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Visit Switzerland but don’t wear out your welcome

Dale Bechtel

More and more countries in Europe are rolling out the red carpet for “digital nomads”. Switzerland is not one of them. 

At the beginning of this month, Malta joined Portugal, Croatia, Estonia and others in competing for remote workers with the launch of its “Nomad Residence Permit”. The eligibility rules are clear, stating that applicants must show proof that they work remotely for a company overseas, or that they are self-employed, providing services for clients abroad. 

This group of individuals represents a profitable economic niche for the tiny Mediterranean island state. “We estimate that a digital nomad spends roughly €30,000 a year in our country,” said Alex Muscat, the Parliamentary Secretary for Citizenship, quoted in the Times of Malta. 

Based on Switzerland’s higher cost of living, a remote worker here would have to open his or her wallet even wider than in Malta. But fans of Switzerland are willing to do so.  

In my newsletter on sustainable travel last month, I wrote how the tourist industry wants travellers to stay longer in one place to reduce their carbon footprint, now that much of Europe, including Switzerland, is opening up again. But, in Switzerland anyway, there are limits on how long that stay can be.  

Colin from the UK told me that his annual visits to the ski resort of Mürren might have to become shorter than he would like. 

Due to Brexit, Colin’s nomadic lifestyle (he says he spends his summers in France and his winters in Switzerland) is being curtailed by the 90/180 days-of-stay rule for Europe’s Schengen group of countries which includes Switzerland. Non-EU citizens can travel within the zone visa-free for a period of 90 days, in any 180-day period. A permit, or visa, for nomads would circumvent this.  

“We would be contributing to the Swiss economy with the apartment rental, ski pass and normal living costs. Indeed, without our visit the apartment would have been empty for long periods. With a [long-stay] visa, the Swiss authorities would know more accurately who is in the country and where they are.” 

Such a permit does exist for Switzerland. Anyone wishing to stay longer than three months can apply for a “type D” visa, submitted to the nearest Swiss embassy or consular service. However, this is just the start of the process of cutting through red tape.  

Moutain road leading to glaciated mountain in the background
The application process can be long and winding.

While “other” is an option for requesting a longer stay (as opposed to employment, family reunion, studies etc) the reasons that can be listed are “not exhaustive”, a spokesperson for the Swiss State Secretariat for Migration (SEM) told me.  

If “freelance” is given as the reason – acceptable in countries like Malta, then an additional application must be filed with the migration office of the canton in which the applicant would like to sojourn, since it is the cantons, not the federal government, that issue residence permits. 

One can apply as a pensioner if the applicant can show they have strong ties to the country, either having lived in Switzerland previously, or holidayed here for longer periods, or have relatives here. They must also give assurances they will not seek work, either in the country or abroad.  

Financial means

To sum up, there is no harmonised national set of criteria that applicants must meet, although you will certainly have to prove you have sufficient financial means so you will not be a burden on the state (roughly estimated at about CHF 100 a day of liquidity). 

The SEM spokesperson said that at the moment there were no plans to ease the Type D visa provisions. 

But let’s say you are qualified and willing to try to cut through the red tape; where should you put down temporary roots? 

Ask ten people and you’ll get ten different answers. But if you want to know where a nomad’s budget can be stretched the furthest in such a high-price country, I recommend reading Credit Suisse’s latest report on the most affordable places to liveExternal link in Switzerland. 

We published a summary of last month’s report by the bank. It rates communities based on local tax rates, health insurance, childcare and the costs of commuting and housing. It is the latter which provides nomads with a good starting point in their search for temporary lodgings. While the housing costs are based on ownership and mortgage payments, they are also a good indicator for rents. 

Assuming you’d like to enjoy time in the mountains as opposed to a more urban setting in the lowlands (otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this!), it’s worth noting the large discrepancies between well known resorts and villages in neighbouring regions. 

Housing and running costs

For example, housing and running costs (electricity, heating etc) are more than twice as much in the Upper Engadine (resort towns St Moritz, Pontresina) than in the idyllic village of Poschiavo just a short train journey to the southeast.  

There is a similar difference between the trendy trio of Flims, Laax, and Falera and the laid back villages of Elm and Braunwald in canton Glarus a little further to the north. Scott Haas from Massachusetts has made his second home in Braunwald and tells me the area will soon be an attraction richer with the opening of an alpine museum later this year. 

In the Bernese Alps, Matten and Wilderswil, both neighbouring Interlaken, are surprisingly affordable, much cheaper than Mürren (take note Colin) and a huge bargain compared to the nearby resort of Grindelwald. 

If you prefer to be surrounded by some of the tallest peaks in the Alps, Les Haudères in the Val d’Hérens would be a better choice financially than either Verbier or Zermatt. Val d’Hérens is the valley running north-south parallel to the Val de Bagnes (Verbier) to the west and the Mattertal (Zermatt) to the east.  

It’s an off-the-beaten-track tip Véronique Kanal of Switzerland Tourism shared with me. “Les Haudères is a village close to Dent Blanche – not as famous as the Matterhorn – but still magical”. 

You may need to work some magic to acquire a long-stay visa but 90 days is more than enough time to get acquainted with any of these places – the rest of Europe will just have to wait! 

If you have a question about life in the Swiss Alps, do get in touch: 

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR