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EXPLAINED: How Americans can retire in Switzerland

A tranquil, peaceful and safe country, Switzerland's appeal is undeniable. Here's how Americans can retire in Switzerland.

Two people hold up their American passports in a European town square
While it is not easy for Americans to retire in Switzerland, it is fortunately not impossible. Here's what you need to know. Photo by Spencer Davis from Pexels

With clean streets, tranquil vibes and low crime rates, Switzerland is a perfect place to retire. 

People from across the world have flocked to Switzerland to spend their later years, with American singer Tina Turner, Canadian singer Shania Twain, British musician Phil Collins and Swedish businessman Ingvar Kamprad – of IKEA fame – among the many who have all chosen to spend their twilight years in the alpine nation. 

For Americans – or indeed anyone – looking to retire in Switzerland, the good news is you don’t need to be world famous in order to do so. 

You will however need to jump through a few hoops. 

The rules for retiring differ on the basis of whether you are from an EU/EFTA state or not, with the US, UK, Australia, India and Israel being some of the many examples of ‘third countries’. 

If you are not American, click the following link for information on how to retire in Switzerland. 

READ MORE: Everything you need to know about retiring in Switzerland

Here’s what you need to know. 

How can Americans retire in Switzerland

There are two broad categories of Americans wanting to retire in Switzerland: those who already live here with valid working permits – and those who still live in the United States. 

If you worked or are working in Switzerland on a valid residence permit, retirement is unlikely to be difficult at all. 

Switzerland has a retirement age of 65 for men and for women. The retirement age for women was raised from 64 to 65 in June 2021. 

If you fit into this category, then please check our our extensive guide on pensions in Switzerland. 

EXPLAINED: How does the Swiss pension system work – and how much will I receive?

But if you currently do not live in Switzerland/have a Swiss residence permit and would like to retire here, this is still possible. 

How can non-residents including Americans retire in Switzerland? 

In order to be granted a visa to retire in Switzerland, you need to have: 

  • Adequate financial resources and proof you will not look for work in Switzerland;
  • A close connection with Switzerland;
  • You must have Swiss health and accident coverage.

These points are dealt with individually below. 

How does the process work?

If you come from outside the EU / EFTA, you must apply for a visa with a Swiss diplomatic/consular mission in your country of residence, i.e. in the United States. 

First, they will check that you don’t have any criminal records.

You must be 55 years of age or older to move to Switzerland from abroad in order to retire. The Swiss retirement age is 65. 

You will need to demonstrate a close link to Switzerland.

This can be past residency, family ties or even frequent holidays in Switzerland can suffice as evidence of a close connection. 

Real estate can be a factor, although keep in mind that owning property in Switzerland is no guarantee of a close connection. 

Reader question: Does owning a second home in Switzerland give me the right to live there?

Also, in order to be considered, you must prove that you have enough financial resources to live in Switzerland without having to work or claim welfare benefits.

You do not have to transfer the bulk of your financial interests to Switzerland, although this is likely to help illustrate that you have enough financial resources to move there. 

You can transfer your pension to Switzerland provided there’s a bilateral arrangement with your country of origin. More information is available here. 

READ MORE: How to get a visa to retire in Switzerland

The eventual decision is made by cantonal authorities and is often highly discretionary.

Tina Turner, who has lived in Château Algonquin in Küsnacht, Zurich, since 1994, is perhaps the most prominent American who has retired in Switzerland. 

While speaking a Swiss language is a pre-requisite of citizenship, as with plenty of other things, the authorities appear willing to make exceptions when the price is right or when you’re the honorary mayor of Nutbush City.

Turner gave up her American citizenship in 2013 and became a Swiss citizen, despite not speaking German, French or Italian.

Which brings us to…

Money helps grease the wheels

A little-known article of the Swiss law — Article 30 of the Federal Aliens Act — allows wealthy foreigners from outside Europe to move to Switzerland.

Cantons can issue residence permits B to these people, if local authorities deem that there is a “significant fiscal interest” in such a move.

Golden visas: Everything you need to know about ‘buying’ Swiss residency

What exactly does “significant fiscal interest mean?” 

This term is defined by each canton.

For instance, the lowest annual tax rate for a non-EU foreigner is 287,882 francs in Valais, 312,522 francs in Geneva, and 415,000 Vaud. 

Every year, around 40 to 50 people ‘buy’ their way into Switzerland this way, as reported by TagesAnzeiger, which used the numbers published by the State Secretariat for Migration (SEM).

How much should you save for a ‘comfortable’ retirement in Switzerland?

To maintain the usual standard of living during retirement, residents of Switzerland need more savings nowadays than four years ago, according to an analysis by UBS bank, which compared the pension systems of 24 countries.

In 2017, the last time UBS conducted a similar study, that number was 11 percent.

The new UBS International Pension Gap Index found that “the Swiss pension system still enjoys a high reputation. However, contrary to other countries, it is more difficult to push through urgently needed reforms to ensure this reputation will last”.

Click the following link for more information

READ MORE: How much should you save to retire in Switzerland?

Please note: As with all of our explainers, they are intended as a guide only and do not constitute legal or financial advice. Please discuss any financial decisions with a certified expert in the field. 

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OFFBEAT

Is Switzerland’s male-only mandatory military service ‘discriminatory’?

Under Swiss law, all men must serve at least one year in compulsory national service. But is this discriminatory?

Swiss military members walk across a road carrying guns
A new lawsuit seeks to challenge Switzerland's male-only military service requirement. Is this discriminatory? FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP

All men aged between the ages of 18 and 30 are required to complete compulsory military service in Switzerland. 

A lawsuit which worked its way through the Swiss courts has now ended up in the European Court of Human Rights, where the judges will decide if Switzerland’s male-only conscription requirement violates anti-discrimination rules. 

Switzerland’s NZZ newspaper wrote on Monday the case has “explosive potential” and has “what it takes to cause a tremor” to a policy which was first laid out in Switzerland’s 1848 and 1874 Federal Constitutions. 

What is Switzerland’s compulsory military service? 

Article 59 of the Federal Constitution of Switzerland says “Every man with Swiss citizenship is liable for military service. Alternative civilian service shall be provided for by law.”

Recruits must generally do 18 weeks of boot camp (longer in some cases). 

They are then required to spend several weeks in the army every year until they have completed a minimum 245 days of service.

Military service is compulsory for Swiss men aged 18 and over. Women can chose to do military service but this is rare.

What about national rather than military service? 

Introduced in 1996, this is an alternative to the army, originally intended for those who objected to military service on moral grounds. 

READ MORE: The Swiss army’s growing problem with civilian service

Service is longer there than in the army, from the age of 20 to 40. 

This must be for 340 days in total, longer than the military service requirement. 

What about foreigners and dual nationals? 

Once you become a Swiss citizen and are between the ages of 18 and 30, you can expect to be conscripted. 

READ MORE: Do naturalised Swiss citizens have to do military service?

In general, having another citizenship in addition to the Swiss one is not going to exempt you from military service in Switzerland.

However, there is one exception: the obligation to serve will be waved, provided you can show that you have fulfilled your military duties in your other home country.

If you are a Swiss (naturalised or not) who lives abroad, you are not required to serve in the military in Switzerland, though you can voluntarily enlist. 

How do Swiss people feel about military and national service? 

Generally, the obligation is viewed relatively positively, both by the general public and by those who take part in compulsory service. 

While several other European countries have gotten rid of mandatory service, a 2013 referendum which attempted to abolish conscription was rejected by 73 percent of Swiss voters. 

What is the court case and what does it say? 

Martin D. Küng, the lawyer from the Swiss canton of Bern who has driven the case through the courts, has a personal interest in its success. 

He was found unfit for service but is still required to pay an annual bill to the Swiss government, which was 1662CHF for the last year he was required to pay it. 

While the 36-year-old no longer has to pay the amount – the obligation only lasts between the ages of 18 and 30 – Küng is bring the case on principle. 

So far, Küng has had little success in the Swiss courts, with his appeal rejected by the cantonal administrative court and later by the Swiss Federal Supreme Court. 

Previous Supreme Court cases, when hearing objections to men-only military service, said that women are less suitable for conscription due to “physiological and biological differences”.

In Küng’s case, the judges avoided this justification, saying instead that the matter was a constitutional issue. 

‘No objective reason why only men have to do military service’

He has now appealed the decision to the European level. 

While men have previously tried and failed when taking their case to the Supreme Court, no Swiss man has ever brought the matter to the European Court of Human Rights. 

Küng told the NZZ that he considered the rule to be unjust and said the Supreme Court’s decision is based on political considerations. 

“I would have expected the Federal Supreme Court to have the courage to clearly state the obvious in my case and not to decide on political grounds,” Küng said. 

“There is no objective reason why only men have to do military service or pay replacement taxes. On average, women may not be as physically productive as men, but that is not a criterion for excluding them from compulsory military service. 

There are quite a few men who cannot keep up with women in terms of stamina. Gender is simply the wrong demarcation criterion for deciding on compulsory service. If so, then one would have to focus on physical performance.”

Is it likely to pass? 

Küng is optimistic that the Strasbourg court will find in his favour, pointing to a successful appeal by a German man who complained about a fire brigade tax, which was only imposed on men. 

“This question has not yet been conclusively answered by the court” Küng said. 

The impact of a decision in his favour could be considerable, with European law technically taking precedence over Swiss law.

It would set Switzerland on a collision course with the bloc, particularly given the popularity of the conscription provision. 

Küng clarified that political outcomes and repercussions don’t concern him. 

“My only concern is for a court to determine that the current regulation is legally wrong.”

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