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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?
If you are a member of Protestant or Catholic congregation (like this one in Solothurn), you must pay church taxes. Photo by Pixabay

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

Member comments

  1. ‘certainly don’t mention it is because you don’t want to pay taxes!’ 🙂
    I got caught ten years ago on arrival in CH by this. Did the usual declared myself on the form as RC (at birth) and spent four years wondering why my take home was a bit less than I thought it should be! Took a letter and a follow up phone call from the church to get this removed.

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: Why Switzerland needs to scrap its fabled 1,000 franc notes

If the Americans can get by with $100 bills, the British manage with £50 and EU citizens now mostly €200, why do the Swiss need such a large denomination? The answer is, they don’t, writes Clare O'Dea, as she explains why it should be binned.

OPINION: Why Switzerland needs to scrap its fabled 1,000 franc notes

The existence of the 1,000-franc note, so blatantly open to misuse, is justified with platitudes about the Swiss liking cash.

Apparently the 1,000-franc note is quite pretty but I can’t say for sure as I’ve never seen or touched one. With the exception of Singapore and Brunei, no other country sees fit to issue such a large-denomination note for the simple reason that it’s not needed for legitimate business.

Financial secrecy is obviously a big part of the appeal of the 1,000-franc note. To say otherwise is not really credible. Cash in this condensed form is anonymous, untraceable, easily transportable, easily concealed.

As Bradley Birkenfeld said in a 2015 CNBC interview, “I mean you could put half a million in your pocket, no problem”. Remember that name? Birkenfeld was the (in)famous UBS whistleblower who exposed the bank’s shady practices to the US authorities in 2007, triggering the dismantling of Swiss banking secrecy.

The Swiss National Bank (SNB) explains that the big note is used as a “store of value” to a considerable degree. What does that mean? The SNB’s own research shows that most people keep less than 1,000 francs in cash at home. Are we talking about storing value under the mattress or in a safe deposit box?  Who does that and for what reason?

Look, I’m sure there are people with 1,000 notes squirrelled around the place who run their finances in a totally clean and honest way. The latest SNB survey on payment methods found that half of the population had been in possession of at least one 1,000-franc note over the previous two years. The note is especially popular among men over the age of 55

But inevitably there are tax evaders, money launderers and other criminals who find the big notes come in very handy. The €500 note was scrapped after 17 years mainly because of its popularity with criminal gangs in the EU and beyond, to the extent that it had become an embarrassment.

The €500 note is still legal tender but no new notes have been issued in the euro zone since 2019, following the decision by the European Central Bank. The move came after serious concerns were expressed by academics, international police agencies and EU finance ministers.

When production of the €500 note officially ceased, the largest denomination note accounted for 20 per cent of the value of all euro notes in circulation. Doesn’t it seem odd that 60 per cent of the value of all francs in circulation are in 1,000-franc notes? That’s 9.4 per cent of all physical notes. Something doesn’t add up.

I have heard people argue that 1,000-franc notes are popular for big expenses, like buying a car or jewellery. Or for paying big bills over the counter at the post office (this I have seen). Rumour has it that farmers like to buy livestock with the purple polymer and paper mix. Each to his own.

But these financial practices are fast becoming dated and are anyway not common enough to explain the volume of 1,000 notes in circulation. Yes, it’s official: cash is no longer king in Switzerland.

As recently as 2017, some 70 per cent of non-recurring payments were made in cash, purchases like clothes, the supermarket shopping, or restaurant meals, according to the SNB survey on payment methods. This had reduced to 43 per cent by 2020, the last time the survey was carried out.

The most recent data on payment behaviour comes from the Swiss Payment Monitor, a joint research project between the University of St. Gallen and the ZHAW Zurich University of Applied Sciences, which reported in August of this year.

The study found that the debit card remains the most frequently used form of payment for face-to-face business (34.8 per cent), followed by cash (33.2). Credit cards are less popular at 16.5 per cent. Meanwhile mobile payments are growing in popularity, increasing share from 1.5 per cent of transactions to 11.2 per cent over the past five years. 

What this boils down to is that people are perfectly adept at paying electronically in all kinds of ways and the role of the 1,000-note in retail or person-to-person purchases is far from essential.

While we’re on the subject of money, this month saw the release of the Credit Suisse Global Wealth Report, in which Switzerland emerged as the world’s richest country. The average wealth of adult residents in this country is 672,508 francs, up 5.4 per cent from the previous year. Assets include stocks and shares, pensions savings, and property.

In case you’re feeling left out, the median wealth per adult in Switzerland is 165,266 francs. That means half of the population possesses less than this amount. The figures are skewed upwards by a smallish number of mega rich individuals, with a little help from the 1.1 million millionaires in Switzerland. My guess is that these two groups have the most use for the 1,000-franc notes.

Reading between the lines, I sense some national pride in the attachment to this world-beating high denomination note. Swiss people like to hold cash – that’s our way. We also like our privacy – so what!

Not to spoil the fun, but all cultures need to be aware that just because they’ve always done something a certain way does not mean the practice has merit and is worth preserving. I recommend taking a long, hard look at the legitimacy of the fabled 1,000-franc note.

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