Only 10-15% of students at Swiss institutions from countries outside the EU and EFTA get a job in Switzerland after their studies. © Keystone / Gaetan Bally

Swiss companies would be happy to employ foreign specialists with a Swiss degree, but complicated rules and immigration laws present obstacles for both companies and graduates who come from countries outside the EU or EFTA. A change in the law aims to simplify the situation.

This content was published on May 15, 2019

Anyone who wants to study in Switzerland but lives in a country outside the EU/EFTA regionExternal link needs a substantial amount of time and money. In addition to confirmation of acceptance from the relevant educational institution, the person must acquire a visa and a residence permit from the canton.

Students who manage to overcome these hurdles benefit from the excellent reputation of Swiss universities, which regularly score top international rankings. Graduates, especially in the so-called MINT subjects (mathematics, information technology, natural sciences, technology), could also be in high demand in Switzerland. But only 10-15% of students from countries outside the EU and EFTA get a job in Switzerland after their studies, according to estimates by Economiesuisse, the Swiss Business Federation.

Economiesuisse sees immigration restrictions as the main reason for this. In contrast to university graduates from EU and EFTA countries, who benefit from freedom of movement treaties, those from all other countries – so-called third countries – are subject to the more restrictive Foreigners’ Act, which includes quotas.

A major stumbling block for third-country nationals is the short deadline imposed on them to launch their careers.

“While university graduates in many other countries have up to three years to find a job, in Switzerland they have to submit an application for a grace period of a maximum of six months,” Economiesuisse says. And if they don’t find a job within six months of graduating, they have to leave Switzerland.

Problems finding a job

Ken Tsay from Taiwan would have got a job at a Swiss company after completing his master’s degree in computer science at the federal technology institute ETH Zurich. But his application for a work permit was rejected, he told “Because of problems with my work permit I went to Germany, which proved more expat-friendly.”

Tsay is not the only third-country graduate to leave Switzerland for this reason, says Annique Lombard of the University of Neuchâtel and co-author of a reportExternal link on integrating international graduates into the Swiss job market. 

Lombard explains that third-country nationals face more problems than others when looking for a job.

“When they complete their studies, the reason for residing in the country is no longer valid and they have to apply for a new residence permit. It is legally possible to apply for a six-month residence permit to look for a job,” she explains. 

However, relevant practical information is not easy to find on the websites of the cantonal authorities. “A lack of information and unclear application procedures can sometimes be a reason to leave the country or to look for more attractive offers in other countries,” Lombard says. 

The six-month residency period to find a job is very short compared with other European countries, where 9-18 months are the norm, she says. 

Arielle Fakhraee from the United States found a job at a spin-off company after completing her Master of Science at ETH Zurich. However, she encountered work-permit problems when she changed jobs.

Relaxing immigration restrictions 

The Swiss parliament has been receptive to the concerns of Economiesuisse, which is critical of Switzerland’s immigration restrictions for specialised workers. In recent months, a clear majority of both chambers have approved a motion to exclude from the quota rule university graduates from third countries who have a degree in an industry where skilled labour is in short supply. 

The government must now prepare a corresponding legislative amendment. Lombard believes this will make recruiting qualified foreign graduates more attractive to employers. Until now, employers had to apply for one of a limited number of work permits for graduates from third countries. Many are unwilling to take on this bureaucratic burden.

In addition, those educated in Switzerland would no longer compete directly with applicants from third countries. “They have the advantage that they already have experience in Switzerland and, most importantly, that they are familiar with the local languages,” Lombard says.

Administrative requirements

Applicants must fill out a large number of forms requiring extensive information, ranging from a CV and a letter describing motivation to evidence of appropriate accommodation and sufficient financial resources.

If you don't have relatives in Switzerland who can provide financial support, an applicant may have a tidy sum put away. In canton Zurich, for example, CHF21,000 ($20,800) must be deposited in a Swiss bank account.

Immigration formalities (visas and residence permits) must be completed in the canton in which the students wish to live. ETH Zurich provides a guideExternal link for international students to ease this administrative work.

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Economiesuisse believes there is an additional obstacle to overcome. “There is no possibility for them to complete an internship, either during their studies or during the six-month job-search period,” it says.

But according to the office responsible for work permits in canton Zurich, this is not the case in Zurich, at least. “Permits for internships are possible if the relevant university confirms that the internship is required and an integral part of the course.” 

In a written response to, ETH Zurich explained that, “In some courses, practical experience is obligatory; in others it is just recommended. This allows for a compact study plan and a quick entrance into the labour market.”

So anyone aiming not just for a degree but also a job in Switzerland is advised to clarify in advance the question of internship opportunities as part of their course.

Other reasons for leaving the country

Work is one of the most important factors in the choice of where to live, Lombard says. But alongside that, social relationships – friends, partners, and family situation – have a big impact on mobility.

“Relationships are often established while people are students and these lead to joint decisions on mobility by couples,” she says. In such cases, they are considering two careers and the compatibility of work and family life. Marriage and registered partnerships in Switzerland change the legal basis for immigration and, like work, can lead to a residency permit, Lombard explains. 

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