For members


EXPLAINED: How applying for social benefits could see your Swiss work permit cancelled

Foreigners who receive welfare assistance in Switzerland have fuelled public discourse for many years, and are often depicted as “abusers” of the system. This is what you should know about the current rules.

EXPLAINED: How applying for social benefits could see your Swiss work permit cancelled
In many cases, you must choose: social aid or residency permit. Photo by Claudio Schwarz / Unsplash

Unfortunately for many residency permit holders, there are a number of ways in which this permit can be cancelled for certain activity. 

This includes providing false information in an official capacity, committing crimes and threatening public order. 

This also includes applying for social assistance. 

Switzerland wants immigrants to be self sufficient, meaning that asking for state assistance could be an indication you will continue to do so down the line. 

The Foreign Nationals and Integration Act (FNIA) provides for the possibility of downgrading or revoking the permit of a person receiving social assistance.

This means authorities may decide to downgrade permanent residence permits to temporary ones, or withdraw them altogether, if someone has applied for benefits.

The revision of FNIA in 2019 extended the consequences of social assistance even to C permit holders, meaning that sweeping rights and protections normally conferred by this particular permit in relation to long-term permanent residence could be nullified.

This would impact not only third country nationals, but also EU/EFTA citizens living in Switzerland.

To avoid these potentially tough consequences, many foreign nationals abstain from seeking financial help.

A study from Zurich’s University of Applied Sciences showed that during the shutdown in 2020, foreigners were afraid to claim social benefits due to the risk of losing their residence permit.

And RTS public broadcaster also reports that “an increasing number of foreign nationals refrain from requesting social assistance for fear of losing the right to remain in Switzerland”.

There are no official numbers on how many people actually lost their permits after applying for welfare, but the risk is definitely there.

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

Do immigrants apply for social benefits in Switzerland? 

The rightwing Swiss People’s Party (SVP) often refers in derogatory terms to immigrants who claim welfare benefits as soon as they set foot on Swiss soil.

This stance has sparked a number of anti-foreigner referendums that the party has launched over the years.

Official data doesn’t support this stereotype of money-grabbing immigrants, but figures from the Federal Statistical Office (FSO) indicate that most social aid in Switzerland does go to foreign nationals.

No distinction is made, however, regarding the status of the welfare recipients — whether they are refugees, asylum seekers, or permit holders.

It is important to note that this chart is from 2019 — the latest statistics available to date. They don’t reflect the higher number of people  who sought financial assistance during the Covid pandemic in 2020.

In fact, Switzerland has adopted a tough attitude toward immigrants who receive social assistance: for instance, they are excluded from applying for Swiss citizenship if they had been on welfare in the three years prior to their application.

An exception is made if the benefits are paid back in full.

READ MORE: How do the Swiss really feel about foreigners?

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For members


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