Fewer arrivals but more foreign residents: How Switzerland’s coronavirus epidemic has affected immigration

Immigration to Switzerland fell sharply in the first half of 2020 as a direct result of the pandemic. Despite this, the foreign resident population in Switzerland has grown.

Fewer arrivals but more foreign residents: How Switzerland's coronavirus epidemic has affected immigration
Tourists take a picture of a large Swiss flag. Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP

New figures from the State Secretariat for Migration (SEM) have shown the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on migration to Switzerland. 

For the first time in decades, Switzerland put in place strict controls on immigration which led to a significant fall in immigrants from January to June in 2020. 

In March, Switzerland’s Federal Council temporarily halted entry to Switzerland for all except residents, citizens and cross-border workers. 

READ: How Switzerland avoided a coronavirus 'catastrophe' by protecting cross-border workers 

Even those who possessed a valid work permit were restricted from moving to Switzerland unless there was an “overriding public interest” in their profession, i.e. health care, energy, logistics and other limited areas. 

The result was a fall in immigration – although the number of foreign residents still managed to grow during this time. 

Decline in new arrivals

Although the pandemic began to sweep through Switzerland in late February, it was not until late March when the first immigration controls came into place – meaning that the impact wasn’t seen until April. 

Immigration in April was down 28 percent, with 5,132 people arriving in Switzerland. In May, there was a 42 percent decrease on figures from the previous year, with 4,208 making the move Swiss-wards. 

While travel restrictions were largely lifted on June 8th, the 6,460 people who made the move in June was eight percent below the previous year’s figure. 

But why are there now more foreigners in Switzerland?

Despite the decrease, a total of 58,730 people made the move to Switzerland in the first six months of 2020 – a higher figure than in 2019. 

There were two main reasons for the increase. 

Firstly, pre-pandemic migration numbers from January and February were higher in 2020 than in 2019. 

The second was a decline in emigration – i.e. foreign residents leaving Switzerland – by 14.4 percent, due at least in part to the pandemic. 


The result is a net increase of 25,995 people in Switzerland from January until June in 2020 – 1,323 more than from the same period in 2019.

As the SEM wrote “the coronavirus pandemic and the protective measures taken in Switzerland and most other countries have had a significant impact on migration. In the permanent foreign resident population, there was a sharp decline in both effective immigration (from abroad) and emigration.”

The figures are however positive for Swiss businesses. 

“Thanks to the immigration of workers from the EU / EFTA / UK, the needs of the Swiss economy could be met,” wrote the SEM. 

“The corresponding data show that the occupational groups that ensure the availability of essential goods and services were exempt from the restrictions.”

How many foreigners live in Switzerland? 

At the end of June, almost 2.2 million foreigners lived in Switzerland – roughly one quarter of the country’s total population. 

READ: Where do Switzerland's foreigners all live? 

Two-thirds have lived in Switzerland for longer than five years. 

Roughly 75 percent of the foreigners who live in Switzerland come from EU or EFTA countries (1,455,231). 


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Three Swiss cantons overlooked by foreigners

Many foreigners are drawn to Switzerland thanks to factors like the high quality of living. But which cantons are less popular with international residents?

Three Swiss cantons overlooked by foreigners

In 2021, 26 percent of the permanent resident population in Switzerland were foreigners, 31 percent were born abroad, and 39 percent had a migration background.

Many foreigners moving to Switzerland choose to live in big cities and areas surrounding urban centres. Unsurprisingly, the cantons of Geneva, Basel City and Vaud have some of the largest proportion of foreign residents at 41, 37 and 33 percent, respectively.

But while The Local has covered the Swiss cantons – and smaller towns – most foreigners choose to settle down in Switzerland, let’s have a look at the cantons that fail to pique their interest.

READ ALSO: Five small towns that attract lots of foreign nationals

Appenzell Innerrhoden

At just 11 percent, Appenzell Innerrhoden is the Swiss canton with the least number of permanent foreign residents. This however doesn’t come as a surprise as the small canton with its 16,578 residents is also Switzerland’s least populated. So, if the Swiss aren’t dying to move to Appenzell Innerrhoden, surely neither will foreigners. But why is that?

First things first, the canton is far from well-connected, and this is in stark contrast with the country as a whole which is known to have one of Europe’s best railway systems. Located in Eastern Switzerland, Appenzell Innerrhoden is off the beaten track as it to this day has neither a national road connection nor does it link to the national standard-gauge train tracks.

Though the canton has a train station – the Bahnhof Appenzell – it is only serviced by the St. Gallen S-Bahn (S20, S21, S23), covering Trogen, Gossau and Wasserauen. This makes a daily commute to Zurich, Basel, and Geneva, all of which are popular working cities for foreigners, inconvenient.

If you’re thinking of skipping a commute by getting a job in the canton itself, you may be looking at a career change. Appenzell Innerrhoden is known for its agriculture (and little else), specifically cattle breeding and dairy farming, with Appenzeller cheese widely available throughout Switzerland.

Interestingly, Appenzell Innerrhoden was the last canton in Switzerland to give women the right to vote at a cantonal level, only allowing them to do so in 1990 – 19 years after they were allowed to vote at a national level (1971).

READ ALSO: Where do Switzerland’s foreigners all live?


The Swiss canton of Uri borders an impressive eight cantons where all four official national languages are spoken, yet despite this accessibility the canton has failed to attract foreigners. In 2021, only 13 percent of its 37,000 residents were foreign nationals, compared to 26 percent Switzerland-wide.

Still, there are plenty of reasons to visit Uri as a tourist – if a permanent move to the canton feels too daunting. As one of Switzerland’s founding cantons alongside Schwyz and Unterwalden, Uri boasts some of the country’s most stunning sights, such as the Teufelsbrücke (devil’s bridge), Wilhelm Tell Museum and the infamous Rütli where the Rütli Oath was sworn.

Unsurprisingly, tourism is one of Uri’s major industries and the canton has an exceptional road network that reaches remote areas in the mountains.

Following SBB’s updated timetable as of December 2022, you can now reach Altdorf – the capital of Uri – even easier. There are 90 train connections every working day from Altdorf (Intercity, Interregio and S-Bahn) to the north and south of the country. You can hop on a train to Uri every two hours from Zurich and Lugano.


Despite being the Swiss canton closest to Paris – from Delémont it takes barely three hours to reach the French capital – Jura is the third least favourite canton for foreigners to permanently settle in. As of 2021, just 15 percent of Jura’s 73,798 inhabitants were foreign nationals.

The French-speaking canton is also Switzerland’s youngest and was established on 1st January 1979 when it split from German-speaking Bern following a series of polls held to decide on the separation. Bern’s districts got to choose whether they wanted to remain with the canton – as they had for 165 years – or join the new Jura. In the end, six districts remained and seven stayed.

READ ALSO: How foreigners are changing Switzerland

Today, the canton stands out in many ways – not least due to its non-existent traffic lights. In fact, Jura, unlike other Swiss cantons, does not have a single traffic light, relying instead on its residents to keep the traffic running smoothly with a generous number of roundabouts. Traffic lights are only used as a temporary measure during construction.

The canton is also a focus of horse breeding in Switzerland and home to the Freiberger horse breed, formerly known as the ‘Jura-Pferd’ (Jura horse).

Despite its quirks, economically, Jura is one of Switzerland’s weakest cantons which is reflected in its many empty and decaying properties. The canton also has the country’s highest unemployment rate alongside Geneva at 3.7 percent compared to 2.1 percent at the federal level (December 2022).

More recently, Jura’s cantonal police presented the police crime statistics for the year 2022 which showed that crimes against property increased by 14 percent with 1,921 offenses recorded in 2022 compared to 1,684 in 2021. The most frequent property offenses are larceny, burglary, vehicle theft and fraud.