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EXPLAINED: What you need to know about getting a Swiss work permit

Getting a work permit from outside the EU is difficult, but not impossible. Here's what you need to know.

EXPLAINED: What you need to know about getting a Swiss work permit
Swiss President Guy Parmelin and former British trade secretary Liam Fox. Photo: Stefan WERMUTH / AFP

While citizens of the European Union, as well as Norway and Iceland (EFTA), have easier access to Switzerland’s labour market, stricter rules apply to those from the so-called “third nations” — countries that are not members of the EU. Due to Brexit, the UK is part of this group.

Each year the Federal Council issues a certain number of work permits for non-EU citizens.

“The Swiss economy must be able to continue to recruit the skilled workforce it needs in 2021”, the government said in a statement it released in November. 

It added that “while Swiss companies recruit their workforce in Switzerland as much as possible, they are sometimes forced to call on foreign workers. They should therefore be able to continue to recruit in third countries in addition to EU and EFTA nations”.

How many permits did Switzerland issue for 2021?

The same number as last year: 8,500.

From this quota, 4,500 people will be granted a residence permit B, and the remaining 4,000 will receive a short-term residence permit L, entitling them to work in Switzerland for up to one year.

Only UK nationals get a separate quota (see below).

What is the process for obtaining a work permit?

In order to receive a work permit as a third country national, you must have an employment contract. Obtaining one is not easy, as companies can only hire people from these countries if no Swiss workers or EU/EFTA citizens can be found to fill the position.

How to apply for Swiss citizenship: An essential guide

If hired, a Swiss embassy in your home country will issue a visa for you allowing entry to Switzerland. Once here, you must register your arrival with the authorities in your place of residence. They will send your documents to the canton which, in turn, will issue your work permit, based on the kind of employment contract you have — L if you will work here less than a year, or B, which is valid for up to five years.

I am an American and want to move to Switzerland. Can I?  

No. As third country nationals, Americans are subjected to the same conditions as other non-EU/EFTA citizens.

What about UK citizens?

From January 1st, 2021, people from Great Britain are no longer considered to be EU nationals and will be subjected to the same rules as other citizens of third nations.

“You will be admitted to work here provided if this is in Switzerland’s overall economic interest”, according to State Secretariat for Migration (SEM). 

But there is a “but”.

The Federal Council has decided that Swiss companies can continue to recruit specialised employees from the United Kingdom, setting a separate quota for British workers. In 2021, 3,500 work authorisations are reserved especially for UK nationals — 2,100 B permits and 1,400 L permits.

READ MORE: An essential guide to Swiss work permits

These quotas will be valid for one year and will be distributed to the cantons on a quarterly basis.

“Until further notice, the authorisations granted to British nationals will not be subject to the federal government’s approval procedure and will fall exclusively under cantonal jurisdiction”, authorities said. 

They added that “this measure takes into account the extraordinary situation in the United Kingdom and constitutes a transitional solution for one year. It does not set a precedent for the regulations applicable after 2021”.

The government also said that if no agreement can be reached next year between the two countries, “the quotas intended for British citizens will be integrated in 2022 into those allocated to all the third states”.

READ MORE: ANALYSIS: What Brexit means for Switzerland

And there’s more.

Not all UK citizens are subjected to this rule.
It doesn’t apply to British nationals who had moved to Switzerland before the end of the Brexit transition period (December 31st 2020) — they will retain all their existing rights for residence and employment.

“However, UK nationals with a valid permit may be informed that they need to exchange their current permit for a different one. If they are not informed that they need a different permit, they must simply apply for a new one before their existing one expires”, SEM said.

It added that “after December 31st, 2020, UK nationals will be issued with a biometric residence permit marked (in German, French and Italian) “In accordance with the CH-UK agreement of 25.02.2020”

You can find more information about the post-Brexit rights of UK citizens in Switzerland’s on SEM’s site.

What hiring criteria does Switzerland have for citizens of a non-EU/EFTA state?

SEM specified that to to qualify for a work permit under the set quota, you have to be highly qualified — that is, a specialist in your field or another skilled professional. 

This means that you should have a degree from a university or an institution of higher education, as well as a number of years of professional work experience.

If you are planning to stay in Switzerland for several years, you will also have to fulfill other conditions that will facilitate your long-term professional and social integration. The key factors are your professional and social adaptability, language skills and age.

READ MORE: Switzerland: Brexit deal is ‘good news for the whole world’ 

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Do foreigners in Switzerland have the same legal rights as the Swiss ?

Foreigners living in Switzerland may be wondering what their basic rights are compared to Swiss citizens. The answer depends on several factors.

Do foreigners in Switzerland have the same legal rights as the Swiss ?

There are currently 2.2 million foreign nationals living in Switzerland — roughly 25 percent of the population.

Simply put, everyone residing in the country legally, regardless of nationality, has the same basic constitutional rights as Swiss citizens do — for instance, the right to human dignity, free expression, equality, protection against discrimination, and freedom of religion, among other rights.

They also have the right to fair and equitable treatment in the workplace, in terms of wages, work hours, and other employment-related matters.

As the law states, cantons and municipalities “shall create favourable regulatory conditions for equal opportunities and for the participation of the foreign population in public life”. 

If they are arrested or imprisoned, foreigners also have the right to fair trial and to the same treatment as their Swiss-citizen counterparts, including legal representation and due process of the law.

Even those who are subject to deportation have the right to be represented by a lawyer.

And the Swiss legal system doesn’t necessarily favour Swiss litigants over foreign ones. For instance, in some cases, foreign nationals whose request for naturalisation was denied but who then appealed the decision, eventually won.

The most recent example is a man in the canton of Schwyz whose application for citizenship was rejected due to a minor car accident, but a Swiss court overturned the decision, ordering that the man be naturalised this year.

READ MORE : Foreigner wins appeal after being denied Swiss citizenship due to car accident

Where the rights and privileges differ between foreigners and Swiss, as well as among foreigners themselves, is when it comes to work and residency rights.

 EU / EFTA nationals

People from these countries, who have B or C permanent residence status have sweeping rights in terms of residence, employment (including self-employment), and home ownership.

The only right that is denied them is the vote, though some cantons and communes grant their resident foreigners the right to vote on local issues and to elect local politicians. 

READ MORE : Where in Switzerland can foreigners vote?

Apart from the limit on political participation, EU / EFTA nationals can live in Switzerland in pretty much the same way as their Swiss counterparts.

There are, however, some groups of foreigners whose rights are curtailed by the Swiss government.

Third country nationals

They are people from countries outside Europe, for whom various restrictions are in place in terms of entry, employment and residency.

For instance, their “future employer must prove that there is no suitable person to fill the job vacancy from Switzerland or from an EU/EFTA state”, according to State Secretariat for Migration. This could be seen as a discrimination of sorts, but that’s what the law says.

Once employed, however, “their salary, social security contributions and the terms of employment must be in accordance with conditions customary to the region, the profession and the particular sector” — in other words, no discrimination is allowed.

Another area where non-European foreigners are disadvantaged in comparison with their EU / EFTA counterparts is home ownership. While third-nation B-permit holders can buy a property to live in (but not rent out), they can’t purchase a holiday or second home without a special permission.

To sum up, all foreigners in Switzerland, regardless of their status, are entitled to fundamental “human” rights, including freedom of speech and religion, and freedom from discrimination in life and employment.

They also have the right to legal protection and representation during litigation or other court actions.

However they don’t have the right to participate in the country’s political process and, depending on their status, have equal access to residency and employment.