Better work-life balance, a family-centric culture, and an abundance of outdoor activities were all cited in a recent survey as popular reasons why expats love the land of chocolate and cheese.
But the challenges of residence permits, civil registration, taxes, and naturalization can be pitfalls.
“It is difficult to find your way around in a new country with unfamiliar rules and different terminology,” Omar Sarraf, a lawyer who relocated from Egypt, tells The Local. “I tried to figure it out on my own for a year, just trying to register my marriage here, and it was very complicated.”
Sarraf’s long-term goal in his new country was to start a branch of his law firm there – but first he had to register his marriage and apply for a work permit. It turned out to be easier said than done.
“When you contact an authority here, it's difficult to estimate the timeframe – they are very busy and complex cases can take time,” Sarraf explains.
“They will try to give you an estimate – and it will be around three months or six months, something very vague. I understand that it can take time; however, with an unfamiliar system it can be frustrating when not understanding the reasons why. Especially being a legal professional myself I am used to handling this sort of issue myself.”
Andrew Lopez, a pilot from Barbados, faced similar issues.
“It’s very confusing navigating everything,” Lopez tells The Local. “Concerning taxes, putting paperwork in order, finding out which benefits I can and cannot receive, what I should be paying for… it’s all a bit complicated.”
Lost in a legal labyrinth, both of the newcomers turned to Google for help – and stumbled upon SwissBenefits, a company offering legal advice and guidance in the fields of immigration, integration and naturalization in Switzerland.
“I have an international background myself, and noticed that all the rules and regulations are difficult to navigate if you don’t know your way around them – or understand the lingo,” SwissBenefits founder Carolina Souviron tells The Local.
“I had a lot of friends and family members who had trouble, with everything from phone contracts to taxes. I saw there was a need for someone to really be there for these people; someone approachable who is willing to explain and follow up.”
Knowing the lingo and the legal landscape is critical for getting established in Switzerland, which can be a complex place for new companies as well as individuals.
SwissBenefits offers a range of services for foreigners including company incorporation, accounting and tax returns, immigration issues, naturalization, and other legal advice.
“Most people need help clarifying the procedures; the legal perspective of it all,” Souviron explains.
“Even if you know what your status is, it’s not always clear what the implications are in real life; if you can work or not, what your options are, and what the permit means in the long run.”
In Sarraf’s case, that kind of personalised guidance was exactly what he needed.
“I had a very tight schedule, but I called Carolina and we had a meeting right away,” Sarraf recalls.
“She made everything clear so I understood exactly what was required for everything we wanted to do. She is very helpful with contacting the authorities and following up on things, to get everything done in a timely manner.
For Lopez, figuring out insurance in Switzerland was the main hurdle.
“It was confusing, as I still work outside of Switzerland even though I live here,” he says. “That makes my situation a bit more complicated than that of someone moving and working here.”
Luckily, Lopez’s unique situation was no problem for SwissBenefits.
“Having someone who knows all the intricate details is great,” he exclaims. “Carolina can talk to someone about the situation and they just say, ‘Right, we understand’. And it’s taken care of much more quickly. It’s much less stressful.”
Unfortunately there are situations when it’s too late to do anything for a client, Souviron admits. But generally, business is going well, and she’s happy to be able to help her clients move forward.
“In Switzerland the whole system is based on the individual taking responsibility for themselves, and the authorities also have limited resources – so even if they would like to – they can only provide guidance to a certain extent,” she says, adding that one can't overlook language as yet another potential barrier complicating expats' struggle to get settled in Switzerland.
“I try to build bridges so that both sides understand the situation and can find solutions – often it begins with clarifying where the problem actually lies – then one can figure out which authority is actually the right one to contact.”
As for Sarraf and Lopez they’re – customers for life.
“I used to have to repeat the same thing to three people to get anything done, and now I don’t. We’re not finished yet, but things are going much more quickly with SwissBenefits,” Lopez says.
“It’s definitely a service I will use as long as I am here. We were so concerned about making a mistake before, and now I don’t need to worry.”
Client names in this article have been changed to protect privacy.
This article was produced by The Local and sponsored by SwissBenefits.