It is now just over 5 years since I (32/male) moved from the UK to Switzerland. There have been many surprises along the way. I moved here with a 1 year temporary contract and had vague plans to work, see the country at weekends, and then move on elsewhere after. During this time I have moved house, moved job, been unemployed for a few months, explored the country, met and worked with Swiss people from various parts of the country and Expats of various backgrounds, oh and gotten married to a Swiss person.
This is not an all out guide (there are plenty of those), more my reflections and a few lessons learned.
I came in knowing practically nothing other than a frantic check of anything I needed to do to avoid being kicked out.
- The book “Living and Working in Switzerland : A Survival Handbook” by David Hampshire, is very useful.
- Various dedicated websites with more serious official information sem.admin.ch, and Ch.ch, and to an extent websites like SwissInfo.
- Various websites with more unofficial but helpful information. The EnglishForum.ch is a treasure trove of information and experiences. But there are endless other places like Newlyswissed, and Swiss and Chips that vary between useless fluff and very useful info.
Why and how
- I did a PhD in the UK and as I was finishing it up and looking for a PostDoc I basically just got a job here in a place I had never heard of through chance by a chain of contacts. I had been looking to move abroad but for some reason Switzerland had never occurred to me.
- Initially I arrived on a 1 year contract with Firm A, with the strong likelihood of it being extended to 2 years. It ended up as 2.5, by which time I was moved in with my girlfriend and I was set on sticking around. Job hunting was slower than I expected, so before starting on a new position at Firm B I applied to unemployment benefits for what turned out to be just a month (not sure I need to be so secretive really, but why not).
- I basically just moved with my laptop and as much clothing as I could fit in a 60L backpack. I didn’t bother/forgot to declare anything (not that I brought anything of any value with me).
- I got lucky with housing, but that could have been the biggest problem. Initially I had been expecting to stay at a flat rented by the company for a month or two until I found my own place. This got cancelled at the last minute and I found myself trying to find a flat to move straight into. In the end I staying at a hostel for a week and moved into a shared flat found through WGzimmer.ch before the end of the week. There are not many shared flats where you can quickly jump in compared to the UK, and applying for a flat of your own often feels more like applying for a job or dating with the process dragging on for much longer than the “You like it? OK pay the deposit and sign here” method in the UK. Starting early and getting help from your company is certainly advisable there. The only time I ever use my Dr title is on job and housing applications.
Bureaucracy, Rules, and Paperwork
I had feared this would be a slow and complicated torture, but to date this has all been very quick, easy, and painless. In large part probably because I had a job already, I was an EU citizen, and I had an address lined up quickly. I know it gets more complicated for non-EU citizens.
- Dealing with the local authorities has always been fast, efficient, and friendly. Other than collecting my residency permit every so often when a contract has been renewed I have only had to deal with them very periodically, but any phone call or visit has taken no more than 20 minutes with very little waiting. This might just be because I live in a small city – maybe in Zürich or a tiny village it is different.
- I had a slight delay in getting my permit and bank account activated as I waited for the landlord to approve my place as subtenant and give me a contract for proof of address (despite the fact I was already living there). This didn’t create any problems, my firm just gave me an envelope stuffed with bank notes for my first payment.
- Setting up a PostFinance bank account was easy (even with a language barrier then). 20 minutes of filling in a form and showing a few documents.
- Despite the reputation for rules and order I have not noticed much difference to life in other industrialised western countries. If anything it is more relaxed in many ways. There are some stricter rules like having to use pre-taxed bin bags or minimal noise on a Sunday, but these are mostly reasonable enough. It is nice not hear endless lawn mower engines on a Sunday afternoon. The only rule that seems pointless is having to tie up paper in a perfect bundle for recycling. Maybe if I ever try and build a house or plan an extension the rules will get more complex and painful.
- According to most sources I have read you are supposed to swap your driving licence within a year, or unable to drive in Switzerland and be made to repeat the test again if you want a Swiss licence. I didn’t apply at first given that I never intended to drive here or stay much longer at first. When I did apply after 2.5 years through the standard process (just to see what would happen) I actually did just get given a Swiss licence without being asked to go through the whole testing process. I have seen evidence that it is a 5 year grace period, and that some people have done it closer to 10. Just swap it in the first year to be safe.
- The mandatory health insurance is easy enough to set up with all the big companies offering English support. I have mostly done the bare minimum I need to do here and have yet to start being truly Swiss and chasing the best deal every year. The cost is painful, but the health care system has always been efficient and effective for me.
- Tax was originally paid at the source (as is standard for foreign workers up until you are on a C permit) which made life very easy there, but now being married and treated as a combined legal entity I am paying tax through the standard method.
- Going through the marriage process was also easy. Being an EU citizen marrying a Swiss citizen helped. There was some confusion when they asked for a statement from the UK govt saying I was not married as this apparently has not been given out in years, but a quick chat resolved that problem. A British friend who married a non-resident Russian had a much harder time.
- I make roughly 100k CHF per year. This is more than decent by Swiss standards. Given my education and experience I could get more in another firm/position here, but I am happy with my workplace and would be very reluctant to give up my scenic riverside commute by bike.
- Saving money has not been a problem. Even bearing most of the household costs with a studying partner. Not having a car, pets, kids, or eating/drinking out much helps there. My main non-essential expense is the general train pass and food/accommodation costs for weekends around the country.
- The high prices take some getting used to at first, but when you work here it isn’t so bad (once you learn to stop converting them back to your native currency). The positive side is that when you leave Switzerland everything is suddenly so cheap.
I like the Swiss.
- I have never had any problems with the Swiss; despite the number of comments I see online bemoaning the fact that whilst Switzerland is a beautiful country it would be terrible to live in as the locals hate foreigners. I have never had a moment of hostility and experience less general rudeness than I would expect back home in the UK (even with language/culture barriers to push the patience).
- I am however white, from a north-western European country which doesn’t have many expats in Switzerland, and educated (outside the expense of the Swiss people). So I am probably not going to be the target of much racism or xenophobia.
- Whilst not the warmest people in the world there is a certain friendliness, especially in informal situations. Put a Swiss person in the countryside and they will be friends with anyone. In rural restaurants especially sharing a table with strangers and saying hello/goodbye to everyone there as a whole is standard practice.
- I am amazed by how relaxed and trusting they can be. Once for example whilst eating outside at a quiet restaurant I asked for the bill and a coffee, the owner left the restaurant wallet on the table with me and went to get the coffee. Likewise I went to a bike shop I had never been in before, said I was interested in quickly testing a 3000 CHF mountain bike and they just handed it over and told me to have fun – no request for ID or anything.
- I am also more on the introverted side so a quieter and orderly country is probably more my sort of place than some of the commentators.
My friendship group is a mix of Swiss and other expats. It is easier to integrate with other expats, though I find that the younger generations of Swiss are much more open than the old jokes of knowing a Swiss person from birth or for 40 years to be their friend would suggest.
Moving in with a Swiss man of my age right away made this much easier. I basically got an instant friend and guide to all things Swiss.
I have written fairly extensively about Swiss-German before. Though I do like Swiss-German and I much prefer High-German with a Swiss accent to the standard German High-German.
- I had some very basic German in the distance past from school. Then started learning before I arrived. Now I am B2/C1 with German and (very slowly) working towards A2 with French, with the aim of having at least some very basic Italian.
- Oddly even living in a German speaking area it can be hard to use it, especially now not being out and about much. My work is in English and it is conducted between workers in German or whatever language most people in the meeting speak (which is typically English), my home life is mostly English as I met my wife when I didn’t speak much German and we got too used to speaking English together.
- I didn’t need to get a language certificate (still don’t really). Partly I put it off thinking I would wait until the next level, and partly that the grammar and me are not friends. In the end the updated rules for my canton meant I needed evidence of my language skills to get a C permit rather than just staying on the B. So I have finally taken and passed the TELC B2 exam for German which more than covers everything I need (including citizenship). Long term I am thinking about aiming for certificates for C1 in German, B1 in French, and A2 in Italian – but those would just be to help set goals rather than be requirements.
- The Swiss are very patient with language. I got one or two comments from shop workers that I should learn German if I was going to live here at first – but nothing that felt like it had any bad intention or resentment to it. If anything I have a problem getting the Swiss to speak German with me, many of them will switch to English as soon as they get a hint of my accent. I expect that in a touristy area like Interlaken, but it happens everywhere from the butcher to a remote farmhouse restaurant in the Jura. I am never quite sure if they are being polite, want to practise their English, or can’t stand the idea of dealing with High-German.
- As noted above English is very widely spoken.
- If you live in a city and work in an international workplace then knowing the local language isn’t really needed. Once you have a flat and bank account all the interaction you need is self-service machines at the supermarket (and even those you can set to English). Though I certainly don’t recommend doing that.
- It is natural to think that everyone here speaks German/French/Italian fluently (and maybe some Romansch), but that is far from the case. Some do have all 3, many are fluent in 2, but very often English is the preferred common language outside of their mother tongue. Likewise the way the language regions tend to have very hard borders without much overlap was a bit surprising at first. I often find that French speakers would rather (or can only) speak English rather than German.
- Being in a country with multiple languages will never get boring. Especially somewhere that actually is bilingual like Biel where it isn’t uncommon for a shopkeeper to forget what language they were speaking to you in and switch from German to French.
- Those fancy landscape photos didn’t show the fog did they? From September to February temperature inversion means that much of the low lying middle of Switzerland can be sat in/under a thick fog. How bad this is varies by location; some places barely get any whilst others turn into Silent Hill for weeks on end. Already shorter winter days can be shortened by hours as the light is swallowed. The plus side is that above the fog you get super clear views, but it gets depressing after days of daily life sat inside it.
- The country is much livelier than I expected. The stereotype of a grey serious place might have been true decades ago but certainly isn’t now. Especially in summer there are constant music festivals, lively bars, and flotillas of people floating down the rivers in inflatable flamingos. Granted it still isn’t Latin America.
- I was not prepared for Swiss-German, my then basic German knowledge didn’t stand a chance. I have been working on this and managed to put together as comprehensive collection of resources as you are likely to find anywhere for Swiss-German.
- Sometimes it feels like being back in time. Shops close early (or don’t open at all on Sunday) and at some cinemas they pause the film and have a 10 minute intermission. Things that went away in the UK before I was born.
- The Swiss love to shake hands. For me they are something for the first time you meet someone, or maybe for professional acquaintances you see infrequently. Not for everyone in your group of friends at the start and end of the evening. Kids shaking hands with the teacher everyday is still a strange concept to me.
- The Swiss see summer as BBQ season in a way that makes the Aussies look like amateurs. I have seen people lighting up fires on tiny balconies in Zürich to BBQ on.
- How much there is outside of the Alps. Maybe it was my ignorance before, but I was surprised by how many beautiful spots there are even in the topographically boring parts of the country.
My Swiss Achievements
- Aromat on the table.
- Making a fire in the countryside to roast a Cervelat.
- Phoned the police to lodge a nose complaint (the Bünzli award). It was 2am on a weekday and the 5th night in a row. I haven’t started to phone the police because my neighbour sneezed too loudly on a Sunday (yet….).
- Raclette grill and Fondue Caquelon in the kitchen.
- Waking up at 3am for the Morgestraich in Basel and tolerating other parts of Fasnacht like bands outside my window at 2am on a Tuesday morning.
- Swimming and floating in lakes and rivers during the summer.
- Visiting more places in Switzerland than most Swiss people I know. A new country is always more interesting than your own backyard in fairness.
Why I am still here
I certainly never thought I would be here 5 years later, but I am very happy to still be around.
- It is a beautiful and safe county with nice people, high quality services and infrastructure. Having put in the effort to understand the culture and learnt the language is an incentive too.
- I keep finding work. The Swiss level income is a nice bonus, but it really isn’t the thing that is driving me to stay here. I am not very career driven, so long as I have enough money to enjoy myself and find the work interesting enough I am happy.
- The thing I would find hardest to give up is the freedom of the landscape. The extent of the paths and smaller roads around the country that are open to anyone is amazing. Making it so easy and carefree to get out and anywhere, especially by foot or bike.
- It is much more varied than you would expect. Both in landscape and culture there is plenty of different things to see and take in so there is always something interesting to do.
- I also dislike driving, so the extensive public transport system is fantastic.
- The self-service machines in Supermarkets are actually used in addition to normal checkouts rather than a replacement. And they actually trust you and don’t weigh your goods and shout at you if anything is 1g out of place. It might sound like a strange point to be so happy about, but compared to the UK shopping experience these days it is so nice.
What I dislike
- Less smokers and more Australian like rules on smoking would be very nice (eg: no smoking in areas where people are eating, including outdoors). It would be nice to sit down on a terrace at a restaurant and not worry if a chain smoker is going to sit down at the table next to you.
- I still have problems quickly picking the right coin out of a pile of change. Why half of them have to be so similar is beyond me, especially when the notes are so vivid and clear. But given that payment by card or Twint is increasingly the standard these days I rarely have to worry about using coins.
- More exotic food and longer shop opening times would be nice (seeing the supermarkets closed at 18:30 was a hell of a shock at first) but I have gotten used to that. I don’t demand 24 hour shopping, but until 20:00 would be fantastic.
- Jobs are mostly advertised without a salary, which you then discuss in the interview. For me at least this is rather awkward.
- Not getting a language certificate earlier.
- Not joining a social club. I have looked but nothing has taken my fancy.
Changes with time
- I have gotten too used to the landscape. I still admire the view from the train window, but it is never as special or exciting as during the first few months.
- My town has seen a dramatic increase in English speakers. Mostly due to the growth/arrival of a few big MedTech firms.
- E-bikes are increasingly everywhere. I had never seen one before I arrived and was surprised to see them all over town back in 2015. Now they are all over the countryside too with mountain E-bikes being very common in places that were previously only the domain of the most hardcore riders.
- The climate seems to be getting warmer and drier every year. The amount of snow in the flat land isn’t that different to the UK these days.
- The amount of rubbish and anti-social noise (especially blue-tooth speakers) seems to be getting worse. People seem especially unable to bother carrying their empty cans and disposable BBQ with them from the riverside during summer. The increasing number of people (not even just teenagers) who need an absurdly loud speaker at all times is sad, thankfully it isn’t common in the countryside (yet).