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Swiss bureaucracy: Seven essential documents you need and how to get them

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Swiss bureaucracy: Seven essential documents you need and how to get them
A Swiss flag sticker next to a phone and a pen ahead of a vote in a Swiss referendum. Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP

From residence permits to health insurance cards, we look at the documents that every foreigner in Switzerland must be aware of.


Switzerland's love of paperwork is legendary. Even if you want to complain about the amount of paperwork, you'll probably have to fill in a form to do so. 

The following eight documents are absolutely essential for life in Switzerland, whether you are visiting a friend or planning to retire. 

Here's what you need to know. 


Health insurance card

All residents of Switzerland must take out private health insurance from one of 60 government approved-providers within three months of arriving in the country. Basic insurance covers a wide range of services.

Your insurance provider will provide you with a micro-chipped card containing your policy number, your old age insurance system number (see below), your date of birth and an expiry date. Carry this whenever you have a medical appointment and when you travel overseas.

For more information on the Swiss compulsory health insurance system, see the following link, or visit the Federal Office of Public Health website here.

READ MORE: Everything you need to know about Switzerland's healthcare system

Residence/work permit

This document is probably the single most important one on our list here. If you are a resident of Switzerland, you will need to have one of these permits.

The sort of permit you have, what it entitles you to, and how long it allows you to live in Switzerland will depend on your job situation in Switzerland as well as where you come from.

Put simply, there are different rules and permits for citizens of the European Union and the European Free Trade Association, and for citizens of all other countries.

The first group have easier access to the Swiss job market thanks to the 2002 EU–Swiss bilateral Agreement on the Free Movement of Persons. Meanwhile, only a limited number of permits for highly-qualified and management-level staff are available to people from non-EU and EFTA countries.

EXPLAINED: What non-EU nationals (including Britons) need to know about Swiss work permits?

For EU and EFTA citizens, the main permits are the B residence permit (which lasts five years if you have a work contract of at least 12 months, or a permanent position), the L residence permit, for positions up to a year, and the C settlement permit, which allows EU/EFTA citizens who have been resident in Switzerland for five or ten years to remain in Switzerland indefinitely.

For more information on work and residence permits for EU and EFTA citizens see the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs website here.

For people from outside the EU and EFTA, the breakdown is as follows: L permit (valid for a year, or 24 months in exceptional circumstances); B permit (valid for one year and then renewable yearly in most cases, with the permit tied to both your employer and canton); and C permit, or permanent residence permit. For more information see the State Secretariat for Migration website here.


Old age insurance (pension) card

This rather grim looking card (with a strip of grey across the top) is confirmation that you are registered with the Swiss old age insurance system (OASI; AHV in German; AVS in French and Italian). It includes your name, date of birth and your 13-digit OASI number.

Swiss people are among the world's longest-living. Image: Depositphotos

The OASI is the so-called ‘first pillar’ of the Swiss old age pension scheme and is compulsory, with both employees and employers contributing to the scheme. Employer contributions are taken directly from your salary. 

For more information about Swiss retirement insurance, see the Federal Social Insurance Office website here.

If you lose this OASI card, don’t worry: your pension benefits won’t be affected. And if you need your number, check your health insurance card (see above).

EXPLAINED: Everything you need to know about retiring in Switzerland


Driver’s licence

You can use your licence from your home country for up to 12 months in Switzerland as long as you are aged 18 and over. You’ll also need an international driving permit if the original is not in the Roman alphabet.

You may need to do a driving test to get a Swiss licence. Image: Depositphotos

After 12 months, however, you will need to exchange your licence for a Swiss one. EU and EFTA nationals do not need to take either a theoretical or a practical test to get their licence converted (although you may need to get your vision checked by an optometrist).

EXPLAINED: How to change over to a Swiss driver’s licence

Depending on place of residence, nationals of other countries may be exempt from both tests, or may need to take either a practical or theoretical test or both.

For more information, see the Swiss authorities online website here.

Extract from the debt collection register

This document provides details on debts owed by individuals. It is little different from the others on the list because you are unlikely to actually have access to it as a foreigner living in Switzerland. However, you may well come across it.

READ MORE: Top ten tips for finding an apartment in Switzerland

For example, if you are looking for an apartment in Switzerland, you are likely to find yourself being asked for this item of paperwork (in German - Betreibungsregisterauszug; French - extrait du registre des poursuites; Italian).

For Swiss nationals, providing this document is essential when it comes to being able to rent. However, for foreigners in Switzerland, a work contract outlining how much you earn is considered a valid alternative by real estate agents.


Criminal records extract

You may need to provide a criminal records extract (German – Strafregisterauszug; French - Extrait du casier judiciaire; Italian - Estratto del casellario giudiziale) when applying for some jobs or for Swiss citizenship.

If you are a Swiss resident, you may also need to show your criminal record extract in order to host refugees. 

For information on how to order an extract, see the Federal Office of Justice website here.

Read also: How to apply for Swiss citizenship in 2018

Swiss public transport travelcard

If you plan to travel on public transport regular for work or leisure, you’ll probably want to get a travelcard from the SBB (CFF in French; FFS in Italian).

The most popular travelcards are the GA travelcard (which allows unlimited travel on the Swiss public transport network for 3,860 francs a year for second-class travel or 6,300 francs a year for first-class travel) and the half-fare travelcard which gives you 50 percent off on all tickets and costs 185 Swiss francs for the first year, and the 165 francs if you renew for a second year. Cheaper options are available for younger travellers. Read more here.

If you lose your travelcard, or it gets damaged, you can get it replaced for 30 francs. A temporary pass will be issued to you at the ticket office. You can use this until your new one arrives. You can also carry an electronic version of your travelcard using Swiss Pass Mobile.

Have we forgotten an important document here? Send us an email.

A version of this article originally appeared on The Local in November, 2018. It has since been updated. 


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