Obtaining a permit to work in Switzerland depends on many factors, including where you are from, the skills you have and quotas.
Switzerland has a dual system for allowing foreigners to work while in the country. The first concerns citizens from the European Union and/or the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), who are generally allowed to come to Switzerland for three months while they look for work. The period can be extended to six months during an active job hunt with a special short-term permit, issued if you are registered at a regional employment centre and have a good chance of being able to find a job. This permit can be extended for up to a year if you provide evidence that you have been actively looking for a job, and there is reason to think you have a real chance of finding a job. During this period, you are entitled to a short-term residence permit valid for six months provided that you are registered in an employment centre.
More information on working in Switzerland as an EU/EFTA national can be found here.
The second type of job permit is for citizens of all other countries (so-called third state nationals). Citizens from these countries must have a guaranteed work contract from an employer as well as the appropriate work visa before entering the country. Having a job offer alone is not enough to guarantee a permit. More information is available here.
Family members of a permit holder are allowed to stay and reside in Switzerland as well, regardless of nationality. Family members include a spouse, descendants under age 21 or dependants over whom custody or care is granted, regardless of age.
Cantonal authorities are responsible for issuing permits. For more information, please visit the State Secretariat for Migration.
EU/EFTA citizens can benefit from agreements on the free movement of persons that were put into force in 2002 and updated several times since. The agreements, in general, allow those citizens the right to enter, reside and to look for work or to establish themselves as self-employed. Special interim provisions governing access to the labour market by nationals from Bulgaria and Romania apply until May 31, 2016. Until that date, the number of residence and short-term permits for Bulgarian and Romanian nationals is limited under a quota system.
However, a public vote on February 9, 2014 in favour of the reintroduction of quotas for EU immigrants to Switzerland means that the country has until 2017 to renegotiate its bilateral accord with the EU on the free movement of people, or it will have to be revoked. Government negotiations about this vote are ongoing – here is the latest information.
Work permits for EU/EFTA nationals can be broken down into several categories and are defined by letters. Here’s what they mean:
The length of the employment contract determines how long this permit is valid but it typically ranges from three to 12 months and is given to people who will work in the country for less than one year. EU/EFTA nationals looking for a job also receive this permit after being in the country for three months. You are allowed to change where you live (cantons) and jobs. More information on the permit can be found here.
If you plan to work in Switzerland for less than three months per calendar year, you may not need a permit at all. Under certain conditions, EU/EFTA citizens with a job in Switzerland, those who are providing services in the country, and workers of other nationalities posted briefly to Switzerland by EU/EFTA companies can take advantage of an online registration procedure. More information on this procedure can be found here.
It only applies to employment in Switzerland lasting up to three months per calendar year and must be done before a person actually starts to work for the Swiss employer.
The exact preconditions for this procedure depend upon the nationality of the worker and/or the location of the company dispatching the worker. More information on this procedure can be found here.
B: Initial residence permit
This residence permit is granted to persons who have an unlimited employment relationship or one lasting for at least 12 months. It has a period of validity of five years and will be automatically extended for five years as long as the employment relationship continues. That said, the extension may be limited to one year if the person is unemployed for longer than 12 consecutive months. Persons who settle in the country without gainful employment (provided they have enough financial backing) also receive a B permit.
EU/EFTA nationals wishing to be self-employed can get a B permit valid for five years provided they can prove they can make ends meet being self-employed.
C: permanent residence permit
Nationals from EU/EFTA countries can get a C permit, valid for an indefinite length, usually after a regular and uninterrupted stay of five years in Switzerland. However, according to the State Secretariat for Migration, “The right to settle in Switzerland is not subject to any time restrictions or conditions. The State Secretariat for Migration (SEM) determines the earliest date from which the competent national authorities may grant settlement permits.” This C permit allows holders to freely change where they live (cantons) and employers. More information on this permit can be found here.
G: cross-border commuter
Foreigners who live in a border zone and work in another border zone in Switzerland, can get a G permit, though they are no longer necessary for most EU/EFTA nationals. (Border zones are established by treaty with neighbouring countries). All cross-border commuters must return to their main place of residence abroad at least once a week. More information on these permits is available here.
Non EU/EFTA Nationals
Workers from so-called third states - nationals from neither EU member states nor Switzerland - must hold a work permit. Regulations on how to get one are considerably tighter than for most Europeans and are often directly tied to employment. Getting a job offer is just one step of many toward getting a permit.
A third state national can take a job in Switzerland only if a person cannot be hired from within the Swiss labour market or an EU/EFTA state. Employers must show that they made “intensive efforts” to find a Swiss, EU/EFTA citizen or any foreign national already in Switzerland with a permit to work. Moreover, employers must show why those with priority who applied were not suitable for the job.
Those with the best chances of being granted a permit include managers, specialists and other highly qualified people, meaning those with university degrees and professional experience. Applicants may also be required to know one of the official languages.
Joint ventures, temporary teaching positions, managerial or specialist transfers, highly qualified scientists, or certain jobs involving art and culture, among others, can also obtain work permits under special circumstances.
There is no time limit on how long the procedure can take but generally speaking, straightforward cases with proper documentation and little need for following up (such as transferring of a top manager) can take as little as three weeks. Other cases can last several months.
Like those for EU/EFTA nationals, work permits for third state nationals can be broken down into several categories and are defined by letters. Here’s what they mean:
L: Short-term residence permit
This permit may be granted to people working in Switzerland for typically up to one year. It is tied to the term of the employment contract and can be extended, in exceptional cases, to up to 24 months if the holder works for the same employer. Also considered as short-term stays are basic and continuing education and training in Switzerland.
B: Initial residence permit
This residence permit does not, as a rule, exceed one year the first time it is given. Normally, a B permit is renewed from one year to the next, provided there are no conflicting grounds, such as dependency on social welfare. There are a limited number of these permits, which are subject to quotas. It includes limitations on where the holder can live (in the canton that issued the permit) and is tied to the employer. Taxes are levied at source.
C: Permanent residence permit
After staying in Switzerland for ten uninterrupted years, nationals from third states may, in principle, obtain a C permit. Nationals from the USA and Canada must stay for five uninterrupted years. A C permit holder can change employers freely and live in any canton. Taxes are no longer levied at source.
Cantons are responsible for issuing permits, subject to federal approval. For detailed information on the application procedure (where to apply, which form to fill in, how long it takes etc.), please contact the relevant office.
For more information on how the procedure works, please visit the State Secretariat for Migration.
Promised a permit - now what?
EU/EFTA citizens planning to live in Switzerland for more than three months and/or to work must notify authorities in the commune (municipality) where they plan to live within 14 days of arriving or before starting a job, whichever is earlier.
All others have the same registration deadlines but they must take a few extra steps. Generally, if you are coming to Switzerland to work, your employer will handle visa arrangements before you enter the country.
Once those arrangements are completed and before you leave for Switzerland, you will have to send your passport off to the relevant Swiss embassy or consulate in your home country, which will issue your visa. After arriving in Switzerland, you must notify the commune (municipality) where you will be living.
Those authorities will forward your papers to cantonal authorities, which will issue the actual residence permit – a small card much like a driver's licence. Only people from third states receiving permits L, B or C receive the permit in this new credit card format. Others receive the older, passport-style permit.
When registering with the local commune, you will need to bring passports, passport photographs, an employment contract and proof of health insurance. There are very specific requirements that must be met and it is well worth your time to contact cantonal authorities for specific information on what you’ll need to bring.