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Residence permits: How EU and EFTA citizens can live, work and stay in Switzerland

For European Union and EFTA citizens, living and working in Switzerland is much easier. Here's what you need to know.

The city of Zurich, with Lake Zurich in the foreground, on a beautiful day. Zurich is a popular destination for foreign workers. Photo by Volodymyr on Unsplash
The city of Zurich, with Lake Zurich in the foreground, on a beautiful day. Zurich is a popular destination for foreign workers. Photo by Volodymyr on Unsplash

A small country with a strong economy, Switzerland is heavily reliant on its foreign workers. 

Approximately 25 percent of the country’s population is foreign, with the figure in some cantons as high as 50 percent. 

Switzerland has a dual system for allowing foreign workers in to the country: European Union (EU) and European Free Trade Association (EFTA) nationals are in one group and people from all other countries (third-country nationals) in a second group.

This means that citizens of the 27 countries currently in the European Union – along with the three EFA states other than Switzerland (Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway) – have preferential access when it comes to living and working in Switzerland. 

While it is not as simple as just moving to Switzerland like you would in your own country, it remains much easier than if you come from a so-called ‘third country’. If you come from a country outside the EU/EFTA states, click the following link for more information. 

READ MORE: An essential guide to Swiss work permits

Here’s what you need to know. 

EU and EFTA nationals

Nationals from EU and EFTA countries are able to live and work in Switzerland under the terms of the Agreement on the Free Movement of Persons (AFMP).

People from these countries only require a residence permit, which also doubles as a work permit. These permits are not tied to a single canton, but you need to inform the authorities if you change your address. You can also change jobs or take up self-employment.

Note that you will only generally be granted a residence permit if you have a signed work contract detailing the number of hours to be worked and the duration of the position.

A red train carves its way though the Swiss mountains on a snowy day.

The scenic route. This is the way at least some people get to work in Switzerland. Photo by Johannes Hofmann on Unsplash

However, people from EU and EFTA countries who are not economically active, such as retirees and students, may be entitled to a residence permit if they can prove they have sufficient funds to support themselves and that they have health insurance. There is more information here.

If you are an EU or EFTA national, you can also come to Switzerland and look for work for a period of up to three months without needing to obtain a permit. If your job hunt lasts longer than three months and you have sufficient funds, you can apply for a temporary residence permit that will allow you to continue looking for a further three months.

This can be extended for up to a year if there is sufficient evidence that your job hunt could be successful.

Here are the main types of residence permits for EU/EFTA nationals in Switzerland

L EU/EFTA permit (short-term residents)

This permit is usually given to EU and EFTA who are going to be resident in Switzerland for a period of up to a year.

According to the State Secretariat for Migration, EU and EFTA nationals are entitled to this permit provided they are in possession of an employment contract valid from three up to twelve months. 

Reader question: Does owning a second home in Switzerland give me the right to live there?

B EU/ETFA permit (resident foreign nationals)

This permit is issued to foreigners with a work contract of at least 12 months, or of unlimited duration. This permit can be extended after the five years is up. However, if the applicant has been out of work for more than 12 consecutive months in the previous five-year period, the permit will only be extended for one year.

EU and EFTA nationals who don’t have work, or who plan to work on a self-employed basis, can also be granted a B permit if they can prove they have enough money to be self-sufficient and that they have adequate health and accident insurance.

C EU/FTA permit (settled foreign nationals)

After five or ten years’ residence, some EU and EFTA nationals can obtain permanent residence status by being granted a C permit.

G EU/EFTA permit

This permit is designed for cross-border commuters who work in Switzerland (either employed by a firm or self-employed) but who live elsewhere. Holders of this permit can work anywhere in Switzerland but must return to their place of residence outside Switzerland at least once a week.

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WORKING IN SWITZERLAND

What happens to your Swiss work permit if you lose your job?

If you are a foreign national, your ability to work in Switzerland is often tied to your permit. But would you be allowed to remain in the country if you become unemployed?

What happens to your Swiss work permit if you lose your job?

Losing a job is a huge inconvenience to any employee, whether Swiss or not, but it is especially disturbing to foreign nationals.

Whether or not you can remain in Switzerland under such circumstances — and for how long — depends largely on your citizenship and the kind of permit you hold.

As in all other matters relating to employment and residence, EU / EFTA nationals are in a better position than their counterparts from third nations.

The kind of permit you carry is also important: for instance, a C permit is much more valuable in this situation than, say a L permit, which is issued for a limited period of time, usually less than a year.

The most important factor, however, is what kind of passport you hold.

READ MORE: Nine things you need to know about work permits in Switzerland

If you are a national of an EU / EEFTA state, “you may stay in Switzerland for at least six months to seek new employment,” according to State Secretariat for Migration (SEM).

However, you will have to register with your cantonal migration authorities as a job seeker / unemployed person. 

If you don’t find a new job within that time, you may have to leave the country, but can apply for a new permit if you get another employer.

By the way, you can continue to receive Swiss unemployment benefits for up to three months after leaving the country — as long as you are a citizen of an EU or EFTA country and you move to an EU / EFTA member state.

What if you are a citizen of a third country?

You will face more restrictions than people from the EU / EFTA states.

That’s because your work permit is tied to your job, so becoming unemployed would automatically mean losing your permit as well.

However, in some cases, you may not have to leave the country immediately: you can stay in Switzerland, and look for another job, for 30 days from the date the cantonal authorities are notified of your dismissal.

Thirty days is a period that any foreigner, regardless of nationality, can legally remain in Switzerland.

However, given that work permits for third-country nationals are subject to strict criteria and quota system, finding an employer willing to hire you and apply for a work permit on your behalf will likely be problematic — unless you have some specific skills that are in high demand and that can’t be found among the Swiss or EU / EFTA workforce.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: Switzerland’s planned work quotas for third-country nationals

Is there a (legal) way to remain in Switzerland after losing one’s job?

Actually yes. You can live in Switzerland without working. but the conditions are strict and not easy for just anyone to fulfil.

“To take up residence in Switzerland without pursuing a gainful activity, people such as pensioners, students, or those of private means need to register with the local authorities of the place they reside and apply for a residence permit for non-working persons,” SEM explains.

However, this type of residence permit “will be granted if you can prove that you possess sufficient financial means for you and your family members not to have to rely on Swiss social security benefits,” SEM said.

“Financial means are defined as being sufficient if Swiss nationals in the same situation are not entitled to claim benefits.”

In other words, it helps if you are independently rich.
 
READ MORE: Golden visas: Everything you need to know about ‘buying’ Swiss residency 

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