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Residence permits: How EU and EFTA citizens can live, work and stay in Switzerland

For European Union and EFTA citizens, living and working in Switzerland is much easier. Here's what you need to know.

The city of Zurich, with Lake Zurich in the foreground, on a beautiful day. Zurich is a popular destination for foreign workers. Photo by Volodymyr on Unsplash
The city of Zurich, with Lake Zurich in the foreground, on a beautiful day. Zurich is a popular destination for foreign workers. Photo by Volodymyr on Unsplash

A small country with a strong economy, Switzerland is heavily reliant on its foreign workers. 

Approximately 25 percent of the country’s population is foreign, with the figure in some cantons as high as 50 percent. 

Switzerland has a dual system for allowing foreign workers in to the country: European Union (EU) and European Free Trade Association (EFTA) nationals are in one group and people from all other countries (third-country nationals) in a second group.

This means that citizens of the 27 countries currently in the European Union – along with the three EFA states other than Switzerland (Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway) – have preferential access when it comes to living and working in Switzerland. 

While it is not as simple as just moving to Switzerland like you would in your own country, it remains much easier than if you come from a so-called ‘third country’. If you come from a country outside the EU/EFTA states, click the following link for more information. 

READ MORE: An essential guide to Swiss work permits

Here’s what you need to know. 

EU and EFTA nationals

Nationals from EU and EFTA countries are able to live and work in Switzerland under the terms of the Agreement on the Free Movement of Persons (AFMP).

People from these countries only require a residence permit, which also doubles as a work permit. These permits are not tied to a single canton, but you need to inform the authorities if you change your address. You can also change jobs or take up self-employment.

Note that you will only generally be granted a residence permit if you have a signed work contract detailing the number of hours to be worked and the duration of the position.

A red train carves its way though the Swiss mountains on a snowy day.

The scenic route. This is the way at least some people get to work in Switzerland. Photo by Johannes Hofmann on Unsplash

However, people from EU and EFTA countries who are not economically active, such as retirees and students, may be entitled to a residence permit if they can prove they have sufficient funds to support themselves and that they have health insurance. There is more information here.

If you are an EU or EFTA national, you can also come to Switzerland and look for work for a period of up to three months without needing to obtain a permit. If your job hunt lasts longer than three months and you have sufficient funds, you can apply for a temporary residence permit that will allow you to continue looking for a further three months.

This can be extended for up to a year if there is sufficient evidence that your job hunt could be successful.

Here are the main types of residence permits for EU/EFTA nationals in Switzerland

L EU/EFTA permit (short-term residents)

This permit is usually given to EU and EFTA who are going to be resident in Switzerland for a period of up to a year.

According to the State Secretariat for Migration, EU and EFTA nationals are entitled to this permit provided they are in possession of an employment contract valid from three up to twelve months. 

Reader question: Does owning a second home in Switzerland give me the right to live there?

B EU/ETFA permit (resident foreign nationals)

This permit is issued to foreigners with a work contract of at least 12 months, or of unlimited duration. This permit can be extended after the five years is up. However, if the applicant has been out of work for more than 12 consecutive months in the previous five-year period, the permit will only be extended for one year.

EU and EFTA nationals who don’t have work, or who plan to work on a self-employed basis, can also be granted a B permit if they can prove they have enough money to be self-sufficient and that they have adequate health and accident insurance.

C EU/FTA permit (settled foreign nationals)

After five or ten years’ residence, some EU and EFTA nationals can obtain permanent residence status by being granted a C permit.

G EU/EFTA permit

This permit is designed for cross-border commuters who work in Switzerland (either employed by a firm or self-employed) but who live elsewhere. Holders of this permit can work anywhere in Switzerland but must return to their place of residence outside Switzerland at least once a week.

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Five tips to help you make the most out of life in Switzerland

Whether you’re in Switzerland for a short time or you’ve committed to the country for the long haul, here are five tips to make your time in Switzerland count.

Five tips to help you make the most out of life in Switzerland

Head to your Gemeinde

The fastest way to feel at home away from home and make sure you don’t miss out on key events is to get to know your immediate surroundings. In Switzerland, your municipality is your best bet if you want to find out the who’s who and what’s what in your area.

Feel free to arm yourself with a notebook and ask your Gemeinde to provide you with a list of your municipality’s societies, associations, sports, and social clubs, as well as events you can join and partake. Some city administrations will be kind enough to include important information on neighbouring municipalities too.

Join a Verein

The Swiss are known to be reserved, quiet people who nurture early childhood friendships for life. While sweet, this can make finding friends in Switzerland a challenge for new arrivals – but it needn’t be so hard. One great way of befriending locals and feel more part of Swiss everyday life is to sign up to so-called Vereins (clubs) which are frequented by the Swiss on the regular. The good thing?

You can pick any one interest you have, be it an orchestra Verein, a Vespa Verein or even a Verein for new parents, and foster your language skills by discussing topics you have a keen interest in with like-minded people.

You can find a list of clubs here.

Use Swiss-backed apps to plan your day

Living in Switzerland means the great outdoors are always just a stone’s throw away, but despite the many – and carefully planned – hiking trails, it is prudent you stay safe even in a country renowned for its safety. One app the Swiss love to rely on for safety outdoors is SwissAlert. The app not only lets you know of any weather and natural disasters in your area, but it will also inform you of their consequences as well as other important changes (such as disruptions to public transport).

Those looking to make the most out of their everyday life should also download the Swiss Post App to check post office opening times, track a parcel’s whereabouts and check if there’s anything waiting for you in the mail. Other handy apps are the SBB app to keep on top of any train information, and which acts as a phone book, weather forecast, map, and TV guide all in one.

Explore local favourites

Whether you’ve asked your local municipality, a Swiss friend or simply googled a few local tips, start to get to know your new home by exploring the best your town has to offer to make you feel that bit more positive about your relocation.

In Basel, the Hotel Drei Könige is rumoured to serve the city’s finest breakfast while you can enjoy the best coffee and croissants combo at the young Kult bakery at Riehentorstrasse 18 and Elsässerstrasse 43. In the evenings, crowds gather by the Rhine for drinks, food, and a merry time.

Those living in Zurich are well advised to grab a coffee at Café Boy. The modern café is a local favourite for a reason: its produce and meat are regionally sourced and always fresh. In wintertime, locals also love to spend time at one of the city’s top three saunas: Stadtbad Zürich, City Hallenbad, or Seebad Enge.

If you fancy yourself a quick bite in Lausanne, locals swear by the food trucks stationed at Place de la Riponne. For those not in the mood for international dishes, the Café de l’Eveché near the city’s cathedral offers classic Swiss cuisine such as rösti and fondue.

Meanwhile, Geneva’s Eaux-Vives is arguably the best area to wind down after a long day’s work with ample food and drink options right by the lake. Another insider tip perfect for a Friday night date is the Café Marius which serves outstanding organic wine coupled with a great atmosphere.

Getting around

If you’re looking to save money, time, and make the most of your life in Switzerland, it is essential you get well acquainted with the SBB CFF FFS, Switzerland’s railway company. Lucky for you, Switzerland’s SBB is recognised as one of Europe’s chief train operators and connects around 2,600 stations and stops across the country – making getting around a breeze!

With SBB CFF FFS, you can pay for “Sparbillette” – or so-called Supersaver tickets – and benefit from an up to 70 percent discount on the standard ticket price. Travellers can choose from one-way tickets to day passes but will be limited to a few select routes and times. The trick is to book as early as possible to snag the best deal.

For frequent travellers, SBB’s GA Travelcard at an annual cost of 3,860 francs for adults is your most cost-effective option by a landslide. The travelcard allows you to travel on public transport throughout Switzerland for “free” and you can even get 5 francs off on short-term bike rentals at 20 SBB stations.

If you don’t want to hand over quite that much money, a great way of reducing your transport cost is to purchase SBB’s Half Fare Travelcard. The travelcard costs 120 francs per year and gives you an up to 50 percent discount on all travel by train, bus, boat, and most mountain railways.