During the first weeks in Switzerland, you might feel a bit overwhelmed. There are countless details to be considered when settling into a new job and home. After a few months of some effort and patience, you will feel more settled in your new home and find yourself answering the same questions for other new arrivals that you were asking yourself. A good information source to consult before leaving is the Swiss embassy or consulate , or the federal administration website.
In some cases, consulates may have useful information about resources in and around Zurich, specifically for someone of your nationality – including lists of physicians who speak your language and information about clubs for expatriates. They can be very helpful in addressing specific questions and may have information printed in your native language or in English. In addition to the resources available on the web, there are also reference books which deal with the issues of living and working in a foreign country, some of which are specifically about Switzerland. Some of the key issues you will need to be aware of as a foreigner are addressed here.
Ausländerausweis and Residency Permit
To live and work legally in Switzerland, you must be in possession of a valid residence permit, the Aufenthaltsbewilligung.
On June 1, 2007, the bilateral agreement between Switzerland and the EU on the Free Movement of Persons came into force, the limits on the maximum number of residency permits that can be issued for EU17 and EFTA citizens working as self-employed or employed persons were lifted.
As a future employee at ETH Zurich, you will benefit from the relaxation in the rules if you are citizen of an EU17 or EFTA country. For citizens of all other countries, a request for a work permit must be submitted.
EU17 / EFTA Citizens
For EU-17 and EU-8 (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Czech Republic and Hungary) no special conditions apply. Citizens of these countries have to apply for a residence permit and, by law, are treated the same as regular Swiss citizens when applying for a job. They must register with the local authority at their place of residence (Gemeindehaus or Stadthaus) or at the relevant district office (Kreisbüro) in Zurich within fourteen days of arriving in Switzerland. For EU-2 (Bulgaria and Romania) as well for Croatia, special regulations may apply for residency/work permits.
Citizens of Third-Party Countries
For citizens of third-party countries, the Human Resources Department must submit a request for a work permit to the Migration Office (Migrationsamt) or the Office for Economy and Labor (Amt für Wirtschaft und Arbeit) in Zurich. Employment can only commence once your work and residency permits have been issued. The purpose of your stay determines your residency status.
Citizens who need a visa to enter Switzerland in order to get a work permit should not enter the country before the visa has been issued by the Swiss Embassy or Swiss Consulate in their respective countries. The Human Resources Department at ETH Zurich will apply for the visa; you will be informed by your institute when the visa is ready at the Swiss Embassy/Consulate in the town you indicated on the application form. See https://www.ethz.ch/en/the-eth-zurich/welcome-center/before-you-arrive/doc.html
Types of Residency Permits
There are different types of residency permits in Switzerland. Visit the homepage of the Swiss Federal Office of Migration for more information:
Most likely, you will get an L- or B-permit. With the former, you might encounter problems signing contracts with a long-term commitment, e.g. housing, credit cards or mobile phones. In case you have questions or problems regarding your permit, always contact the Human Resources instead of dealing directly with the Migration Office.
A Zurich residency permit is only valid for the Canton of Zurich. If you intend to live in another Canton, you should contact the Human Resources of ETH in advance and they will help you with the necessary arrangements.
Swiss law requires every person living in Switzerland to have a health insurance. As there is no state insurance, this must be acquired from a private insurance company. There are three important concepts concerning health insurance and the optimal amount of money to spend on it:
- The coverage – the cheapest insurance policies offer the basic coverage defined by law. Smaller luxuries, such as fancy therapies (e.g. homeopathies), choice of medication, choice of hospital where you are to be treated or a new pair of glasses every year will, at best, be partially covered. You can pay extra if you want your insurance to cover more. For instance, you might want an additional insurance policy for a free choice of hospital or dental care (dental care is always an additional insurance item so do not be surprised to see your colleagues cleaning their teeth after every coffee-break)
- The franchise – If you feel rather confident about your health, you can decide to take a share of risk on your own account by telling your insurance that you will pay the first 2500 CHF per year for health issues yourself. The insurance will then only step in after this deductible is exceeded, thus making your monthly rate much cheaper. Some insurance companies offer a split franchise, which is lower for the more costly hospital treatment and higher for the less common ambulance treatment.
- Selbstbehalt – You will have to bear 10% of the costs for basic coverage exceeding the franchise up to a maximum of 700 CHF per year. After that, the insurance will cover any additional costs completely.
You have chosen a franchise of CHF 1’500 per year and you need hospital treatment that amounts to CHF 10,000. You will have to pay CHF 2’200 (Franchise + 10% of the next CHF 7’000, i.e. 1’500 + 700 = 2’200). If you have any other medical treatment in the same calendar year, your insurance will pay 100% of it. By law, every insurance company must accept you for basic coverage, but they may refuse you for top-up insurance. Some weeks after your registration in Zurich, you will automatically receive a letter from the city of Zurich’s public health office (Städtische Gesundheitsdienste). They want to be sure that you are going to get basic health insurance. They also offer a list of the most common insurance companies. If you fail to obtain basic health insurance or if you do not answer the letter for three months, the public health office will oblige you to take a standard health insurance policy – which will probably not be the optimum solution.
Some of your health insurance fees may be refunded by the city of Zurich in a process called Individuelle Prämienverbilligung (IPV; individual fee reduction), but only if:
- Your income is low enough (there are several income levels corresponding to several yearly refunds)
- You are insured by a Swiss health insurance company
- You move to Zurich from a different Canton as opposed to from a foreign country: IPV is only possible if you have lived in Zurich from January 1 of the current year. To apply for the IPV, write a letter to the public health office stating the expected duration of your stay in Switzerland and which health insurance you are in. Enclose a copy of your employment contract. The public health office will decide whether you are entitled to an IPV, but the IPV will be paid by the social insurance agency of Zurich (Sozialversicherungsanstalt, SVA). Note that you will not get the money directly, but it will be paid to your insurance company, which will subsequently lower your insurance fees by this amount. The regulations for the IPV changes from time to time and thus the way things are carried out in practice might deviate from the routine described above. Insurance prices change frequently and it is a good idea to compare prices and switch insurance companies from time to time. This can be done easily via the internet.
Two very useful website to visit
SUVA Accident Insurance
Accident insurance: Insurance coverage for accidents is provided by the Swiss National Accident Insurance Fund (SUVA, Schweizerische Unfallversicherunganstalt) through ETH Zurich and will be deducted directly from your salary. If you are employed more than eight hours per week, it is valid at all times for accidents that occur both on and off ETH-Zurich premises. The coverage also provides for recreational mishaps; if you are injured while participating in a sporting activity, you are still covered. If your employment contract is for less than eight hours per week, SUVA coverage is only valid during official working hours and not during the weekends. However, you are covered for accidents that occur while traveling to and from work.
Note: If you want to ride a bike with insurance covering accidents with pedestrians etc., you need to have a personal liability insurance. Most insurances offer combined coverage for household and liability for all residents in this household.
Social Security System
Switzerland’s retirement plan is based on a three-tiered pension scheme:
- 1st Tier: AHV/IV: The AHV/IV is the mandatory state pension and covers basic needs. This is covered on your pay check under AHV-Beitrag. The AHV is the general and compulsory national social security insurance for everybody residing or gainfully employed in Switzerland. Its purpose is to provide retirement pensions and it forms part of the federal insurance network. 5.05% is deducted from the monthly gross salary (excluding care allowances). The same amount is paid by your employer without you noticing it. A share of this AHV fee is used for the invalidity insurance (IV). An additional share covers leave from work for Swiss military or alternative service (which is compulsory for all Swiss men). The AHV will send you an A6-format, grey insurance card with your AHV number on it. You will need this little piece of paper if you ever want to benefit from your insurance fees. Your AHV number serves as an important identifier in many administrative affairs.
- 2nd Tier: Occupational pensions (pension fund): Together with the 1st tier, occupational pension plans shall allow the continuation of the accustomed standard of living in an appropriate manner. The occupational pension plan is mandatory for employees with a minimum pre-AHV annual gross salary of CHF 20’88021’150 (effective 20112015) and is guaranteed by the pension fund. On your salary sheet, you will find a deduction for the pension fund. Similar as for the AHV, the law requires that your employer pays at least as much into your pension fund as you do (For ETH employees the ratio is 36:64). Every employer in Switzerland is required by law to offer a pension scheme to its employees. This pension scheme is the second pillar of Switzerland’s pension scheme besides the AHV. ETH Zurich’s pension fund is Pensionskasse des Bundes PUBLICA. The salary deduction is calculated on the basis of the versicherter Verdienst (insured income): your gross salary minus the maximum yearly pension AHV pays for a single person.
- 3rd Tier: Private pension plans (optional). Private pension plans form the third pillar of the Swiss three-tier concept. Tier 1 and 2 pensions may be significantly lower than what you earned before retirement (pension gap). Private pensions or private equity can help expand the pension scheme. Each year a certain amount can be saved for this purpose tax free (pension plan at bank or insurance company). Under tier 3, there are two options: a) the money is tied up for a certain amount of time and the Swiss state offers a tax reduction, and b) the money is freely accessible and no tax benefits apply.
Tier 3a individual retirement accounts offer several advantages: on the one hand, saving over the long term (wealth accumulation) provides state tax benefits and, on the other hand, private pension plans can also be drawn in the event of death and/or disability. Consequently, it is a good idea to get an early start when laying the foundations for a comfortable retirement by adding another pillar of support. The longer you pay in, the more savings you accumulate.
Each bank offers their own portfolio for people who want to use the tier 3a. You can invest in funds or simply deposit your money in an account. You can check the most suitable options at comparis.ch under the Finances menu.
Tax Deduction for Tier 3a
The state offers tax incentives to people who pay into tier 3a private pensions. The prerequisite for benefiting from the tier 3a tax relief is to be gainfully employed. If you belong to a pension fund, you can deduct up to CHF 6’768 (2015) per year from your taxable income.
You can receive benefits from your 61st birthday if you are a man or from your 60th birthday if you are a woman and, at the latest, on the day before your 66th birthday if you are a man or the day before your 65th birthday if you are a woman. If you have a third-pillar pension and can prove that you are still gainfully employed, you can postpone the payout of benefits up to a maximum of five years after reaching the official retirement age. An early payout (before retirement age) of the second and the third-pillar pension is possible in the following cases in particular: if you become self-employed, if you buy residential property or if you leave Switzerland for good (only Tier 3a if you settle down in a non EU/EFTA country). Early payout of the AHV pension is usually impossible (only if you have an exotic country of origin you can ask your money back when you leave Switzerland).
Finances and Taxes
Doctoral students find themselves between the worlds of education and work which is reflected in their salaries. Salaries are deposited regularly around the 25th of each month directly into your bank account. For those who cannot afford to live during their first working month in Switzerland while they wait for the salary, there is the possibility of getting an advance payment at the cash desk in ETH Zurich’s main building. Seek advice on the detailed proceedings from your group’s secretary.
You can get your salary from a number of sources: A few doctoral students per professor are paid directly by ETH Zurich, which makes life quite easy for them. If your research project is financed by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF), it might be necessary for you to write an application for your funding. Others are financed by industry, which necessitates a special agreement. Some are paid by funds that are tax examined. In this case you most likely are not paying unemployment insurance and therefore are not eligible for unemployment benefits. Whether you have to manage your funding all by yourself or your supervisor or the workgroup’s secretary does all the administrative work for you depends greatly on the style of your professor. According to ETH regulations, doctoral students receive a fixed-rate salary, which rises from the first to the third year of your engagement.
A starting point for questions on income tax, or Quellensteuer, is the Steueramt of the City of Zurich (see addresses). The responsibilities, especially for foreigners, are shared by offices of the Canton and city you live in, and you will have to find out who is responsible for each individual question. As a foreigner, you do not need to worry much about taxes as it is deducted directly from your salary, and you do not have to file a tax declaration.
The only reason you might get a tax refund is if you pay extra money into the pension fund (Pensionskasse des Bundes PUBLICA) or a private pension fund (called Säule 3a). If you have made such contributions, you have to send proof of the payments together with your annual salary statement and an informal letter indicating a bank account to the cantonal tax office (Kantonales Steueramt, Abteilung Quellensteuer) within the first three months of the year following the payments.
Public Transport and ETH-Zurich Subsidization
Switzerland is world famous for its flawless train and public transportation system. Any location in Switzerland is accessible via train or bus. The national railway company is called SBB (www.sbb.ch). The Zurich Traffic Network (ZVV, www.zvv.ch) gets you around the canton of Zurich. Tickets can be purchased online (browser, app), at a local ticket machine or at the ticket-office. The SBB app is also useful to check the schedule and to see whether trains are on time.
Once you have received your contract from ETH-Zurich, you are entitled to get a free Halbtax – a half-fare card that allows you to get a 50% reduction on any purchased train ticket (chose “1/2” when buying a ticket). Information on this will come together with your working contract.
If you intend to use public transport frequently, you might also consider purchasing a “GA” (General Abonement), which allows you to take any train or public transportation (including some cable cars) anywhere in Switzerland. Once you have received your contract, you can also get a 15% rebate on the GA.
If you plan to stay in Zurich most of your time and want to use public transportation, it might be wise to buy a “ZVV Netzpass” which allows you to use all of Zurich’s public transport at a flat-rate price.
Zurich by Plane
Zurich is well connected thanks to its international airport. The easiest way to get from Zurich airport to the city is by public transport. Tram 10 goes directly to ETH Zurich main building, and trains can take you from the airport to the city center within minutes. You will need a ticket for zone 10 plus a connection ticket as the airport is outside of the inner city zone limits.
Zurich by Car
Be advised that Zurich is not a car-friendly city. Driving through the city center, you will soon find out what the author means. Still, the city is well connected via several interstates. You can enter the Zurich area from the east via Germany or Austria, or from the north via Basel (traffic jams ahead!). Be careful not to drive too fast, there are many speed cameras around and fines are quite high.
After registering in Switzerland, you have one year to exchange your old driver’s license for a Swiss one. In most cases this costs a small fee and can be done within a few days at the Strassenverkehrsamt. You will need to go there personally and hand it over, together with an eye test from an optician. You can find more information on this website. In special cases you could be asked to take the theoretical or practical or both exams to exchange your driver’s license.
Importing a Car to Switzerland
Bringing your car to Switzerland is rather challenging and not cheap. The process exceeds the scope of this guide. For more info,
visit this website.
Renting a Car in Switzerland
Renting a car in Switzerland is the same as everywhere else. But there are two interesting benefits you can get as an ETH employee:
Europcar offers a significant reduction (around 50%) on car rentals in Switzerland for ETH employees. They operate a rental station on Hönggerberg. However, renting a car from one of the stations in Oerlikon or Altstetten is cheaper. The car sharing company mobility offers a trial subscription of four months for free, and later on an annual fee of 70 CHF has to be paid. That way, you have access to more than 2700 cars all over Switzerland with prices from 0.5 CHF/km and 2.5 CHF/h .For more information:
- https://www1.ethz.ch/fc/services/reisen – Click on europcar and login to get the promotion code
Parking space is rather limited in Zurich. There is no free parking anywhere in the city at all (and the fees are high!). If you only need to park for a short time, go for a parking lot. If you need a daily parking permit for public lots (indicated by blue marks on the street), you can get it in advance here.
It costs CHF 15 per day and you can buy up to 10 days in a row. If you are looking for long-term parking, you can either get a permit for the public blue zone (same link as above) or use ETH-Zurich parking lots. Information about parking at ETH can be found here.
Housing and Finding a Place to Stay
Do not expect your employer to arrange or provide you with accommodation when you arrive in Zurich. Ask within your group for help finding a short term solution for accommodation to give you time to search for a flat or room to rent. Be prepared to spend some time finding suitable accommodation as the demand for reasonably priced housing in Zurich is high. The most common housing possibilities in Zurich are a room in a WG (Wohngemeinschaft, shared flat), your own flat or a room in a family’s house. It can happen that 50 people or more fight for a cheap and conveniently located flat. Plan plenty of time for the flat-hunt.
ETH-Zurich has some studios for Ph.D. students who are coming from abroad and have a contract with ETH Zurich. They also have a bulletin board where you can find WG rooms or flats. You can apply for a studio at here.
Where to Look for Apartments
Check out these addresses and locations
- ETH Whiteboard, only available in German
- ETH Wohnen Service
- The public bulletin boards at ETH Zurich and the University, especially those in the Polyterrasse building, mostly advertise WG rooms
- You can also search for WGs and single rooms at the student organization WOKO
- Flat sharing
- Apartments and flat sharing
- You might also consider hiring an agent to look for flats for you. But be aware: you usually have to pay a fee of one month’s rent in a successful deal. The comfort here is that you don’t have to compete with other applicants.
First Few Days
Unless you have already found a flat or made other arrangements, you will probably need to stay at the city’s youth hostel, a backpacker’s or a more expensive hotel. Business or Airbnb apartments are another accommodation option, at least for the beginning of your Ph.D. They are usually cleaned, fitted with a kitchen and bathroom, and fully furnished. Business apartments can be rented monthly and cost somewhere in the range of 1’500 CHF. Try searching directly on the web for “business apartments Zurich” or use this website.
If you are not searching for flats, this will probably be the most quiet and relaxing time in your doctorate life, making it the perfect opportunity to explore the city and your neighborhood. Shops where you can get food are located nearly on every corner in Zurich. In case you arrive late or on a Sunday, there is also a possibility for shopping the bare essentials in the “Shopville” of the Zurich main station which is open 365 days per year until late. In addition, coop has a store next to the main station that is open until ten on weekdays and Saturdays. There are plenty of activities you can do in Zurich. Check the city homepage; for bars and clubs, there are special homepages telling you where a party is happening:
- www.barolino.ch, list of bars in Zurich/Switzerland
- zuerich.usgang.ch, party events in Zurich
- www.meetup.com, if you want to meet new people.
In any rental agreement (Mietvertrag), there should be clear rules as to what costs are included in the rent and what is to be paid additionally (e.g. water, electricity, heating). The usual period of notice for vacating a flat (Kündigungsfrist) is three months. If you are not the principle tenant, you will get a sub-contract (Untermietvertrag). Make sure you get this contract from the tenant when you move into a shared flat (WG) to avoid any trouble when you leave. Usually, you have to pay a deposit for your flat or room, which is normally two months’ rent. You can find your rights as a tenant at: www.mieterverband.ch/?id=2287, only in German
In most buildings, a washing machine is provided by the landlord. Swiss caretakers are generally very creative in making up complicated reservation procedures for the washing machine. Rules of conduct in the washing and drying cellar can be as strictly defined as any major law.
The Actual Move to Zurich
The application process for renting a flat can be quite tedious: apart from proving that you can pay the rent, you might be asked for an excerpt of the Swiss debtor’s register (Betreibungsauszug). Coming from abroad, you will not be able to provide the landlord with that but you might get something similar in your country of origin that confirms your creditworthiness. If you relocate in Zurich you can get the Betreibungsauszug at the respective Kreisbüro in your district (Kreis) or order it online. For the application you might have to present some additional references from people living in Switzerland, such as your professor or supervisor, vouching for your trustworthiness.
For the actual process of moving to Zurich (or within Zurich), it might be useful to hire Parking-prohibited signs from the city police force to prevent others from parking in the space you need for your car for a few hours. These cost about CHF 60. Simply call the police department of the district you live in. Go to www.stadt-zuerich.ch
A low-price alternative for buying household goods are the second-hand department stores called Brockenhaus or the flea-market at Helvetiaplatz every Saturday. If you prefer new furniture at a low price, as always, IKEA is an option.
Radio and Television Fees, Billag
When registering at the Kreisbüro, it is a good idea to pick up the booklet on applying for your radio and television license. You have to pay monthly fees for Swiss radio and television if you own a radio or television or a computer/tablet with internet access. (2014, about CHF 14.10 for radio and 24.45 CHF for television per month). It does not matter whether you watch TV or listen to the radio at all, you still have to pay. If you don’t pay the fees, the fine could be as high as CHF 5’000. You can also make annual subscription.
Swiss Waste Management
Sustainability is important in Switzerland. Hence, waste management is taken very seriously. You will need to separate your rubbish into:
- Paper, which has to be packed and cored into small piles. These have to be put out on the street at specific times of the month for collection.
- Cardboard is treated similarly to paper. However, you are also supposed to separate it!
- Plastic bottles, which can be put into PET collection containers (supermarkets)
- Glass bottles and metal cans, which go separately into glass and metal containers (found throughout the city)
- For biowaste, some houses have a green litter bin
- The rest has to be put into Zürisäcke, which can be bought at supermarkets (Migros, Coop) or in any Post office. See here for details.
Internet at your Apartment
There are two major home internet providers in Switzerland: Swisscom and Cablecom .
Both offer various bundles for both internet and television. Please note that the Billag-fee is an independent thing. As an ETH employee you can get a rebate on certain cablecom offers.
Most Zurich households are connected to the electricity grid via the Canton-based energy supplier EWZ (www.ewz.ch). As an tenant, you can choose between different contracts (depending on your financial situation and environmental consciousness). However, there is not much choice when it comes to the gas supply as this is usually decided by your landlord.
Three major providers exist in Switzerland and have a huge variety of contracts available: Swisscom, Sunrise and Orange. However, you will need to have a residency permit and a bank account to be allowed to sign a contract. Another option (at least for starters) might be yall0.ch, which also offers cheap international calls.
In Switzerland three major providers exist offering a huge variety of contracts: Swisscom, Orange and Sunrise. However, you will need to have a residency permit and a bank account to be allowed to sign a contract. Another option (at least for starters) might be prepaid rates (e.g. m-budget.ch and yall0.ch which also offers cheap international calls).
For internet connections at home the ETH has a special offers together with upc cablecom.
Shortly after your arrival in Switzerland, you should open an account at either a bank or the post office (postfinance). Despite the mystique of the Swiss banks, this is relatively easy. Some banks may hesitate to open an account for you if you only have the Zusicherung der Aufenthaltsbewilligung and not a regular Ausländerausweis.
Tell them they are about to lose a future manager as a customer and go to a different bank if they remain stubborn. Some banks have special offers with favorable conditions for students, such as no fees, a free credit card and or other benefits (The ZKB for example pays the student’s costs when using night buses or trains in Zurich, which normally costs a surplus of 5 CHF to the normal ticket). The quality of the Swiss post banking services is comparable to that of ordinary banks. Maestro or Postcard payments are the most widely accepted forms of direct debit payments in Switzerland, but credit cards are almost everywhere accepted as well. However, you will only be issued these cards after some money has been deposited in your account (e.g. the first salary).
Give your account details to the secretary in your workgroup or department as soon as possible so that your salary payments can be made to the right place.
If you are able to save money, you will need to file a simple application form for the tax authorities every two years to claim back the 35-percent tax (Verrechnungssteuer) levied on any interest earned. For Swiss citizens, this form automatically comes with the income tax forms. Foreigners are entitled to the refund if they have been living in Zurich since January 1 of the current year. They need to collect the form from the Formularkanzlei of the Steueramt (the City of Zurich’s tax office). Once applied, foreigners will also receive the form automatically in future. A short, additional word on financial matters: Sooner or later, you will be confronted with an orange or red payment slip (Einzahlungsschein). One will most probably come with your ETH-Zurich admission papers. You can go to a Swiss bank or post office with this form and pay the dues in cash. If you are not in Switzerland, try to ask a group member to loan the money to you and take care of the Einzahlungsschein because it could be extremely expensive to pay the dues from abroad.
Those can also be paid through online banking, now provided in most if not all banks.
A list of public holidays in Zurich is available online.