual tax withheld can be deducted from the Swiss tax due on these revenues (lump-sum tax).

The total income includes income from a dependent gainful activity (all cash benefits (base salary, thirteenth salary, bonus, gratuities, employee benefits schemes, etc.) and in-kind benefits (for example, apartment or company car)), or an independent gainful activity (net income of an industrial, commercial, financial, or liberal profession, including capital gains generated in the professional setting), income from retirement, movable assets (interest, dividends and royalties from Swiss and foreign sources, etc.), and real estate. The imputed rental value of real estate property for personal use also counts as taxable income (the imputed rental value is the revenue that it would be possible for the taxpayer to earn from its rental. In contrast, he may deduct mortgage interest and maintenance costs from his taxable income).

With the exception of real estate tax (see below), capital gains belonging to private taxpayer assets are exempt, while the proceeds made on movable business assets are subject to income tax.

NB: Making the distinction between an independent professional activity and private capital gains can be complicated in the area of wealth management. Indeed, someone who makes financial investments very regularly, in a professional or nearly professional way, especially by using foreign funds, may be considered a professional even if he only administers the assets belonging to his own fortune. If this is the case, he will be taxed on the capital gains from his assets and won’t qualify for exemption. This point therefore requires special attention, including in the case where fund management is entrusted to a bank or an external asset manager.

Necessary expenditures incurred to acquire income (for example, professional fees) can in principle be deducted from gross income.

Additionally, general deductions (e.g., deductions for insurance premiums, AVS/AI/APG/AC social charges and contributions, contributions to professional and individual pension plans, private passive interest up to a certain maximum, deduction for a spouse’s gainful activity), as well as social deductions (for example for children, spouses and other dependents of the taxpayer), are granted.

Note that expatriates can claim additional tax deductions for expenses arising from their stay in Switzerland (moving expenses, housing expenses under certain conditions, education expenses for minor children in a private school). In place of deducting actual expenses, the taxpayer may request a standard monthly deduction that can vary depending on the canton.

Expatriates are defined as executives and specialists who are temporarily seconded in Switzerland for a period of up to five years.

The right to expatriate tax status ceases as soon as that the temporary assignment is replaced by fixed employment.

At the federal level, the scales for the Federal Direct Tax (IFD) on physical persons are progressive, with a maximum rate of 11.5 %.

Clearly, this means that tax rates increase with income, that is, they are not proportional.

The cantons are free to set their tax rates. The tax burden vary widely from one canton to another, but tax is always progressive. For 2018, the maximum total tax rate (combined cantonal and federal) is 22.86% in the Canton of Zoug (the lowest in Switzerland), 24.3% in Obwalden, 28.21% in Schwyz, 36.5% in Valais, 41.5% in the Canton of Vaud and 44.75% in Geneva (the highest in Switzerland). The average rate in Switzerland is 33.96%.

These rates are always lower than most European countries with the exception of Eastern European countries.

There is a trend towards lower taxes. For example, the Canton of Vaud, after reducing the tax rate on company profits from 21.37 to 13.79% in 2019, is going to reduce the tax burden on individuals by one percentage point in 2020, and then a second percentage point in 2021. Other measures to improve household purchasing power have also been proposed, such as for example increasing tax deductions on health insurance contributions or childcare costs.

B) Estate and gift taxes

Estate and gift taxes are not harmonized in Switzerland and are set freely by the cantons (i.e., no taxation at the federal level). The cantonal regulations differ in many ways.

With the exception of the Cantons of Schwyz and Obwalden, all cantons tax inheritances and gifts for certain transfers. The Canton of Lucerne does not tax gifts. Sometimes, tax is also due at the communal level (Vaud and Fribourg for instance).

The tax rates for inheritances and gifts are progressive and are generally based on the family relationship between the decedent or donor and the beneficiary and/or the amount received by the beneficiary. In all cantons, spouses are exempt from tax on inheritances and gifts; direct descendants are also exempt in most cantons.

Note that in the Canton of Geneva, the exemption from inheritance and gift taxes is not permitted if, according to any of the three most recent tax decisions as of the day of death or gift, the decedent or donor benefited from taxation according to expenditure (see below). In this case, the tax ranges between 2% and 6% for inheritances and between 3% and 6% for gifts.

For the inheritance tax, it is the heirs and legatees who are liable, while the grantees are taxed in the case of the gift tax.

Gifts of movable assets are taxed in the canton of the donor’s domicile at the time of the gift, while gifts of real estate assets are taxed in the canton where the property is located.

Furthermore, in principle it is the canton where the decedent had his last domicile which is authorized to collect inheritance tax on movable assets. Real estate assets are taxed in the canton where the property is located.

In principle in all the cantons, it is the beneficiary of the inheritance, the donation, or the gift, who is subject to taxation. For the inheritance tax, it is the heirs and legatees who are liable, while the grantees are taxed in the case of the gift tax.

C) Taxation at source

A taxation at source system is used for the salaries of young people aged under 18 and foreign workers who do not hold a settlement permit (permit C). This means that the employer (or pension company) will collect taxes that are due (cantonal and communal tax (ICC) and direct federal tax (IFD)) on the sums paid (salaries, pensions, etc.).

The employer determines the tax band (all bands are progressive) based on the taxpayer’s family situation (married, divorced, dependent children, etc.).

Taxpayers who have, either in Switzerland or abroad, other sources of revenue (property or other assets, etc.) beyond those on which the taxation at source is collected, are required to inform the tax authorities who will assess them for additional ordinary taxation. This income must be declared spontaneously the year after it is received. Any taxpayer failing to declare their income is liable to prosecution for tax evasion.

In addition, for gross annual incomes subject to taxation at source exceeding CHF 120,000 (at federal level and in all cantons other than Geneva, where the threshold is CHF 500,000) a further assessment will be made using the ordinary procedure. This is known as ordinary taxation “ex post”, and the tax withheld at source becomes a prepayment. A tax return must be filed for this procedure. Taxpayers are required to declare all their income and assets, and those of their family. The tax withheld at source is then deducted from the amount calculated using the ordinary procedure.

Lastly, in Geneva, taxpayers who own property in the canton or who are eligible to pay wealth tax (wealth must be declared if, on 31 December 2018, it exceeded, after deduction of social contributions, CHF 82,040 for a single person and CHF 164,080 for a married couple, with an additional allowance of CHF 41,020 for each additional dependent) are not taxed at source but are automatically and definitively taxed according to the ordinary procedure.

Married couples living together are taxed via the ordinary system if one of them is a Swiss national or holds a settlement permit.

The system of withholding tax at source is designed to prevent a foreign national who works in Switzerland temporarily from returning to their native country or the country where they live without paying the tax that they owe on their salary. It also makes life easier for foreign nationals who do not yet have a good command of one of Switzerland’s national languages.

D) Wealth tax

All of the cantons and municipalities levy a wealth tax on individuals, which is collected each year together with the income tax (via a single tax form). This tax does not exist at the federal level.

Generally speaking, this tax applies to the taxpayer’s worldwide assets in their entirety. This includes all property and all rights owned by the taxpayer or of which he is usufructuary; in principle, they are valued at their market value.

Taxable assets include all movable property (for example securities, bank assets, cars, etc.) and real estate (buildings, etc.), life insurance and pension plans whose value can be redeemed, investments in divided estates and similarly, assets invested in a commercial or agricultural operation. Property that does not generate income is also taxed. Household furniture as well as personal items for everyday use are exempt. Investments in foreign commercial businesses or branches and real estate located abroad are not subject to wealth tax. However, these assets are taken into account to determine the applicable tax rate, wherever this rate is progressive.

Individuals can deduct their debts from their gross assets, as well as the different cantonal deductions, with amounts that vary depending on marital status and the number of children.

Wealth tax is progressive in most cantons, but each of them can set its own tax rates. Taxes thus vary widely and range from 0% and 1%.

The Canton of Geneva, like other cantons, has implemented a « tax shield » system in order to limit the burden on taxpayers. This system provides that the total cantonal tax burden (including income tax, wealth tax and additional cantonal and municipal percentages on calculated income tax), must not exceed 60% of taxable income. However, to perform this calculation, net income from assets must correspond to a minimum of 1% of taxable net assets (virtually if actual performance is insufficient).

E) Tax on real estate gains

There is no federal tax on capital gains on private real estate assets. Only the capital gains made during transfers of real estate which are part of business assets (i.e., included in the business assets of a taxpayer engaged in independent gainful activity or of a company) as well as those arising from professional operations are subject to Federal Direct Tax.

On the other hand, any gains made by the taxpayer during the sale of a personally owned real estate are taxed in all cantons.

In nearly half of the cantons, all these real estate gains are in principle subject to a special tax, called « tax on real estate gains. » In this case it is an exclusive tax, meaning that this is the only tax levied on this category of gains, which are therefore in principle not affected by any other tax burden (whether the property belongs to private or commercial assets).

In the other cantons, only the gains made during the transfer of immovable property which are part of private individuals assets are taxed separately through this special tax. Profits that are part of business assets or real estate profits resulting from business operations are then subject to regular income tax. They are simply added to the taxpayer’s other income sources.

In terms of rates, most cantons have implemented sliding scale rates which depend on the length of ownership of the property. For example, in Geneva, long term capital gains (> 25 years) are not taxed, while short term capital gains (< 2 years) are taxed at the rate of 50%.

Did you know? Despite being a landlocked country, Switzerland participates very successfully in international sailing competitions. Alinghi, one of the world’s top teams, is Swiss, and in 2003 made Switzerland the first European nation to win the America’s Cup since 1851.

F) Taxation according to expenditure (lump sum tax package)

Federal tax legislation as well as most cantons (including Geneva and Vaud) provide for the option of a special tax regime known as taxation according to expenditure, allowing to foreign individuals who do not exercise a gainful activity in Switzerland, and who elect domicile or reside in Switzerland (fully liable to tax) for the first time or after an absence of at least ten years, to pay a tax calculated on the basis of their expenses as well as of the cost of living, in place of regular taxes on income and wealth. This system is based on the fiction that taxpayers’ expenditures reflect their net income.

It is possible to benefit from this tax regime indefinitely. However, both spouses living in a common household must meet the above conditions. Furthermore, this method of taxation must be requested upon arrival in Switzerland or, at the latest, in advance of the first tax deadline (for nationals of countries outside of the European Union, the request is carried out in parallel with the residence permit application process through the Cantonal Office of Population and Migration).

This system replaces the requirement for a complete tax return for taxable income and assets, and is justified by practical reasons in the sense that it would not be feasible to verify the worldwide income and assets of this category of taxpayers.

Taxes are calculated according to the standard scale, on the basis of the annual expenses of the taxpayer and of his family in Switzerland and abroad. The calculation also includes the expenditures by the spouse and children under the taxpayer’s parental authority as long as they reside in Switzerland. Expenses usually taken into account are annual rent, maintenance of a real estate property, house staff, school fees for children, clothing, recreation, travel, food, the cost of maintaining yachts and aeroplanes as well as all other lifestyle-related expenses. The precise calculation is determined in collaboration with the tax authorities in the canton in which the taxpayer wishes to settle.

In any case, the minimum base shall correspond to at least seven times the annual rent paid by the head of household taxpayer, or the imputed rental value of the property he owns and occupies (or three times the price the annual pension for housing and food in the place of domicile for other taxpayer), as well as the minimum amounts set by the federal and cantonal legislation.

A minimum threshold of CHF 400,000 is set for Federal Direct Tax. A minimum amount is also defined by the cantons, which each has full autonomy on this point. In the main French-speaking cantons, this minimum threshold is CHF 400,000 in the cantons of Geneva, Berne and Neuchâtel, CHF 360,000 in the Canton of Vaud, CHF 250,000 in the Valais and Fribourg, and CHF 200,000 in the Canton of Jura.

Moreover, the amount of taxes based on expenditures shall not be less than the regular taxes on income and wealth applied to certain Swiss and foreign-source assets income items (an annual control calculation must be sent to the tax authorities for this purpose). These are:

  • real estate assets in Switzerland and resulting income;
  • movable objects in Switzerland and resulting income;
  • movable capital invested in Switzerland, including claims secured by a mortgage lien, and resulting income (the target here is bonds issued in any currency by a Swiss issuer and their interests, shares in a Swiss company and their dividends (even if held with a foreign bank) as well as deposits, regardless of the currencies, in a Swiss Bank. On the other hand, securities issued by foreign entities deposited in a Swiss Bank and their income are not included);
  • copyrights, patents and other similar rights used in Switzerland and resulting income;
  • retirement benefits, annuities and pensions from Swiss sources;
  • foreign source income for which the taxpayer requires partial or total foreign tax relief in application of a treaty with Switzerland to prevent double taxation.

It should be noted that the cantons must tax the wealth of taxpayers as well, also at a flat rate. In the cantons of Geneva and Vaud, this means that the minimum amount on which taxes are calculated is, respectively, CHF 440,000 and CHF 415,000, taxed at the income tax rate. The Valais tax authorities have fixed a minimum taxable amount of CHF 1,250,000 not at the income tax rate, but the wealth tax rate.

Regardless of the system chosen, the taxpayer who is taxed according to expenditure is not required to declare his actual assets, with the exception of the amount taken into consideration in the annual control calculation.

Note that no deduction is allowed if taxation is established based on expenditure or on rent (or rental value) multiplied by seven.

If taxation is carried out via the control calculation, the following deductions are allowed:

  • building maintenance costs subject to taxation;
  • standard charges for the administration of investments as long as their yield is taxed.

It follows from the foregoing that the total minimum amount of tax due annually is CHF 150,000 in the cantons of Geneva and Vaud, and CHF 100,000 in Valais.

At the end of 2016, 5,046 Swiss taxpayers were taxed according to expenditure. The Canton of Vaud had the highest number of foreign national millionaires paying lump-sum taxation, at 1,218, followed by Valais (1,125), Ticino (910) and Geneva (638).

Lump-sum taxation is less popular in German-speaking Switzerland. Bern had 201 taxpayers taxed according to expenditure, Lucerne 114, Zug 127 and Solothurn seven. Zurich, Basel-City, Basel-Country, Schaffhausen and Appenzell Outer Rhodes no longer use lump-sum taxation.

As we have seen above, third-country nationals may be granted a residence permit without gainful activity in Switzerland in the case of important public interests, specifically in terms of taxation. To recognize the existence of an important cantonal interest in terms of taxation, a number of cantons set a minimum threshold for expenditures that is higher than for other taxpayers, while others cantons further raise the amount of expenditures.

Thus, the « price of admission » for non-European nationals in the Canton of Valais is CHF 700,000 for income and CHF 2,800,000 in assets. In Geneva, the minimum lump sum is CHF 750,000 for income (to which 10% must be added for wealth taxes at the cantonal level), while in the Canton of Vaud it is CHF 1,000,000. The Canton of Jura is the most favourable one with a threshold of CHF 350,000 for income and CHF 2,800,000 in assets.

In total, 523 foreigners have benefited from these conditions as of the end of 2016. The most frequent beneficiaries are Russians, in 165 cases. They are followed by Turks (36), Americans (21), Canadians (20), Brazilians (17) Serbs (16) and Ukrainians (15). The procedure is most frequently used in Ticino (200 cases) followed by Geneva (91) and Zurich (41). There have been around 30 cases in Vaud.

In general, taxpayers benefiting from taxation according to expenditure are considered to be Swiss residents and, as such, are eligible for tax relief on their foreign-source income as provided for under existing double taxation treaties.

Certain agreements (Germany, Austria, Belgium, Canada, United States, Italy and Norway), allow for tax treaty benefits only if all income from the source country is taxed under the regular tax regime in Switzerland.

This means that those countries recognize a taxpayer as a Swiss resident, in the sense relevant to the double taxation treaty, only for individuals who, if they are taxed at on a lump-sum basis in Switzerland, are taxed on all income items from those countries which are normally assigned to Switzerland under the treaty (referred to as a « modified lump sum »), in addition to being taxed in accordance with the general principles presented above.

Moreover, the applicable tax rate is fixed on the basis of worldwide income or, in the absence of indication by the taxpayer, at the maximum rate.

Finally, the taxpayer may benefit from the tax credit for foreign taxes, but he can never pay a final tax lower than that due with taxation according to expenditure.

A special tax regime was in place for France until 1 January 2013 (increased lump sum). If taxpayers taxed based on expenditure agreed to their tax base being increased by 30%, the French tax authorities considered them as Swiss residents under the terms of the agreement. Since 2013, the French authorities have unilaterally decided that this agreement no longer applies to people taxed on expenditure. However, the Swiss authorities maintain that taxpayers who pay an increased lump sum should benefit from the agreement, and therefore still issue certificates of residence on this basis. This situation could however change, in particular following the most recent jurisprudence established by the Swiss Federal Supreme Court in 2019 in this area (link in French).

XVII. Swiss nationality

Please ask one of our specialist lawyers for our brochure on Swiss nationality. It sets out the conditions and the procedure to follow

XVIII. Marriage law

A) Marriage

To marry in Switzerland, the engaged parties must fulfil the following legal conditions:

  • Be aged 18 or over and capable of judgement;
  • Provide proof, if applicable, that their previous marriage or registered partnership has been annulled or dissolved;
  • Not be directly related (father, mother, grandparent or child) nor brother and sister – i.e. having the same mother or father, either by birth or by adoption;
  • They must not be marrying to circumvent the laws on the admission of foreign nationals into Switzerland.

In addition, during the preparatory procedure before the marriage or partnership, engaged parties who are not Swiss citizens must prove that they are legally resident in Switzerland. The registrar is unable to marry someone who cannot produce a valid residence permit.

There are two stages to the marriage procedure:

  • The preparatory procedure, which can take several weeks or months (especially if there are foreign documents which need to be legalised).
  • The marriage ceremony, which can take place at the earliest ten days and at the latest three months after notification that the preparatory procedure is complete. Marriage ceremonies are generally held in the marriage hall at the chosen civil status office. The engaged parties must be accompanied by two adult witnesses, who must be over 18 and capable of judgement. Marriage ceremonies are public.

After the ceremony, the couple can request:

  • A family record document (only provided to couples resident in Switzerland);
  • A marriage certificate.

A religious ceremony can also be held, but only once the civil ceremony has been completed.

A same-sex couple can have their union recognised via a registered partnership.

Did you know? Every year, Swiss residents eat an average of 22kg of cheese and 11kg of chocolate each.

Each spouse keeps their own name. During the preparatory procedure they choose the name they will give to their children. This can only be one spouse’s original name.

Engaged parties can however decide that they wish to use a shared family name. This can only be the original name of either one of them.

A double-barrelled name can be chosen by one or other of the spouses for everyday use. However, it is not an official name and does not appear on the civil registry. This combination of two names, linked together by a hyphen, is an expression of the official link between two people. It is a recognised custom in Switzerland, and has been integrated into the legislation on identity documents. If the person so requests, it can be added to a passport or identity card as an official supplement.

A marriage celebrated legally in a foreign country is recognised in Switzerland if it complies with the principles of Swiss law (which forbids bigamy, for example).

An application for recognition must be made to the Swiss representation (embassy or consulate), accompanied by the documents relating to the marriage.

The Swiss representation will check the accuracy of the documents, legalise them and if necessary translate them into one of Switzerland’s official languages (on payment of a fee). The documents are then sent to the cantonal supervisory authority in the person’s canton of origin, which will decide whether the marriage is recognised. In Geneva, this is the civil status and legalisation department.

The cantonal supervisory authority decides whether the marriage can be recognised. If the conditions have been fulfilled, it orders the marriage to be added to the registers. This enables a marriage celebrated abroad to be entered into the “Infostar” civil register.

B) Divorce

The law lays down the conditions for the dissolution of marriages and the consequences of divorce. It also allows spouses to live separately without divorcing. In such a case, it is possible for them, either together or separately, to contact the judge for measures for the protection of the marital union, who will decide the consequences of the separation, if necessary.

If the parties agree to divorce, they can apply to the judge together for a divorce by joint request. If they are in agreement regarding all the effects of the divorce, they present the judge with a convention setting out all the financial consequences, for example how possessions will be shared and any maintenance payments to be made. The judge will simply check that the agreement that has been made is fair.

The couple will also need to present the decisions they have come to regarding their children. The judge will interview the couple, together and separately. The divorce will be issued three to six weeks later. The entire procedure takes between two and five months.

When the couple agree that they wish to divorce, but do not agree on one or more of the consequences, they can ask the judge to decide.

If one spouse wishes to divorce and the other does not, the first spouse can apply for a divorce “at the petition of one spouse”, so long as the couple has been living separately for two years when the application is made. One spouse can apply for a divorce before the two-year period has been completed only if the marriage has irretrievably broken down for compelling reasons for which he or she is not responsible.

C) Marital property law

The rules of marital property law determine who owns possessions during the marriage, and how it should be divided in the event of a divorce or if one spouse dies (in which case the accounts are settled between the husband and wife before inheritance rules are applied).

Swiss law recognises three separate marital property regimes:

  • The marital property regime of participation in acquired property: the spouses’ assets are basically separate. However, when the marriage regime is dissolved, savings built up during the marriage are totalled and divided in half. This is the default regime.
  • The marital property regime of community of property: this regime combines all of the couple’s property together. If the marriage is dissolved, each of them is entitled to half. A prenuptial agreement must be signed in front of a notary for this regime to apply.
  • Separation of property: under this regime, there is no shared property. Each spouse retains the ownership of their own property during the marriage and when it is dissolved. Again, a prenuptial agreement is required for this regime.

Foreign nationals who are resident in Switzerland can opt for either a marriage regime under Swiss law, or a marriage regime from the country of origin of either one of them. They must agree this in writing, failing which Swiss law applies.

XIX. Inheritance law

Except as regards real estate, the Swiss administrative and judiciary authorities of the deceased’s last place of residence have jurisdiction to take the necessary steps to wind up the estate and deal with any inheritance disputes. In addition, if the deceased person’s last place of residence was in Switzerland, their estate will be wound up under Swiss law. A foreign national can however use a will or contract of succession to arrange for their estate to be wound up under the law of a country of which they are a national, so long as at the time of their death they still hold that nationality and have not acquired Swiss nationality.

It is important to note that changes to Swiss private international law are currently being considered to transpose into Swiss law the EU Succession Regulation (Regulation No. 650/2012 dated 4 July 2012).

Swiss law recognises universal succession, meaning that the heirs replace the deceased person from the day that they die and acquire all of their assets and liabilities. Heirs only have a right to a certain fraction of the estate, and not to specific items. Only when the estate is divided up can an heir claim a right to a specific item.

Heirs are appointed:

  • either in a will: these are the named heirs (a will can exist in holographic or oral form or as a public deed or contract of succession);
  • or by the law (Swiss Civil Code (CC), RS 210): these are the statutory heirs.

Statutory heirs are:

  1. the spouse of the deceased;
  2. family members from the parental line of the deceased;
  3. failing this, a public authority.

Heirs are organised into groups of relatives (parentela). A group of relatives can only inherit if all members of the previous group are deceased.

There are three groups:

  • First group: the descendants of the deceased person.
    If they themselves are deceased, they are represented by their descendants.
  • Second group: the parents of the deceased, with one half-share each.
    If they themselves are deceased, they are represented by their descendants.
  • Third group: the grandparents of the deceased, with a half-share to the maternal line and a half-share to the paternal line.
    If they themselves are deceased, they are represented by their descendants.

If there are no heirs in the third group, the estate falls to the canton and/or commune of the deceased’s last place of residence.

This group system does not apply to a surviving spouse. They always inherit, but in combination with the other statutory heirs. The surviving spouse is entitled to:

  • In combination with the descendants, half of the estate;
  • In combination with the mother, father or their descendants, three-quarters of the estate.
  • In combination with the grandparents or their descendants, the entire estate. In this last situation, the surviving spouse is the only heir.

Registered partners have the same status as married couples.

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You can use your will to modify the legal order of succession. You can reduce the share given to a specific heir, exclude an heir, give a larger share to others, or appoint a single heir. You can also appoint heirs who are not relatives or leave certain possessions to third parties. (You must however understand that this can have considerable tax consequences.)

Nonetheless, a minimum statutory entitlement applies to family members (descendants, parents, surviving spouse, etc.). Heirs with a statutory entitlement are entitled to a minimum share of the estate (reserve). It is expressed as a fraction of the legal share:

  • For a descendant, three quarters of the legal share;
  • For the father and mother, half the legal share;
  • For the surviving spouse, half the legal share.

A draft law is currently under discussion on this subject. It aims to reduce the statutory entitlement of descendants to a half, that of the surviving spouse to one quarter and to eliminate the parents’ statutory entitlement.

An heir can:

  • Simply accept the inheritance;
  • Accept the inheritance subject to a public inventory. (This procedure is carried out on request to provide the heirs with information about the debts and assets in the inheritance, and limit their liability to those assets listed on the inventory);
  • Ask for the estate to be officially liquidated (the heirs renounce their rights to the deceased’s assets and are no longer liable for their debts. Their only share of the estate is any balance that remains after official liquidation, or bankruptcy proceedings if the deceased was insolvent, have been completed);
  • Disclaim the inheritance.

Silence on the part of an heir is considered as full acceptance.

If no other arrangement has been stipulated, the heirs can decide between them how the estate is to be shared out. If they are unable to agree, a court can order the assets to be shared, or if this is impossible, sold at auction. Pets are allocated with regard to their well-being, to the person best able to care for them.

If the couple’s family home or household furniture are part of the estate, the surviving spouse can asked to be allocated these items, which will then be deducted from their share. If there is reason to do so, the surviving spouse or an heir can ask for a usufruct or right of residence rather than ownership.

XX. Other administrative matters

  • Register for utilities (water, gas and electricity) with your commune.
  • Contact a service provider for landline, mobile phone and internet contracts.
    You can compare the various offers here: https://fr.comparis.ch/telekommunikation.
  • Pay your Serafe bill to obtain the right to receive radio and television. In Switzerland, both households and businesses are legally required to pay radio and television licence fees.
    This applies regardless of the number of people in the household who listen to or watch the programmes, the type of receiver used (television, car radio, etc.) or the way they are received (cable, telephone network or satellite). Computers (including tablets) with internet access are also considered as receivers if the person has an account (including free accounts) with an online television services provider.
    Households that can prove that they do not have a device capable of receiving radio or television programmes can however request exemption, on an annual basis, for a maximum of five years. The same applies to deaf-blind people if they live in a private household where no one is liable to pay the fee. Licences for holiday homes were abolished in 2019.
    The licence fee for private households is CHF 365 per year.
  • Locate a family doctor, paediatrician, etc. that speaks your language. You should do this in advance, because doctors are often very busy with few appointments available.
  • Depending on the canton (for instance Vaud or Valais) and commune in which you live, you will pay a tax on official bin bags or a weight-based tax for rubbish collection. Some communes provide a certain number of bags free of charge, according to the size of the household. You can find out from your commune which days your non-recyclable rubbish will be collected, when and where to put your rubbish out, and where to obtain communal bin bags. Recycling is a speciality of Switzerland!
  • Each commune has police regulations informing the population of how to behave in public places and towards other people. It may stipulate, for example, that rubbish must be placed in bins, that any unnecessary noise is forbidden, or that measures must be taken to ensure pets do not cause annoyance. You can ask for a copy of the police regulations at your communal administrative office.
  • All births must be declared to the registrar in the arrondissement where they take place. If the child is born in hospital, the hospital will deal with this formality. If the child is born at home, the parents must register the birth. All children are automatically covered by sickness insurance for three months when they are born. The parents must take out basic health insurance in the child’s name before the end of this period. An insurance company can refuse to cover a baby for top-up health insurance (for example, if the child is born with an illness). Consequently, if your insurance company offers this possibility, it is best to insure your baby in advance of the birth. If you have children, you are entitled to family allowance.
  • Train, bus and boat tickets are quite expensive in Switzerland, but you can purchase a half-price subscription from the national rail company CFF which entitles you to a 50% reduction on fares. This subscription is very popular, and almost half of all Swiss residents have one.

XXI. Croce & Associés SA’s services

We frequently assist our clients throughout the process of setting up home in Switzerland, and beyond. We can look after not only the legal aspects of your move (residence permit, negotiations with tax authorities, drawing up the necessary contracts, etc.) but also assist you with all the other things you will need to do, such as opening bank accounts and finding your new home.

Through our family office, Onyx & Cie SA, a registered financial services company, we have close contacts with Switzerland’s major banks. We also have a comprehensive network of property brokers, and we can put you in contact with the main insurance companies or negotiate with them on your behalf. Our lawyers, many of whom attended international schools themselves or have children attending them, can even give you their own personal opinions.

Lastly, our trust and international tax specialists can advise you on pre-arrival tax planning and help you optimise your tax arrangements before you get to Switzerland.

We hope this brochure will help you find the information you need. If you have any questions at all, please do not hesitate to contact us.
Once again, welcome to Switzerland!

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