7 things I learned from living as an Expat in Switzerland

A few years ago, after a successful run in Canada, my employer offered me an amazing role in their EMEA head office near Lausanne, Switzerland. After the mandatory visit to the head office and surrounding area and negotiating the compensation package and responsibilities, I accepted the position. Shortly after, my pregnant wife and I, together with our 1.5 year-old daughter, relocated to this beautiful country. After living and working there for 2 years, we decided to move away, travel the world for a few months, and relocate back to Vancouver, Canada.

A note to the reader: Switzerland, like any other place, has many goods and bads. And most importantly, it all depends on your personal lens. We truly loved the Swiss experience! My goal by sharing some of our experience is to help other people have a successful move down there.

Here are 7 important things to consider if you’re planning to become an expat in Switzerland:

1. Make it a family decision

Your partner, and your kids (if old enough), should be fully in agreement to make the move a successful one. Your partner should accompany you in the exploratory trip, and you should discuss the overall experience with someone in a similar position to learn its pros & cons, ideally from someone that has gone through a similar experience in that same location, and same company if possible. As much as possible, ask your employer for those references to have an informal discussion. This is a safe, quiet, and beautiful country, with excellent schools and endless outdoor activities!

2. Expectations ≠ Reality (big time!)

We all have a preconceived idea of Switzerland based on whether you visited on a vacation, seen movies shot there, know someone living there, or maybe have relatives. Heck, surely you will do a lot of googling before moving there, right? Be prepared to be surprised! Depending on where you originally come from, the difference between your expectations and reality will be bigger or smaller. Keep in mind, Switzerland is a very conservative and traditional country where changes are slow, that has kept its high standard of living due to their relative isolation of world events (e.g. think WWII). Finance industry is a very important part of not only the economy, but what mainly sustains their high standard of living. My advice, contact someone that’s been in the same canton as you plan to move, and talk and ask questions to fine tune your expectations.

3. Get ready for sticker shock!

Seriously, that will be one of the first things that will shock you and your partner. Everything from groceries, rent, dining out, bills, taxi rides, etc… things are incredibly expensive. Granted, your compensation will be much higher than in your home country, and taxes are much lower (depending on where you live income tax could go from 5-15%, vs 30%+ in most countries). Unfortunately, there are many unknown items that add up substantial amounts to your monthly expenses, specially health insurance (yes, it’s private). At the end of the day, you will probably be left with the same percentage amount at the end of the month than in your home country.

4. Bureaucracy is a major hassle

Settling down in Switzerland is quite a cumbersome process to begin with, from the registration process in the commune where you will temporarily live, to de-registering and registering again in the commune where you end up finding a place, etc etc. There are many legal and bureaucratic processes you need to follow to be able to settle there. Unfortunately, the trouble doesn’t end there… on your daily life, you will be faced with an endless list of non-sense tasks you must comply with, that in your home country where never an issue, like paying monthly invoices (Switzerland has a very unique manual system to deal with this routine task done automatically in most countries). End result is that either you or your partner will likely dedicate one day every week to pay invoices, utilities, etc. Unfortunately, your troubles will only get worse the day you decide to leave the country! Get ready to dedicate a few months of your life to this relatively simple task.

5. “Dream Team” social network

During my stay in Switzerland, I was located close to Lausanne. Within a few kilometers there are many key global organizations such as the United Nations Secretariat, WTO (World Trade Organization), ITU (International Telecommunications Unit), WHO (World Health Organization), IOC (International Olympic Committee), FIFA, WEF (World Economic Forum), etc, not to mention numerous head offices of Fortune 500 companies and leading banking institutions. As a consequence, your social network will be filled with senior people from those organizations – these are very smart folks that play key roles shaping the world. It is an incredible privilege!

6. Unfriendly to immigration, even Expats 

I was born in Spain, with strong influence of my family from Finland. Last 10 years I lived and become Canadian. Speak 3 languages, and so far I visited almost a third of the world. When we moved to Switzerland, we expected a country that would welcome and accept immigration as it is an integral part of their economic development. Well… not exactly! Although we encountered many friendly Swiss, the general sense you will likely get is that immigrants, independently of their country of origin, are not welcome. There is a strong campaign against immigration from different cultures displayed in the many banner ads on bus and train stations. That’s something to keep in mind if you’re moving with small children.

7. Beware of the “Golden Cage”

When you live in Switzerland as an expat you will likely hear about the term ‘golden cage’. It relates to the fact that because your compensation will be one of the highest you will ever get anywhere else in the world, and your role will likely be pretty unique, it will be extremely hard to give that up and move anywhere else. Where else will you be offered a similar role, not to mention equivalent compensation? Anyone thinking of leaving Switzerland will likely have to accept a substantial step down on $ terms and career development.

These are just some of the key considerations my wife and I experienced while in Switzerland, and I hope it helps anyone considering moving there. I’m sure you will do your due diligence, as we did, but nonetheless, it’s worth pointing to specific areas where to look. Moving to the German canton might change a few of these, but I’d say that generally they apply to all Switzerland.

Of course, their cheese, chocolates, incredible landscapes and endless opportunities would deserve another post in itself!

Have you lived in Switzerland yourself? How would you describe it? Please comment below!

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