For members


‘You’re missing out’: Can you get by in Switzerland with just English?

We recently asked our readers whether it's possible to live in the multilingual Switzerland speaking only English. The responses we received are truly revealing.

'You're missing out': Can you get by in Switzerland with just English?
For certain Swiss jobs, like architecture, just English is not enough. Photo: Pixabay.

There is plenty of observational and anecdotal evidence indicating that some foreigners never make an effort to learn one of Switzerland’s national languages, relying only on English for daily communication — no matter how long they have been living in the country.

But is this really feasible?

We recently asked readers to share their views and experiences on this very topic.

We put out two specific questions: Can you get by in Switzerland with just English? And, Is it possible to find jobs and work in Switzerland without speaking a local language?
Most of the answers indicated that, yes, both are possible under certain circumstances. But, there is a…”but”.

READ ALSO: Which parts of Switzerland are best at speaking English?

English is the ‘language of business’
Karen Rasmussen from Basel found that “there are three types of people: those who don’t speak English; those who are eager to practice their English; and those whose English is actually quite good despite their shyness about speaking it.

“The later two categories represent probably 80 percent of people I’ve encountered.”
Because of the prevalence of English in Switzerland, finding a job should not pose a problem, Karen said. “If you’re working for a big multinational company, English is the language of business.”

‘It depends on where you live’
“In the bigger cities and in the German speaking parts, English is much more widely understood”, said Kathryn from Vaud. “I have not found this to be the case in the French speaking region.”
She also believes that finding an English-only job is feasible, “but it is the non-working part of life that is difficult with only English, at least that is the case in the French speaking areas. I have even had doctors who can barely communicate in English.”

READ MORE: Why you shouldn’t expect the Swiss to speak English to you

German is ‘nice to have’

“In Zurich, it is pretty easy. Everything important is solved in English. The only time I speak German is with my neighbours. But that I would not need for survival,” said Brian Holinka, adding that “in my job English is necessary, German is nice to have”.

For Lynette Haeuselmann from St. Gallen, who is an English teacher for adults, “one can get by with just English, but it will be a limited social existence.

“As a foreigner, I learned German and that made things a lot easier for me. Being able to communicate with locals is a big help towards integrating into one’s new ‘Heimatland’.

‘Possible to get by’

Some respondents said you can function without an official Swiss language. 

“I think that the two biggest factors that affect how much you can get by with just English in Switzerland are: where you live, and what job you have,” T. B. from Zurich pointed out.

“Living in a big city makes it easier to get by with just English, and working in companies where the majority of employees are not Swiss and English is established as the working language, “makes it quite possible to get by”, said the respondent.

“Having said that, I think that you just ‘get by’ though. You probably cannot experience the country in its fullest, and cannot feel integrated, in order to be able, at some point ‘n the future, to call this place ‘home’ (if this is of course your goal).”

Whether or not you can work entirely in English depends on the job, T. B. says.

“For example, for engineers it is possible, for doctors most likely is not.”

Languages needed for socialising

For Sean Knox, who lives in Zurich but works in Baar (ZG), getting by with just English in these two international locations can be done.

“However, I realised that my German will need to improve if I want to progress from simply getting by to social integration,” he said.

While most people in Switzerland have a good proficiency of English, “in a group, especially in social situations, Swiss people will generally speak a local language, which is totally fair but can be quite isolating.”

This has been the experience of Paul Hunt from Biel / Bienne, who also found that this is more of a challenge in the German speaking part than the French or Italian parts “because we learn high German in classes but can’t understand dialects”.

“Knowledge of high German has, however, been essential the longer I’ve lived here,” he pointed out, especially for official paperwork like filing tax returns  or registering for unemployment benefits.

In terms of job opportunities, they would be more limited with just English and “there are many sectors where not speaking a local language would not be possible”.

Some respondents found that not speaking a local language definitely limits their job options.

One of them is George from Basel, who says that despite being a highly qualified professional in security business, “I am unable to find a job — not because I am not good but because my colleagues will not be able to understand me.”

“Switzerland remains old fashioned yet is in desperate need of workers, but only if they match their way of thinking,” he added.

Another reader, Luka from Lucerne, also found that lack of language skills has been a major hurdle on his career path.

“For me, in architecture, it is almost impossible in a long term if I want to have a well-paid position,” he said.

It’s ‘arrogant’

Some readers have pointed out what others have already observed as well.

“Sure, you can get by without a local language, but what a way to miss out on an amazing country,” said Jennifer from Montreux (VD).

A Geneva reader agrees that it is possible to manage with just English, “but to truly integrate and not feel like a foreigner it’s important to know the local language”.

And another respondent noted that “you can probably get by just speaking English, but it’s arrogant and incorrect to think that everyone should speak English” too.

Member comments

  1. No comments from Ticino? OK, here is mine: My wife and I retired from the US to Ticino 15 years ago. Except for the equivalent of 2 years of US college Italian, we are self-taught in Italian. It was difficult to learn a new language in our 60’s, but it was necessary and rewarding. 1/3

  2. Few people outside the hospitality and banking industries speak English in Ticino. You absolutely must be able to read and write Italian to deal with daily life, particularly with Cantonal and Comunal government officials. A more rudimentary command of spoken Italian will get you by 2/3

  3. at the grocery store and with repair persons, etc. Ticinese Italian is simpler than Standard Italian, so your errors won’t be frowned upon (as they might be in Tuscany, if you fail to use the subjunctive), and people in Ticino appreciate your effort to speak in the language of your Canton. 3/3

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For members


What people with Swiss citizenship should know if they want to move to the EU

Most commonly, European Union nationals move to Switzerland, not vice versa. But it can certainly happen that someone with Swiss nationality settles within the EU. Here’s what you should know about making this move.

What people with Swiss citizenship should know if they want to move to the EU

Around 1.4 million EU citizens live in Switzerland on permanent basis, and another 340,000 cross the border daily to work in the country.

Conversely, about 400,000 people with Swiss citizenship live in the European Union, which means the immigration is higher than emigration.

Whether you move abroad for professional or personal reasons, you should keep some things in mind.


If you are going to be working in one of the EU states, know that while your income may be sufficient for that (or possibly other) EU countries, it will not be enough to live in Switzerland.

That’s because Switzerland is a notoriously expensive country, so you won’t be able to live here unless you make a Swiss wage (and sometimes even then).

But the cost of living is generally lower abroad, and your EU salary will go farther there than here.

The exception is if you  work in Switzerland but live abroad (as is the case with cross-border workers). If you do, even an average Swiss salary will allow you to live very well.

If you decide to get naturalised in your new country but want to keep your Swiss passport as well, this will be possible in most of the EU.

The only nations that don’t allow dual nationalities are Austria, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Spain.
If you move to one of those countries, you will either have to forego naturalisation, or give up your Swiss citizenship — with all the consequences this will incur.

Military service

Swiss nationals who live and work abroad are exempt from the military service obligation in times of peace.

They can do military service on a voluntary basis.
However, they are liable to pay military service exemption tax to the Swiss government instead. which amounts to 3 percent of their annual income.

Men over 30 are exempt from this tax.

You can find more information about it in this link.
READ ALSO: Switzerland’s strangest taxes – and what happens if you don’t pay them

Health insurance

You no longer have to pay Swiss health insurance premiums, so that’s a huge saving right there.

However, you have to comply with whatever government-sponsored plan is in place in your country of residence.

The good news is that with your European Health Insurance Card (EHIC), you are entitled to receive free medical care if you get ill while visiting Switzerland.

Or, if you prefer to keep an unlimited access to Swiss health system, some providers offer basic health insurance to Swiss citizens living in EU.

For Swiss pensioners residing outside of Switzerland, the rules differ depending on which country they live in.

If you  are a retired Swiss national living in the EU and receive your entire pension from Switzerland, you are required to keep your Swiss health insurance, according to Moneyland consumer platform. 

However, “if you receive even part of your pension from the country you reside in, you will have to take out health insurance in your country of residence,” Moneyland said.

If you live in Germany, France, Italy, Austria or Spain, “you can choose to get health insurance in your country of residence regardless of whether you receive your pension from Switzerland or from the country in which you live.”


You will have to pay taxes in your country of residence, which is not really of benefit to you, as they are quite a bit higher in the EU than in Switzerland

In certain situations , however — for instance, if you own property in Switzerland —  you will still owe some money here.