Your guide to expat life in Switzerland

Living in Switzerland

The most appealing part of living in Switzerland is its exceptional lifestyle.

The country’s infrastructure is excellent too. It has an extensive, modern transport system, first-class healthcare and arguably the best chocolate money can buy. Perhaps the only drawback is the price tag – rental costs and living expenses are among the highest in Europe.

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Accommodation

Housing in Switzerland is comfortable and modern, but space is limited, so you may have to come to terms with living in a compact apartment rather than a sprawling family home.

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Finding accommodation

Thanks to steadily rising property prices, the Swiss have become a nation of renters and competition for accommodation is stiff. If your employer doesn’t provide housing, it’s best to start your search online before you leave home. Swiss newspapers and property brochures are good sources of information. And estate agents are a great help once you’re in the country.

Renting property

There’s a severe shortage of rental properties, especially in Zurich and Geneva where costs are inflated. Once you’ve found somewhere suitable, don’t waste time applying for a lease. To secure a property, you’ll need to put down a deposit of up to three months’ rent and provide documents like bank statements and personal references.

Culture changes

Keeping an open mind is key as you adjust to some of Switzerland’s social customs and legal nuances.

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Language barrier

Switzerland has four official languages: Swiss-German, French, Italian and Romansh. Locals are less receptive towards people who can’t speak one of these languages and you’ll struggle to get by if you don’t master at least some basic phrases. For example, signage in smaller towns is often only in German, French or Italian.

Communication style

The Swiss are private people and their communication style is formal and reserved, which can come across as unfriendly at times.

Patriotism

Swiss people are very patriotic, and you can’t miss the national flag displayed outside many homes. Expats are only truly accepted once they’ve learnt one of the local languages.

Education

If you’re moving to Switzerland with children, there’s a range of good education options. The school year runs from September to June, with exact dates set by each canton. It’s compulsory for children aged between 5 and 15 to attend school.

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Public schools

Switzerland’s state-funded schools are good and tuition is free. Public education is shaped by the local authority of each canton and classes are taught in the main language of the region. Sending your children to one of these schools is a good option if you plan to settle in Switzerland for the long term or if they’re young enough to assimilate and pick up the local language quickly.

Private schools

Swiss private schools are excellent – some boast international reputations with high fees to match. They tend to have exceptional extracurricular facilities and will give your children a more personalised learning experience.

International schools

Cities with large expat populations such as Geneva and Zurich have a good selection of international schools. These are great if you only plan to be in the country for a short time and want your children to continue studying the national curriculum of your home country. Competition for places is stiff, fees are very high and waiting lists can be long.

Come with an open mind and wallet, spare time to learn Swiss-German, and maintain a desire to see some beautiful Alpine vistas.

Expat Explorer Survey respondent

View more hints and tips for Switzerland

Keeping in touch

Mobile

Switzerland has several fast and reliable mobile networks. If you have a valid work permit, you can choose from various competitive contract packages or you can get a pay-as-you-go deal. In cities such as Basel and Geneva, which border other countries, you may be charged international rates if you forget to turn off your phone’s roaming function.

Internet

Broadband, cable and WiFi are widely available. Service providers vary from region to region – the biggest companies are Swisscom, Sunrise, UPC and Salt.

English media

Some Swiss publications cater exclusively for English speakers. These include newspapers such as The Local and websites like Le News, as well as magazines such as Swiss News and Inside Switzerland . There are also some radio stations, including World Radio Switzerland (WRS) that broadcast mainly in English.

Healthcare

Switzerland has public and private medical facilities, but differences between the two are small and you’ll receive a high standard of care at both.

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Public hospitals

Switzerland’s public hospitals are clean and modern, waiting times are almost non-existent and most medical staff speak English. Many treatments are covered by even the most basic government insurance policies, but you’ll have to pay extra for specialist procedures.

Private hospitals

Waiting times at private hospitals are even shorter than at public facilities, but treatments cost a lot more and are only covered by comprehensive medical insurance policies. There are also a number of private clinics that offer specialist services such as geriatric rehabilitation.

Medical insurance

Medical insurance is compulsory for all residents, and you have to make sure you’re covered within three months of arriving in the country. Basic government medical insurance differs from canton to canton, and contributions are deducted from your salary. For dentistry and optional extras such as private rooms, you’ll need private insurance. Premiums are high, but there are plenty of options to choose from.

Pharmacies

Pharmacies ( apotheke ) are found across the country, with some open 24/7. Medicines that aren’t immediately available can be ordered.

Emergency services

Emergency medical services are covered by a separate compulsory Accident Insurance Scheme (UVG) that’s also deducted from your salary. Ambulances are well equipped and staff are highly trained. Switzerland’s sophisticated mountain rescue services are expensive and are only covered by some private medical policies, so make sure you have the right policy if you plan to spend time hiking or skiing.

Getting around

Switzerland has one of the world’s best transport systems. Public transport almost always runs on time and roads are well-maintained and scenic, which makes getting around the country a pleasure.

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Trains

An extensive and efficient rail network runs local and regional services. You can travel by rail to almost anywhere in Switzerland, as well as to neighbouring France, Germany and Italy. There’s at least one train every hour on all routes and you must have a ticket before you board – these are sold at station kiosks and online.

Buses

Thanks to the comprehensive rail network, buses aren’t used much in Switzerland. Intercity buses connect places such as Geneva, Zurich and Bern. You can buy tickets online, using a smartphone app or at bus stations.

Driving

Road conditions are outstanding and speed limits are strictly enforced. To use the motorways (autoroutes), you have to display a vignette sticker, which you can buy online. Driving on icy roads in winter is challenging, and most local cars are sold with snow tyres.

Air Travel

Domestic flights connect big cities such as Geneva, Zurich and Bern, but it’s often quicker and more cost-effective to travel by train.

All Expat Explorer survey data and all tips (in quotation marks) are provided by HSBC.

All other content is provided by expatarrivals.com, Globe Media Ltd and was last updated in October 2020. HSBC accepts no responsibility for the accuracy of this information.

This information does not constitute advice and no liability is accepted to recipients acting independently on its contents. The views expressed are subject to change.

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