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Digital nomads: Who can work remotely in Switzerland?

These days it is possible to be physically located in Switzerland, while working remotely for a company based in another country. Here’s what you should know about this growing 'digital nomad' trend - and how to do it in Switzerland.

Digital nomads don’t need a physical office; they can work anywhere.
True digital nomad can work from anywhere, including the bench. Photo by Polina Kovaleva from Pexels

Modern technology means that many jobs can be done from anywhere in the world with only a laptop and a decent wi-fi connection.

This kind of work / lifestyle has given rise to the term “digital nomads” — people who are not tied down to any one physical or geographical location, but work from wherever they happen to be.

They could be working remotely for a company overseas, or be self-employed, providing services for clients abroad. 

True nomads don’t even have an office in a traditional sense of the word, preferring to be mobile and work from different locations. And this kind of work model is becoming more commonplace.

Some countries, including Spain, are even offering digital nomad visas to tempt people to head to under-populated areas of the country.

Switzerland offers no such incentives, which is not  surprising, as any kind of work visas or permits are notoriously difficult to obtain here. However, there is a small community of these location-independent workers in the country.

EXPLAINED: An essential guide to Swiss work permits

“The scene of digital nomads in Switzerland is relatively small, but active and growing,” Lorenz Ramseyer, president of the Swiss Digital Nomads’ Association, told The Local in an interview.

His association currently has 151 active members and there’s also a Facebook group.The members work remotely in such fields as web design / layout, software development, consulting, coaching, virtual assistants, writing and teaching.

What are the rules digital nomads must follow in Switzerland?

If they are part of staff with a company, their employer must comply with Switzerland’s labour laws, including rules pertaining to teleworking.

Most nomads, however, are so-called independent contractors — that is, freelancers.

If this is your case, you have to comply with the laws governing those who are self-employed.

For residents of Switzerland, this includes declaring your income and paying taxes, even if you don’t have a physical office address, making social security (AHV / AVS) contributions at a maximum rate of  9.7 percent of your income, and taking up the compulsory health insurance including, if you re self-employed, accident coverage.

As many Swiss residency permits are tied to an employer, moving to Switzerland in order to become a self-employed freelancer will not confer a work permit. 

READ MORE: What freelancers in Switzerland need to know about paying tax

What are some other things nomads in Switzerland should consider?

People who don’t want to be stuck to their desks all days long — and true nomads don’t — should consider different options, Ramseyer said.

For instance, “they can buy a discount day pass and work on the train while travelling through Switzerland”.

Swiss digital nomads working on a train. Photo: Swiss Digital Nomads’ Association

He also recommends that digital nomads consider different co-working and co-living possibilities — shared living / working spaces for remote workers.

Are there resources specifically for digital nomads in Switzerland?

In October 2022, the Swiss Digital Nomads Association held a conference focusing on practical information about working remotely and living as a digital nomad.

Different aspects of digital nomadism, including location-independent working, entrepreneurship, and building value-creating projects, are discussed at these events. 

And if you’re thinking of taking the plunge, you can get a sense of which remote jobs are currently available in Switzerland here.

READ MORE: Five insider tips to find a job in Switzerland

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LIVING IN SWITZERLAND

Swiss cantons mull civilian protection service for foreigners

Swiss authorities want foreign nationals who live in the country to be well integrated. But could this mean they will soon have to carry out civil protection service? Two cantons are considering the possibility.

Swiss cantons mull civilian protection service for foreigners

All able-bodied Swiss men from the age of 18 until 30 are required to serve in the armed forces or in its alternative, the civilian protection service.

Thus far, foreign citizens living in Switzerland have been exempt from joining the country’s armed forces, civil service and civilian protection service, but according to the Luzerner Zeitung, two cantons are now looking to change that. The reason: the number of men (and women) in Switzerland’s civilian defence has been declining, enough for its Federal Council to express concern over the prevailing staff shortage.

Switzerland’s Federal Council is currently reviewing a possible change in the law with various proposals being up for discussion. Among them, the suggestion by cantons Nidwalden and Zug that foreigners with a permanent residence permit should be subject to civilian protection service – just like Swiss men.

Civilian protection service – or civil defence – provides protection, care and support to the Swiss society and is regulated on a cantonal level. Civilian protection service is often performed by Swiss men who are declared unfit for military service, but who are fit enough for civilian protection service.

The service is not to be confused with Switzerland’s civil service.

READ MORE: Reader question: Do foreigners have to do military service in Switzerland?

However, the opinions of Switzerland’s political parties on the subject differ.

While Zug’s SP party said it was open for discussion, its co-president Zari Dzaferi remarked that it wouldn’t be fair to impose such a duty on foreigners if they have no political rights and that if that were the case, Switzerland should also look at having women join its civil protection service.

However, Dzaferi feels that obligatory civilian protection service for foreign residents may help with integration.

Meanwhile, Nidwalden’s SVP agrees that the medium-term proposals are understandable, and the corresponding examination will show how practicable the suggestion is.

Its president Roland Blättler said that while civilian protection service could help foreigners integrate, so can joining the fire brigade or doing voluntary work – but that women joining the nation’s civil service may well be worth a discussion. Zug’s SVP president Thomas Werner also agreed with Blättler on the integration issue.

READ MORE: Reader question: Do I have to help the fire brigade in Switzerland if I’m called up?

While various solutions to the issue have been discussed at federal level for months, the canton of Aargau announced an obligatory information event last year where it said it will expect some 3,800 residents – including Swiss women and foreigners – to show up, or pay a 500-franc fine. The future event will focus not only on serving in the military and civilian service, but also broader civilian protection, such as the fire brigade or Samaritan associations.

The canton of Lucerne is planning a similar event aimed at Swiss women and foreign residents.

In 2021, Switzerland already extended the length of time for when compulsory service for members of the civilian protection service from 12 to 14 years to ensure that enough civilian protection service officers were available. Over that period participants need to carry out 245 days of service.

The law still has to go through a second reading. If there is still a majority in parliament and no referendum is held, then there will be the first mandatory information events in Aargau in 2024.

*This story has been corrected since it was originally published to show that the cantons were considering introducing civilian protection service for foreigners and not military service as we wrote originally. We apologise for the error.

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