As a mountain-filled jewel right in the center of Europe, Switzerland is somewhere many people would love to live. However, in many ways, it is also a difficult and somewhat mystical place to get into. As a longtime expat here, I thought I could shed some light on this Alpen wonderland.
But first things first. If you want to work and live here, where do you start?
Getting a Job in Switzerland
People think of Switzerland as one of the richest countries in Europe, and that is certainly not far wrong. And as such, it is somewhere people want to work – maybe so they can earn lots of money. Or maybe, like me, because the landscape is so stunning.
The challenge is, you need a permit to live and work in Switzerland. And, getting one is not always easy.
If you are a European citizen (ie. part of the EU) then Switzerland has a bilateral agreement that allows freedom of movement, to a point. EU citizens will have the easiest time of anyone finding a job and getting a permit in Switzerland. In fact, you are even allowed to come for a short period without a job and look for work. That is not the case with other nationalities (of course you can come as a tourist).
Because of the agreements with the EU, Swiss companies are “forced” to prioritize EU citizens, after their own of course, for jobs. That means, as a non-EU citizen, it will be harder for your potential employer to get you a permit. It’s not impossible, especially for a large company in a big city (like Zurich) but just be aware you are third in line and it might mean someone else gets the job.
Best Places to Find Work in Switzerland
If you are interested in finding a job and working in Switzerland, try the job sites like jobs.ch, monster.ch and indeed.ch. Another place to find jobs as a foreigner is with big corporations that either have their headquarters here, or are big enough to have English speaking jobs. Companies like UBS, Credit Suisse, SwissRe, Roche, Novartis, Nestle and so on.
Just a heads up though: if you don’t speak the local language (German in most of the country, French in the southwest) then make sure either the job ad is in English or it is clearly stated in the job that it is English speaking. Throwing yourself in the deep end and having to learn a language asap, on the job, is a nightmare. I would not recommend it, as I have seen it happen a number of times.
Getting Around Switzerland
Switzerland is famous for its chocolate, but also for its punctual trains. And when I first moved here many years ago it was truly astonishing how many trains were perfectly on time.
Since then, the public transport system has become a little overloaded and the trains are often late during peak hour. However, the rest of the time, they are usually right on the dot.
You can take a train from one end of the country to another, changing three times on the way, with little to no waiting time in between, and never be in doubt that you will get there on time.
There are also buses to almost every valley, no matter how remote or small. In essence, you do not need to have a car while living here, and many people I know do not.
As a resident you will, however, want to invest in a half-tax card, which entitles you to half price fares (well worth it if you travel a lot) or a regional travel card if you are using public transport to get to work.
For those doing an insane amount of train travel, you can even go one step further and get what is called a GA – which entitles you to free travel in Switzerland. It costs $3000 or more, so it has to be worth it for you. I did it for a few years, while I was commuting and traveling a lot and it was a wonderful feeling just to step on any train, without worrying about a ticket.
Owning A Car in Switzerland
Catching the train comes with its own limitations. It often takes longer to get somewhere, and it may deter you from going to some places just because it just takes too long. So, if you want true freedom, you might want to consider owning or bringing your car.
The Swiss love to drive, and you will never see so many Maserattis, Ferraris and Porsches in one place. Just head to Zurich on the weekend and you will see them everywhere.
The challenge today is – there is just too much traffic on the roads. And as a result, there are often traffic jams on the weekend. We have had a car since 2013, after nearly a decade of not having one, and it’s great. But we are always prepared for weekend traffic jams when getting back to Zurich. It’s not a show stopper, but just something you should be aware of.
Parking is also a big problem in Switzerland because, in almost all cases, you are not allowed to park on the street. As a foreigner, this was very weird to me at first, but it makes sense in keeping with the “orderly” way of life here.
Instead, you either have to pay for public parking, find a free spot (rare) somewhere, or have your own parking spot at home. It’s something to be aware of when looking for an apartment, as many do not come with parking, and you always have to pay extra for it.
The Culture of Switzerland
There are some peculiarities to Switzerland which I thought I would quickly go over in this section. Of course, when you are a foreigner in any country, things are always “strange”. That is just life as an expat.
If you ask any foreigner in Switzerland, especially in the German-speaking part (Zurich for example), it is very hard to make friends here. It’s not that the Swiss are unfriendly, which is people’s first thought, it is just that they are hard to get to know.
It will take a very long time to be invited to someone’s place, and many Swiss people have enough friends already. One reason is that they don’t move away from home for work, like people do in the US or UK for example. And even if they do, home is usually not far away because the country is just so small.
So, as a newcomer here you will likely end up making friends with other foreigners and joining groups via Meetup. You might make some friends at work, over time. Don’t let me put you off. Just be aware, it might be an uphill battle.
Learning The Language
Your next challenge is that Switzerland has four official languages. So, depending on the part you end up in, chances are you will either have to learn German or French. Just as a reference: Zurich is in the German-speaking part. Geneva in the French.
The French in Switzerland is very similar to “standard” Parisian French, so that is not as big a challenge as Swiss-German. Ask any German, especially those not from the south of Germany, and they will even tell you that they don’t understand Swiss-German. For me, it is a little like Scottish compared to “the Queen’s English”. Very, very, different. A mix of a strong accent and different words in some cases.
So, you might start learning German when you get here. However, what you learn at school is “high” German (which is spoken in Germany). But, what you hear on the street is Swiss-German. Sure, the Swiss understand and can even switch to high German, but it’s still a challenge.
It took me 2-3 years of part-time study to learn enough German to have great conversations, and then a few more years to come to terms with Swiss-German. Of course, you might be a language whiz, but most people find it tough. Luckily many people in the big cities speak very good English. So, you can get by until you become a polyglot.
Always Be On Time
Like their trains, the Swiss are always on time. So, if you have an appointment, but are from a country where time is more “loose” it’s time to change your habits. Be on time, or even a few minutes early. Especially when it comes to work meetings.
Follow The Rules
I love ignoring rules, but in Switzerland it can get you in trouble. Especially in an apartment block where there is always a “hauswart” (superintendent) watching. For example, people share washing machines in many apartment blocks. They are actually provided by the landlord. Nice, right? Well, often you get allocated a day, or half day(s) when you can wash. Now, don’t go washing on another day, or even outside of the allowed hours! People will leave you a note kindly reminding you of the rules.
Noise is another big one in Switzerland. Don’t be loud after 10pm during the week and midnight on weekends. Your neighbours will certainly call the cops, often without warning you first. No big deal, but again, it can be annoying to newcomers.
The Swiss are not very open when it comes to meeting strangers, however they seem to say hello and goodbye all the time. Even if they have never seen you before. Places where this happens, and you need to learn to also do it, include: in the gym changing room, in the lift at work, while hiking or walking around in the forest, in a small shop and many more.
The German terms are Greutzi (for hello) and Adieu (pronounced “ar-day”). Oh, if they are in a group, you also have to add “mitenand” at the end, which means “together” or “everyone”. But only if there is more than one. Again, there are rules. Even if they are unwritten!
A friend of mine recently told me that he did not acknowledge a random colleague who got on the lift at work. The colleague entered the lift and said “Greutzi”. He did not respond. And when he left he was given the death stare. Culture can be very important!
Bring A Cake, On Your Birthday
In the English speaking world, at least as far as I know, we get gifts on our birthday. Sometimes even cake. But in Switzerland, you bring a cake for your colleagues instead. It might not happen in every office, but if you notice a cake in the office one morning, then you will soon know who’s birthday it is.
Food & Drink
We all love a night out on the town with great food and alcohol-filled cocktails. Well, at least I do. So, in this section I want to cover a few things you need to know about food and drink in Switzerland.
No matter how you look at it, eating out in Switzerland is expensive. You will get used to it after a few years, but your first time in the supermarket or a restaurant might be a bit shocking.
If you want to ease your way into it, you can dry cheaper supermarkets like Denner, Aldi, and Lidl. And for restaurants, try things like Asian, Italian or takeaway. They tend to be on the lower end of the price spectrum. Another option is to have a cheaper meal like brunch instead of dinner. It’s very popular on a rainy Sunday.
As for drinks, beer is often the cheapest, even more so than coke or water. Although you can lessen the price if you ask for tap water. But it’s almost never free.
Wine is often by the 1dl (100ml) and in Zurich, and very expensive (7-11 francs). Cocktails are crazy, and you will mostly want to avoid them. Sometimes costing as much as 18 frances in Zurich, and not always mind-blowing enough to pay for.
Foods Worth Trying
So, you are in Switzerland and you want to dip your toe into some local cuisine. Just be aware that Switzerland is very focused on cheese, so your first port of call might just be to sample the cheese cabinet at your local supermarket. If you come from anywhere except perhaps France, the choice and variety will amaze you!
Following on from that, the number one thing to eat in winter is a cheese fondue. You dip chunks of bread in liquid cheese with a long fork. Sounds silly, but it can actually be delicious, especially after a long day skiing.
Next on the list might be raclette, which is a little similar. It’s square slabs of cheese melted under a heating element and then dripped over potatoes. Yum!!
Now, if potatoes are more your thing, then you have to try Rösti (pronounced – Rirsch-tee, not Rosti like my Mum always says) while you are in the mountains. It is similar to hash browns in the US, but a lot tastier. And it usually comes with toppings like melted cheese, bacon or other salty treats.
The Swiss are not so creative when it comes to desserts. Trust me, I love dessert, and I am always disappointed that they only have ice cream combos on the menu instead of something decent like chocolate mousse, creme brulee or similar. That’s not to say you won’t find them, it’s just not a priority here.
Having said that, they are famous for their Meringue and a few different cakes like the Nusstorte, and for some odd reason – carrot cake.
And of course, last but not least, the chocolate here is to die for, especially the more upmarket stuff like Laderach, Lindt and the more local chocolatiers in each city.
Oh, and if you spot a Sprungli store, which are in all major cities, you have to try the Luxemburgerli (pictured in the tower of them above).
Is It Worth Living In Switzerland?
Every country has its culture and oddities, but for me, living in Switzerland is all about a couple of important things.
First, you are right in the center of Europe, so you get to travel almost anywhere you want – very easily.
Second, the country itself is stunning. And there are so many different corners to explore, by car, by boat, and by foot.
Third, the way of life here is extremely relaxed and you will always have more than enough money to do whatever you want.
Post written by Anna Timbrook. Anna was born to travel the world having studied languages all her life. Although she has traveled the world, she now calls Switzerland home and spends her time writing about her experiences on her travel blog with her husband.