Reader question: How can foreign residents in Switzerland open bank accounts?
Much has been said about Swiss banks turning away some international customers, so the question about what financial services are available to foreigners is a valid one.
The foreign clients who have had difficulties opening an account are American citizens, including those living permanently in Switzerland and even the ones who have a dual US / Swiss citizenship.
However, since this particular situation is caused by a strained relationship between Europe’s banks and the US tax authority, the IRS — going back to 2008, when UBS helped wealthy Americans hide billions of dollars in undisclosed offshore accounts to evade US taxes — it is specific to American clientele.
Rules are less restrictive for most other foreigners — as long as they can prove that their assets come from legitimate sources and are not of criminal origin. And these regulations pertain to foreign nationals who live in Switzerland, rather than those residing abroad.
So can foreigners who live here open a Swiss bank account?
According to Moneyland consumer finance site, “foreigners can - depending on their residence permit - open a bank account in Switzerland, but not necessarily with all Swiss banks. Banking institutions apply a series of restrictions for different categories of foreign customers”.
“Depending on the institution in question, there can be big differences in the chances of foreign citizens being able to obtain an account in Switzerland”, Moneyland added.
The reason is that while no laws prevent anyone legally living in Switzerland from opening an account, banks can — and do — choose which type of residence permit they will or won’t accept from potential customers.
The only exception is Postfinance, a subsidiary of Swiss Post. This bank “has been granted a universal service mandate by the State and cannot refuse to open an account for foreigners” who live in Switzerland, Moneyland said.
On what basis do the banks cherry-pick their clients?
The rules are based not so much on nationality but on the kind of work permit potential clients hold.
Generally speaking, anyone with a permit B or C can open an account without much hassle.
This is, of course important, because these two categories of foreigners are permanent residents in Switzerland and need an account where their salaries can be deposited and from which to pay their bills.
The situation may be more complicated if you have only a short-term permit, in which case some banks may not want your money, which is odd in a nation of bankers, but this is sometimes the case, according to Moneyland.
There is, however, an exception to the ‘short-term-permit’ rule. It concerns cross-border workers who hold G permits.
These people obviously need Swiss accounts, so their (also Swiss) salaries can be deposited there, and banks will usually comply. Most, however, charge cross-border commuters non-resident fees.
Can refugees open an account in Switzerland?
There are no rules against it; after all, they too need an account to receive the social aid their get from the government.
“However, foreign nationals holding an F permit (temporarily admitted) or N (asylum seekers) are not always welcome in many Swiss banks, or only to a limited extent", according to Moneyland.
As far as Ukrainian refugees (S permit), many have been able to open accounts in certain banks, for instance at Raiffeisen.
And what about Americans?
This group still has the most problems in this area, and many go to extreme lengths to get banking services, such as giving up their US passports.
Getting a bank to accept you may be a major headache, but not impossible.
As The Local explained in this article, “Americans need to shop around to find the right account".
Some readers said UBS was the best option for Americans in Switzerland (which is ironic, given than this bank is responsible for creating problems for Americans in the first place). While the UBS fees are high, the bank can open an account without a minimum deposit.
Credit Suisse too opens accounts for Americans, provided you waive the right to bank privacy in order to comply with IRS regulations.
Smaller, cantonal banks may also be willing to accept US citizens, under certain conditions.
What documents does a foreigner need to open a Swiss account?
You need a valid passport or another official government-issued identification, your work / residence permit, and proof of your address in Switzerland (such as Wohnsitzbescheinigung / Attestation de résidence / Certificato di domicilio issued by your commune).
When it comes to money itself, you must be able to prove its origin — that is, that the assets are not illicit. This, according to Swiss Banking Association, could be your pay sip, the contract for a house sale, a statement from a foreign bank, a receipt from the sale of securities, etc".