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An essential guide to Swiss work permits

If you are planning to live and work in Switzerland for more than three months, you will need a permit. These are issued by cantonal authorities.

An essential guide to Swiss work permits
Jogging on Lake Geneva. Photo: AFP

The type of permit you receive will depend on factors including your nationality, your skills and any relevant quotas that are in place.

Switzerland has a dual system for allowing foreign workers in to the country: European Union (EU) and European Free Trade Association (EFTA) nationals are in one group and people from all other countries (third-country nationals) in a second group.

EU and EFTA nationals

Nationals from EU and EFTA countries are able to live and work in Switzerland under the terms of the Agreement on the Free Movement of Persons (AFMP).

People from these countries only require a residence permit, which also doubles as a work permit. These permits are not tied to a single canton, but you need to inform the authorities if you change your address. You can also change jobs or take up self-employment.

Note that you will only generally be granted a residence permit if you have a signed work contract detailing the number of hours to be worked and the duration of the position.

However, people from EU and EFTA countries who are not economically active, such as retirees and students, may be entitled to a residence permit if they can prove they have sufficient funds to support themselves and that they have health insurance. There is more information here.

If you are an EU or EFTA national, you can also come to Switzerland and look for work for a period of up to three months without needing to obtain a permit. If your job hunt lasts longer than three months and you have sufficient funds, you can apply for a temporary residence permit that will allow you to continue looking for a further three months. This can be extended for up to a year if there is sufficient evidence that your job hunt could be successful.

Here are the main types of residence permits for EU/EFTA nationals in Switzerland

L EU/EFTA permit (short-term residents)

This permit is usually given to EU and EFTA who are going to be resident in Switzerland for a period of up to a year.

According to the State Secretariat for Migration, EU and EFTA nationals are entitled to this permit provided they are in possession of an employment contract valid from three up to twelve months. 

B EU/ETFA permit (resident foreign nationals)

This permit is issued to foreigners with a work contract of at least 12 months, or of unlimited duration. This permit can be extended after the five years is up. However, if the applicant has been out of work for more than 12 consecutive months in the previous five-year period, the permit will only be extended for one year.

EU and EFTA nationals who don’t have work, or who plan to work on a self-employed basis, can also be granted a B permit if they can prove they have enough money to be self-sufficient and that they have adequate health and accident insurance.

C EU/FTA permit (settled foreign nationals)

After five or ten years’ residence, some EU and EFTA nationals can obtain permanent residence status by being granted a C permit.

G EU/EFTA permit

This permit is designed for cross-border commuters who work in Switzerland (either employed by a firm or self-employed) but who live elsewhere. Holders of this permit can work anywhere in Switzerland but must return to their place of residence outside Switzerland at least once a week.

Third-country nationals

It is more difficult for so-called third-country nationals to obtain a permit to live and work in Switzerland.

People from these countries will only be admitted if it is considered to be “in the general economic interest” and if existing quotas for third-country nationals have not yet been filled.

In addition, third-country nationals will only be hired if no one from within Switzerland or from within the EU/FTA area carry out the position in question.

Only highly-qualified staff including managers and specialists will be admitted under Switzerland’s quota scheme. Swiss authorities may also look at factors including age, ability to adapt to a new professional environment and language skills when choosing when to offer a third-country national a work permit.

Here are the main types of permits for third-country nationals:

L (short-term)

This is for short-term stays of up to 12 months, although occasionally this can be extended to 24 months if you stay with the same employer.

Generally, people with these L permits can only change jobs if they cannot continue to work for their current employer and on the condition that they stay in the same sector and continue to carry out the same profession. They will also have to apply to cantonal authorities to be able to change job.

B (residence permit)

B permits for third-country nationals are usually only issued for a single year. In general, they can be renewed from one year to the next. These permits are limited in number and residence is limited to the canton where the permit is issued. B permits for third-country nationals are also tied to the employer.

However, holders of a B permit can generally change jobs if they make an application to cantonal authorities.

Holders of these B permits will have their tax deducted directly from their salary.

C (permanent residence permit)

After ten years of continuous residence, third-country nationals are able, in theory, to obtain permanent residence (C permit). For a small group of countries including Canada and the United States, this period is five continuous years.

These permits are not tied to a single employer and holders are free to live and work in any canton.

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LIVING IN SWITZERLAND

Reader question: How can I find a good lawyer in Switzerland?

Although you hope to never need one, sometimes you might have to seek legal advice in Switzerland. This is how to find it.

Reader question: How can I find a good lawyer in Switzerland?

When you move to a new country, including Switzerland, you have to look for a whole new network of professionals.

You may or may not have immediate need for the proverbial butcher, baker, and the candlestick maker, but sooner or later you will have to find other professionals, with the most essential one being a doctor.

READ MORE: What you should know about finding a doctor in Switzerland

Chances are you will also need, at one time or another, a legal counsel. That should in principle not be a problem as Switzerland has an abundance of lawyers — 7,317 currently practicing in the country, according to European data.

The question of how to find one that best suits your needs depends on many factors — for instance, what kind of legal advice you are seeking (estate planning, inheritance, divorce, etc), whether you speak the language of your region or need an English-speaking attorney,  and whether you can pay (the often exorbitant) fees, or need free counselling instead.

Speaking of fees, the hourly rates vary widely from one lawyer or legal practice to another, with some charging as little as 100 francs or as much as 1,000.

Much depends on the lawyer’s location — with the ones practicing in large cities like Zurich and Geneva being more expensive than their counterparts in small towns or rural regions  — the area of specialisation and general reputation — the more prominent the attorney is with a roster of famous or well-heeled clients, the higher fees they will typically charge.

An important thing to know is that, depending on the advice you are seeking, you may not need a lawyer at all, but rather a public notary; in Switzerland, these professionals perform many tasks that only attorneys can do in other countries, such as drawing contracts and establishing other legal documents.

Here are some tips on how to find a lawyer or a notary that best fits your needs:

Word of mouth

As with any other services, personal recommendations from people you know and trust are best.

This will spare you the effort of “investigating” the person, such as researching their credentials and feedback from previous clients — the due diligence process that everyone should undertake before hiring any professional.

Professional associations

If you don’t know anyone who can recommend an attorney, do your own research.

Professional organisations such as the Swiss Bar Association (SBA) and the Swiss Federation of Notaries are good resources, as they both allow you to look for professionals in or near your place of residence.

English-speaking attorneys

Many Swiss lawyers and notaries, especially those practicing in large urban centres where many foreign residents live, speak English.

But if you want to make sure yours does, the UK government put together a list of English speaking attorneys in Switzerland, which should help you with your search.

‘Free’ legal advice

In principle, all legal assistance comes at a cost, except for exceptional cases, which are defined by each canton.

SBA has a canton-by-canton list, where the designation “GRATIS JUDICATURE” stands for “free legal advice”.

However, there is also such a thing in Switzerland as “legal protection insurance” (Rechtsschutzversicherungen in German, protection juridique in French, and protezione giuridica in Italian).

It covers attorney and other associated fees if you undertake court action against someone, are sued, or simply need legal advice.

There are two different types of legal protection insurance — one specifically for traffic accidents and the other for all other matters. Sometimes they are combined.

Typically, this insurance covers costs of legal representation associated with contract disputes, employment, loans and debts, healthcare, housing, retail purchases, and travel.

The annual cost of this insurance, which you can purchase from practically every carrier in Switzerland, is minimal, especially if you consider how much you’d have to spend if you hired an attorney yourself.

Another benefit of these policies is that a lawyer will be assigned to you by the insurance company so you won’t have the headache of looking for one on your own.

This article provides more information about this insurance:

EXPLAINED: Why you need ‘legal protection insurance’ in Switzerland

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