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EXPLAINED: How foreigners can access assisted suicide in Switzerland

Assisted suicide is legal in Switzerland. Despite concerns of suicide tourism, it can be accessed by foreigners.

EXPLAINED: How foreigners can access assisted suicide in Switzerland
Foreigners can access assisted suicide in Switzerland. Photo by Marcelo Leal on Unsplash

Assisted suicide is legal in Switzerland on compassionate grounds. 

While article 115 of the Swiss penal code prohibits assisted suicide for “self-serving reasons” and article 114 prohibits “causing the death” of a person for “commendable motives, and in particular out of compassion for the victim”, assisted suicide for non-selfish reasons is not specifically prohibited as long as certain conditions are met. 

This is relatively rare, both in Europe and worldwide. Only a handful of countries allow for some form of assisted suicide, including the Netherlands, New Zealand, Spain and Canada. 

Some American and Australian states allow for assisted suicide, despite not being permitted at a federal level. 

As a consequence, Switzerland has become a potential destination for people seeking assistance to end their life. 

But what are the rules for foreigners accessing assisted suicide in Switzerland? Here’s what you need to know. 

What are the rules for assisted suicide and euthanasia in Switzerland? 

One important distinction to make is between euthanasia and assisted suicide. Assisted suicide still requires the person in question to administer the suicide themselves, while euthanasia is where a doctor takes this final step. 

Euthanasia is not permitted in Switzerland, while assisted suicide is allowed for both locals and foreigners. 

READ MORE: What you need to know about assisted suicide in Switzerland

The main associations administering assisted suicides are Exit, Dignitas, Ex International, and lifecircle.

Exit and Dignitas are the largest groups in Switzerland.

Exit only provides assistance for citizens or long-term residents of Switzerland while Dignitas is the only organisation to provide assisted suicide services to foreigners.

According to Dignitas, assisted suicide is popular among foreigners, with 90 percent of those who received help dying in 2018 coming from abroad. The majority of those who received assisted suicide were German. 

How can foreigners receive assisted suicide in Switzerland? 

In order to access assisted suicide as a foreigner, you will need to become a Dignitas member. This can be done from abroad, provided you are deemed to be of full mental capacity and are an adult. 

You need to apply on the website and will need to fill out a form and provide a declaration of membership. 

Once this is accepted, you will receive an invoice with payment instructions.  

How much does it cost to receive assisted suicide in Switzerland? 

While the direct costs of having an assisted suicide process administered in Switzerland are relatively low, the indirect costs are high. 

In order to join Dignitas, it will cost you a one-off fee of 200 Swiss francs, followed by an annual membership fee of 80 francs.

However, while this might seem cheap, there are other costs to consider – particularly if you are a foreigner. 

The UK-based Campaign for Dignity in Dying, an organisation which agitates for greater access to assisted suicide, estimates that it costs between £6,500 (CHF8,269) to over £15,000 (CHF19,080) for each person receiving assisted suicide in Switzerland, at an average of £10,000 (CHF12,720). 

These costs include travel costs to Switzerland, along with accommodation costs and medical expenses. 

Many of those interviewed said they also booked return flights which they didn’t intend to use in order to not arouse suspicion among the authorities and to have an option in case they changed their minds. 

How long will the process take? 

Dignitas says the process can take three months or longer to become a member. 

Dignitas specifies that for non-members, submission of a declaration of membership is a mandatory first step although it also notes there is no waiting period between become a member and applying for assisted suicide.

In order to receive assisted suicide with Dignitas, you will need to go through a processes that includes making first contact (either directly or through a family member), counselling and personal interviews, submission of medical documents and an exploration of other treatment options including palliative care. 

A prescription for lethal medication will then be ordered from a doctor.

Dignitas also notes there is a lot of paperwork involved when foreigners choose assisted suicide in Switzerland and this can be time-consuming.

Dignitas is a non-profit organisation which invests all of its surplus money in expanding its services as well as providing suicide prevention advice. 

A 2011 referendum in Zurich sought to target foreigners by making assisted suicide legal only for residents, however this was rejected at the ballot box by 78 percent. 

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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.