Moving to Switzerland For Members

When is it helpful to hire an English-language interpreter in Switzerland?

Michael Stuchbery
Michael Stuchbery - [email protected]
When is it helpful to hire an English-language interpreter in Switzerland?
Switzerland has four official languages. This can be especially intimidating for new arrivals. Photo: Nadine Marfurt / Pixabay

With four official languages, everyday transactions in Switzerland may seem intimidating to new arrivals. For some, the answer might be to hire a service or individual to help with interpretation.


Let's be clear: Many people speak English very well in Switzerland. As a country with a solid international presence, some official documentation is available in the language. 

That said, language acquisition is a skill, and many study for years to reach the point where they can effectively communicate between several languages without misunderstandings. Therefore, there are costs involved. 

But don't despair - we have compiled a list of scenarios where you might need the translation help and the language help that would be available to you.

Informal help

While your first instinct might be to search for a professional, don't discount personal contacts if you need someone to make a phone call, translate a letter or document or perhaps check over letters or emails you are sending in German, Italian, or French.

Most foreigners who have lived in Switzerland pick up a decent level of one of the national languages, but still remember the fear of their early days, so they are happy to help newcomers. Likewise, if you have Swiss neighbours or colleagues who speak good English, they will be okay with helping with a few translation requests. You can pay them in wine.

Translating documents

When applying for certain official things in Switzerland - such as the B or C residency permits - you will often be asked for supporting documents such as birth or marriage certificates or pension details.

As these are likely in your native language, you may need to provide a translated version in German, French or Italian, and you will likely need it to be an 'official' translation. 

In this case, you cannot use friends and family - you must have it done by a translator certified by the Swiss Association for Translation, Terminology and Interpreting (STTI).

For apostilles, certifying the authenticity of documentation, English help should be available at the State Chancellery of your canton. More information can be found on their individual websites. 


Driving test

If you come from a country (or US state) with a reciprocity agreement, you do not need to retake a Swiss cantonal driving test to swap your license.

However, if there is no agreement, you must take both the theory and the practical tests again. 

Some cantons - such as Bern - allow you to take the theory test in English. Still, if you're not that lucky, you must hire an interpreter officially recognised by that canton. 

A person drives

You may need help when preparing to drive in Switzerland. Photo by why kei on Unsplash

The cantonal Road Traffic Office website contains information and lists of recognised interpreters. 

You would have to pay for this out of your own pocket.

READ ALSO: Can I take the Swiss driving test in English?

Hospitals and healthcare

Having someone to help you translate at a doctor's appointment promises greater peace of mind. Still, you may not need an interpreter if you can find an English-speaking doctor. 

When making a simple doctor's appointment in Switzerland, you can use online services, such as the websites and apps Doctena or Docapp, or you can call and make the appointment yourself.

The benefit of using these apps is that you can filter based on the languages that the doctor speaks. 

Overall, this is a good option for foreigners. However, you could come across the occasional doctor who lists themselves as speaking English and their fluency may leave a bit to be desired. 

READ ALSO: Do all doctors in Switzerland have to speak English?

For house calls, you can also try the SOS AERZTE service. When making your appointment, you can request an English-speaking doctor, but you are not guaranteed you will get one. 

If you need to visit a hospital, many offer interpreting services if necessary. Unfortunately, this is not standard across all hospitals in Switzerland, especially in more rural cantons. Still, areas with high tourism, such as Geneva, Zurich and Bern, may provide extra translation services.

If you need emergency help, call 112 (or 114 for people with hearing and speaking difficulties) instead of local Swiss emergency options. This is the EU-wide emergency phone number. You might be more likely to reach someone who speaks English on this line. 


Immigration and administration

Whether you are renewing your Swiss residency permit or have other immigration-related queries, cantonal migration offices can be stressful for those who need more confidence in their language skills. 

Some cantons will go so far as to specify that you cannot bring anyone else to your appointment - meaning no interpreter or friend to help you understand.

The best advice for these types of situations is to make sure your paperwork is in good order before the appointment, as well as to bring along any extra documents that could be relevant.

There are private expat-oriented services which offer assistance with permit application preparation. These may be worthwhile if you speak something other than French, German or Italian. 

However, you will find that these professionals do not have special access to cantonal authorities - they will be reading from the same local government websites as you are.

If you decide to use a service to help you get a visa or residency card, make sure you check that the person has the appropriate qualifications - plenty of services advertise themselves as' visa specialists' without having any appropriate qualifications. 


Property and renting

Buying and renting property in Switzerland can involve a lot of jargon - in one of three languages - so having a native speaker along to help.

For Americans, the first few steps of finding a property to buy can be confusing, as Switzerland does not have a Multiple Listing Service (MLS) as it exists in the United States. 

Similarly, the role of the real estate agent is very different in Switzerland than it is in the US.

Expat-oriented real estate agencies exist, offering both English-language services and a guide through buying or renting property - these tend to be centred in areas with many English speakers, e.g. Basel, Zurich, Geneva, and Vaud. 

Similarly, you might use a relocation service - these essentially act as go-betweens for either purchasing or renting a property. They provide services in English and can also help you prepare your permit application, understand how the cantonal system works, and advocate for you with vendors or landlords.

One benefit to using a relocation service is that many will also include help with setting up your accounts for internet, electric and gas (for a higher fee).

Banking and finances

Regarding banking, some options, such as UBS, offer services entirely in English.

Online banks, such as Revolut, N26 and Wise, are also available in English.

Meanwhile, the smaller Swiss banks might offer some English-language assistance, but do not expect this to be the norm - it's more likely that there will be an English speaker if you are using the 'international' services that some banks offer.


Many English-speaking accountants can help you with your Swiss taxes.

READ ALSO: Five essential things to know about Swiss taxes before deadline day


However, if you have a simple question about your tax declaration - in that case, you can find information in English on the federal government's tax website. You can also call an English-language language hotline (+41 58 462 71 06) to ask questions.

Court and law enforcement

Suppose you are the victim, witness, or suspect in a crime and cannot speak or understand French, German or Italian. In that case, Swiss law stipulates that you have the right to be assisted free of charge by an interpreter during the arrest process. 

If you seek an English-speaking lawyer or notaire, many embassies, including the US and UK, keep running lists of recommended professionals on their websites.


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