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Living as an Expat in Switzerland: Our Tips for a Successful Move

Forget about chocolate, cuckoo clocks, yodelling, luxury watches and banks. These clichés do not do justice to the diversity that Switzerland encompasses. The Swiss confederation is first and foremost 26 cantons, pro-actively practicing multilingualism in four languages (German, French, Italian and Romansh), a plurality of cultures, pristine landscapes and an incomparable quality of life that seduces thousands of expatriates. In fact, it is one of the countries that hosts the most foreigners.

If you too, as a family, on your own, or as a couple, dream of experiencing Switzerland and the Swiss way of life, Foyer Global Health offers insight into life as an expat in Switzerland .

Why should you move to Switzerland?

Switzerland regularly tops the global rankings of the world’s best countries to work and live in. Since 2019, it has even been the favourite destination for expatriates according to the index established by HSBC Expat. Here’s why Switzerland has become the expats’ darling:

  • Quality of life

Expats appreciate Switzerland mostly because of the quality of life. While this reality refers to several objective criteria such as high income, modern infrastructure, and efficient health services, it is also linked to more subjective criteria, including the luxury to be able to enjoy quality time and to take advantage of nature nearby.

  • Career opportunities and high salaries

Expatriates also come to Switzerland to increase their income and advance their careers. Indeed, salaries are high compared to the European average and, even though the median gross monthly salary in Switzerland is CHF 6,502 (approximately € 6,330), expats’ average annual income surpasses CHF 196,000. On average, a move to work in Switzerland means an increase in income by 50%.

In Geneva, Zurich, Lausanne or Lugano, the working conditions are generally flexible (full-time/part-time; office time/home office, depending on the employee’s situation) and the working environment is pleasant. It is not uncommon to find part-time jobs (3/4, half-time). And even if expats work between 42 to 50 hours per week, they still manage to achieve a good work/life balance because working hours are much more flexible than in France.

Switzerland also holds interesting opportunities for entrepreneurs and investors. National legislation supports the creation of SMEs and  start-ups for entrepreneurs. The Swiss Confederation’s website contains some useful information on setting up a business in Switzerland.

  • Economic and political stability

With a GDP per capita that is one of the highest in the world and a controlled inflation rate, Switzerland has a resilient economy that is open to the world and very much focused on the export of high value-added products and services. On the political side, the Swiss democratic model is sound and well-organised, with strong citizen participation, debate and representation. Swiss direct democracy is often held up as a model by other European countries…

  • Quality of education

Even if school curricula and types of school systems vary depending on the cantons and regions, expatriates consider the quality of Swiss education to be generally high and the offers for education to be varied including: prestigious international public schools, local and cantonal schools, apprenticeship systems. In fact, the Confederation can boast top schools such as the EPF in Lausanne and Zurich, as well as the École hôtelière de Lausanne! In state schools, a second national language is taught in addition to the language of the canton.

  • Favourable tax environment

Many foreign entrepreneurs or employees settle in Switzerland with their families or on their own to benefit from Switzerland’s favourable tax environment.

Most expatriates, who are residing and working in Switzerland as employees, have their income tax directly deducted from their salary, with some exceptions (holders of a C permit or income above a certain amount). Income tax rates for individuals vary between 0% and 40%, depending on the canton. Compared to other European countries, it is still rather low for average salaries of individuals, but it is only slightly more attractive than in neighbouring countries.

However, for legal entities, especially for international companies, Switzerland’s tax environment is very attractive: the average corporate tax rate is 15%, one of the lowest in the world, and VAT is only 7.7%. And the reason Switzerland has attracted so many wealthy individuals is because of its famous ‘lump-sum taxation’, a special tax regime based on wealthy expats’ lifestyle and expenses, not on their income. There are about 6,000 foreign taxpayers not gainfully employed who are benefiting from this scheme.

  • High quality healthcare

The Swiss health system is very good. It regularly features at the top of world’s best healthcare systems rankings. And for good reason: it is efficient, accessible to the vast majority of the population, and relies on modern infrastructures. Nevertheless, medical services are still rather expensive.

  • Nature  in the round

With its thousands of lakes, miles of rivers and myriad forests, ‘the water tower of Europe’ seduces an overwhelming majority of expatriates (99%). From the Jura to the Alps, the landscapes are sublime and even in the Plateau – the most populated region – nature is always nearby, even in the heart of the city.

  • Tidy and clean!

No, this is not a myth! Switzerland is praised for being clean and tidy and rightly so. Every city in Switzerland makes sure streets are clean (including fines); Geneva’s clean cities are proudly presented  like a business card!

  • Gastronomy:

Chocolate, cheeses, wines and  many other delicious Swiss delicacies!

What are the best cities to live in Switzerland?

Here are our top 3 favourite cities to live in Switzerland with your family, on your own, as a couple whether you’re an employee, entrepreneur or a retiree…

Zurich

Switzerland’s economic engine and a leading financial centre at the heart of Europe, Zurich is a metropolis with a high quality of life. Zurich’s job market is one of the most dynamic in Europe, the average salary is higher than in the rest of Switzerland and the proximity to nature is extremely pleasant. Even though life in Zurich is highly organised (especially with regard to transport), it allows you to feel good and free. You can even take a dip in the lake between two meetings, and weekends are for hiking or skiing, depending on the season!

Geneva

The city par excellence of expatriates, Geneva is home to almost 190 different nationalities. You will probably meet international civil servants as Geneva is home to the UN and human rights, bankers from all over the world, but also watchmaking experts, and multinational companies’ employees from everywhere. In short: a worldly multicultural experience but tempered by,  a gentle Swiss lifestyle nurtured by Lake Geneva and the jet d’eau. You can expect a superb quality of life, nature at your doorstep and, as a bonus in the heart of the city, cultural pursuits to satisfy the most demanding via Geneva’s museums, art galleries, and theatres.

Lausanne

Geneva’s French-speaking sister is a vibrant cultural, business and touristic hub. It is home to several international sports federations, multinational companies’ headquarters, and prestigious schools (EPFL and École hôtelière de Lausanne). Here too, multiculturalism is celebrated with over 160 nationalities. Ranked ‘the world’s best small city’ by Monocle, Lausanne is a green, friendly city built on a human scale, close to other Romandie cities, Lake Geneva, forests and Lavaux vineyards.

How to relocate to Switzerland?

It is easy to immigrate to Switzerland as a German, Austrian or French citizen. Most EU and EEA nationals can work and live in Switzerland with few formalities to undertake, as long as they apply for the relevant residence and work permit.

In contrast, for a third-country national the immigration conditions are more restrictive. Before moving, they must get a work contract and have the required qualifications to apply for a work permit.

In both cases, it is best to directly contact cantonal migration and employment authorities.

What is the cost of living in Switzerland?

In Switzerland, high quality of life comes at a cost and Switzerland’s cost of living (food, housing, health) is one of the highest in Europe. While Zurich and Geneva in particular are among the world’s most expensive cities, there are significant differences between cantons and cities. Some expatriates choose to live in border areas in France or Germany while working in Switzerland.

 

Accommodation

Renting

The rental market in Switzerland offers a wide variety of accommodation. Although demand is generally higher than supply in some Swiss cities such as Geneva, it is quite easy to find a rental, provided you are gainfully employed and have a clean criminal record. In Switzerland, rents vary between 1000 and 5000 CHF, depending on the canton and the type of accommodation you’re looking for. Interestingly, the Swiss rental market offers flexible renting arrangements (subletting, flat sharing…).

Buying a house or an apartment in Switzerland

There are less than 40% of homeowners in Switzerland and only 18% in Geneva. However, as an expatriate, it is possible to become a homeowner in Switzerland. You can apply for a mortgage only if you can put a down payment of 20% of the value of the property. Real estate is quite expensive in Switzerland, regardless of the canton. In Zurich and Geneva, for example, the average price per m2 is close to CHF 13,500 (€13,000).

Switzerland’s top attractions:

  • Geneva, Lausanne, Lucerne, Zurich, Bern, Gruyères, and Basel
  • Les Diablerets and Aletsch glacier, for experienced hikers
  • Valais’ high spectacular vineyards and Lavaux sublime terraced vineyards overlooking Lake Geneva, for wine lovers enamoured by chasselas grapes
  • Laax, Zermatt, Gstaad, Verbier, Saint-Moritz, and Davos for skiing and snowboarding fans
  • Interlaken, Lake Major, Lake Geneva, Lake Oeschinen, Lake Lugano, for romantic souls
  • Lugano and Ascona, to chill on Italian vibes
  • Château de Chillon, castles in the Bernese Oberland, take one to another time