Working in Switzerland
Increased migration in the 21st century has led to a tightening of the criteria for migrants wishing to work in Switzerland as well as quotas and ceilings on their number. The rules in place aim to ensure that the migration fulfils a need, in particular by prioritising migrants with specific expertise or investors.
EU and EFTA citizens have preferential treatment granted by Switzerland’s free movement agreement with the EU – the conditions summarised below apply only to citizens of countries not covered by that agreement.
The conditions governing the admission of non-EU citizens wishing to work in Switzerland are set out in articles 18 to 25 of the Swiss Federal Act on Foreign Nationals and Integration (FNIA).
In principle the decision is made at the cantonal level, but in most cases the federal secretariat for migration (SEM) has to give final approval, which means you may be refused entry even if the canton accepts you. The SEM’s decision takes precedence over that of the canton, but you have the right of appeal.
Approval at the cantonal level goes via the body responsible for the employment market within the canton concerned, which considers whether your request meets all the conditions set out below before deciding whether to grant initial approval. In practice, this means that you must have a job offer before you can apply for a work permit.
Our top tip: Make sure that your work permit is already valid the day you start working in Switzerland to avoid being in violation of the law.
Owing to Switzerland’s ageing population, the authorities tend to look favourably upon applications from young people or those working in elderly care, as well as those from highly skilled executives and investors. In addition, they have the possibility to apply less stringent conditions to high-net-worth workers and investors if it is deemed to be in the country’s interests.
The exact conditions applicable depend on whether you are hoping to find a job or start your own company in Switzerland. Once in the country, if you change from employed to freelance, or vice versa, you must meet the criteria for your new activity.
If you have been offered a job by an existing company, the following conditions apply:
1. Your presence in Switzerland must be in the country’s economic interests.
– The exact meaning of this varies over time according to the economic context, but in general the authorities are likely to look at your expertise in relation to the canton’s economy.
2. Your prospective employer must apply on your behalf, supplying the following:
a. A completed work permit request form;
b. Your CV;
c. Your certificates and diplomas;
d. Proof that you have arranged suitable accommodation;
e. A copy of your employment contract, indicating the employment and remuneration conditions;
f. Evidence that the employer has made a sincere effort to recruit a suitable candidate in Switzerland or from an EU/EFTA country.
g. Any other documents or information requested by the migration authorities.
If you are planning to start up your own company in Switzerland (including as a sole trader or freelancer), you must meet the following conditions:
1. Your company’s business activities must be in the country’s economic interests.
– This condition is difficult to define precisely, but in general you will be expected to demonstrate that your company will fill a gap in the market in response to a genuine demand, that it will stimulate competition or contribute to the diversification of the market, or that it will invest heavily in the economy.
2. The business must fulfil all standard financial and operational conditions.
– This means that:
a. Your projected income will be sufficient to cover both the company’s running costs and your living costs, and that you have sufficient capital to cover your basic needs until the company starts turning a profit;
b. You will have to prove that you have already arranged any infrastructure essential to the running of the business;
c. If your business activity requires any specific qualifications or authorisations, you will need to prove that you have them (e.g. for a regulated medical profession).
– You may be asked to supply a business plan, proof of your financial means or any other documents necessary to determine the viability of the business and your ability to support yourself financially.
Conditions of admission
The Swiss Federal Council limits the number of permits available each year for the country as a whole as well as for each canton, and if this quota has already been filled when you apply, you will not be granted a permit.
- The cantonal quota applies first, and once it is used up, any remaining permits must be granted from the federal quota. If you are planning to live and work in different cantons, the quota of the canton where you will be working applies, but the canton of residence is still responsible for issuing your permit.
- The federal employment office has the power to increase the number of permits that a canton can grant if it is deemed to be in the country or canton’s economic interests. The Confederation can also allocate to a canton some additional units of the federal quota in certain situations.
- These quotas apply only to short-term permits and work permits, and only the first time they are granted, so extensions are not limited by quotas. Residence permits without the right to work and cross-border work permits (see below) are also outside the scope of the quotas.
Exception: Work permits valid for four months or less in a 12-month period are not subject to the quota rules. That said, you are not allowed to have consecutive permits of this type without leaving the country for at least two months in between your two stays, and it can’t be used for a probation period. In addition, employers cannot employ successive non-EU workers on this kind of permit in the same role as a way of getting round quota and priority rules, and workers holding this kind of permit must not make up more than a quarter of a company’s workforce at any one time.
Order of priority
You will only be granted authorisation to work in Switzerland if your employer has not managed to find a suitable candidate in Switzerland or from among the citizens of a country that has a free movement agreement with Switzerland.
- In the context of this rule, candidates “in Switzerland” means Swiss citizens or holders of a settlement (C) or residence (B) permit that allows them to work.
- In practice, the only countries with which Switzerland has free movement agreements are EU and EFTA member countries. The rule of priority applies only to citizens of those countries, and not to, for example, their non-EU family members, even if those family members have the right to stay in Switzerland under family reunification rules.
- The order of priority applies only to short-term permits and residence/settlement permits on the first entry. This includes changing from a short-term permit to a residence permit, but not residence permit extensions or changes of employment.
- When applying for a permit on your behalf, your prospective employer will have to provide evidence of having made a genuine effort to attract suitable candidates from the priority population. This includes, for example:
a. publishing the job offer via a range of general and specialised media;
b. notifying the regional employment office of vacancies and justifying the non-suitability of any candidates put forward by the office;
c. posting any unfilled vacancies on the Swiss PLASTA system and making use of the EURES system for trans-European recruitment.
Exception: If you study at an haute école in Switzerland, you may be considered as the same level of priority as Swiss and EU candidates when applying for jobs in the six months following the award of your qualification. For more details, see the student permit page.
Employment and remuneration conditions
Your job in Switzerland must comply with all customary employment and remuneration conditions of the locality, profession and sector.
- Customary conditions are determined on the basis of any applicable legislation, relevant collective agreements, model contracts and salary statistics as well as the contracts of employees in similar positions at the same company.
- Within the scope of this article, your prospective employer will have to submit a copy of your employment contract indicating the role, salary, social benefits and employment conditions. It should also include the phrase “valid only if approved by the SEM” so that it ceases to be binding in the event that your application is unsuccessful.
In principle, Switzerland grants both short-term and residence permits only to workers deemed “qualified”. In addition, if you apply for a residence (B) permit, you have to show that you have the skills and qualities needed to integrate both professionally and socially. Although this part of the law seems rather vague, it can generally be interpreted as follows:
1. You may be considered professionally qualified if you meet one or more of the following criteria:
a. you are director;
b. you are a specialist;
c. you have significant professional experience relevant to your prospective position;
d. you hold academic or vocational qualifications equivalent to those delivered in Switzerland for the job concerned; or
e. you can demonstrate exceptional mastery of a very specific skill essential for the job (e.g. you are a native speaker of a non-European language applying for a role as a translator).
2. You should offer skills or competencies in high demand among the Swiss employment market.
3. You should demonstrate that you are able to adapt to different work and social environments.
4. Ideally you should have a good level – at least A1 under the Common European Framework – of a Swiss national language (German, French, Italian or Romansch), or, in rare cases, of English if it is the working language of your field or company.
5. Your application will be viewed favourably if you are young.
Our top tip: Professional qualifications are by far the most important of these criteria, so even if you are older or don’t speak a Swiss language but you are highly qualified, it’s worth applying.
Exceptions: Certain groups of people are exempt from these requirements, namely: investors or business owners whose activity will create jobs; widely renowned scientists, cultural figures or sports personalities; executives in international companies transferred to offices in Switzerland; and people working in economically significant business on an international level.
Your application will be accepted only if you have arranged suitable accommodation.
- “Suitable accommodation” means somewhere that meets your personal needs, as well as complying with all applicable health and safety, building and fire codes. It is generally expected that the number of residents should not be more than the number of bedrooms plus one (i.e. no more than two people living in a studio; up to five people in a four-bedroom flat).
- If the cantonal authorities deem your accommodation unsuitable, they will give you a certain amount of time to fix it or find an alternative before definitively refusing your application.
Our top tip: In some cities, demand for housing exceeds supply, so don’t leave it until the last minute and be prepared to adjust your budget to Switzerland’s cost of living, which is among the highest in the world, particularly in the major cities.
Special case: Cross-border commuters
If you are a non-EU citizen living in a neighbouring country, you may request a cross-border commuter (G) permit allowing you to work in a border area of Switzerland. To do this, you must hold a long-term residence permit in your country of residence and have lived in the foreign border zone for at least six months.
- The border zones are defined in Switzerland’s agreements with the countries concerned. In summary, they comprise:
– In Austria: Vorarlberg and the district of Landeck;
– In France: the area within 10km of the Swiss border and all the communes of the Pays de Gex and Haute-Savoie;
– In Germany: the cities of Freiburg and Kempten and several border counties;
– In Italy: the area within 20km of the Swiss border;
– In Switzerland: the area within 10km of the French border; the area within 20km of the Italian border; the cantons or districts bordering Austria and Germany;
– The principality of Liechtenstein (considered as Swiss territory for the purposes of G permits, i.e. you could live in Austria and request a Swiss G permit to work in Liechtenstein).
- As a cross-border commuter, you are expected to return to your home outside of Switzerland at least once a week, and if you don’t, you are violating the conditions of your permit.
- If you have a G permit and you then move to Switzerland, you will need to request a regular residence permit with authorisation to work as outlined above.
- All the conditions mentioned above for the issuance of Swiss work permits apply to cross-border workers except for those relating to personal qualifications, accommodation and quotas.
- Cross-border workers are not entitled to unemployment insurance in Switzerland, but may choose to take out Swiss health insurance.