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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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LIVING IN SWITZERLAND

Reader question: How can I find a good lawyer in Switzerland?

Although you hope to never need one, sometimes you might have to seek legal advice in Switzerland. This is how to find it.

Reader question: How can I find a good lawyer in Switzerland?

When you move to a new country, including Switzerland, you have to look for a whole new network of professionals.

You may or may not have immediate need for the proverbial butcher, baker, and the candlestick maker, but sooner or later you will have to find other professionals, with the most essential one being a doctor.

READ MORE: What you should know about finding a doctor in Switzerland

Chances are you will also need, at one time or another, a legal counsel. That should in principle not be a problem as Switzerland has an abundance of lawyers — 7,317 currently practicing in the country, according to European data.

The question of how to find one that best suits your needs depends on many factors — for instance, what kind of legal advice you are seeking (estate planning, inheritance, divorce, etc), whether you speak the language of your region or need an English-speaking attorney,  and whether you can pay (the often exorbitant) fees, or need free counselling instead.

Speaking of fees, the hourly rates vary widely from one lawyer or legal practice to another, with some charging as little as 100 francs or as much as 1,000.

Much depends on the lawyer’s location — with the ones practicing in large cities like Zurich and Geneva being more expensive than their counterparts in small towns or rural regions  — the area of specialisation and general reputation — the more prominent the attorney is with a roster of famous or well-heeled clients, the higher fees they will typically charge.

An important thing to know is that, depending on the advice you are seeking, you may not need a lawyer at all, but rather a public notary; in Switzerland, these professionals perform many tasks that only attorneys can do in other countries, such as drawing contracts and establishing other legal documents.

Here are some tips on how to find a lawyer or a notary that best fits your needs:

Word of mouth

As with any other services, personal recommendations from people you know and trust are best.

This will spare you the effort of “investigating” the person, such as researching their credentials and feedback from previous clients — the due diligence process that everyone should undertake before hiring any professional.

Professional associations

If you don’t know anyone who can recommend an attorney, do your own research.

Professional organisations such as the Swiss Bar Association (SBA) and the Swiss Federation of Notaries are good resources, as they both allow you to look for professionals in or near your place of residence.

English-speaking attorneys

Many Swiss lawyers and notaries, especially those practicing in large urban centres where many foreign residents live, speak English.

But if you want to make sure yours does, the UK government put together a list of English speaking attorneys in Switzerland, which should help you with your search.

‘Free’ legal advice

In principle, all legal assistance comes at a cost, except for exceptional cases, which are defined by each canton.

SBA has a canton-by-canton list, where the designation “GRATIS JUDICATURE” stands for “free legal advice”.

However, there is also such a thing in Switzerland as “legal protection insurance” (Rechtsschutzversicherungen in German, protection juridique in French, and protezione giuridica in Italian).

It covers attorney and other associated fees if you undertake court action against someone, are sued, or simply need legal advice.

There are two different types of legal protection insurance — one specifically for traffic accidents and the other for all other matters. Sometimes they are combined.

Typically, this insurance covers costs of legal representation associated with contract disputes, employment, loans and debts, healthcare, housing, retail purchases, and travel.

The annual cost of this insurance, which you can purchase from practically every carrier in Switzerland, is minimal, especially if you consider how much you’d have to spend if you hired an attorney yourself.

Another benefit of these policies is that a lawyer will be assigned to you by the insurance company so you won’t have the headache of looking for one on your own.

This article provides more information about this insurance:

EXPLAINED: Why you need ‘legal protection insurance’ in Switzerland

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