All foreigners will need the appropriate visa for Switzerland, whether they want to carve their way down its Alpine slopes on holiday or settle more permanently.
Expats should keep in mind that different rules apply to European Union (EU) and European Free Trade Association (EFTA) citizens compared to those from elsewhere.
Visit visas for Switzerland
Citizens from the EU, the EFTA, and countries on the Swiss government’s designated list are afforded visa-free entry and can stay for 90 days, as long as their passport is valid for at least six months.
Countries on the list include the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Ireland, but citizens of countries like India and South Africa will need to apply for a Schengen visa. Expats who need a Schengen visit visa for Switzerland will need to apply at the designated Swiss embassy in their home country.
Applicants need to provide paperwork including their passport, a completed application form and proof of income. In some situations, they may need documents explaining their reasons for travelling and a letter from a Swiss sponsor.
Processing times vary, but it's best for expats to apply as soon as they’ve confirmed their travel plans. Schengen visas give holders entrance to all Schengen states for 90 days within a six-month period from the appointed date of entry.
Residence permits for Switzerland
Expats who want to work or live in the country for longer than three months need to apply for a Swiss residence permit. This applies to all foreign nationals, but it’s easier for EU/EFTA citizens to be granted one.
Permits are issued by cantonal immigration offices, so expats should contact the office where they hope to be based – each canton has different quotas for non-European workers.
There have been moves to simplify the process of employing foreign workers, so expats looking to work in Switzerland should keep up to date with developments.
Residence permits for EU/EFTA nationals
EU/EFTA nationals shouldn’t struggle to get a residence permit for Switzerland. They’d need to find out about the various permit categories, choose the one that suits their situation, and apply accordingly.
There is no escaping the red tape that comes with the application process, but it’s more straightforward than for applicants from elsewhere.
Residence permits for non-EU/EFTA nationals
It’s difficult for expats from elsewhere to get a residence permit for Switzerland due to strict employment quotas in certain industries. In practice, permits are mostly granted to wealthy and highly skilled expats with the right qualifications. The country has recently relaxed its rules on quotas for sectors that can prove that recruiting workers is challenging, making it easier for non-EU/EFTA to secure B and L work permits.
Most residence permits are linked to an employment contract, while most jobs require a residence permit. There is no easy way to sidestep this dilemma, but finding a firm willing to act as a sponsor isn’t impossible. Still, companies have to prove that the job couldn’t be filled by a Swiss, EU or EFTA citizen if they want to employ someone from elsewhere.
Non-EU/EFTA expats have access to many of the same permit categories as EU and EFTA expats, but are often subject to different conditions. Most of the time, an expat's employer can advise which permit is most appropriate.
After an expat secures a job, their employer applies for a Residence Permit Assurance (Zusicherung der Aufenthaltsbewilligung/Assurance d'Autorisation de Séjour) with the local authorities. They should advise of any paperwork needed from the expat. Once granted, the document is sent to the applicant, and should be presented with their passport upon entry.
After arriving, expats should apply for their residence permit at their local migration office. The process differs between cantons, so they should check the requirements beforehand.
*Visa regulations are subject to change at short notice and expats should contact their respective embassy or consulate for the latest details.
► See Working in Switzerland for tips on landing the perfect job
"I came here as a student and then I married my Swiss husband. I specifically remember worrying about my permit when I was a student because I was also working at the same time, which complicated things. I waited nearly six months to get it and the laws were changing at the time and if I didn’t get it in time, I wouldn’t be able to work. It can be very frustrating."
See our interview with American expat Melissa to learn about working and living in Switzerland.
Are you an expat living in Switzerland?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to Switzerland. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
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