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COST OF LIVING

How to open a bank account in Switzerland

Banks sit alongside cheese, alps and neutrality as international hallmarks of Switzerland. But for new arrivals, opening a bank account can be difficult.

Which way should you go when opening a bank account in Switzerland? Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP
Which way should you go when opening a bank account in Switzerland? Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP

Although Switzerland has managed to maintain its affection for cash – even during the coronavirus pandemic – more than its neighbours, having a bank account is still absolutely essential in Switzerland. 

For expats, despite some positive changes in recent years, using international bank accounts can still attract high fees to transfer money or withdraw cash from ATMs, which also makes keeping your home country account an expensive option. 

There are also two different types of banks in Switzerland: national banks and cantonal banks. 

Switzerland’s strangest taxes – and what happens if you don’t pay them 

National banks include some of the best known financial institutions all over the world while cantonal banks can only be used by residents of that canton – which will usually mean that you can’t open an account with a cantonal bank until you live that canton or have proof that you will be. 

But ultimately, choosing the right account for you will depend on your circumstances – with the first question being whether or not you live in Switzerland at the present time. 

But first things first – currency. 

If you didn’t know it already, then now’s a good time to find out – Switzerland is not in the European Union or the Eurozone, meaning that the Swiss franc rather than the euro is the local currency. 

That said, with the eurozone on every border (ok, other than Liechtenstein which also uses the Swiss franc), many banks know the value of being able to withdraw euros and offer accounts where withdrawals can be made in both. 

The Swiss National Bank. Stable and reliable but probably not an option for everyone. Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP

Opening an account from abroad

With bank branches disappearing and most banking taking place online, in most countries you can open a bank account without having to walk into a branch with a crisp 20 in hand. 

If possible, this can be the preferred option as getting a place to live, utilities etc can be difficult or impossible without a local bank account. 

That said, opening an account in Switzerland will not necessarily be easy for non-residents – particularly if you aren’t a billionaire who’s looking to avoid tax on your gold doubloons. 

There are some options for opening accounts in Switzerland if you do not plan to move here, however these are likely to be expensive and will only be useful for certain people (see above: gold doubloons, international men of mystery, etc). 

If you are moving to Switzerland but want to open an account before you get here, you will have some better options, with some banks allowing you to open an account before moving here – although you’ll need to have your documents at the ready. Which brings us to…

Paperwork

Anyone who has lived in Switzerland or even passed through will know the Swiss love their paperwork. 

The first thing you’ll need when opening a bank – from here or from abroad – will be a copy of your ID (passport or EU residence card). 

Then you will need to provide evidence of your residence status, which is difficult but not impossible if you are abroad. 

Other documentary evidence is likely to include a letter from your employer to prove that you are solvent and in some cases proof of address in Switzerland (or even the canton if you are applying with a cantonal bank). 

READ: What’s the best way to save or invest money in Switzerland? 

Which bank should I choose? 

Asking us which bank to choose is like asking us what you should have for lunch. We don’t know and as this guide is not sponsored by anyone, we have no incentive to recommend one over the other. 

Some of Switzerland’s biggest and best known banks include Credit Suisse, UBS and Raiffeisen, while Swiss Post also has an extensive range of banking services. 

Then there are the new kids on the block – known as ‘neobanks’ – including Neon and N26 who offer a number of similar services but are usually cheaper. 

Then there is an extensive list of cantonal banks which we could list but we’d run out of ink. 

Do I need to visit a branch? 

Much of the document sharing can take place online or even via the post. In some cases, the Swiss bank will have a relationship with banks in your home country and you will be able to attend in person there. 

Some other banks however will require you to personally attend in order to finalise the opening process. 

How much will an account cost? 

Typically, an account with one of the larger banks in Switzerland will set you back around CHF5 per month in account-keeping fees. 

Unlike in some other countries, this will not include many associated transactions – like having credit or debit cards or using ATMs from non-affiliated banks. 

For an all inclusive deal, you might need to upgrade to a ‘premium account’ – which will cost around CHF30 and will cover most usual transactions and withdrawals. 

As said above, newer banks like N26 and Neon are likely to be cheaper – although accessing a branch is much more difficult or impossible with neobanks. 

Editor’s note: Keep in mind that this article, as with all of our guides, are to provide assistance only. They are not intended to take the place of a financial advisor. 

Member comments

  1. You wish to note to readers, that Americans will have great difficulty in finding a bank which will accept an US citizen’s account (this is the result of certain US laws which impose significant reporting requirements back to the US and in addition can expose a Swiss bank to US jurisdiction). Depending on the bank, they may impose larger fees, or require much larger deposits, or they may decline to open an account.

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COST OF LIVING

Switzerland: How to get money back when cross-border shopping in Germany

Crossing into Germany to go shopping is usually cheaper - and that’s before you add the tax savings. Here’s how you can claim back tax when shopping in Germany.

Switzerland: How to get money back when cross-border shopping in Germany

There are a range of reasons why most things are cheaper in Germany than in Switzerland. 

While there are some exceptions to this – the most notable one being petrol – generally speaking you pay a premium on goods purchased in Switzerland. 

EXPLAINED: Why is Switzerland so expensive?

If you shop in Germany, you can also save on VAT, which is generally 19 percent and added to most goods. 

Here’s what you need to know. 

What are the tax rules for shopping in Germany? 

Residents of Switzerland, as a non-EU country, do not need to pay VAT in Germany on purchases over 50 euros. 

Your country of residence rather than nationality is important here. 

Therefore, a German living in Switzerland and shopping in Germany does not need to pay the tax. 

A Swiss living in Germany however would need to pay the amount. 

Importantly, you need to physically be in Germany when you make the purchase. 

In order to qualify for the tax exemption, you must bring the goods back to Switzerland with you. 

The specific rules for this are laid out by German Customs here, but they need to be either in your carry on or checked baggage, or in a car that you are travelling in personally. 

These rules are to ensure people are buying the goods for themselves rather than intending to sell them on. 

What kind of goods? 

Goods bought in Germany and taken back to Switzerland are exempt from VAT. 

You will generally however be required to pay tax on services rendered or completed in Germany. 

For instance, bus or train tickets in Germany, restaurant bills, hotel stays, massages etc. 

There are also a range of rules which apply to vehicles. 

If you are getting your car repaired, filling up with petrol, affixing bumpers, mirrors or other additions or even getting a car wash, you will need to pay VAT. 

How do I get the money back? 

Unfortunately, you do not get a discount at the place of purchase.

Instead, you need to claim the money back after you have purchased the product on which you paid the tax. 

In most large stores or shopping centres, you will be able to do this on site. 

You need to have a copy of the receipt and fill in the VAT refund form (Ausfuhrschein) with your name, address and Swiss residency permit number. 

You can get one of these forms at larger stores or you can download it and print it here. 

You will need to do one for each invoice. 

Once you have done that, you can take the completed form to the German customs office (Zoll), which you can find at most border crossings and get the paper stamped. 

Then, you need to return the paper to the place of purchase, where they will issue with a refund of the VAT. 

Some stores require you to return after three months, some six and some 12, so be sure to check the store policy. 

Note that some online stores will automatically deduct the VAT if you have a Swiss delivery address. 

Cost of living in Switzerland: How to save money if you live in Zurich

One thing to keep in mind however is that Switzerland charges its own VAT, which is either 2.5 percent or 8 percent. More on that below. 

What’s with all this paper? 

For anyone who’s spent even a few hours in Germany, the country’s reluctance to embrace digital methods of payment and record keeping is clear. 

While cash remains king in many stores and restaurants, claiming back money from shopping in Germany is also a paper-heavy endeavour. 

Fortunately for people not so keen on paperwork, a change is afoot – although exactly when it will take place remains unclear. 

In February 2022, the German government announced it had kicked off a project to make a digital export certificate possible. 

In addition to saving time and paper, the government indicated it expected to save around 6.2 million euros in personnel expenses as around 100 customs officers are currently assigned to the Swiss border alone. 

No deadline has been given for when the change will come into effect. 

Cost of living: How to save on groceries in Switzerland

Swiss customs rules

When bringing goods into Switzerland, you will need to pay VAT if the amount exceeds 300 francs. 

While border patrols are rare, those who make a habit of exceeding this amount – even if it is for goods for personal use – run the risk of falling foul of the authorities. 

There are several different rules in place for bringing in different items, including meats, cheeses and alcohol. 

The limits for each of these items can be found here. 

Keep in mind that while the CHF300 applies now, Switzerland is set to reduce this to CHF50 in the future – although final approval of this has not yet been secured. 

Tax change: Switzerland to introduce 50 franc limit on cross-border shopping

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