To most of us, opening and operating a Swiss bank account might sound like something direct from a spy film. But if you're a frequent visitor to Switzerland, or you’re planning to move there, you’ll have to step away from the silver screen, and become familiar with the realities of banking in Switzerland.
It's true that there are some striking differences to the Swiss banking system. It is illegal, for example, for a banking institution to reveal the names of its account holders - a fact that has long made Switzerland a hub for people seeking discrete financial services.
But when it comes to everyday banking, the processes and products available will have a familiar ring to them. Here's a basic guide to opening a bank account in Switzerland.
It is possible to open a bank account in Switzerland remotely, although you will be asked to send the relevant documentation via post (rather than than email). Some banks might be prepared to allow you to open an account via a representative who could present documentation on your behalf. If this would be easier for you, check the policy at your chosen bank.
Even though the easiest way to open an account is in person, getting started before you arrive in Switzerland is a smart move. This is because banks might be reluctant to allow you to open an account without a permanent address - while landlords might be reluctant to offer you a lease without a local bank account. By getting the wheels in motion before you move, you can overcome this classic catch 22.
When you have chosen the bank that will best suit your needs, you should ask for an application pack which explains the process for opening an account. This pack will detail what documentation you should provide and how this can be done remotely. Bank accounts can take between a week and a month to become active after application, with debit or credit cards arriving after this.
Expect to be asked to show a broad range of documentation when opening an account in Switzerland. Although the privacy of account holders may be important, this means that the banks are liable for ensuring that accounts held with them are not used for any improper purposes.
Documentation provided when opening a new account needs to be authenticated, which can be done by visiting a branch of the bank in person, or providing notarised copies of the relevant documents. Although Swiss banks don't tend to have branches outside of Switzerland, some have reciprocal arrangements with other banking institutions. This means that you may be able to take your documents for authentication along to a ‘correspondent bank’ if there is a branch local to you.
The documents required will vary between banks, but will definitely include:
- Proof of identity - a current passport
- Proof of residence status - visa, residence or work permits as required
- Proof of address - recent utility bills or official correspondence
If you are not yet resident in Switzerland you may be asked to provide proof of income, pay a substantial deposit into your account or get a letter from your employer to demonstrate your solvency. Banks will check the origin of funds used as deposit, and citizens of some countries are required to sign to confirm that they will notify tax authorities back home of their banking activities overseas
When you open a bank account you are likely to be assigned an individual account manager. If you need to communicate in English, let your bank know in advance to ensure they can assign you an English speaking contact. Otherwise you will be assigned a contact who speaks one of the four official languages of Switzerland. Get the direct contact details of your account manager as soon as you can, to make corresponding easier.
Because many people live in Switzerland but work elsewhere in the surrounding Eurozone (or vice versa), many banks offer accounts which allow withdrawals in both Swiss Francs and Euros. This can be a helpful perk if you are one of the many cross border commuters in the area. See what options your chosen bank can offer.
Old-world bank accounts only work properly in one country. They hold money only in one currency. And it gets expensive when you try to use them across borders. TransferWise's new Borderless accounts solve all of this.
Now you can send, receive and organise your money internationally, without crazy fees or even-crazier exchange rates – just a small, fair charge when your money moves between currencies.
When you are opening a bank account in Switzerland you may be offered a ‘numbered’ account. This sort of account is effectively anonymous in day to day dealings - but comes with a hefty operating charge in the region of CHF 2000 per year. Not one to sign up for by accident!
Everyday bank accounts incur fees too. Expect a monthly charge for operating a bank account, from only a couple of Francs for a basic account right up to CHF 30 for a premium account offering extras. In addition, there may be charges applied if you withdraw cash from an ATM outside of your bank’s network, if you get a credit card advance, or wish to make a transfer to another bank.
Any credit or debit cards you take out come with an annual fee of around CHF 30. If you want a credit card you may be required to give a deposit equivalent to the monthly credit limit on the card (or more depending on your circumstances). This deposit should be invested and repaid with interest when you close the account.
Because of the range of additional fees and charges, it is worth looking at the details for each account carefully before choosing the product that works best for you. In some cases you might get fees reduced or waived if you have savings with the same bank, or take a mortgage with them. Ask your account manager what they can offer you before you decide.
It can seem like there are an overwhelming number of choices when it comes to Swiss banks. If you're looking for an everyday account then the private and investment banks are not likely to be suitable, leaving you with the choice between a cantonal (regional) or national institution.
Cantonal banks cater for residents of that canton - and although they are large institutions, you would be required to move accounts if your home canton changed. If you're likely to move around, a national bank like UBS, Credit Suisse or Raiffeisen might suit your needs better.
- Bank operated by the post office in Switzerland
- Private accounts offered in CHF, EUR and 8 other foreign currencies
- Known for having competitive rates and a range of deals including free student accounts offering preferential interest rates
- National bank with branches throughout the country
- Information is available online in English with mobile and online banking services available
- Choose from ‘Banking packages’ covering all you're likely to need from a bank with flat fee structures, or individual accounts according to your circumstances
- ‘A global bank with Swiss roots’, experienced in dealing with expats
- Open an account after registering in Switzerland and get an individual consultation to make sure you are choosing the best packages and products for your situation
- Full range of banking services available including mortgages and pensions. Use the online calculators to get to know the products better
Once you're set up, banking in Switzerland will quickly become familiar. National banks have details online in English, and are likely to be able to assign you an English speaking account manager if your Romansh (or French, German or Italian) is a little rusty. With online banking as the norm, you can manage most of your transactions easily that way, and focus on daily life.
Cosmopolitan cities and a high standard of living (not to mention some of the world’s best chocolate), mean that Switzerland is a popular place for expats. If you're thinking of moving there, get your bank account opened as soon as possible to allow you to settle in more quickly and get on with enjoying your new home!