For members


Reader question: Do I have to help the fire brigade in Switzerland if I’m called up?

In most Swiss cantons, residents are required to serve in the fire department if they are called up to help – or pay an exemption tax. Here's what you need to know.

Fire brigade uniforms.
Fire brigade uniforms. Photo by Matt C on Unsplash

In 21 out of 26 Swiss cantons, including Aargau, Lucerne, and Valais, men and women are required to help out as firefighters in their place of residence whenever duty calls.

Although it is rare to be called up, currently, around 85,000 active residents provide both fire protection and general assistance in across 1,300 fire brigade organisations in Switzerland. These include 16 professional and 189 company or factory fire brigades.

In Switzerland, organising a fire brigade is primarily the task of the municipality, however, many local fire brigades have been regionally merged in recent years to save cost. Currently, around 60 percent of Swiss fire brigades are financed by the state and cantonal building insurance companies, such as the Gebäudeversicherung Kanton Zürich, with the rest covered by the municipalities themselves as well as by fines, for instance in the case of a false alarm.

Large Swiss cities with over 100,000 inhabitants have so-called professional fire brigades which generally have more skilled firemen and women as well as better equipment ideal for more severe fires, such as chemical spills. Additionally, some companies have their own fire brigades. These include Swiss Federal Railways, University Hospital Basel, Johnson Controls, Hoffmann-La Roche, Brenntag Schweizerhall, Chemie Uetikon, Glashütte Bülach, Migros-Verteilbetrieb Neuendorf, DiverseyLever, Dreispitz Basel and Münchenstein, among others.

How do I know if helping the fire brigade is compulsory in my municipality?

If you have recently moved to a new village, town, city, and/or canton, chances are you will (eventually) be informed via post if helping your local fire brigade is compulsory – though this is not always the case. In fact, some places may only inform you when your help is needed, so if you’d rather be prepared for your new calling ahead of time, it’s always smart to give your local municipality a ring. Of course, training is given if you are called up (and as we mentioned, it isn’t very common to be asked to join). 

If you have general questions regarding fire brigades in Switzerland, however, you can contact the FKS CSSP CSP, also known as the Swiss Fire Brigade Coordination, which represents all 26 cantons and the Principality of Liechtenstein and is your point of contact for all national fire brigade issues.

Note that the order applies to all residents – not just Swiss nationals. 

A row of fire trucks.

A row of fire trucks. Photo: Rico_Loeb on Pixaby

Do I have to help if I’m called up?

If the mandatory fire brigade service applies in your place of residence, then yes you will be obliged to help out when prompted by your local fire department. However, should you wish to not do so or are unable to, for example for health reasons, then you will be asked to pay an exemption tax.

Is anyone relieved from paying exemption tax?

Aside from already being an active member of the fire brigade, you will – in most cantons – also be exempt from serving in the fire brigade if you are under the age of 19 on January 1st of the relevant tax year or have exceeded the maximum age limit required for duty on December 31st of the previous year – in most cantons this will be 44 years of age.

Likewise, if you have serious physical or mental disabilities or have suffered an illness or accident as a direct result of working in the fire brigade that has rendered you unable to provide the expected service in the (near) future, you will also be exempt from paying up.

There are also exemptions for married couples. If your spouse is an active member of the fire brigade but you yourself don’t fancy taking a jab at the job, you won’t have to pay the tax either.

If only one spouse is subject to the replacement tax, the mandatory replacement is levied on half of the taxable income of the married couple.

If the married couple living in a legally unseparated marriage each have their own place of residence, each spouse at the place of residence owes the exemption tax, calculated on half the family income.

Expectant mothers and single parents with children up to the age of 15 are exempt from fire brigade service but are not exempt from paying exemption tax.

How much is the exemption tax?

The tax can be anywhere between 30 to 300 francs per year depending on your net income, although it can vary from place to place. 

Where is fire brigade service not mandatory?

Though the majority of Swiss cantons will expect residents to fulfil their fire service duty when prompted, more and more volunteer fire brigades have been popping up across Switzerland, specifically in the cantons of Zurich, Zug and Glarus – though these do not (yet) replace the cantons’ compulsory fire brigades, also known as militia fire brigades, but rather exist alongside them.

A view of the Swiss city of Zurich.

A view of the Swiss city of Zurich. Photo by Patrick Federi on Unsplash

In Zurich, the cantonal fire brigade oversees the fire service and is also responsible for training its staff. Additionally, the Fire Police and Fire Service Act of 1978 made the fire service voluntary throughout the canton, meaning that forced recruitment can only take place under very special conditions. According to the law, an exemption tax is not required to be paid.

In June 2012, the Basler Zeitung reported that Basel-City had also voted to abolish the canton’s obligatory fire service duty, though Basel-Country – where the service is still mandatory today – did not follow suit.

More recently, Bern’s City Council unanimously voted against the introduction of a compulsory fire service duty for its residents last month. The City Council was supposed to carry out a second reading but decided not to do so and instead voted 69 to 0 against the bill on the second attempt.

The Municipal Council had sought to make around 43,000 Bern residents either join their local fire brigade when required or pay an exemption tax in a move it hoped would bring in over six million Swiss francs per year.

However, this isn’t the first time the city has rejected the motion. The fire brigade replacement tax has been a topic for the city of Bern since the 1970s and was most recently – prior to last month’s resurgence – dismissed in 1999.

In the cantons of Geneva, Vaud and Ticino the service is also not mandatory.

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For members


Reader question: Are second homes in Switzerland subject to higher taxes?

Will you need to pay more tax on a second home in Switzerland? Here’s what you need to know.

Reader question: Are second homes in Switzerland subject to higher taxes?

When purchasing property in Switzerland you must become acquainted with the so-called ‘unity of residence’ (ZGB 23 para. 2) principle, which dictates that anyone living in Switzerland may only have one main residence within the Confederation. Since second homes – including holiday homes – are considered a luxury in Switzerland, you will sadly not be able to save much on tax when securing a second abode in the country.

First things first, what is considered a second home in Switzerland?

Whether your home is a second home as per Swiss regulations will depend largely on what purposes it is used for.

There are two categories of second homes in Switzerland: second homes and second places of residence.

A second place of residence, as the name suggests, is a place where a person lives while working or studying but is not their primary residence.

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

Technically speaking, second places of residence are not second homes.

These are common, for instance, with cross-border workers whose primary residence may be in a neighbouring country but who have a place of residence near their work in Switzerland.

A second home for the purposes of the law is therefore a second residence which is not uses for work or study.

The official government definition is as follows:

“In Switzerland, a second home is a house or apartment that is neither used by a person who is resident in the commune concerned nor used for work or education purposes. Second homes are often used either as holiday homes or are rented to private tenants.”

READ MORE: How can I buy a second home in Switzerland?

Do I need to pay higher tax on my second property?

In Switzerland, second homes are taxed in much the same way as primary homes. Just as with a primary property, if you use your second home yourself, you will still have to pay tax on the imputed rental value as income (rental value tax). Under Swiss law, owner-occupiers effectively “rent” their home to themselves. 

The rent that would be earned if the property were to be rented out on a permanent basis is extrapolated. This is also the case if you’re unable to use your property all year round due to unfavourable weather conditions, such as risk of avalanches or heavy snowfall.

As there is no actual rent, this is charged on a rate of roughly 60 to 70 percent of what the notional rental value of the home would be if it was leased on the open market.

READ ALSO: How prices of Swiss mountain homes are expected to drop

You can deduct this amount – and maintenance costs on the property – in your annual tax return.

If you do rent out your second home, income tax will be due on the rental income. In that case, taxation of the imputed rental value is suspended.

Among Switzerland’s 26 cantons, Bern is the only canton to have implemented a different rule when it comes to taxing second homes. Since January 1st 2011, only the slightly higher rental value for direct federal tax is applied to second homes, and thus also at cantonal level.

Moreover, owners of second homes should also note that if the property is partially let to guests, the imputed rental value will only be taxable proportionately and the rental income must also be taxed.

What other tax will I have to pay on my second home?

Additionally, just like with a primary property, with a second home too, you will be liable to pay cantonal property tax.

This usually amounts to less than one percent of the property’s value per year. The ‘value’ is the total market value of the property, regardless of mortgages or other debts.

Around half of Switzerland’s cantons charge this tax, with Zurich, Zug and Basel Country being some notable exceptions.

This tax is most common in areas where second home ownership is common, i.e. tourist areas and winter sports locations.

Although you will include both homes in the one tax return, the effective tax rate is based on the location of each home, rather than where you reside.

Additionally, you may also be liable for the annual capital tax, which is part of a broader wealth tax on all assets held in Switzerland or abroad.

As with the cantonal property tax, this is generally less than one percent of the value of the property (more commonly less than half a percent).

A home in Matt, Glarus Süd, Switzerland.

A home in Matt, Glarus Süd, Switzerland. Photo by Steffen Lemmerzahl on Unsplash

Unlike the cantonal property tax, the ‘value’ of the property also includes debts such as mortgages, meaning that the amount you pay is likely to be lower than the market value of the property.

Does capital gains tax also apply to holiday homes?

In Switzerland, with (almost) every property sale, the seller is obliged to pay tax on net profit made in the sale: the capital gains tax. In general, the longer you own your property, the lower your tax burden will be. This also means that if you buy a property and choose to sell up following short ownership, you will be liable to pay a much higher tax.

This also applies to second homes, but there’s more. If you are looking to sell your second property after only owning for less than five years, you may even be obliged to pay a tax surcharge in some Swiss cantons to counter real estate speculation.

Additionally, in the canton of Bern only full years are counted towards the ownership duration, hence why it makes sense to plan a potential sale in advance. Whether you own a primary or second property, however, it is crucial you keep track (receipts) of all maintenance work you have had done to the property that could lead to an increase in its value.

READ ALSO: Why you can be taxed four times over for owning a home in Switzerland

Can I reduce the capital gains tax on my second home?

When looking to sell your second home, you may be able to reduce the profit if you can prove increased acquisition costs. These would also include any maintenance or construction work you have had done to your property that may have led to an increase in value.

In Switzerland, you can also spread out larger maintenance work over several years, however, this would only make sense in the financial sense if the effective maintenance costs fall above the flat rate in all tax years concerned. If that is not the case, it would be smarter to benefit from the flat rate in one year and then deduct the full costs in different year.

In general, there is no tax-privileged replacement purchase for any type of second home, be it a house or an apartment.