Nine things you need to know about work permits in Switzerland

Living in Switzerland on a work permit or thinking of making the move? Here are nine things you need to know about permits in Switzerland. 

A Swiss passport. Photo by Claudio Schwarz | @purzlbaum on Unsplash
A Swiss passport. Photo by Claudio Schwarz | @purzlbaum on Unsplash

1. Are you European or non-European?

You do not have the same rights in Switzerland – where residence and work permits are concerned according to whether you are European or non-European.

As a non-European, you need a specific work permit to be authorised to work in Switzerland, even for your own company.

As a European not residing in Switzerland, you are authorised to work in Switzerland for up to 90 days in a year without a work permit.

In this article, the term “ Foreigner” will refer to a non-EU national.

2. The distinction between a work permit and a residence permit

A work permit allows you to work in Switzerland and different rules apply whether you are an employee or an independent worker. 

Residence permits allow you to stay in Switzerland but not to work there. You could benefit from such permit if, for example, you are a full-time student, you need medical treatment in Switzerland, or are a beneficiary of regular income without working.

EXPLAINED: What’s the difference between permanent residence and Swiss citizenship?

3. If you are a UK citizen

If you already had a work permit in Switzerland before Brexit, you can continue working here even after Brexit if you are still employed by a Swiss employer.

If you did not already have a residence or work permit in Switzerland before Brexit, you are treated as a non-European.

4. Can you live in Switzerland without working in Switzerland?

Permit for retired persons

If you are more than 55 years old and have strong links with Switzerland (for example, previous residence in Switzerland or regular visits, property in Switzerland, family members in Switzerland,etc), you can obtain a residence permit that only allows you to reside in Switzerland. You will need to prove that you have sufficient financial means and to declare that you will not undertake an activity which generates income.

EXPLAINED: How to get a visa to retire in Switzerland

Permit for medical treatment

You can be authorised to stay in Switzerland for the length of a medical treatment if you have sufficient financial means for the length of your stay and if your departure from the country is sufficiently determined.

Authorities will most likely ask for a medical report and a declaration from the medical institution indicating the length and purpose of the treatment.

Permits with lump-sum taxation

There are also possibilities for non-Swiss high net-worth individuals to reside in Switzerland with a negotiated lump-sum taxation paid annually to the tax authorities. This requires a tax ruling from the concerned canton of residence before the permit is issued. This permit does not allow the individual to work in Switzerland.

Student permits 

There are not considered “residence permits” per se. They do not count for the years of residence for a C permit or even for naturalisation,

5. Distinction between Cross-border work permits vs ordinary work permits

If you are a non-EU citizen, for both permits, your employer will need to prove  – that no Swiss or EU citizen with the same qualifications as you – was available to take the position.

The cross-border permit may be issued to you if :

  1. you have been living lawfully in a neighbouring state for at least two years and have been resident there for the last six months 
  2. You are employed in Switzerland in a region which allows you to return home every evening or at least once a week.
  3. The conditions a) to d) below are fulfilled.

How to apply for Swiss citizenship: An essential guide

The ordinary work permit may be issued by the Swiss cantonal authorities for the Foreign employee if the following criteria are met: 

  1. The employer has more Swiss and European employees than Foreign employees;
  2. The Foreign employee has skills that justify his employment;
  3. The Foreign employee will have salary which complies with local standards for a person with the same position as same qualifications;
  4. The hiring of the Foreign employee serves not only the economic interests of the Swiss company but also the economic interests of the concerned canton.

The economic interests are evaluated based on the number of employees, the business plan of the company, the sector of activity and its importance for the canton, the innovative nature of the activity for the concerned canton etc.

6. Inter-company transfer permits

This is one of the exceptions to the ordinary work permit process for Foreigners

For companies having business in in at least two other countries apart from the location of the head office (i.e. business services, communication services, environmental services, financial services), executives, directors and highly qualified workers can benefit from an inter-company transfer for 3-4 years.

7. Permit for independent activity 

Independent persons can apply for a work permit if they are setting up a company or investing in an existing Swiss company.

It is important to apply for the permit for independent activity before making the investment.

The cantonal authorities may grant the permit according to their discretion if:

  • The company’s business activity serves the economic interests of Switzerland;
  • The business complies with the local federal and cantonal regulations ;
  • The independent person will have a salary which complies with local standards;
  • The independent person has sufficient and autonomous financial means for his stay.

8. If I am a Foreigner (B permit or C permit) in Switzerland, can I seek a work permit for my wife and children?

Yes, with a B permit, you can request a permit for “regroupement familial” for your wife and minor children if you plan on living under the same roof in an accommodation which has the capacity for all family members. 

This application must be filed within a deadline of 5 years for the spouse and children under the age of 12.  For children above the age of 12, the application has to be made within a period of 2 years.

Freelancing in Switzerland: What foreign nationals need to know

The deadline begins to run from the date at which the Foreigner obtained his first permit (usually a B) or from the date at which he became entitled to a permit (e.g. the date of his/her marriage to a Swiss citizen).

An application made after this deadline is granted only in exceptional circumstances for “serious family reasons” which depend on the discretion of the federal and cantonal authorities.

This type of permit for the spouse allows him/ her to be employed or self-employed in Switzerland.

9. If I am a Foreigner with a B or C permit in Switzerland, can I seek a work permit for my siblings and/or my parents?

It is in principle not possible to seek a permit for your siblings or your parents under Swiss law. 

However, an exception can be requested from the authorities if for example, the parent is dependent on your financial support and has been for many years, there are no other siblings in the home country to take care of the concerned parent and/or the medical facilities in Switzerland are important for the wee-being of the parent and the parent speaks the local language and/or has some form of social or economic attachment to Switzerland.

READ MORE: The nine most surprising questions on Switzerland’s citizenship exam

Practical Tips

  • If you are a Foreigner do not try and apply for any permit  without the assistance of an immigration  lawyer because there is no “legal entitlement” to a permit and correcting a wrong application may end up costing you more than an initial application, which has been correctly filed.
  • If you plan on moving your family to Switzerland, do not miss the deadlines.
  • Think clearly about what kind of permit you wish to apply for and do not proceed on a “trial and error” basis which will be perceived as bad faith by the authorities.
  • Keep in mind that living or working in Switzerland without a valid permit constitutes a criminal offence in Switzerland. Similarly, a person that rents out his/her apartment to a person who is not staying in Switzerland with a valid visa or permit, also commits an offence under Swiss criminal law.

This article was prepared by Renuka Cavadini of Page & Partners. 

Page & Partners provides an introductory call of 20 minutes in English. We look forward to being able to assist you. 

Tél.+4122 839 81 50

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members


Is Switzerland’s male-only mandatory military service ‘discriminatory’?

Under Swiss law, all men must serve at least one year in compulsory national service. But is this discriminatory?

Swiss military members walk across a road carrying guns
A new lawsuit seeks to challenge Switzerland's male-only military service requirement. Is this discriminatory? FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP

All men aged between the ages of 18 and 30 are required to complete compulsory military service in Switzerland. 

A lawsuit which worked its way through the Swiss courts has now ended up in the European Court of Human Rights, where the judges will decide if Switzerland’s male-only conscription requirement violates anti-discrimination rules. 

Switzerland’s NZZ newspaper wrote on Monday the case has “explosive potential” and has “what it takes to cause a tremor” to a policy which was first laid out in Switzerland’s 1848 and 1874 Federal Constitutions. 

What is Switzerland’s compulsory military service? 

Article 59 of the Federal Constitution of Switzerland says “Every man with Swiss citizenship is liable for military service. Alternative civilian service shall be provided for by law.”

Recruits must generally do 18 weeks of boot camp (longer in some cases). 

They are then required to spend several weeks in the army every year until they have completed a minimum 245 days of service.

Military service is compulsory for Swiss men aged 18 and over. Women can chose to do military service but this is rare.

What about national rather than military service? 

Introduced in 1996, this is an alternative to the army, originally intended for those who objected to military service on moral grounds. 

READ MORE: The Swiss army’s growing problem with civilian service

Service is longer there than in the army, from the age of 20 to 40. 

This must be for 340 days in total, longer than the military service requirement. 

What about foreigners and dual nationals? 

Once you become a Swiss citizen and are between the ages of 18 and 30, you can expect to be conscripted. 

READ MORE: Do naturalised Swiss citizens have to do military service?

In general, having another citizenship in addition to the Swiss one is not going to exempt you from military service in Switzerland.

However, there is one exception: the obligation to serve will be waved, provided you can show that you have fulfilled your military duties in your other home country.

If you are a Swiss (naturalised or not) who lives abroad, you are not required to serve in the military in Switzerland, though you can voluntarily enlist. 

How do Swiss people feel about military and national service? 

Generally, the obligation is viewed relatively positively, both by the general public and by those who take part in compulsory service. 

While several other European countries have gotten rid of mandatory service, a 2013 referendum which attempted to abolish conscription was rejected by 73 percent of Swiss voters. 

What is the court case and what does it say? 

Martin D. Küng, the lawyer from the Swiss canton of Bern who has driven the case through the courts, has a personal interest in its success. 

He was found unfit for service but is still required to pay an annual bill to the Swiss government, which was 1662CHF for the last year he was required to pay it. 

While the 36-year-old no longer has to pay the amount – the obligation only lasts between the ages of 18 and 30 – Küng is bring the case on principle. 

So far, Küng has had little success in the Swiss courts, with his appeal rejected by the cantonal administrative court and later by the Swiss Federal Supreme Court. 

Previous Supreme Court cases, when hearing objections to men-only military service, said that women are less suitable for conscription due to “physiological and biological differences”.

In Küng’s case, the judges avoided this justification, saying instead that the matter was a constitutional issue. 

‘No objective reason why only men have to do military service’

He has now appealed the decision to the European level. 

While men have previously tried and failed when taking their case to the Supreme Court, no Swiss man has ever brought the matter to the European Court of Human Rights. 

Küng told the NZZ that he considered the rule to be unjust and said the Supreme Court’s decision is based on political considerations. 

“I would have expected the Federal Supreme Court to have the courage to clearly state the obvious in my case and not to decide on political grounds,” Küng said. 

“There is no objective reason why only men have to do military service or pay replacement taxes. On average, women may not be as physically productive as men, but that is not a criterion for excluding them from compulsory military service. 

There are quite a few men who cannot keep up with women in terms of stamina. Gender is simply the wrong demarcation criterion for deciding on compulsory service. If so, then one would have to focus on physical performance.”

Is it likely to pass? 

Küng is optimistic that the Strasbourg court will find in his favour, pointing to a successful appeal by a German man who complained about a fire brigade tax, which was only imposed on men. 

“This question has not yet been conclusively answered by the court” Küng said. 

The impact of a decision in his favour could be considerable, with European law technically taking precedence over Swiss law.

It would set Switzerland on a collision course with the bloc, particularly given the popularity of the conscription provision. 

Küng clarified that political outcomes and repercussions don’t concern him. 

“My only concern is for a court to determine that the current regulation is legally wrong.”