Work in Switzerland: Getting a Swiss work visa

27.03.17
8 minute read
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Switzerland is a popular place for expats to live and work, who can be attracted by the high standard of living and favourable tax regime. The major cities are home to many large global businesses and institutions, particularly those involved in banking, manufacturing and pharmaceuticals. Switzerland is also ranked highly for ease of living.

If you're planning to relocate to Switzerland for work, you might find that you need a work permit. Read this guide to help you understand how to get a Swiss work visa.

Do I need a Swiss work visa?

Your first priority should be to figure out if you need a work permit at all. In some cases, depending on your nationality and the role you’re going to take on, a permit might not be necessary.

Although Switzerland isn't a member of the European Union (EU), it has agreements with the EU to simplify processes for immigration within Europe. Therefore, if you're a citizen of another EU country, Norway, Iceland, or Liechtenstein, you're able to work for up to 90 days in Switzerland without a permit. Similarly, you can go to Switzerland for up to three months with the purpose of looking for work. You simply need to register with your local canton (member state) in Switzerland. If you'll be staying longer than 90 days you’ll have to get a work permit, although this is subject to far fewer restrictions for EU citizens compared with those from outside the EU.

The rules for Croatian nationals are under review currently and likely to change as part of the country’s accession to the EU. If this affects you then you should check with your local Swiss embassy to get the most up to date information.

Third country nationals from outside the EU are likely to need a visa to live and work in Switzerland.

What’s the process to get a Swiss work visa?

The process for citizens of the EU is different to that for third country nationals in most cases. EU citizens can go to Switzerland without worrying about a visa, and stay for up to 90 days, working or seeking work. However, during this time you must still register with the local canton. In many cases this can be done online. If you're still seeking work then you might also be asked to prove you have the financial means to support yourself while you look.

If you'll be working for longer than this in Switzerland you need to get a residence permit which also allows you to work legally. Registering for a residence permit is done at the canton in which you'll live and work. Details of the relevant offices are available from the Swiss Government website.

For third country nationals, Swiss work permits are only available for people coming to work in professional jobs, usually with higher education. You’ll need to be offered a job before you can apply for a residence and work permit. Your employer must then send an application to the local cantonal authorities, with further approval required from the State Secretariat for Immigration. They will need to prove that there were no citizens of other EU states who could have been eligible for the job, in order to have the application approved.

It's worth noting, that Switzerland operate a quota system, meaning that you'll only be offered a visa if you fulfil all the requirements, and the quotas haven't already been reached.

Assuming that your application is successful in Switzerland, the immigration authorities will notify your local Swiss embassy. You can then make an appointment and go to complete your application there. At your local embassy you'll need to present documents such as proof of your identity and employment - you should be told what you need when you make an appointment. The visa you'll be issued with allows you entry into Switzerland, but you can not take up work until you have registered with the cantonal authorities (as described above for EU citizens). This must be done within two weeks of arriving in Switzerland.

There are several different visa types which can be used in Switzerland, depending on your situation. You might be issued a short term-, initial- or permanent-residence permit for example. For EU citizens there are also permits which are specifically aimed at cross border commuters.

The costs of getting a Swiss work permit is set by your home country’s Swiss embassy, and usually in the local currency. As an example, getting an entry visa as a US citizen incurs a fee of $67 at present.

Because Switzerland is a popular country for expats - and getting a visa can be a complex undertaking - there are many agencies who will help you with your application, for a fee. The charges can be extremely steep so make sure you know what you're getting before you agree to hand over any money. In most cases your employer will support your application, but if you need to use an agency, then taking personal recommendations might help you avoid the scams.

What documents do I need?

If you're from the EU and registering for a residence permit, you'll need to provide the following documents:

  • Valid passport or national ID card

  • Copy of a rental agreement to show proof of address

  • Passport sized photos

  • An employment contract or details of the self employed work you intend to undertake (including accounting records)

If you're a third country national, the documents you're required to present are somewhat more extensive. Each canton has slightly different requirements so make sure you check their website. Documents are split into compulsory and optional, but the fuller and clearer your application is, the better chance you stand. In general your employer will submit the application on your behalf, but expect them to ask you for some supporting paperwork.

The following is a model list of documents you might need to support your application:

  • Application form - in some cantons this stage is done online

  • Valid passport

  • Proof that the vacancy was advertised and there were no EU citizens suited to it (using print and internet job adverts for example)

  • Resume, proof of qualifications and suitability for the role

  • Reason for vacancy, such as business expansion, and the detailed description of the role being filled

  • Work contract and terms agreed, which must be at least you comparable to those which might be offered to a Swiss national offered the same position

Getting a Swiss work visa as a third country national can be tricky, and take some time, because of the depth of information and documentation needed to support your application. Be patient, and plan well in advance.

The EU Blue Card, which is available in many other European countries and allows a higher degree of freedom for holders, can not be used in Switzerland.

Swiss work visas for part time, fixed term and seasonal workers

Citizens of EU countries can work in Switzerland for up to 90 days a year without needing a permit. You might, however, be required to register with the cantonal authorities depending on your plans.

If you're in Switzerland on a student visa, you may be able to work while you're there. EU students are entitled to work for up to 15 hours a week (although some universities might have their own controls on this). Students from outside the EU are usually able to work after they've been in Switzerland for 6 months, again for up to 15 hours a week. In this case the employer will need to make a declaration to confirm they're employing a third country national and a work permit might be needed depending on the exact circumstances.

Another option for some people is to find a ‘trainee’ job, which could be a fixed term contract, and get a visa under the young professionals programme. This applies to people under the age of 30 or 35 in some countries. Check out the link to see the specific age limit for your country. It's only possible to get a visa under this programme if you're working, full time, in a trainee role linked to your professional or vocational qualifications. This visa is offered for up to 18 months, and each country has a slightly different agreement with the Swiss authorities.

Outside of these specific circumstances, short term employees need to follow the same processes as outlined above for permanent workers. Because third country nationals are offered visas only if they've higher qualifications, and work in ‘professional’ jobs, this can make it quite tricky to get a legal seasonal role in Switzerland.

How do I get a Swiss work visa as an entrepreneur?

You can apply for a self employed work permit following much the same process as outlined above for employed people. As for employed people, the procedure is different for EU and third country citizens.

As an entrepreneur you'll be subject to more checks and will need to prove that you can make your business successful. Your application will only be accepted if the quota system allows for more visas to be issued, and if you fulfil personal and financial requirements.

How might my Swiss work visa affect my spouse and family members?

If you're a third country national, then whether or not your family members can join you in Switzerland depends on the visa type you hold. If you have a ‘settlement permit’ then you're able to bring your spouse and children aged under 18 to Switzerland, subject to certain conditions. If you have a residence permit, your application for family reunification is dealt with by the cantonal authorities, and depends on the specific circumstances.

The family reunification programme for EU nationals is somewhat broader, but still subject to conditions. You can bring your spouse, children or grandchildren, and dependant parents into Switzerland, provided you're able to support them. You'll be asked to prove your financial means and also that you can provide a home that's large enough, according to set local measures.

I have my Swiss work visa - what next?

Once you arrive in Switzerland you must register with the cantonal authorities where you'll live and work. This must be done within two weeks of arriving if you're a third country national. You might be asked for proof of your health insurance or other documents. As each canton has a different approach, it's advisable to check before you go along for your appointment.

Getting a work permit for Switzerland - particularly if you're not from the EU - can be difficult. However, if you have a specialist skill and professional qualifications, there are companies who are willing to go through the process to get you a visa and bring you into Switzerland’s knowledge economy. For many expats who have made the move already, the administrative stresses have been made worthwhile by the quality of life and unique experience of living in Switzerland.

How can I move money to Switzerland from my bank account abroad?

To get the most of your money in Switzerland, you'll want to open a bank account in Switzerland, which you can do before you arrive.

Once you send money either to or from Switzerland, consider using a money conversion service like TransferWise to avoid unfair exchange rates. There's a small transparent fee, and when your money is converted from one currency to another you’ll get the real exchange rate - the same one you can find on Google. Not only that, but TransferWise receives and sends money via local bank transfers instead of internationally, further saving you money by cutting out hefty international transfer fees.

If your trip is short or opening a bank account in Switzerland isn't an option, you can always withdraw money from your foreign account using a local ATM. Just keep in mind it'll be more favourable to agree to be charged in the local currency, not your home currency.

Regardless of when you start your new job abroad, it should be fairly straightforward to get yourself a visa if you follow the right steps. The most important part is just to make sure to enjoy your new adventure.

TransferWise is the smart, new way to send money abroad.

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