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10 Tips for Living in Switzerland

By Betsy Burlingame

Summary: Advice from expats in Switzerland on housing search, finding a job in Switzerland, international schools, expat clubs and organizations, learning the language and cost of living. A must read for newcomers and anyone moving to Switzerland.

Expats in Switzerland - 10 Tips for Living in Switzerland

We've put together some great tips for expats moving to Switzerland or living in Switzerland.

1) Living in Switzerland

The culture of Switzerland is influenced by the German, French, Italian and Romansh (language) heritages that have shaped it. The presence of the Alps, and the sports they inspired, are a core part of Swiss culture. Swiss Cuisine has also been shaped by German, French, and Italian influences and there are great Swiss foods that must be tried! In addition to Swiss folk music and other Swiss folk arts, the Locarno Film Festival is another great cultural offering for expats in Switzerland. Most importantly, know that you have to get out there and explore. Don't expect Switzerland to discover you, you have to go out and discover Switzerland!

2) Finding a Job in Switzerland

With the U.N. and many N.G.O.'s located in Geneva and banks and financial institutions based in Zurich, Switzerland has long been a popular expat destination. EU-citizens have a much easier time in Switzerland. An expat working in Olten, Switzerland explains that "if you are not an EU-citizen, keep in mind that quotas apply for work/stay permits. There is a maximum to the number of work permits per year that are issued to non-EU-citizens. Moreover, your Swiss employee has to prove that he has made ample effort to find someone from Switzerland or the EU for the job, before he can hire you."

"Prepare well for applying for a job. Your CV should be complete, well ordered, and must be accompanied by copies of diplomas, job references, and so on, and a good photograph of yourself (no holiday picture!). The job interview usually is quite formal (suit and tie is an absolute must for men!). It is not unusual that the employer will ask you about your salary wishes during the first interview, so be prepared for that question," advises another expat.

3) Cost of Living in Switzerland

If you peruse the articles and forum threads on Expat Exchange's Switzerland network one thing that you will quickly glean from expats' comments is that life in Switzerland is very expensive. From the high cost of housing and private schools to the expensive food, furniture and clothing, expats in Switzerland have to adjust to this reality. An expat in Geneva wrote that "we all have lost weight from a change in our food buying habits and cooking - these are directly related to our shock over the price of food. I now drink wine instead of having a cocktail - wine is good and cheap. Booze is expensive. Going out for dinner or a coffee is now a special treat due to the expense. We do a lot less shopping because clothing is very expensive here."

An expat living in Suisse Romande added that "Switzerland is definitely a beautiful country, low crime, good schools. Having said that I have to add that the cost of living is extremely high! Rents are expensive, food is expensive, restaurants are expensive. We have a 3 bedroom, 2 bath apartment, 95 m2, with underground parking. It is very nice and we have unbelievable views of Lake Geneva and the Alps. Unfortunately we pay the equivalent of a mortgage payment on a big house in the US or the rent of a nice apartment in NYC, CHF 2200 per month. Health insurance is obligatory and cost us almost CHF 1000 per month for two adults and 1 child. We typically spend CHF 1000 to 1200 per month at the grocery store. I have some French friends at work who go back to France once a week to do their shopping. What makes it more difficult is the price for airline tickets to go back to the States for family visits."

Shopping across borders is commonplace in Switzerland. Ask other expats where they go shopping and take a trip there on the weekend!

4) Relocation Agents

The expat working in Olten offered advice on a common problem that expats encounter when looking for a place to live in Switzerland, "A vicious circle may arise when looking for a place to live. Most landlords ask for your permit to stay when you want to rent property, and conditions for buying property may be bad when you cannot show your permit to stay. On the other hand, you need proof of a place to live when applying for the permit to stay!

Solutions: If you have Swiss friends or relatives: ask whether you can stay with them for the time being. You register on their address (and they or their landlord may have to produce some document in which it is declared that you are living there) Much more expensive: you can stay in hotel or hostel for the first period. Proof of stay at the ho(s)tel will do for registering for your permit to stay As this is a common "vicious circle", many landlords will understand the situation and you may ask them to be a bit flexible, and promise to provide a copy of the permit to stay as soon as you have it.

Many expats advise that you should start looking for housing before you move. It's hard to find places and those that come to market go quickly. With the high cost of hotels, you will want to find your home quickly. If you can afford to hire a relocation agency, it may make the relocation process much easier. "Find an agent that doesn't work on commission - ours didn't and so we were shown flats ranging from SFr 2000 - SFr 5000 a month and weren't pressured into choosing either way," explained one expat in Zug. ExpatExchange members recommended several agencies: All-in-One Swiss Relocation Services in Zurich and Le Concierge in Zug.

5) International Schools in Switzerland

International School of Zug and Lucern (ISOZug) is convenient for families living Zug, Luzern and Zurich area. ISOZug has three campuses: a pre-school through 8th grade campus in Zug, another pre-school through 8th grade campus in Lucern and a high school campus in Hunenberg. The Swiss International School of Zurich has two campuses: Zurich West for pre-school through 5th grade and Zurich East for pre-school through 10th grade. In Basel, the International School of Basel has two campuses: Reinach Campus is for high school students and the Aesch Campus is for pre-school through 5th grade. Another option for expats in Basel is Black Forest Academy, which is located in Kandern, has a dedicated bus from Basel.

To read more school reviews, visit our school reports for Switzerland page.

6) Swiss People

To get to know the Swiss, you may have to take the lead and introduce yourself first or even invite your new neighbors over for drinks (even though you are the newcomer). One expat in Zurich suggested in a culture shock report, "Swiss neighbors expect to be invited to a Apero' when you just have moved in! Do it, get drinks and finger food :)" Yet another had a advised, "Overall I'd say, take it slowly, be polite and not too pushy and you'll soon be invited into the neighbour's gardens for drinks. To be invited into one of their homes takes a bit longer though! Also - make sure YOU introduce yourself to your new neighbours - don't wait for them to come to you. This was a tip from our relo lady and it really helped."

7) Clubs and Activities for Expats

Since it may take time to really get to know the locals, get involved in a few of the numerous clubs and organizations for expats in Switzerland. In Zurich, the academie du vin offers wine classes in English. The Zurich Hash House Harriers is great fun for runners, walkers and anyone interested in socializing with other expats and Swiss people in Zurich. In Zug, International Women's Club of Zug and the International Men's Club of Zug have lots of activities and events.

"In Basel, the local English speaking club called Centrepoint. Also, the Professional Women's Group of Basel has very interesting topics and a fun mix of people. I've also heard good things about the American Women's Club of Basel," suggests an expat in Basel.

For younger expats, locals throws parties, events and do charity work in major Swiss cities. In Geneva, Geneva Amateur Operatic Society is a mostly expat group (non-expats welcome!) for those interested in English musical theatre productions. CERN Softball league is a fun softball league that is very popular with expats.

These are just a few of the many social and sport clubs for expats in Switzerland. If you have school-aged children, many schools have active parent organizations as well. Join a few of these clubs as soon as you get settled (or, even before)! Finding a network of expats to socialize with can be a lifesaver when bouts of homesickness and culture shock inevitably hit.

8) Learning the Language

In Switzerland German is the most widely spoken (by more than 60% of people), French is spoken in Geneva and the western part of Switzerland, Italian is spoken in a few cantons in the southeastern part of the country and Romansh is still spoken in a few communities. One expat in Zurich reported that he "studied High German in evening classes. A basic understanding of German is very useful, numbers, colors, objects / items (eg shirts, trousers, pen, plants, chair, knife, fork,) because even if you can not construct a sentence at least the person you are communicating with has a subject. Most people will speak English, but a lot still do not or like me shy away from speaking another language even though they do understand a it," suggested on expat.

"When moving to the German part of the country, knowledge of the strong Swiss German dialect is not needed (anyone speaking dialect is also able to speak standard German). For good integration into Swiss society, however: The Swiss highly appreciate when you learn to understand the dialect asap. There are even courses in Swiss German. Unless many other places in the world, the Swiss German dialect is spoken almost everywhere in daily life, also at work," explained another expat in Olten.

9) What to Bring

One expat recommended Children's books, since English books are very expensive. Another expat in Zug said, "Some books about Switzerland in our own language. We don't understand a lot of German and English books are very expensive." Basically, since most things in Switzerland are expensive, bring what you can - furniture, English books, your favorite shampoo that you can't live without, etc. But, thanks to Ikea, you can find some affordable furniture in country!

10) Relationships in Switzerland

A married expat in Geneva offered some advice for single and married expats. For singles, she reported that "being single and coming to Geneva [it can] be challenging to meet a nice partner. A lot of people work and travel quite a bit and do not have time or energy to go to places where they could potentially meet a life partner."

As for couples or married expats, she wrote that "the challenges in our relationship are not so much due to our different nationalities but are more the challenges that dual career couples face. Husband works and travels a lot, while I feel I am running the family and my business. The challenge is to find time for the couple! But where there is a will, there is a way."

Need more information on living in Switzerland?

Login or Register and visit our Switzerland Forum. Talk with other expats who can offer you insight and tips about living in Switzerland.

About the Author

Betsy Burlingame Betsy Burlingame is the Founder of Expat Exchange. She launched Expat Exchange in 1997 as her Master's thesis project at NYU. She graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University with a BA in International Business and German.

CIGNA Expat Health Insurance

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First Published: Feb 26, 2015

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