Living in Switzerland

Banking options for expats in Switzerland

25th November 2019

The Author: Nygel Harriman

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Nygel is both client adviser and regional manager of our Geneva office. He loves the longer term relationships with clients working consistently to achieve their goals.

If you’ve recently moved to Switzerland, you’ll probably want to open a Swiss bank account.  Initially, the Swiss banking system can feel confusing and overwhelming. However, there are also commonalities with day-to-day global banking practices.

We will help you navigate your way through a banking system that is historically synonymous with protecting customer identity, assets and information through privacy & stability. Our focus is on everyday banking for expats.

The differences in the Swiss banking system

Switzerland has, for a long time, been looked upon as a hub for discrete financial services. This is primarily because banking institutions have not been permitted to reveal their account holders’ names. However, as laws around this evolve so will banking legislation and practices.

When it comes to everyday banking in Switzerland, the differences are not so noticeable, with processes, practices, and products having familiar rings to them. But, despite this, the number of choices with Swiss banks can feel overwhelming.

If you want an everyday account, then you won’t want to go for private or investment banks. With those out of the picture, your choice primarily comes down to regional (known as cantonal in Switzerland) or national banks.

There are twenty-four cantonal banks.  Each caters to the needs of residents in their canton.  Many are among the largest banks in Switzerland and offer reasonable rates. When you move to another canton, though, you’ll generally also be expected to change your bank.

Key considerations when choosing your Swiss bank account

Bank location

If you intend to stay in one canton, then a cantonal bank is probably your best bet. If, you are likely to change cantons then you’ll probably be better suited to a national institution. Swiss Post Office, Credit Suisse, UBS or Raiffeisen have branches throughout the country. This is one of the key differences when it comes to banking in Switzerland.

Additional benefits

The critical consideration when selecting a bank should be about choosing a provider that suits your needs and can support your likely future lifestyle choices.

For some, your banking solution choice may include, for instance, an avenue for supplying Pillar 3 pension solutions.  However, uncompetitive interest rates offered by banking institutions can make it more prudent to confine ‘banking’ services to your bank account and look elsewhere for more suitable solutions in specialist areas like insurance, assurance, and pensions.

It is worth visiting a few banks and separate providers to understand where the advantages and disadvantages lie in each for your particular situation. A one-stop-shop bank can be easier to manage when you arrive. Most expats when settled will then take the time to find specific providers.

What you need to open a Swiss bank account

Once you’ve decided which bank to go with, contact them and ask for an application package. This will explain the account opening process and specify the documents you’ll need to provide.

While documentary obligations may differ between institutions, they will most likely include proof of;

  • identity (i.e. current passport or identity card)
  • residency status (i.e. visa, residents permit, work permit)
  • address (i.e. recent utility bill, official correspondence)

If the bank offers an online facility, the pack will also detail how to manage the application process remotely.  Generally, even if the bank provides an online solution, they will typically expect to receive documents by post or by a certified representative, rather than online.

If you’re not a resident in Switzerland when you apply for an account, you may need to prove your reliability and solubility in other ways. This will often be in the form of a written employers’ reference demonstrating solvency or depositing a significant sum (often over CHF 25,000).

Best banking practices for expats living in Switzerland

In most cases, your bank will assign you an individual account manager when you open an account. Make sure you get your account manager’s direct contact details as early as possible in the proceedings. This makes the job of setting everything up more straightforward.

Tell your bank well in advance which language you want to communicate in. If you don’t, the bank will assign you an account manager who speaks one of the four official Swiss languages. You will be able to change this at a later date but it is worth making banking in Switzerland as easy as possible!

Many people live in the surrounding Eurozone but work in Switzerland (or vice versa).  Many Swiss bank accounts, therefore, offer the facility to withdraw funds in both Euros and Swiss Francs. This can be especially useful if you intend to travel in Europe, so check with your chosen bank to ensure they offer it.

Next Steps

As we have focused on every day banking, it would be worth looking at the big picture when it comes to Swiss banking. Both  Expatica and the Swiss Bankers Association (SBA) are good sources for learning more about Swiss banking systems.

Once you have your bank account sorted, you’ll want to give some thought to other financial considerations including Insurance, Life Assurance, Savings, and a Retirement Plan. You can speak to us about any of these issues if you have further questions.

Insurance & Life Assurance

Whether it’s a cracked tile in a rental property or a hospital stay, accidents can be expensive in Switzerland. Good insurance provides peace of mind and can reduce the amount you need to set aside for an emergency fund. Life (and accidents) can quickly be expensive in Switzerland so insurance is a must-have.

If you want to protect your family’s lifestyle should something happen to you, then it’s essential to consider using financial solutions with life assurance elements.

Savings

We know that living in Switzerland is expensive and that, despite high salaries, it is only too easy to miss your savings targets.

We have written a Regular Savings Guide for Switzerland that includes helpful information like how to save, budgets, savings performance, and affordability. It also contains a useful savings checklist and discusses your next steps.

Retirement Plan

It’s a good idea to get an understanding of the Swiss Pension System.

To learn more about how pension planning is about more than just retirement, we also have a helpful guide to Swiss Pillar 3 pensions.