The highs and lows of living and working in Switzerland

The Ferris wheel in front of Lausanne Cathedral. Almost all expats are happy with the city's urban environment Keystone / Jean-christophe Bott

Last year foreign workers in Switzerland loved the quality of life but moaned about how hard it is to settle in. Have they since cracked how to befriend the allegedly surly Swiss? The Expat City Ranking 2021 lists both praise and peeves of newcomers.

This content was published on December 2, 2021

It’s good news for Basel, which has improved from 24th to 9th in this year’s InterNations surveyExternal link, which features 57 cities around the world. Lausanne and Zurich remain solidly mid-table (21st and 34th respectively) and 47th-placed Geneva again gets the Swiss wooden spoon (although at silver-spoon prices), just avoiding the global bottom ten.

Expat City Ranking 2021

The Expat City RankingExternal link is based on the annual Expat Insider survey by InterNationsExternal link, a global community of people who live and work abroad. For this year’s survey, more than 12,420 expats representing 174 nationalities and living in 186 countries or territories provided information on various aspects of expat life.

Participants were asked to rate more than 25 aspects of urban life abroad. The rating process emphasised the respondents’ personal satisfaction, giving equal weight to emotional topics and more factual aspects. The respondents’ ratings of the individual factors were then bundled in various combinations for a total of 13 subcategories, and their mean values were used to draw up four topical indices: Quality of Urban Living, Getting Settled, Urban Work Life, and Finance & Housing.

These were further averaged in order to rank the 57 cities worldwide that had the required number of citizens for the minimum sample size (50 participants).

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And who are the bottom ten? Expats consider Rome the world’s worst city to live in, followed by Milan, Johannesburg, Istanbul, Tokyo, Cairo, Paris, Maastricht, Moscow and, in 48th place, New York. The ten destinations that impressed expats the most are, in ascending order, Madrid, Basel, Mexico City, Prague, Ho Chi Minh City, Singapore, Sydney, Dubai, Malaga – and this year’s winner – Kuala Lumpur.

Let’s break down the four Swiss cities.

9. Basel – The best working life for expats in Switzerland

Residents in Basel – expat or not – seem delighted with the city's transport system. Here, Basel's favourite son Roger Federer inaugurates a special tram in October Keystone / Georgios Kefalas

The only Swiss city in the top ten, Basel even ranks 2nd in the Quality of Urban Living Index, including a 1st place in the Transportation Subcategory and 3rd in the Safety & Politics subcategory. Every single expat is satisfied with the public transportation system (vs. 69% globally). 

Nearly all expats (97%) also feel safe (vs. 84% globally), and 90% are happy with the political stability (vs. 64% globally). Switzerland’s third-largest city also performs very well in the Urban Work Life Index (6th), particularly for the state of the local economy (1st) and the working hours (8th).

Is there a “but”? There certainly is. Basel ranks a lowly 48th in the Local Cost of Living Index: 69% of expats in Basel are dissatisfied with the cost of living, more than double the global average (34%). The Getting Settled Index (39th) is another of Basel’s weak points. Expats struggle in particular with getting used to the local culture: more than one in four (26%) say they find this difficult (vs. 18% globally).

21. Lausanne – Great urban environment but ‘insanely expensive

Clubbers in Lausanne in June. Expats found it easier to make friends in Lausanne than in other Swiss cities Copyright 2021 Keystone-sda. All Rights Reserved

Lausanne, overlooking Lake Geneva, ranks 8th in the Quality of Urban Living Index, performing best for political stability (7th) and the urban environment (6th). In fact, 90% of expats are satisfied with the former (vs. 64% globally), and 91% are happy with the latter (vs. 71% globally). “It’s stunningly beautiful and topographically diverse, and every season is interesting in a different way,” says an expat from the US.

For some reason foreign residents find it easier to get settled in Lausanne than in other Swiss cities: 47% find it easy to make friends in Lausanne – slightly less than the global average (48%) but more than in Basel (42%), Geneva (37%) and Zurich (25%).

Expats and Covid

From foreign assignees recalled by their employer to local residents now planning to move abroad, how exactly has the Covid-19 pandemic affected expat life around the globe? The Expat Insider 2021 questionnaire included a number of questions dedicated to this topic. Here are the main findingsExternal link (for all respondents, not just those in Switzerland):

  • For more than half the respondents, the pandemic has not had a direct impact on their relocation plans or current stay abroad.
  • Wanting to be closer to friends and family is the most common motivation for returning home early. 
  • Travel restrictions are the main reason why some respondents have put relocation plans on hold.
  • Expats identify personal travel, social life and work/business as the areas most affected by the pandemic. 
  • Most rely on official government channels, local news and social media for updates on Covid-19.
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However, Lausanne comes only 31st in the Health & Environment Subcategory. This is mainly due to the affordability of healthcare (54th), which 43% of expats rate negatively (vs. 21% globally). It also does a lot worse in the Local Cost of Living Index (51st): two-thirds of expats (67%) are dissatisfied with this aspect (vs. 34% globally). “The food at supermarkets, restaurants and cafés is insanely expensive,” says an Italian.

Still, 72% of expats are happy with their financial situation (vs. 64% globally). However, while this affords Lausanne a 10th place in the Finance Subcategory, a competitive housing market means it manages only a below-average 39th in the Finance & Housing Index.

34. Zurich – Beautiful but not very friendly

Crossing the River Limmat in Zurich, which is praised by expats for its quality of urban living Keystone / Michael Buholzer

Switzerland’s largest city has rather mixed results this year. It comes 48th in the Getting Settled Index, the lowest ranking of the four Swiss cities, ending up in the bottom ten in the Local Friendliness (51st), Feeling Welcome (51st), and Friends & Socialising (55th) subcategories. Just 25% of expats in Zurich find it easy to make new friends (vs. 48% globally), while 37% are unhappy with their social life (vs. 25% globally). They describe the locals as unfriendly towards foreign residents (39% vs. 18% globally) and find it hard to get used to the local culture (27% vs. 18% globally).

Like all Swiss cities, Zurich ranks among the bottom ten in the Local Cost of Living Index: 69% of expats rate this aspect negatively (vs. 34% globally). Still, 68% are happy with their financial situation (vs. 64% globally), and 85% say that their disposable household income is enough or more than enough to cover expenses (vs. 77% globally). However, with housing being unaffordable (58% vs. 39% globally) and hard to find (45% vs. 23% globally), Zurich ranks only 37th in the Finance & Housing Index.

The city performs best in the Quality of Urban Living Index (6th), ranking 5th in both the Safety & Politics and the Transportation subcategories. “It’s very safe for a lone woman,” notes a female expat from Finland. Another 86% are happy with the urban environment (vs. 71% globally). A Cuban expat likes “the proximity to forests, as well as the lack of billboards and highways within the city”.

47. Geneva – A high price for a comparably low quality of life

Mate? Unlikely in Geneva, where more than a third of expats think the locals are generally unfriendly Keystone / Martial Trezzini

How do you solve a problem like Geneva? Narrowly avoiding the bottom ten, Geneva is the only Swiss city that doesn’t rank in the global top ten of the Quality of Urban Living Index (21st). Similar to the other Swiss cities, Geneva ranks among the top ten for political stability (1st) and in the bottom ten for the affordability of healthcare (56th). However, it lags behind for all other factors in the index, with expats particularly dissatisfied with the local leisure options (23% vs. 14% globally).

However, the comparably low quality of life doesn’t make Geneva any easier to afford: on the contrary, it’s the worst-ranking city worldwide in the Local Cost of Living Index (57th) and by far the worst-rated Swiss city in the Finance & Housing Index (53rd). While Geneva comes 26th in the Finance subcategory, it ranks 55th in the Housing Subcategory, only ahead of Dublin (56th) and Munich (57th). Expats find housing in Geneva unaffordable (87% vs. 39% globally) and hard to find (63% vs. 23% globally).

Geneva has a fairly average performance in the Urban Work Life Index (28th) – 79% are happy with their job in general (vs. 68% globally) – but it does worse in the Getting Settled Index (43rd). It ends up in the bottom ten of the Feeling Welcome (52nd), Local Friendliness (50th), and Friends & Socialising (48th) subcategories. “It’s certainly not easy to integrate into the local culture and community,” says a Malaysian expat. In fact, 35% find the locals generally unfriendly (vs. 16% globally). Maybe this is also why they find it hard to get used to the local culture (32% vs. 18% globally) and don’t feel at home (33% vs. 19% globally).

Apart from political stability does Geneva have no redeeming features? Not this year. Or do you disagree?

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