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Life as an expat in Swiss cities: the good news and the bad news

From tip-top transport in Basel to housing headaches in Geneva, foreign residents share what they love and loathe about the four Swiss cities featured in the Expat City Ranking 2020.

This content was published on November 26, 2020 - 09:00

Of the 66 cities in the latest list, published by InterNations on Thursday, Basel rates highest (24th), ahead of Lausanne (28th), Zurich (37th) and Geneva (48th).

The Expat City Ranking 2020

The Expat City RankingExternal link is based on the annual Expat Insider survey by InterNations, a global community for people who live and work abroad. For the survey, more than 15,000 expats representing 173 nationalities and living in 181 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 66 cities worldwide. For a city to be featured in the Expat City Ranking 2020, a sample size of at least 50 survey participants per city was required.

(Source: InterNations)

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The top cities for expats this year are Valencia, Alicante, Lisbon, Panama City and Singapore. Bringing up the rear are Nairobi, Milan, Seoul, Rome and, in 66th place, Salmiya in Kuwait.

Here is a look at the perceived pros and cons of the four Swiss cities.

24. Basel

Expats appreciate the ease with which they can get around Basel Keystone

Of the four Swiss cities featured in the survey, Basel ranks best for urban work life (13th overall). Nearly all expats (97%) are satisfied with the state of the local economy (vs. 63% globally). It also ranks 13th in the Quality of Urban Living Index: 95% of expats are happy with the public transportation system (vs. 66% globally), and 88% rate the urban environment positively (vs. 65% globally). Basel performs better than average in the Finance & Housing Index (24th) – well ahead of Zurich (41st), Lausanne (43th) and Geneva (60th). A Brazilian expat who lives in Basel lists “the financial safety and the ease of travelling” among the things he likes best about his life abroad.

However, Basel comes 56th in the Getting Settled Index, which is the second-worst result for Switzerland in this category. Moreover, the city is among the bottom ten in both the Feeling Welcome and the Friends & Socialising subcategories (57th for both). Many expats don’t feel at home in Basel (29% vs. 21% globally) and find it difficult to get used to the local culture (36% vs. 21% globally). “Locals are not open to new friendships and it’s difficult to be part of the local community,” says a Venezuelan expat.

28. Lausanne

Lausanne does well for its quality of urban living – if having a fondue in an old cable car is your thing Keystone / Jean-christophe Bott

Lausanne comes in the top ten of the Quality of Urban Living Index (7th) and is even first worldwide in the Safety & Politics subcategory. All respondents in Lausanne feel safe, compared with a global average of 82%. What’s more, 90% also rate the quality of the urban environment positively (vs. 65% globally). A Dominican expat says she likes “the security and economic opportunities” most about life in Lausanne. In fact, 95% of expats are especially happy with the state of the local economy (vs. 63% globally).

The city performs worse in the Finance & Housing Index (43rd): 61% of respondents say it’s difficult for expats to find housing (vs. 27% globally). In addition, only 17% of expats think housing in Lausanne is affordable (vs. 41% globally). “Housing is not very affordable, and the real estate agencies are horrible across the board,” says an Italian expat. On the upside, Lausanne ranks 4th in the Finance subcategory, with 80% of survey respondents happy with their financial situation (vs. 61% globally). But this doesn’t seem to compensate entirely for the high cost of living in Lausanne (51st), which 64% of expats rate negatively (vs. 36% globally).

37. Zurich

Stiff and closed? Hundreds of thousands of revellers taking part in Zurich's Street Parade last year Keystone

Switzerland’s largest city comes 37th overall but is one of the worst-performing destinations worldwide in the Getting Settled Index (58th). Many expats don’t feel at home in Zurich (30% vs. 21% globally) and find it difficult to get used to the local culture (42% vs. 21% globally). A Dutch expat thinks the city cultivates a “stiff and closed culture”, and a South African doesn’t like the “exclusive culture” that makes it “hard to fit in”. What’s more, 60% of expats say it’s challenging to find new friends (vs. 33% globally) – the city ranks 64th for this factor, ahead of only Copenhagen and Stockholm. Zurich also ranks near the bottom in the Local Cost of Living Index (61st).

However, Zurich performs much better in the Quality of Urban Living Index (11th), where it even ranks 6th for both the Transportation and the Safety & Politics subcategories. More than nine in ten expats (94%) feel safe in Zurich (vs. 82% globally). “The transport is also great, which is a big plus if you do not have a car,” says a Polish expat. In fact, 94% of expats are happy with Zurich’s public transportation system, compared with 66% globally. Also, 91% rate the local economy positively (vs. 63% globally).

48. Geneva

The Avanchets housing complex in Geneva, which gets poor marks from expats trying to find somewhere to live Keystone

When it comes to the Local Cost of Living Index, only Hong Kong performs worse than Geneva. Some 81% of expats rate the local cost of living negatively (vs. 36% globally). “The cost of living is very high, and the Swiss franc is way overvalued so things cost much more than they would elsewhere,” says a US expat. Unsurprisingly the city also performs badly in the Finance & Housing Index (60th), especially because of its poor results in the Housing subcategory (63rd). Close to four in five survey respondents (78%) find housing in Geneva unaffordable (vs. 41% globally), and 64% say it is difficult to even find housing (vs. 27% globally).

While Geneva also ranks low in the Getting Settled Index (49th), it performs better in the Urban Work Life (31st) and Quality of Urban Living Indices (28th). Similar to the other cities in Switzerland, most expats in Geneva (94%) rate the political stability positively (vs. 61% globally). A French expat says that “the direct democracy” is what he likes most about living in Geneva, and an expat from Canada is happy about the “good bike lanes and excellent transportation infrastructure”. In fact, 89% of expats are also happy with the city’s public transportation system (vs. 66% globally).

What are your experiences of living in Swiss cities as an expat? Let us know.

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