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EXPLAINED: Five things you need to do when you move to Switzerland

When it comes to getting settled in Switzerland, many rules and regulations are different — and sometimes stranger —than those in other countries.

EXPLAINED: Five things you need to do when you move to Switzerland
Familiarise yourself with all the rules for new arrivals. Photo by AFP

These five rules are essential information for anyone moving here — not just foreigners, but anyone in Switzerland relocating from one address to another.

Residence registration

Whether you live in a big city or a small village, you are required to announce your arrival to your communal authorities (Gemeinde / commune / comunità locale) within 14 days.

Registration rules are strictly enforced. One of the reasons is that the amount of the income taxes and health insurance premiums you pay are based on your place of residence.

To register, you will need to show your identification card, residence/work permit if you are a foreign national, and proof of health insurance (see below).

It’s best to call your commune ahead of time to find out what other documents are needed. 

EXPLAINED: How to register your address in Switzerland

Health insurance

Unlike most countries, health insurance is mandatory in Switzerland for all residents.

Anyone living here on permanent basis must take out an insurance policy within three months of arrival. It can be purchased from any of the roughly 50 health insurance carriers operating in Switzerland.

Coverage for basic healthcare and hospitalisation, called LaMAL, is the same across Switzerland, but companies can compete on the price and features of non-compulsory supplementary insurance.

What if you don’t take out a policy? Chances are that sooner or later (probably sooner) you will be caught. This will happen when you seek medical help, or apply for a job or a new apartment — in all these cases you will be asked to show proof of insurance.

In the event you don’t carry insurance, the canton where you live will purchase a policy for you and send you a bill.

And anyone who doesn’t pay their health insurance premiums can be blacklisted. 

If you are on low income and can’t afford insurance for yourself and family members, you may be entitled to premium reductions through federal and cantonal subsidies. 

But skipping on the health insurance altogether is really not an option.

READ MORE: Everything you need to know about health insurance in Switzerland

Radio / television license

It may seem silly to pay the radio, television and internet tax in this day and age, but Switzerland requires you to do it anyway. 

This money is used to subsidise Swiss Broadcasting Corporation and a range of private regional radio and TV channels.

Once a year, each household receives an invoice from a government-mandated agency called Serafe. This year, the price for this service has dropped from 365 to 335 francs. 

Are you obligated to pay this fee?

The only people exempted from this tax are those receiving welfare benefits, people with disabilities (including those who are deaf and blind), and diplomats.

If you don’t fall under any of these categories, or can prove that you live in a cave away from civilisation, you are bound to pay.

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

Animals

If you own a pet, keep in mind that animal welfare is a right enshrined in the Swiss Constitution.

The Swiss Animal Protection Act sets out some rules that pet owners must follow. For instance, it says that small domestic animals like rabbits, hamsters and guinea pigs tend to get lonely without a companion, so they must be kept in pairs.

Live goldfish can’t be flushed down the toilet.

And if cats are kept alone, they must have daily interaction with either a human being or visual contact with another cat, the law stipulates.

Also, every dog owner has to pay the dog tax, the amount of which depends on the dog’s size and weight.

But arguably one of weirdest legislations the Swiss have is one banning the boiling of live lobsters.

This law, which went into effect on March 1st, 2018, forbids this practice on the grounds that it’s cruel because lobsters can feel pain. 

Instead, the law calls for a more humane death for lobsters: “rendering them unconscious” before plunging them into scalding water. Two methods are recommended: electrocution or sedating the lobster by dipping it into saltwater and then thrusting a knife into its brain.

Apparently, someone decided these two methods are somehow more humane.

Garbage disposal

Wherever you live, know that disposing of one’s rubbish in Switzerland is highly regulated.

For example, throwing away all the waste in a trash bag without segregating it — mixing PET bottles with tin cans or paper — is an offence in Switzerland. 

It can result in heavy fines, the amount of which is determined by each individual commune.

And yes, municipal workers have the right to go through trash bags to identify garbage offenders — an unenviable but, it seems, very important task.

These are the rules to remember:

  • You can’t use just any bag to dispose of your trash. Each canton has either specially designated bags, priced according to their size (35, 60, or 100 litres), or a sticker to be affixed to a bag.
  • The bags are available in all supermarkets, grocery and convenience stores. However, you may not find them on the shelves and you will have to ask for them at the cash register. The reason is that the bags are expensive – over 30 francs for 10 of the smallest-sized ones— and people have been stealing them.
  • You should not throw away your recyclables, including PET bottles, glass, cardboard, paper, tins, aluminium, and batteries, into the trash bag. Instead, they must go into a specially designated collection point in your commune of residence.

This map shows where the one closest to you is located.

Trash talk: What are the rules for garbage disposal in Switzerland?

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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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