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Permission to Stay a While: Get a Swiss Residence Permit

After 2014’s referendum calling for a curb in European immigration, Switzerland’s residence permit system has been much debated. Until implementation has been agreed, EU-27/EFTA citizens continue to enjoy free movement, while third-country nationals face strict requirements and annual quotas.
Whether you are planning a move to Lucerne or Bern, you will most likely need a residence permit.

At a Glance:

  • The need for and type of a residence permit, as well as the exact requirements, depend on the length of your stay and your nationality.
  • EU/EFTA nationals (excluding Croatians) benefit from the Agreement on the Free Movement of People: requirements are less strict and there are no quotas yet on how many may come to live and work in Switzerland.
  • Residence permits are the responsibility of cantonal authorities.
  • If all obligations are met, spouses, dependent children and sometimes even parents, grandparents, and grandchildren may join their family member in Switzerland. Their permit will be tied to the original resident’s permit in regard to type and length of stay.
  • Swiss citizenship may be gained after a minimum of 12 years of residency. An accelerated process of naturalization exists especially for foreign spouses and children of Swiss persons or permanent residents.

Do You Need a Permit?

As with Swiss visas, the regulations regarding residence and work permits heavily depend on your country of origin, as well as the length and reason for your stay.

As a Citizen from an EU/EFTA Member State

Switzerland signed the Agreement on the Free Movement of Persons (AFMP) in 1999. This has paved the way for citizens from the European Union as well as the member states of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) — i.e. Iceland, Norway, and Liechtenstein — to live and work in Switzerland and vice versa.

Please note, as the latest country to join the European Union, Croatia is not (yet) included in the list of states whose citizens benefit from the AFMP with Switzerland. Rather, in 2016, annual quotas of 50 B permits and 450 L permits applied, with the application process and requirements similar to those of third-country nationals. EU-27 refers to this exclusion of Croatia.

For stays of up to three months in a calendar year there is no need for a residence permit. This applies even when you are planning to work, although your employer will have to officially notify the Swiss authorities prior to you taking up the job.

For any stays of more than three months, even expatriates from the EU/EFTA will have to apply for a residence permit. However, requirements are significantly less strict when compared to third-country nationals: you and your employer do not need permission from any Swiss labor market authorities, nor are there quotas regarding the number of permits that can be issued.

However, in November 2016, it was still unclear how the legally-binding result of the 2014 referendum, which called for limits on the immigration from the EU/EFTA states, would be implemented. Initial suggestions included prioritizing Swiss job applicants rather than quotes. The deadline for the final decision is February 2017.

As a Citizen from Another Country

If you are not a national from an EU-27 or EFTA member state and planning to go to Switzerland for more than just a tourist trip — i.e. to take up employment and/or stay more than three months — then you will need a residence permit.

There are annual quotas on how many work-based permits (type L and B) may be handed out to people from countries that have not signed the AFMP. For 2017, these amount to 3,000 longer-stay B permits and 4,500 short-term L permits. Recipients are typically limited to specialists, qualified workers, and managers.

What Are the Different Types of Residence Permits?

It’s important to note that there is no such thing as a separate Swiss work permit. Permission to take up (self-) employment — if granted — is noted down in your residence permit, which may then be referred to as a Bewilligung zum Aufenthalt mit Erwerbstätigkeit.

Depending on the reason for and the length of your stay, there are a number of different categories:

  • Permit G for cross-border commuters (Grenzgängerbewilligung)
  • Permit L for short stays of up to one year (Kurzaufenthaltsbewilligung)
  • Permit B for stays of more than one and up to five years, renewable (Aufenthaltsbewilligung)
  • Permit C for permanently settling in Switzerland (Niederlassungsbewilligung)

There are also further categories available for provisionally admitted foreigners (F), family members of diplomats (Ci), asylum seekers (N), and other people in need of protection (S).

If your family is joining you in Switzerland, they will have to apply for the same type of permit as you. Its validity will be tied into the validity of your permit. For more on this topic, please refer to the “Can Family Members Join Expats?” section in this article.

When and Where to Apply?

Residence permits are typically the responsibility of cantonal authorities. As such, you will need to get in touch with the respective immigration agency or labor market authority of the canton that you are planning on moving to.

As mentioned above, Switzerland has signed the Agreement on the Free Movement of Persons (AFMP). Citizens of EU/EFTA member states (excluding Croatians) therefore do not need permission from the labor market authorities to take up employment in Switzerland. You can apply for a residence permit with the respective local authority directly within the first two weeks of your stay in Switzerland and prior to taking up your job.

For nationals from third states that have not signed the AFMP, prospective employers first need to be able to prove that no Swiss or EU/EFTA citizen could be found to take the job instead. The employer has to make the first step by applying for a third national’s residence permit. Only when both the canton and the State Secretariat for Migration (SEM) have approved a third-country applicant may Swiss representations abroad issue a visa for Switzerland. You will have to file for the latter separately.

After arriving in Switzerland, you have to register with the cantonal authorities within the first 14 days and before starting work. You will then receive your residence permit, typically in the form of a plastic identity card which includes biometric information.

Please note, even if no visa is required to legally enter Switzerland, it is highly recommended that applicants from non-EU/-EFTA countries wait for initial approval abroad rather than in Switzerland, otherwise they risk being sent out of the country again. The duty-free import of household items also depends on having the assurance of a residence permit if you are not from an EU/EFTA country.

What Documentation Is Required?

Regardless of your nationality, the reason for your move, and whether or not you want to work in Switzerland, there are three things that are always required:

Further requirements depend on your circumstances. We have summed up some of the most common cases below.

When Taking Up Employment (L and B Permits)

In order to apply for an L or B permit with permission to work, applicants from EU-27/EFTA member states only need to provide their employment contract in addition to the documents mentioned above. Even without an employment offer, job seekers from these countries may be granted an L permit as well.

For Croatians or third-country citizens, employers typically have to handle the application. They are also responsible for providing many of the required documents:

  • employment contract
  • job, task, and company descriptions
  • applicant’s CV plus supporting documents such as university diplomas
  • proof of an unsuccessful search for a Swiss or EU/EFTA employee
  • letter of explanation of why foreign applicant is needed
  • recent police check certificate for applicant (B permit only)

When Self-Employed (L and B Permits)

For those who would like to be their own boss, the requirements differ:

  • business plan
  • proof of suitable accommodation
  • proof of self-employed activities & sufficient income (e.g. copies of contracts, order volume)
  • certificate of incorporation (Handelsregisterauszug), if relevant
  • proof of health and accident insurance cover

After a successful application, the permit is typically valid for five years. Third-country nationals cannot apply for a self-employment permit.

When Commuting across Borders (Grenzgänger, G Permits)

So-called Grenzgänger are people living in neighboring countries who commute across the border (Grenze) to work in Switzerland. In addition to the documents generally required for a residence permit with permission to work (see above), applicants for the G permit need to provide an official confirmation from their country of residence that this is where they live (Wohnsitzbescheinigung im Ausland).

Grenzgänger generally need to return to their place of residence at least once a week. Third-country nationals also need to have a permanent permit for their country of residence and have lived in the agreed-on border-zone of the neighboring country for at least half a year.

When Not Working (L and B Permits)

If you are not planning on taking up work while in Switzerland, but would like to go to university or retire there for example, then different requirements apply. In general, you will need to provide proof for the reason of your stay (e.g. confirmation of enrollment for students), show that you have enough income and/or funds, and have health and accident insurance as well as a suitable accommodation.

As usual, regulations are stricter for those who are not from an EU-27/EFTA member state. For example, retirees from these countries have to prove they have close ties to Switzerland in order to be eligible. Please get in touch with the respective cantonal immigration authority for more detailed information.

Can Family Members Join Expats?

Swiss citizens and EU-27/EFTA residents may bring their

  • spouse;
  • own dependent children or grandchildren (considered dependent if under 21 or being supported financially);
  • spouse’s dependent children or grandchildren;
  • spouse’s or your own parents/grandparents if they require support.

Please note that the latter is not possible for students.

The type and validity of a family member’s permit typically depends on the permit of the original resident. The permits of family members of Swiss and EU citizens also include permission to work in Switzerland, regardless of their own nationality.

In order to apply, you need at least the following documents:

  • completed application form
  • copy of travel documents / passport
  • for spouses: (Swiss confirmation of a foreign) marriage certificate and/or marital status certificate (Familienstandsbescheinigung)
  • for children, parents, and grandparents: birth certificate(s)

Swiss residents from outside the EU-27/EFTA may only bring their

  • spouse;
  • dependent children (under 18).

If the original resident holds either a long-term (B) or a settlement permit (C), then the family member may also take up employment, including self-employment. Family members of short-term residents (L), however, need to apply for and comply with all the requirements for their own permit that includes permission to work.

Some additional documents are also needed:

  • copies of resident’s pay slips over the past twelve months
  • information on any financial liabilities (e.g. alimony, outstanding debts) or signed assurance that none exist
  • recent police check certificate for applying family member
  • copy of rental agreement
  • proof of healthcare insurance for the whole family
  • excerpt of the Swiss debt collection register (Betreibungsregisterauszug) of the resident family member

Settlement Permits — Length of Stay: Indefinite

If you have already been a resident in Switzerland for at least five consecutive years, then depending on your country of origin you may be eligible for a settlement permit (type C, Niederlassungsbewilligung). This five-year period also applies to spouses of Swiss citizens or permanent residents and their children. For those aged eleven years or younger, the permit will generally be granted at the same time as the settlement permit of their parent(s).

In order to apply, at least the following documentation is needed:

  • completed application form
  • copy of travel documents / passport
  • current residence permit
  • excerpt of the Swiss debt collection register (Betreibungsregisterauszug)
  • confirmation of no current dependence on the Swiss social security system
  • recent Swiss police check certificate
  • recent passport photos

Staying for Good: The Naturalization Process

If after at least twelve years of residency in Switzerland you are interested in becoming a Swiss citizen, then you can apply for naturalization. The website of the State Secretariat of Migration (SEM) gives an overview of further requirements for naturalization. However, the final decision does not only lie with the SEM, but also with your canton and community.

Spouses and children of Swiss citizens may benefit from an accelerated naturalization process, and can usually apply after five years of total residency in Switzerland. In contrast to the regular process, the decision is primarily made by the Confederation and the canton and community may only appeal. For more information on acquiring Swiss citizenship through marriage, please refer to our article on getting married in Switzerland.


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