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The biggest challenges of moving to Switzerland

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The biggest challenges of moving to Switzerland
Photo: Patrick Nouhailler
07:55 CEST+02:00
Switzerland is one of the world’s best expat countries, with some of the highest living standards and a sophisticated, multilingual population. Yet moving to Switzerland can still be stressful and difficult if you don't do it right.

The challenges faced by expats vary depending on where in Switzerland they live.

“Switzerland is a very decentralized country with four languages. It’s kind-of an island in Europe, it’s not part of the EU. And the cantons are autonomous republics, so all do things differently to each other,” says Pierre Jeronimo of Geneva Relocation.

But there are some issues common to most people moving to Switzerland. Here are four things everyone planning a move to Switzerland should think about:

Finding somewhere to live

Switzerland is a landlord’s market. In the main cities, demand outstrips supply many times over. “There may be up to 60 applications per apartment,” says Jeronimo. “You need to make sure that your application is top of the pile.”

The easiest way to do this is to use a registered relocation agent to help you through the process. Your agent should be a member of the Swiss Association of Relocation Agents, which has a comprehensive code of conduct. 

See: 14 mistakes foreigners make on moving to Switzerland

A good relocation agent will not only have extensive contacts with landlords, but will also know how to guide you through the process to help you secure the home that you want. 

“It’s also important to make sure you get good advice on the lease,” says Pierre Jeronimo. “For instance, if you want to leave an apartment in Switzerland, under a standard Swiss lease you have to give three months notice from the anniversary of you signing the lease.”

“If flexibility is important to you, you need to make sure that you get the right clauses in the lease to make sure you don’t find yourself in a difficult situation.”

Visas and work permits

If you’re a citizen of an EU country, moving to Switzerland isn’t like moving within the union. 

“To move to Switzerland, you need to have an employment contract and a lease on an apartment before making your application,” says Pierre Jeronimo.

To complicate matters further, a referendum last year backed further curbs on migration from the EU. These restrictions have yet to be implemented, they could well present further difficulties to expats from the EU in the future. 

See: Migration services: "I build bridges for expats"

Things are even tougher for people from outside the EU. Even those with a job and a rental contract have to grapple with quotas. This necessitates prior planning - and knowing what you’re doing.

“You need to start the process several months in advance, as your application needs to be approved by the Ministry of Labour, and this can take some time,” says Pierre Jeronimo. 

Getting advice before you start the process will save you a lot of stress further down the line.

Making your partner happy

Gone are the days when a ‘trailing spouse’ would play second fiddle when following her husband (and it usually was a case of wives following husbands) on a posting abroad.

“Now we have a generation of dual-career couples, and these days an expatriation can fail if the partner is not happy,” says Pierre Jeronimo.

An increasingly major focus for relocation firms is to help partners find work or some other activity like further studies.

“We also create groups so that partners can meet other people in similar situations,” he says.

Culture shock

If you’re moving to Switzerland from Europe or North America, say, you might not expect culture shock to be a problem in Switzerland. But sometimes the fact that expats in Switzerland expect there not to be differences means they are all the more shocked when issues arise.

See: Top tips for finding an apartment in Switzerland

“If you’re French, for instance, you need to be aware that though the language is the same, the culture is different. The Swiss start work early, and finish early. Punctuality is key, in contrast to in France. Shops are closed on Sundays - something the people here voted for in a referendum.”

The extent to which you are affected by culture shock depends a bit on how much you choose to stay in the expat bubble.

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“You can live a bit ‘offshore’, in an international community and in your work environment. But when you want to get into the ‘real Switzerland’ you’ll find it different. But Switzerland is very welcoming to the foreign population and people are used to expats, so people will understand you,” says Pierre Geronimo.

 

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