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Reader question: Can I open a Swiss bank account from abroad?

A number of misconceptions surround Switzerland’s banks, including how easy / difficult it is to open an account. Here’s the information you can… bank on.

Reader question: Can I open a Swiss bank account from abroad?

There are many reasons why people who live abroad may want to open a bank account here — for instance, they are relocating to Switzerland, or travel here often, or want the stability of the country’s financial sector, or maybe they just like to brag at parties about having money in a Swiss bank.

Gold, secrecy and wealth: Six Swiss bank myths that need to be busted

But can foreigners actually open an account here and if so, how do they go about it?

Depending on your circumstances, the process can be either quite complex or relatively easy.

What you need to know

Despite what you may have heard, you don’t have to be a millionaire to open an account in Switzerland — though banks would certainly prefer you were.

OVERVIEW: How to open a bank account in Switzerland

And also contrary to any pre-conceived ideas you may have, you can’t open an “anonymous”  account where you can park your undeclared money to evade taxes.

In fact, if you want to place your money in Switzerland, you will have to go through a rigorous vetting process, especially if you live abroad.

That’s because in order to shed its long-held image as safekeepers of illicit  or hidden assets, the banks have cleaned up their act over the past decades, choosing transparency over opaqueness.

This is what you need to email to the bank to set up an account in Switzerland from abroad.

  • Authenticated (notorised) proof of your identity, such as a valid passport, along with your address abroad.
  • Document(s) showing the legal source of your funds. A typical proof that your money comes from legitimate sources could be a statement from a bank in your country showing salary payments or documents from the sale of property.

But even if you provide all the required documents, banks have the right to turn you away.

For example, according to Swiss Banking Association, an umbrella organisation for Switzerland’s financial sector, “a bank might refuse to enter into a business relationship with a politically exposed person. It may also reject a prospective customer if it has doubts about the origins of that person’s funds”.  

READ MORE: Which bank is best for Americans in Switzerland?

There are also other factors to consider before you decide to place your money in Switzerland.

Though you may have heard about the legendary Swiss bank secrecy, there are specific instances when this confidentiality can be broken.

Switzerland has signed agreements with a number of countries to cooperate in exchange of financial information of their respective citizens.

EXPLAINED: Which banks are best for foreigners in Switzerland?

So, if you are a foreign resident (or even a foreign national living in Switzerland),  under the terms of the agreement the government of your country can request Switzerland to release your account(s) information and Switzerland must comply.

Also, additional hurdles are in place for people living in the United States.

To prevent its residents from stashing their money in offshore accounts in order to evade taxes, US regulations require foreign banks to report to US tax authorities (IRS) all the assets that belong to US citizens – whether living in America or abroad.

Swiss banks are reluctantly complying with the rules because failure to do so can seriously impact their ability to do business in America.

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EXPLAINED: What is ‘church tax’ in Switzerland and do I have to pay it?

Switzerland is one of only a handful of countries where most people must pay taxes to support religious institutions. This is what you should know about it.

EXPLAINED: What is ‘church tax’ in Switzerland and do I have to pay it?

Switzerland is already widely known as a tax haven, but it seems it could be called a tax heaven as well, with millions of Swiss regularly contributing a portion of their wages to religious institutions. 

However, not everyone in Switzerland pays church tax. 

Whether or not you must pay the church tax depends on where you live and what religious denomination you belong to.

If you have moved to a Swiss community, chances are you had to declare your religious affiliation while registering your arrival at the Gemeinde / commune / comunità locale.

And if you identified yourself as a member of a Roman Catholic or Protestant (including Reformed) Church, then you can expect to be slapped with a so-called ecclesiastical tax. 

People in other religions, such as Islam or Judaism, or some of the less common protestant faiths, are not required to pay this tax. 

As is also the case in Austria, Finland, Germany, Denmark and Sweden, Switzerland’s churchgoers must finance the costs of their local churches, with funds ultimately being used to upkeep the facilities, clergy’s salaries, as well as other operating costs.

This is a long-standing and common practice in most cantons, with the exception of Geneva, Neuchâtel, Vaud, and Ticino.

People attending religious institutions of other than Catholic and Protestant denominations, or those living in the four cantons that don’t impose this tax, are free to make a voluntary, tax-deductible contribution to their church, but are not obligated to do so by law.

And it’s not just private individuals who are liable to pay church tax — most cantons, except Basel-City, Schaffhausen, Appenzell Ausserrhoden, and Aargau also levy it on businesses.

READ MORE: Switzerland’s strangest taxes – and what happens if you don’t pay them

This is a somewhat paradoxical situation, as Switzerland recognises the principle of separation of church and state, which would normally preclude public funding of religious groups.

Yet, the country’s main denominations are authorised to collect church taxes; in fact, Swiss Constitution expressly allows cantons to regulate the relationship between church and state on their territories — including the right to levy taxes.

How much is this tax and do you have to pay it?

Again, the amount depends on the canton you live in, but on average it is 15 percent of the income and wealth tax for Roman Catholics and 10 percent for those attending Protestant churches.

If you officially declared your religious affiliation and if you live in a canton other than Geneva, Neuchâtel, Ticino, and Vaud, then yes, you must pay this tax.

How do you opt out of paying the tax?

There is, however, a relatively simple way to opt out of the church tax.

If you move to a new community, just don’t declare yourself as a member of either a Roman Catholic or Protestant parish.

If you already have done so, then send a registered letter to the parish in your municipality and inform them that you are no longer a member of the church.

Importantly, if you have already declared yourself a member of the church in one municipality, this information will follow you to your next municipality, i.e. the communes will pass on information between each other. 

Therefore, simply moving a declaring no religious status will be insufficient. You will need to send the resignation letter. 

Send a copy of this letter to your cantonal tax office. If you are in Valais, you should send your letter to the baptism parish. 

A copy of the form you need to send is available here (in German). 

You don’t have to give a reason why you chose to leave the church; certainly don’t mention it is because you don’t want to pay taxes!

READ MORE: How to navigate your way to a lower Swiss tax bill

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