I lived in Switzerland for just under a year. Lausanne, in the canton of Vaud gave me crisp alpine air, freakishly efficient public services, dazzling natural landscapes and my first child. But life in Switzerland was not all chocolate and fondue; it did have its downsides, too. For anyone considering a move to the Confoederatio Helvetica, here is a very personal snapshot of life in Switzerland.
Tell me about the lifestyle in Switzerland?
Personally I found that Swiss lifestyle is very much about family, long term friendships and the outdoors. It’s a nice, quiet life.
Even in the big cities, the pace of life is slower compared to cities in the UK. Most shops are closed on Sundays. There are lots of parks and forests. Hiking in the summer, sledging and skiing in the winter are favourite pastimes.
For more about the unique cultural etiquette in Switzerland, you can read my blog post here.
What about the quality of life in Switzerland?
In general, the quality of life is really good. On the whole people work early and finish early. Sundays are for rest.
It’s perhaps no surprise that Switzerland frequently tops the rankings as the best place in the world to live. This year it was voted number one in a ranking by HSBC.
Of course it very much depends on the individual case. Quality of life is subjective. If you’re into the all night rave scene, chances are Switzerland isn’t for you. If you’re relocating alone on a tight budget, you might find it hard too. But if you’re moving over in a solid relationship, or with a young family, chances are you’ll never want to leave.
What is life in Switzerland for foreigners like?
I found it relatively easy as a foreigner in Switzerland. Locals were very friendly, I was invited to people’s homes and while bureaucracy was long winded, it was wonderfully efficient. As a seasoned expat who has lived in some challenging places, life in Switzerland felt easy.
I was warned that Swiss people never invite you into their homes and things stay very formal. Rubbish! Within two months I’d been invited for a brunch, a house party, dinner and coffee at people’s homes. Perhaps I was lucky; others tell me it can take a lot longer to feel accepted.
I found it very easy to go about my daily life on a practical level too. Having said that I speak French, I had a long term (type D) visa and above all, I’m white. Alas I’ve heard stories that people of colour found it hard to find an apartment and weren’t made nearly as welcome as I was. Obviously I don’t know what it feels like to experience racism in Switzerland and I’m only going on what people have told me.
Tell me about Swiss culture.
Switzerland is a treasure trove of culture. Jazz, opera, ballet, theatre, classical music… Switzerland does them proud. However if you’re looking for anything a little off beat, a little avant garde, you might be disappointed.
If you have small children you might find life in Switzerland a little boring, or at least challenging at first. There isn’t actually much to do. It’s not like the UK with its child friendly restaurants and theme parks. Swiss locals typically enjoy a dip in the lake, a slalom down the mountain or a day chilling in the local park. It’s all about the traditional life.
What is the cost of living like? Is it expensive to live in Switzerland?
Yes, Switzerland can be very expensive. When you first arrive, expect to pay insane amounts of cash for groceries and going out. However, when you get to know your neighbourhood, you’ll soon discover ways around it.
Some families I know lived across the border in France where rental prices were lower and commuted to Switzerland. Some would do their grocery shopping in France only, but for us it wasn’t worth the hassle or the petrol. (Also note that there are border checks and you might be fined at customs if you’re over the limit).
Of course average salaries are much higher than in other countries too. All in all, for us Switzerland worked out much more affordable than London.
Groceries can be very expensive. I remember spending about £10 on a small packet of sawdust style muesli in a corner shop. But then I soon got to know the way round grocery shopping in Switzerland.
As for supermarkets, Migros and Coop are two of the main brands, and they’re also two of the most expensive. (Swiss Coop bears no relation to the British Coop incidentally). But then Lidl and Aldi are really cheap. They’re not pretty and service is shocking, but they’re about half the price, so worth it for non branded bulk buys.
Artisanal markets can be expensive, but not always. My local organic vegetable market was cheaper than my UK supermarket equivalent.
Multinational brands such as IKEA and clothing brands were often the same price as in the UK.
As for dining out I found it wasn’t worth spending a fortune on a very average meal, so we’d eat out less often, but enjoy a great meal out when we did. In Lausanne we’d frequently treat ourselves at the five star hotels there. For more read here.
Otherwise, you don’t need to be a millionaire to enjoy the best part of Switzerland. A hike in the hills, a stroll along the cobbled paths of a historic village or a picnic by the lake… life in Switzerland can be very cheap and cheerful.
What are the main pros and cons of moving to Switzerland?
The main pros have to be the wonderfully clean air (now based in the polluted city of Santiago I miss this the most), the beautiful nature and the fantastic public services.
It’s also a fantastically safe country to live in, with excellent healthcare and education, making it a top choice for raising a family.
The main drawback has to be the insane amount of rules. Having said this, after just a few months in Switzerland I came to realise how these rules make the country tick so smoothly.
Also, while a quarter of Swiss residents are foreigners, it didn’t feel very diverse to me. Switzerland is peaceful, it’s beautiful, but it doesn’t have the buzz like much of the UK.
Interestingly, I didn’t find the weather a problem. Yes, I’m British and I’m used to rubbish weather, but even my Spanish husband felt the same. Winters are cold, but sunny. I didn’t find Switzerland as grey, dark or rainy as the UK.
Can you live in Switzerland only speaking English?
Yes. However if you want to get any admin done or get along with the locals, you’ll need to speak the language.
There are four official languages in Switzerland ― French, German, Italian and Romansch (to me Romansch sounds like a cross between German and Italian).
A quarter of Swiss residents were born abroad, so you’d expect a flurry of different languages. I did hear quite a bit of Portuguese being spoken in Lausanne, but on the whole it’s just French.
The German spoken in other cantons isn’t like anything you might have learnt back home; it’s schweizerdeutsch, and it’s very, very different! At least for someone who studied German at university I barely understood a word.
My doctor and my child’s pediatrician spoke excellent English, but all other hospital staff spoke only French. Some foreigner pregnant women I knew requested a bilingual doula to assist them at the birth as staff didn’t speak English. In general, you might need to speak the local language to make the appointment, but your doctor may speak some English.
You’ll need the local language to get by on an admin level, but chances are the highly educated will speak excellent English.
Tell me about the Swiss work ethic and work culture.
I never worked in Switzerland so I can only comment from what friends tell me. Like all of Switzerland, it varies from company to company and canton to canton. I’ve heard that the work culture in the German speaking cantons tends to be more formal than in other places for example.
All in all, meetings start punctually and get to the point. Work starts early, generally between 7am – 8am.
If you’re a woman, you might find yourself outnumbered. At most senior levels, it’s a very male dominated world.
Swiss labour laws are on a par with Europe and the UK. Holiday allowances are similar to the UK. Employees over the age of 20 are allowed four weeks holiday per year, and some employers increase this further. In addition, each canton offers its own public holidays.
Worker rights are also better than in some other European countries. The Swiss government sets limits on the maximum working hours per week: 45 hours for office staff and retail workers, and 50 for other workers. Overtime is paid at 125% of the normal wage.
What is the average salary in Switzerland?
There is no minimum wage in Switzerland, but salaries even for the lowest earning, are some of the best in the world. Decisions over salaries in Switzerland are left to employers, but some industries are governed by collective labour agreements (CLA or GAV, Gesamtarbeitsvertrag).
You can use this website to check average salaries in your industry. For a more personalised look at how much you will take home after tax, check this website. Here are some typical average annual salaries in Switzerland. For more, click here:
Teacher 87,500 CHF
Journalist 85,200 CHF
Translator 73,200 CHF
Marketing officer 90,500 CHF
Project Manager 105,500 CHF
Finance Director 190,000 CHF
Of these, salaries vary according to the individual’s level of expertise, the company and the canton. On average primary school teachers in Geneva (CHF 97,000) earn significantly more than those in Nidwalden (CHF 85,000) and Ticino (CHF 66,000), for example.
Can I move to Switzerland without a job?
Yes, but you’d be a fool to do so. Life in Switzerland doesn’t come cheap and the initial set up costs are very expensive especially. You’d be wise to find a job first. You’ll also need a work visa and it’s easier to do this with a company supporting you from the start.
What about jobs in Switzerland for foreigners? Is it easy to find international jobs?
There are lots of jobs in Switzerland for foreigners. The main issue is visas.
There are quotas for foreigners in many industries. In 2017, the Swiss government announced new measures that give preference to local residents in Switzerland over foreigner workers. In addition, further to an EU ruling, the Swiss government is trying to crack down on companies offering tax benefits for overseas earnings (e.g. expats). As these new regulations come into force, the cantons of Geneva, Vaud and Valais could see a shift in its foreign workforce numbers.
Don’t expect to land a top job because you speak English. Switzerland is a land of skilled workers and you may need fluency in two languages to continue your current career path.
In short, competition is fierce and you’ll have to prove your worth.
Any reasons not to move to Switzerland?
With all its rules, it can be hard for some foreigners to transition to the life in Switzerland. Culture shock is a big thing. It can feel hurtful to get a complaint through the door from your apartment block, knowing that someone reported you without having the guts to approach you first. Annoying and as pedantic as these rules can be, they make the country work smoothly.
If you have a baby, you might be interested to know that the Swiss aren’t really into nurseries (kindergartens). The few nurseries that do exist are expensive. Switzerland is a traditional country and some frown on mothers who leave their children to pursue employment.
Perhaps the thing that bugged me most was the shared washing machine schedule. It’s very common for shared apartments to have a couple of washing machines only – you may not even be allowed your own. I was allocated a two hour slot once per week, which wasn’t ideal considering I had a newborn. It’s worse if you’re working. A friend told me about a manager who left a business meeting to get home and do his washing. And the worst thing was that no one questioned this craziness!
I do know a family who moved to Geneva and didn’t like it. Perhaps Geneva is such a transient, international city, that it’s harder to make friends than in a smaller city such as Lausanne.
As mentioned, Switzerland varies from canton to canton, from city to city and it also depends on the individual. Geneva might be great for young, career minded professionals, but more challenging for families.
What rules are there in Switzerland?
Most of the rules I experienced were within the home. If you live in a shared apartment block like I did, make sure you know the rules before you step out of line. I got an official warning for leaving my wellies on my door front for two hours! I also received a ‘helpful letter’ explaining how to open a window correctly. It’s very common to receive an official complaint rather than your neighbour stopping by for a polite chat.
We were warned about penalties against making any noise after certain hours and on Sundays. We’re not just talking drilling holes for DIY or boisterous house parties, it also included putting the dishwasher on and mowing the lawn.
Meanwhile my husband incurred so many speeding fines, that the post office where I paid these bills got to know me by my first name. ‘Oh bonjour Nina! Same again? How fast this time?’
All in all, is it worth living in Switzerland?
Depending on your expat package, yes. If you have young children, you can rest easy in Switzerland. It’s safe, hospitals are great and state funded education is very good on the whole.
I lived in Switzerland after having experienced Angola and I really appreciated the feeling of safety. Of course there are pickpockets no doubt, but the street crime is nothing comparable.
Also, now based in Santiago de Chile where the pollution is really affecting my kids and me, I miss the clean alpine air badly.
If you’re career driven, Switzerland is a great place to work once you’re on the career ladder.
All in all, if you speak the language, if you like the outdoors and you value a nice life, then yes, life in Switzerland is worth it. I have three young children and while I love Chile, I’d move back to Switzerland very gladly.
Myself and husband loved living in Geneva for 6 years I had my son over there and the health care is second to none in my opinion . We then moved to Santiago ( la dehesa ) due to my husbands work commitments and I really didn’t enjoy the experience . After 6 months we made the decision that myself and my son would move back to the U.K . My husband continues to work in Santiago and travels back for short visits to the U.K .
That sounds tough. Parenting on your own is hard – believe me, I know it. Glad to hear you enjoyed Switzerland, but sorry your experience in Santiago wasn’t as great. I guess it really depends on the individual case: the expat package, friends you happen to meet, work hours etc etc. I love Santiago, but not everything about our situation here and yes, I would gladly move back to Switzerland one day.