Expats in Switzerland like the safety but not the locals

While expats considered Switzerland’s leisure options, such as Zurich’s techno parade, to be average, they appreciated the country’s security and stability Keystone

In expat heaven, safety levels are Swiss, leisure options are South African, teachers are Finnish and neighbours are Mexican. In expat hell, safety levels are South African, leisure options are Finnish, teachers are Mexican and neighbours are Swiss. 

This content was published on September 6, 2017 - 09:00

These are some of the findings of the Expat Insider 2017 survey, published on Wednesday by InterNationsExternal link, the “largest expat network in the world”. (To be fair, some of the countries mentioned above were among the best or worst in the respective categories, not the absolute best or worst). 

2017 winners and losers

This year’s top ten destinations for expats are Bahrain (1), Costa Rica, Mexico, Taiwan, Portugal, New Zealand, Malta, Colombia, Singapore and Spain (10).

The worst expat destinations in 2017 are Turkey (55), India, Qatar, Ukraine, Italy, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, Nigeria, Kuwait and Greece (65).

Other selected results: Germany (23), Switzerland (27), France (38), United States (43), Britain (54).

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In 2014, the first year the Expat Insider survey was published, Switzerland was considered the fourth best place to live as an expat. It then dropped to 14th, then 31st. Its decline has now stalled – this year it is 27th, one place below the United Arab Emirates – but that’s still surprisingly low for a country that often tops other “best places to live” surveys

“When it comes to safety and security, Switzerland is number one,” Malte Zeeck, the German founder and co-CEO of InterNations, told “This includes factors such as how people feel about their level of personal safety and how peaceful and politically stable they consider Switzerland.” 

The alpine nation also ranks quite high for working abroad, he says, and it does especially well for job security, coming third in that respect. The country’s central location and transportation infrastructure also score very well. 

The problem is settling in, feeling welcome and making friends. “Here, Switzerland ranks really badly,” Zeeck said. “This year it came 61st out of 65 countries. It’s been in the bottom ten for the past four years.”

Not minglers 

Expats in Switzerland have few positive things to say about the local population: they consider them reserved (78%), distant (57%), traditional (64%) and not very dynamic (54%). 

Nearly seven out of ten expats (68%) agree that making local friends is difficult – almost 30 percentage points higher than the global average. “It’s among the three worst-rated countries, next to Denmark and Sweden,” Zeeck points out. 

Just half (50%) give the general friendliness of the population a favourable rating, 20 percentage points below the worldwide average. According to a US respondent, “people in Switzerland have a culture of being reserved – they are friendly but are not actually looking for friends”. 

'The Swiss are friendly but are not actually looking for friends'

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Zeeck experienced this himself as a business student at the University of St Gallen. “It’s very hard forming friendships with Swiss people because they’re in their own circle of friends, and it’s not so easy as a foreigner to build up a network of local friends,” he said. 

“The Swiss students in St Gallen all basically went home every weekend to see their local friends, which made mingling with the international students at the university difficult.” 

Lost in translation 

What’s more, even though six out of ten expats (61%) speak the local language(s) at least fairly well – including 11% who are native speakers – some find themselves struggling due to the local dialects. 

Only 22% of expats in Switzerland consider the local language(s) easy to learn, compared with a global average of 33%. As one US respondent said, “they speak Swiss German, which is so far from High German that native German speakers cannot understand them”. 

Zeeck agrees. “I felt a certain reservation against Germans living in Switzerland. It might also have to do with the language – it still might pose a certain challenge to speak High German, because that’s definitely a different language.” 

As a result of this Swiss insularity, the majority of expats (52%) mainly have other foreigners as friends. Good news for InterNations! 

“We have quite a few communities in cities like Zurich, Geneva, Bern, Basel, St Gallen and Zug,” Zeeck said. “About 70% of our members are expats and 30% are internationally minded locals who speak English and are very interested in meeting the foreigners in the community. Often they’ve lived abroad themselves or they’re planning on moving abroad.” 

Higher wages, higher costs 

It’s not all whining and expensive dining, however. Expats in Switzerland admire the Swiss economy, with just 1% of respondents having something negative to say about this factor, as opposed to a quarter worldwide. Some 58% even go so far as to rate the Swiss economy as very good. 

Over three-quarters of working expats (77%) say they earn more than they would in their home country and 44% even say they earn a lot more. 

The numbers support this statement: in Switzerland, 57% of expats report an annual gross household income of over $100,000 (CHF96,650), and 14% have $200,000 or more at their disposal. These figures are nearly three times the global average of 21% and 5% respectively.

But it’s true that Switzerland remains a curate’s egg for expats. The country ranks second to last in the Cost of Living Index, with close to three-quarters (73%) rating this factor negatively. 

“The cost of living is very high, even when considering the high income,” complained a Hungarian respondent to the survey. The majority of expats also give a negative rating to the affordability of housing (67%), healthcare (50%) and childcare (71% of parents). 

Yet, despite the infamously high costs, nearly seven in ten expats (69%) are generally satisfied with their financial situation in Switzerland, along with 78% who say they have enough or more than enough to cover their expenses. This puts the country in a respectable 26th place in the Personal Finance Index.

In addition, for those who are looking for more safety and security at a time of global uncertainty, Switzerland is the place to go. The country has one of the highest ratios of foreigners in the world (25%), yet 97% of respondents feel safe, 18 percentage points more than the global average. 

This year, Switzerland improved above all in the personal safety category: while it didn’t quite crack the top ten in 2016, it takes third place in 2017. One Kenyan expat praised Switzerland, saying “my kids will grow up safe, speaking different languages, which is pretty awesome”. 

Do you agree with these findings? What are your experiences as an expat in Switzerland? Let us know.

Expat Insider

The Expat Insider 2017 survey was conducted online by InterNations between February 20 and March 8.

The target audience included all kinds of expatriates: foreign assignees (“expats” in the classical sense of employees on a corporate assignment) and people living and working abroad for various other reasons; members of the InterNations network and expats in general. A total of 12,519 expatriates took part, representing 166 nationalities living in 188 countries or territories.

The general ranking comprises five sub-rankings: quality of life, ease of settling in, working abroad, family life and personal finance.

Of respondents, 56% were female, 65% were in a relationship, 74% were without dependent children abroad, 83% had a university degree. The average age was 43.5.

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