Visas for Switzerland

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All foreigners need the appropriate visa for Switzerland, whether they want to carve their way down its Alpine slopes on holiday or settle more permanently.

Expats should, however, keep in mind that different rules apply to European Union (EU) and European Free Trade Association (EFTA) citizens compared to those from elsewhere.
 

Visit visas for Switzerland


Visas for SwitzerlandCitizens from the EU, the EFTA, and countries on the Swiss government’s designated list are afforded visa-free entry and can stay for 90 days, as long as their passport is valid for at least six months.

Countries on the list include the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Ireland, but citizens of countries like India and South Africa will need to apply for a Schengen visa.

Expats who need a Schengen visit visa for Switzerland will need to apply at the designated Swiss foreign mission in their home country.

Applicants need to provide paperwork including their passport, a completed application form and proof of income. In some situations, they may need documents explaining their reasons for travelling and a letter from a Swiss sponsor.

Processing times vary, but it's best for expats to apply as soon as they’ve confirmed their travel plans. Schengen visas give holders entrance to all Schengen states for 90 days within a six-month period from the appointed date of entry.
 

Residence permits for Switzerland


Expats who want to work or live in the country for longer than three months need to apply for a Swiss residence permit – there is no separate work permit. This applies to all foreign nationals, but it’s easier for EU/EFTA citizens to be granted one.

Permits are issued by cantonal immigration offices, so expats should contact the office where they hope to be based – each canton has different quotas for non-European workers.

There have been moves to further limit the number of foreign workers in Switzerland, which could even affect EU/EFTA citizens in future, so expats should keep up to date with developments.
 

Residence permits for EU/EFTA nationals

EU/EFTA nationals shouldn’t struggle to get a residence permit for Switzerland. They’d need to find out about the various permit categories, choose the one that suits their situation, and apply accordingly.

There is no escaping the red tape that comes with the application process, but it’s more straightforward than for applicants from elsewhere. 

The most commonly applied for permits are:
  • Permit B (Initial Residence Permit): For those with an employment contract valid for more than 12 months; who have the means to live in Switzerland without employment; or who are self-employed and can prove they’ll make enough money to get by. The permit is valid for five years, and is renewable for another five.
  • Permit C (Permanent Residence Permit): Only citizens of the EFTA and original 15 EU-member states who’ve lived in Switzerland for five years are eligible. It doesn’t expire and holders can freely transfer between cantons.
  • Permit L (Short-Term): Granted to applicants with an employment contract that is valid for less than one year. EU and EFTA job hunters can extend their stay with the L Permit if they’ve been in the country for 90 days.
 

Residence permits for Non-EU/EFTA nationals

It’s difficult for expats from elsewhere to get a residence permit for Switzerland, thanks to strict employment quotas. In practice, permits are mostly granted to wealthy and highly skilled expats with the right qualifications.

Once a canton’s quota has been met for any given year, even the most qualified expats could only get a permit the following year.

The process usually goes as follows:

Step 1: Secure a job
Most residence permits are linked to an employment contract, while most jobs require a residence permit. There is no easy way to sidestep this dilemma, but finding a firm willing to act as a sponsor isn’t impossible.

Still, companies have to prove that the job couldn’t be filled by a Swiss, EU or EFTA citizen if they want to employ someone from elsewhere.

Step 2: Choose a permit
Non-EU/EFTA expats have access to many of the same permit categories, but are often subject to different conditions. Most of the time, an expat's employer can advise which permit is most appropriate:
  • Type B (Initial Residence Permits): For individuals with a local employment contract of one year or more. B Permit holders can’t change jobs or move cantons. The permit is valid for one year and is renewable.
  • Type L (Short-Term Residence Permits): For those with an employment contract of less than a year. It’s also tied to the employment contract and the canton, but can be renewed.
  • Type C (Permanent Residence Permit): For expats who have lived in Switzerland for 10 uninterrupted years (or five years if they’re from the US or Canada). C Permit holders can change cantons and employers without restrictions.

Step 3: Assurance of Residence Permit
After an expat secures a job, their employer applies for a Residence Permit Assurance (Zusicherung der Aufenthaltsbewilligung/Assurance d'Autorisation de Séjour) with the local authorities. They should advise of any paperwork needed from the expat.

Once granted, the document is sent to the applicant, and should be presented with their passport upon entry.

Step 4: Applying for the residence permit
After arriving, expats should apply for their permit at their local migration office. The process differs between cantons, so they should check the requirements beforehand.

*Visa regulations are subject to change at short notice and expats should contact their respective embassy or consulate for the latest details.