Working for an international organisation in Switzerland
If you move to Switzerland to work for an international organisation, you will be issued with a “legitimation card” (carte de legitimation – note that the English translation of this very niche term is rarely seen) instead of a residence permit. Legitimation cards are issued by the Swiss Mission to the United Nations on behalf of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (DFAE) in accordance with the provisions of the federal act and ordinance on privileges, immunities, facilities and financial subsidies granted by Switzerland as a host state (HSA and HSO), unlike permits which are issued by the SEM and governed by the Federal Act on Foreign Nationals and Integration (FNIA).
Most international organisations offer three different types of employment contract: temporary contracts, fixed-term contracts (the most common kind) and indefinite contracts (fairly rare). The type and color of legitimation card depends on the employee’s status (senior civil servant, professional, general services, short-term, etc.), and the immunities and privileges that come with them differ slightly.
Who is entitled to a legitimation card?
Legitimation cards are granted to “international civil servants” (fonctionnaires internationaux) based in Switzerland, as defined in article 2 of the HSA. This term refers to, in particular, employees of intergovernmental organisations, international institutions, quasi-governmental international organisations, diplomatic missions, consular posts and permanent missions or representatives to intergovernmental organisations. Switzerland hosts an astonishing number of such missions and organisations, particularly in Geneva; by way of example, employees of the United Nations (UN), the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN), the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) are all considered international civil servants, as are staff of the permanent missions to the UN based in Geneva and the embassies in Bern.
If you fit this description, you and certain family members accompanying you (see below for details) will be issued with legitimation cards granting you the right to stay in Switzerland for as long as your contract lasts.
How do I get my legitimation card?
Your employer will usually request the cards from the Swiss Mission on your behalf when you arrive.
The card will be valid for the length of your contract, and will be automatically renewed if your contract is renewed. You will have to return it when you leave the organisation; if you are then employed by a different organisation, you will receive a new card.
Can I have a part-time job alongside my job at an international organisation?
As the main holder of a legitimation card, you can request permission from the canton to have a side hustle provided that it doesn’t account for more than 10 hours of work a week and doesn’t interfere or conflict with your main job. Tutoring, for example, is generally considered compatible, whereas commerce usually isn’t.
What if I want to stay in Switzerland after my contract ends?
You and your family members have to return your legitimation cards as soon as your contract ends. Your right to stay in the country when you no longer have a valid legitimation card depends on the reason for its expiry:
If you retire at the usual age set out in your employer’s statutes, you will usually be eligible for a residence permit without employment (“rentier” B permit). In fact, if you lived and worked in Switzerland for the five years preceding your retirement, you can apply for settled status (C permit) immediately.
You can also request a “rentier” B permit if you retire early at the age of 55 or older. In this case, you need to have lived in Switzerland for the ten previous years in order to apply for a C permit.
If you retire before the age of 55, you can still request a “rentier” permit but you will have to have very good reasons to justify staying in the country and your application is much less likely to be successful.
In general, if you are granted a B or C permit, your spouse/partner (as defined below) will be authorised to stay too.
End of contract before retirement
If you want to stay in Switzerland after you leave your organisation for any reason other than retirement (e.g. your fixed-term contract ends or you resign), you will have to follow the usual procedures to obtain residency. If you find another job in Switzerland outside of the international public sector, your employer will apply for a work permit on your behalf; if you are accepted to study at a Swiss higher-education institution, you can request a student permit. You may also be able to apply for a family reunification permit if, for example, you have married a Swiss citizen or C- or B-permit holder during your time as an international civil servant.
Family members of the main holder
You (the “main holder”) can also request cards for the following family members:
- Your spouse;
- Your same-sex partner if you are in a registered partnership equivalent to that available in Switzerland or if your employer recognises them as an official partner or dependent;
- Your common-law/cohabiting partner of the opposite sex if your employer recognises them as an official partner or dependent;
- Your unmarried children under the age of 25;
- Your unmarried stepchildren* under the age of 25 who are officially dependent on your spouse or partner.
The following people may also exceptionally be granted legitimation cards if they live with you:
- Your partner (of the same or opposite sex) who is not officially recognised as a partner or dependent but for whom your employer requests a residence document, if you can prove that you are in a long-term relationship and, in the case of a same-sex partner, if you have been unable to enter into registered partnership in Switzerland or abroad;
- Unmarried children or stepchildren* over the age of 25 who are entirely dependent on you;
- Your parents or parents-in-law* if they are entirely dependent on you;
- Any other dependents who cannot be entrusted to someone else in your home state owing to a force majeure.
*We use the terms “stepchildren” and “parents-in-law” here to include the children and parents of any spouse or partner (married or not) meeting the criteria for a legitimation card of their own.
Whatever the relationship, only family members who live with you will be granted permits.
Family members’ legitimation cards have the same expiry date as that of the main holder, i.e. the expected end date of their employment contract, and will be renewed if the contract is extended provided that they still meet the criteria.
Can family members work?
The legitimation card that you receive as the family member of a main holder gives you the right to look for work in Switzerland without meeting all the other criteria usually applicable to foreigners, provided you are living in Switzerland.
Our top tip: Ask the DFAE for an attestation stating your right to work to show prospective employers, as legitimation cards are not well understood outside of the international public sector.
If you (a family member) want to start your own business, you will need authorisation from the relevant authorities, who will consider what you propose to do and whether you have the necessary qualifications.
Children of the main holder who are under 21 when they receive their legitimation cards enjoy this facilitated access to the job market until the age of 25, provided they are still unmarried and still live with the main holder in Switzerland. However, this doesn’t apply to children who receive their card between the ages of 21 and 25, so they have to meet the usual conditions applicable to foreigners looking for work in Switzerland.
Once you have been offered a job or have informed the cantonal population office of your intention to start a business, your legitimation card will be swapped for a Ci permit. A Ci-permit holder is considered the same as other Swiss workers, which means that you will no longer benefit from the exemptions that the legitimation card provides and must comply with all the usual social security and tax obligations.
Children no longer eligible for a legitimation card
Your children/stepchildren will have to return their legitimation cards when they turn 25, and if they want to stay in Switzerland after that point, whether to study or work, they will need to apply via the standard procedures (see “Want to study in Switzerland?” and “Working in Switzerland”).
As mentioned above, if you are granted a normal residence permit after returning your legitimation card, your children will be entitled to one too. They will then be able to apply for permits in their own right as follows:
- When they turn 21 in all cases;
- Earlier if they marry or become financially independent and no longer live with you;
- From the age of 18 if they are well integrated and lose their permit as a result of parental divorce/separation or death of the main holder;
- From the age of 18 if you move abroad, provided they are well integrated and either working or studying, and in the latter case if they have lived with you in Switzerland for several years.
The SEM has to approve the permit in all these situations.
A child who previously held a legitimation card can also request a C permit after 12 years total spent in Switzerland, including their time as a legitimation card holder, or ten years after receiving a B permit (whichever comes first). This means that they may even be able to apply for a C permit immediately after returning the legitimation card.
What happens if we separate or divorce or the main holder dies?
See the dedicated page for in-depth information about the legal framework around divorce and separation.
Technically, because family members’ legitimation cards are conditional on living together, the spouse/partner and any children no longer living with the main holder should lose their cards immediately if the couple separate, even if they are still officially married. However, in practice, the Swiss Mission allows these family members to keep their cards until the divorce is final, and even renews them if the main holder’s card is renewed. That said, they can’t grant new Ci permits to family members no longer living with the main holder or renew a Ci permit when it expires.
If you lose your legitimation card as a result of divorce but want to stay in Switzerland, or if you want to work while separated, you will therefore need to follow the ordinary application processes (see “Working in Switzerland” or “Want to study in Switzerland?”). If you are not an EU or EFTA citizen, this means you’ll have to meet the same criteria as other third-country nationals and that quotas and rules of priority for jobs will apply.
Similarly, if the main holder dies, family members living with them in Switzerland will need to request residency via the ordinary procedure.
The other possibility is to request a “humanitarian” B permit, whereby the authorities will consider your family situation, how well integrated you are and how you have conducted yourself during your time as a legitimation card holder and may grant you the right to stay. The cantonal authorities will often support such a request but the SEM has to approve it.