How To: Switzerland (a guide to expat life)

Hey guys, get ready for a detailed guide on beginning your life in Switzerland!

When you think of Switzerland, chocolate, cheese, watches, and the thought of stunning mountains may come to mind. Maybe you have seen the perfect picturesque Matterhorn in travel magazines, on Instagram, or maybe just on the wrapper of your Toblerone chocolate bar….. Either way, I would recommend travelling here for yourself to experience these things and to indulge in the Swiss culture (when I say indulge I really mean it, there actually is an endless supply of chocolate and cheese).

Yes, this is the iconic Matterhorn I am talking about. (source: pinterest)


I figured after almost 8 months of living in Switzerland,  it was finally time to write an in depth blog post about everything I have learned so far as a foreigner living in this country. So, I will try my best to make this an easy “beginner’s guide” and introduction into the Swiss way of life. If you have ever considered moving to Switzerland from abroad, whether it be to become a cheese farmer, a chocolatier, or just to improve your yodelling, keep reading to find out some helpful facts about this beautiful country!

Getting straight into business, the first thing I want to mention is that living here as someone who is not a European citizen is not easy. As a Canadian, I am considered a third-state national. You can find a list of the countries that are part of the EU/EFTA here. To live in Switzerland, you need a specific permit that allows you to stay in the country. As a tourist, I am allowed to stay for 90 days but because I got a job here, I was granted the L permit which allowed me to live and work in the country for 12 months. I will now obtain a different permit called the B permit that will allow me to stay and work on a longer term because of a new work contract I have with a new company. If you want to find out more about how you are able to enter and stay in Switzerland depending on your country, you can read all about the permits here. Basically, as a foreigner (especially from a non European country), your residence permit is tied to your job. The other option of course is to marry a Swiss, then you will be granted residency and (in most cases) a work permit too.

So now that you have a bit more info on how to enter the country, let’s talk about what life is like once you are here! Like I mentioned, Switzerland is known for being the land of yummy food, great scenery, and rich culture.  But I want to share with you some insider tips the tourism board doesn’t tell you:

1. The Swiss love of paper/paperwork

To give you an example of how much they reallllyyy love having things on paper here, I once emailed the migration board (which is basically a government office) in Zürich to ask them a question. After a few days, I hadn’t heard anything back and I was checking my email daily awaiting their response. Then, one day I was brining in the mail from the mailbox and I came across a letter addressed to me… from the migration board. I thought “hm, okay kinda weird but maybe this is the response to my email.” I opened the letter only to find a piece of paper with one sentence: “We have received your email and will respond as soon as possible”………. Paper is important here. Everything you do has some form of paperwork that needs to be done, and apparently sometimes your emails will be responded to on paper. So, there’s that.

2. The constant dinging of church bells

Ok..the church bells, they aren’t so bad. But there are 3 stages you will go through while adjusting to the constant dinging. When you first move here and hear the bells you’ll think “wow, how enchanting!”. But once you start hearing the bells every hour, every half hour… every 15 minutes… you will say “can someone turn those things off?!”. The final stage is tuning them out. The bells will eventually become a regular hum of the every day sounds you hear while living in Switzerland. So, just my piece of advice, choose where you live wisely. You will hear the bells from everywhere you live, but the closer you are to them the louder they get.

3. The enforced rules and regulations

Every country has rules that need to be followed and regulations set in place to keep things running smoothly. Switzerland has a LOT, and some of them… you will probably break at some point. Now, I am not saying you are going to break the law. If you don’t read up on the dos and don’ts, you may accidentally do something that is ‘not allowed’. For example, in the previous apartment complexes I have lived, I could do laundry all hours of the day, night, and every day of the week. In Switzerland, it is common that laundry is not allowed to be done after 10pm and on Sundays. This goes for vacuuming too. If you vacuum on a Sunday, your neighbours could call the police on you and they probably will. (Most) Swiss people love to follow the rules and will not go against them. Don’t you dare try to j-walk (really don’t… it is illegal) because you will most likely be called out by a Swiss person for breaking the law.

4. Life here is #Expensive

Okay, so you might have actually heard this one before. The cost of living in Switzerland is very high. But with that being said, the minimum wage is also very high compared to other countries so there is a balance. Some things that have higher price mark here than other places are food/drink while eating out, outings to the cinema, gym membership, and even groceries. But the salary you earn while working here is very fair and balanced with the high prices. The average minimum wage for someone working full time can fall anywhere between 2,200-5,000 CHF (Swiss Francs) per month. So, yes, you can still order your beloved Starbucks drink, but make sure to add that in your monthly budget.

5. Not everyone is multilingual 

Although Switzerland has 4 official languages, not everyone can speak them all. (Swiss) German, French, Italian, and Romansh are the languages spoken in the different regions of Switzerland. Although (for the most part) the German speakers can understand and speak some French and vice versa, they are not all necessarily fluent. If you are considering moving here, it is most likely you will have to learn the language of the region you are in. For example, I live in the German speaking region and in most jobs you have to be at a certain level of speaking and understanding German before being hired. While you are learning, don’t worry. You can still get around easily in most parts by speaking English. After 8 months here, I can understand most conversations in Swiss German and have picked up many helpful phrases for getting around!

Here are some helpful SWISS German phrases you should know (thanks to expat life)

  • Hello –   Grüezi
  • My name is.. – Mi name isch..
  • I am from.. –  Ich bi vo..
  • Good Morning – Guete Morge
  • Good Evening – Gueten Oobe
  • Thank You – Merci
  • Sorry – Es duet mr leid
  • How much is this? – Was koschtet das?
  • Where is the… – Wo isch d…

6. You don’t really NEED a car

The public transportation system in Switzerland is amazing. You can get to almost any destination by train and inside the cities, the busses and trams pretty much bring you door-to-door. The connections are rarely late so you can always plan your journeys down to the last minute and always be on time (the real Swiss way). If you plan on moving to Switzerland, I would suggest buying a travel pass. You can purchase a ‘half-tax’ card which allows you to buy all tickets for half price. The other pass I suggest if you have a lot of commuting by train is the Swiss GA travel pass. There is a monthly fee of around 250 CHF but trust me it is totally worth it if you are taking the trains to work, school, or if you travel often. If you do want to drive, some foreign drivers licenses are transferable to Swiss ones without having to redo the exams and lessons. Check here to learn more about it and to see if your country is on the list!

7. You can’t do anything on Sunday

Okay…. well actually there is a lot you can do. But what I mean is that on Sundays, most shops are closed. Including most grocery stores as well. So if you want to do some shopping, get it all done before Sunday! At first, I found it really weird that the cities were such ghost towns on Sundays but after living here for a while I realized it’s because most people like to dedicate this day to either completely relaxing, or doing outdoor activities. This is actually pretty pretty cool that the Swiss dedicate a day to being outside and doing some sort of adventure (such as hiking, skiing, walking, swimming, etc.) Work hard play hard, as they say! If you do find yourself at home on a Sunday with no food in the fridge, not to worry. Many petrol stations and train station shops remain open and have extended hours.

8. You have to register yourself to live in a canton

Switzerland is divided into 26 cantons, kind of like states in the USA or provinces in Canada. Each canton has their own healthcare and education systems. When moving from canton to canton, you must de-register from your current one and register in your new one. This means lots of paperwork (yup, they love paper.) and it can be a bit of a process. For a foreigner, it can mean you have to re-do all of your citizenship papers and apply for a new residence permit. Each village/town has a community centre called a ‘Gemeinde’ where you go to do all of this. They will help you out 😉

9. Finding work ain’t easy

The Swiss job market can be disheartening but don’t give up. Searching for jobs in Switzerland can be a lot of work, especially as a foreigner. You have to be just the right amount of qualified for the job you are applying for. Employers are very specific in what they are looking for and will not hire you if you are under-qualified or overqualified for the job. I would recommend looking into career coaches for expats if you move to Switzerland because they will help you to tailor your CV and motivation letters. Other than that, check job posting websites religiously such as indeed. Make a LinkedIn account and add all of your information. Be consistent and send looooots of emails. The interview process is long and you will have to reveal a lot about yourself to the employer (it is common to ask if you are married, if you have children, and other personal questions at an interview here). To give you some motivation to keep the search going, I finally found a position I am suitable for in a company I’ve been trying to get the attention of for over a year. Sometimes you just have to be patient and good things will happen!

10. You are among 1/4 of foreigners living in Switzerland!

There are a lot of expats living in Switzerland. So don’t worry! You are not alone! If you are feeling lost or lonely, there are lots of Facebook groups you can join where you can ask questions, make friends, or even find out about events going on around the country. There are lots of different groups and events that are designed for foreigners to meet people and integrate into the social life here. You will meet people from all over! I have met Australians, Americans, Germans, Spaniards, French, Bulgarians, Chinese, Italians, Brits, and many many many others. Sadly, I haven’t met another Canadian yet.. 😦 fellow Hosers, where are you guys!?!

So, there you have it. My full beginner’s guide on moving to Switzerland as a foreigner. Nothing in life is easy, but let me tell you… the experiences you have here will be worth the battle! I feel so lucky to be living in an amazing place where I can visit the famous alps, experience local food, and educate myself in the cultures and customs of this country. Some days you may feel like giving up (I know, yodelling is really hard to master…) But keep pushing. Things will work out for you! Despite some of the negative things I discussed in this post, this teeny tiny wonderland is a great place to live.

I hope this guide has given you some insight on what life as a foreigner is like in Switzerland and if you really are considering the big move, reach out to me! I would love to help you with any questions.

As always, thanks for reading and following my #Swisslife journey ❤️








9 thoughts on “How To: Switzerland (a guide to expat life)

  1. pedrol says:

    dear Zoe, it was a pleasure to discover your blog and your adventures in Switzerland 🙂 I have this candid image of Switzerland and would love to move there eheh cheers from Lisbon, PedroL


  2. Viaje ni Bree says:

    I just arrived in Switzerland this 3rd week of May and will work here as an expat for a few months. I love this series! This will definitely help me survive my stay here since I’m from Asia which absolutely has a different way of life. Merci! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Viaje ni Bree says:

        It’s okay! I’m happy you replied. 🙂 I further read on your blog that you got a new job in Zurich. I’m happy for you. It gives me hope too. I’m currently working in Basel. 😉


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