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Reader question: Can a foreign national obtain a loan in Switzerland and under what conditions?

When it comes to borrowing money from a Swiss bank, nationality may play a role in some cases, but not in others. This is what you should know about this process.

Reader question: Can a foreign national obtain a loan in Switzerland and under what conditions?
Getting a losn in Switzerland is subject to many conditions. Photo by Claudio Schwarz/Unsplash

Like almost everything in Switzerland, consumer loans are regulated by legislation, in this case the Consumer Credit Act.

It defines a loan as between 550 and 80,000 francs, “offered by commercial providers of financial services”. Lower or higher amounts are not subject to the Consumer Credit Act.

As is the case in many other countries, Swiss banks have strict criteria about who they lend money to. After all, no financial institution wants to deal with people who are not creditworthy.

Whether or not a foreign national can borrow money from a bank depends on their permanent place of residence and permit status.

As a rule, Swiss lenders don’t give loans to non-residents. So if you reside abroad, there is practically no chance that a bank in Switzerland will lend you money.

However, some financial institutions make exceptions for cross-border workers. If you fall under this category, you can use this interactive tool, select “ Permit G” under “Residence Permit” and see what, if any, options, there are.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: What cross-border workers should know about taxation in Switzerland

If you are a foreign national but have a permanent residence status (Permit C), your chances of getting a loan are practically the same as those of Swiss citizens — provided, of course, that you meet all the requirements set by lenders (see below).

What about other permit holders?

If you have a B Permit, you might be approved for a loan, depending on how long you have had this permit — obviously, the longer the better.

However, “you may be offered a higher interest rate or a limited loan amount. This is because of the statistically higher probability that you will return to your home country. Some lenders require the loan to be repaid by the time the B permit expires”, according to consumer comparison site comparis.ch 

Holders of other, temporary or conditional permits are not accepted.

READ MORE: ‘A feeling of belonging’: What it’s like to become Swiss

What conditions — other than residence permit — should you fill to be considered for a loan?

You must be at least 18 years of age, though additional restrictions may apply to applicants under 25 — for instance, a higher interest rate or a limited loan amount. That’s because “lenders are generally more cautious with young applicants as their financial circumstances are usually less settled and the risk of default is deemed to be higher,” Comparis noted.

The same cautious approach applies to pensioners, especially those who have no regular income. The social security payments (AHV/AVS) do not count as income for the purpose of the loan.

There is also other eligibility criteria, based on employment status and salary. People with a regular income have a higher chance of obtaining a loan than those who are self-employed, temporarily employed, work on hourly basis or, logically, unemployed.

Other factors, including your existing debts, are also taken into account in the decision process.

Basically, lenders favour applicants with a stable income and good financial standing, in much the same way as supplemental health insurance carriers prefer young and healthy people.

Keep in mind that if your loan application is rejected, this will be recorded in the database of the  Central Office for Credit Information, making it more difficult, though not impossible, to get a loan in the future.

The same rules do not apply to American citizens

That’s because Swiss and European banks are subjected to US demands to disclose the assets of Americans overseas in order to prevent tax evasion.

As adherence to these requirements is a major headache for the banks and in some cases also violates their country’s privacy laws, financial institutions prefer not to deal with Americans at all, even those who are permanent residents.

If you are a US citizen who also has Swiss nationality, you may have an easier time of it, but could still face hurdles in obtaining loans and other banking services.

There is no immediate relief in sight, although many organisations representing Americans abroad are lobbying in Washington to change the existing legislation.

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EXPLAINED: Why not paying off your mortgage in Switzerland can save you money

The idea is strange to most of us, but the majority of people in Switzerland choose not to pay off their mortgage - and save money in the process.

EXPLAINED: Why not paying off your mortgage in Switzerland can save you money

Many of us who have been raised with the goal of one day owning property will have one thing on our mind as soon as that deal is done: pay it back. 

From avoiding credit rating issues to not seeing the erosion of our hard-earned money due to interest, there are a number of reasons we want to get out of mortgage debt as fast as possible. 

But in Switzerland, due to a variety of factors, it sometimes makes more financial sense not to pay off your mortgage – or at least to pay off less than you can afford to. 

Estimates vary, but statistics show that a majority of Swiss do not pay their mortgage off before retirement. 

Not only that, but Switzerland has the highest mortgage debt per capita of any country anywhere in the world, according to OECD figures. 

READ MORE: Buying property versus renting in Switzerland: What is actually cheaper?

Here’s what you need to know. 

Why would you not want to pay your mortgage off in Switzerland? 

There are a number of factors which contribute to Switzerland’s unique framework when it comes to mortgages. 

These include the country’s wealth tax, the dual system of mortgages and traditionally low interest rates. 

At this stage, it is important to mention that while a majority of people don’t pay off their mortgage during their working life, this does not mean they skip out and run for the Caymans upon retirement (although presumably some do). 

Instead, it means people are not actively paying off their principal, but investing the funds in an account with their bank. 

When they retire, they use the money in the account to pay off their mortgage debt – and keep the change. 

This sounds complicated because it is – and is explained at length below. 

For more information on buying property in Switzerland, check out this link. 

The Swiss mortgage system: Dual obligations

The reason you may not want to pay your mortgage off in full in Switzerland is partially because of the unusual structure of mortgage obligations. 

The Swiss mortgage system differs from that in most countries in that you effectively take out two mortgages when you buy a property, or more accurately, the mortgage is split into two mortgage obligations. 

The first obligation resembles a traditional mortgage seen abroad, in that it has an indefinite repayment period and covers the majority of the purchase price. 

This will usually be around 60 percent of the total purchase price, less the deposit and the amount included in the second mortgage obligation. 

The second will cover approximately 15 percent of the purchase price. 

Importantly, this will have a fixed repayment period, usually around 15 years (at around one percent per year) or by the time you retire (if shorter than 15 years). 

EXPLAINED: How to save on your mortgage in Switzerland

While you must pay off this amount, the ‘optional’ part relates to the other component of the mortgage. 

Mortgage rates in Switzerland are low by international standards. Photo by PhotoMIX Company from Pexels

Should you choose direct or indirect amortisation? 

Amortisation is an accounting term which refers to reducing the book value of a loan or debt, but basically means paying off your mortgage. 

In most countries, the only option is ‘direct amortisation’, which means paying money to the bank to cover your debt. 

Direct amortisation not only reduces the debt, but the interest (as the interest is based on the quantum of the debt). 

Indirect amortisation is something relatively peculiar to Switzerland and is where the idea of not paying off your mortgage comes in. 

Finding a flat in Switzerland: How to stand out from the crowd

Swiss financial advice site Beobachter points out that the system in Switzerland is effectively set up to allow long-term non-repayment of mortgages. 

“In hardly any other country are the amortisation standards as lax as in Switzerland… In no other national economy can debts remain “forever” in this way”, they explain.

Instead of paying off the mortgage directly, you make regular payments into a ‘third pillar’, which is basically an investment account or fund offered by the same bank. 

This money is then used as a security against the property. 

Keep in mind the amount you need to repay will be the value of the property when you bought it, not the value of the property when you retire. 

During this time you will continue to pay interest on the debt.

This interest will not decrease as you are not paying off the principal, although Switzerland’s low interest rates make this an attractive option. 

Eventually, the debt will be taken from the third pillar. Usually, this will happen when you retire, but you can also sell the property, organise some form of reverse mortgage or sell it to your kids and have them rent it to you, among other options. 

Why is this beneficial?

The main reason this is advantageous is for tax purposes.

In Switzerland, you can deduct mortgage payments from your tax. Also, the money you pay into a third pillar is not taxable. 

Another major reason is the country’s wealth tax, which is not as unique but still relatively uncommon. 

Property: Why you can be taxed four times over for owning a home in Switzerland

In most countries, you pay tax primarily on your income. In Switzerland, you are liable to be taxed on your total wealth as well (under one percent per year). 

The wealth tax is calculated by your total assets minus your total debts. If you have significant debts – including a mortgage – then this will reduce your wealth tax. 

Importantly, the money in your third pillar does not count towards your wealth tax. 

Look, I just clicked on this article to find out about my mortgage, can you speak English please? 

While this all sounds incredibly complicated and you are advised to seek the support of a licensed agent, the calculus is relatively simple. 

Calculate the amount you would pay if you invested the money in a third pillar – keeping in mind the tax savings – by the end of the mortgage, minus the interest payments and the mortgage principal upon retirement. 

Compare this to the amount it would cost you to pay off the mortgage completely, including interest payments, keeping in mind that your tax savings will decrease over time as your regular payments decrease as you pay more of the mortgage off. 

Generally speaking, your financial advisor will present this to you as comparable percentages over time, which means your income will be a major factor in your final decision, as will your retirement plans and the tax rate in the canton and municipality you live in. 

EXPLAINED: How where you live in Switzerland impacts how much income tax you pay

It is important to note that your bank is likely to offer a combined form of both direct and indirect amortisation, which will allow you to spread the risk/burden somewhat. 

Editor’s note: Please keep in mind this report is intended as a guide only and should not replace legal and financial advice from a qualified agent or advisor. 

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