When you picture Switzerland, your initial thoughts may be of glistening turquoise lakes, jolly yodellers running through the lush green countryside and, er, Toblerone. But there’s more to this Alpine wonderland than snow-peaked mountains and good chocolate; the country’s ever stable and prosperous economy continues to attract expats looking to work abroad.
It’s not surprising, either, given Switzerland’s reputation as a banking and finance haven. With high salaries, beautiful surroundings and a perennially low unemployment rate, there’s a multitude of opportunity for those with the right professional skills.
So, if you’ve ever felt like swapping the 7am tube commute for something a little more breath-taking, then a Swiss career detour could be for you. This is what you need to know…
Although Switzerland is a relatively small country, it continues to perform above its station on the world stage. With unemployment figures currently sitting at around 3.3%, its 8 million-strong population enjoys a high standard of living and is a regular feature in the top 20 GDP rankings.
Immigration rates in Switzerland are very high, with around a quarter of the population born abroad. Unsurprisingly, given its geographic location, the majority of these expats are German, French and Italian, with just over 40,000 British nationals choosing to relocate; there are also nearly 20,000 US citizens living in the country.
Although Switzerland was not immune to the global financial crisis of 2008, it has recovered well and its traditional export sectors are once again thriving. As you would expect in a nation famous for its precision-made watches, mechanical engineering and micro-technology are two such key industries.
Banking and finance is another sector with which Switzerland is heavily associated, with a number of prominent multinational finance institutions headquartered in the country such as Credit Suisse and Zurich Insurance.
Although the labour market is small and, therefore, fiercely competitive, employment opportunities are still available for skilled workers in the following areas:
- Banking and Finance
- Construction and Property
Switzerland is also home to a large number of famous international institutions, including:
- United Nations (UN) (Geneva)
- World Trade Organization (WTO) (Geneva)
- Red Cross (Geneva)
- World Economic Forum (Cologny)
- International Olympic Committee (IOC) (Lausanne)
- FIFA (Zurich)
- UEFA (Nyon)
- European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) (Meyrin)
Salaries in Switzerland are notably high – the third highest of all OECD countries, after the US and Luxembourg. Although figures vary depending on the industry, the general median annual salary is around $60,000 (£42,900). Swiss companies are bound by law to pay foreign workers the equivalent amount as their local counterparts, with the government performing random checks to ensure compliance; those that do not adhere to this practice are subject to financial penalties.
Additionally, as with most countries, pay tends to be higher in the larger cities and this is also the case in Switzerland – especially in Zurich and Geneva where many finance companies are located.
Cost of Living
These exceptionally high wages do, unfortunately, come with a caveat: Switzerland is one of the most expensive places to live in the world. Zurich, in particular, is the most expensive city in Europe and third overall in the world, with Geneva not far behind in joint seventh. Indeed, aside from Paris and Copenhagen, they are the only two European cities in the top 10.
According to TransferWise, the average monthly rent for a one-bedroom city centre apartment in Geneva is CHF 3,000 (£2,300/$3,210), although it is possible to find properties for around CHF 1,900 (£1,450/$2,030) outside of the city. If that's just a little too eye-watering for you, the capital Bern is slightly more generous, with an average city centre cost of around CHF 1,210 (£930/$1,300) and CHF 850 (£650/$910) outside the city.
As you would expect in a country obsessed with efficiency, public transport is safe, clean and reliable, and will set you back around CHF 75 (£57/$80) per month; car prices and running costs are typically in line with the rest of Western Europe.
Typical working hours in Switzerland are set by law at a maximum of 45 hours per week, usually between Monday and Friday. All employees are entitled to a minimum of four weeks’ paid leave, with young people under the age of 20 also granted an additional week. There are different public holidays depending on which part of the country you work in.
Women are entitled to 14 weeks of paid maternity leave (at 80% of their salary or a maximum of CHF 196 per day), which is far less generous than the policies of many other European countries. Fathers, meanwhile, are not entitled to any paternity leave at all, bar a single ‘family day’ – the only country in Europe that does not have statutory paternity leave.
Attempts to change this policy has been rebuffed several times by the Swiss government, although a recent petition aimed at changing the law has gained enough signatures for the issue to be put to a national referendum.
Finding a Job
Although many organisations conduct their professional business in English, as a foreigner you are far more likely to find a job if you can speak one of Switzerland’s four recognised national languages – typically, French in the west of the country, Italian in the south, Romansch in the east and German in the centre and north.
The application process is very similar to that in the UK and the US, with the submission of a well-written CV (consider a Europass CV if you need help here) and cover letter usually leading to an interview or assessment. Most companies post jobs online, while it is always important to maintain a strong network of contacts who can give you a competitive edge in your job search. Conversely, many of Switzerland’s largest employers are multinational companies, so if you currently work for one such organisation, it may also be possible to apply internally for a permanent position or secondment.
Given its scenic location, Switzerland boasts a thriving tourism and hospitality sector. In particular, ski resorts in the Alps are always looking for seasonal workers, including travel representatives, logistical staff, chefs, cleaners and, of course, instructional staff. English-speaking ski instructors are particularly in demand.
Visas and Work Permits
Although Switzerland is not a part of the European Union (EU) or the European Economic Area (EEA), it is a member of the single market, meaning foreign EU/EEA nationals do not require a permit or visa to live and work there. For UK citizens, this is, of course, subject to change, although at the time of writing negotiations are ongoing and, until a formal decision is announced, the process will not change.
For non-EU/EEA nationals, your prospective employer must submit a work permit application. This will only be accepted if:
- The company can prove that no other EU/EEA workers are appropriately qualified for the position
- You are deemed a ‘qualified worker’ (usually defined as a graduate with specific technical expertise and experience)
- Established immigration quotas have not been used up
- It is in the ‘general economic interest’ of the country
If successful, you will then be granted a visa and you will have to register with the communal authorities of your destination before starting work.
Although the cost of living is high, Switzerland boasts the kind of generous salaries, safe surroundings and luxurious living standards that make it a highly desirable destination to move to. Indeed, as the country continues to offer low unemployment rates, a stable and well-oiled economy, and a highly skilled labour market, now could be the ideal time to make the most of what this beautiful and prosperous country has to offer.
Do you currently work in Switzerland? What’s it like? Let us know in the comments below…
Currency conversions are based on rates supplied by XE.com on 6 February 2018.