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Coming to Switzerland - some tips for new arrivals


Many people come to Switzerland on holiday and have the chance to appreciate the beauties of this country, either in winter or in summer, but some have the opportunity to come and live here. This article has been written to help those who have arrived in or are coming to Switzerland to live.

The first thing you have to do is to let the authorities know have arrived. You do this at the local population office, where you have to take your letter from the Swiss authorities. Once you have done that the system knows about you and you become the recipient of many letters to do with insurance, tax etc. You will need to take with you your passport, birth and marriage certificates (as appropriate), several colour passport size photos and some Swiss francs.

Accommodation

For most people the biggest challenge they face even before they arrive in Switzerland is finding a place to live. Some employers are able to help and may even offer temporary accommodation, but often this is not the case. There is a severe accommodation shortage in the Lake Geneva area, with many people looking for a place to live. The process is not straightforward either, which means that it can take a long time to find accommodation. In short, anyone looking for an apartment (most people live in apartments, not houses) must first find a suitable place, either online or via an agent or a classified ad. Once you find somewhere you need to ring up to make an appointment to view - be aware that the person you ring may be the current tenant or a concièrge, who may well not speak English. If after viewing you decide you would like to apply for the apartment, you need to submit a dossier of paperwork to the letting agents as soon as possible - they will tell you what they need to see, but it will include passport, work permit, proof of solvency and proof of income. Numerous other people will also apply for the same apartment (you may see some of them when you visit), and it will then be up to the landlord to decide who he wants to let the property to. The whole process can be very time-consuming, and on top of all this it is impossible to carry out before you arrive. At LFC we have a lot of experience in helping people who find themselves in this position and can help with looking for places and with language issues.

Heath Care

You also need to arrange for private health insurance because there is no state health provision. This may be done for you if you are employed, but if not you must make your own arrangements. A good website where you can compare prices and services offered is www.comparis.ch. You will have to pay a large premium, the amount of which will partially depend on what proportion of any claim you want to pay. Although it is very expensive and will probably your largest annual outlay, the good news is that because it is compulsory you cannot be refused cover and you will benefit from the best health service in the world. The premium can be paid monthly although there is a discount if you pay annually in advance.

Once you have your health insurance you also need to find a doctor. There is no shortage of doctors in Switzerland, so look for one who has a practice near you - many of them speak at least some English, which might be a good idea if your French is shaky. One big difference between the Swiss system and the British one is that specialists are much more accessible. If your doctor refers you to a specialist you are then free to make your next appointment directly with the latter. Some people who do not have much French have found that it is easiest to visit A & E (the emergency room for Americans or urgences in French) if they have any urgent problem because the doctors there tend to speak more English.

You will also need to find a dentist. They are very expensive! In fact, some people choose to stay registered with a dentist in their home country and go back there for treatment. Having said that, Swiss dentists are very well equipped and you will receive excellent care for your money. Some of the cost can be offset under your health insurance if you choose to pay extra for that option.

Cars

Another thing that most people will want is a car. If you hope to buy a car in Switzerland you are in for a pleasant surprise. Cars are much cheaper than in the UK, as is petrol. If you decide to import your car from the UK, you will need to inform the authorities at the border and pay import duty, and it doesn't end there. You will also have to have your car thoroughly checked by the authorities to make sure that it passes the very stringent emissions tests. Make sure that your car is not too old to pass these tests before you arrange to import it. You will be issued with Swiss license plates and are allowed to register up to three vehicles with the same plates.

Car insurance is again very expensive, but the good news is that cover extends to anyone that the owner of the plates allows to drive the car. However if that person is in a high-risk group, such as a driver under the age of 25, you will have to pay a larger percentage of any claim. Most Swiss car insurance companies will accept statements from foreign insurers for the number of years of no claims bonus to which you are entitled.

Insurance is quite old-fashioned in some ways. For instance you cannot pay premiums for car insurance on a monthly basis and all policies expire on 1st January. In addition you may have to enter into a contract for several years (binding on both sides). However, Swiss insurance companies still have many local offices. You will be assigned a local agent whom you can actually go and see. This does have many benefits. It is a good idea to get them to talk you through the policy because the policy wordings are different from those in the UK. For instance, even with a comprehensive policy they can deny a claim if for example you jump a red light and cause an accident.

Don't forget to get you driving licence exchanged for a Swiss one! You have one year from your arrival date to do this, otherwise you will have to take another driving test. You can get the form from the gendarmerie. It then has to be stamped by the population office. You will also need to have a basic eye test and get the optician to fill in his/her part of the form to say that this has been done. Some places do this for free and others make a charge. There are a number of questions relating to health and if you answer any of these in a way that indicates you might be unfit to drive you will need to get a doctor's certificate to prove otherwise. The form has to be taken to one of the licensing offices, where they will check the details and issue you with a Swiss license which expires on the same date as your old licence. If you are in the Vaud there are three such offices - at Aigle, Yverdon and in Lausanne.

Once you are on the road, if you are from the UK you will need to remember to drive on the right! This is hardest at roundabouts, where you also need to give way to the left. Be aware that many Swiss drivers do not signal their intention to leave at the next exit, also that they do tend to tail-gate on motorways and drive too fast. Drivers from the USA should also understand that they should not make a right turn at a red traffic light. In Switzerland red means "stop" for everyone until the lights change colour and if you keep going you are breaking the law. Many of the speed cameras are concealed to catch the unwary motorist, but their whereabouts is often announced on local radio. The police are entitled to stop you at any time and ask to see your papers, so you should have your permit, driving licence, car insurance and car registration documents with you at all times. You should have a warning triangle, spare bulbs and snow chains in the car. Winter tyres should be put on in October, ready for the snow and changed back in the spring. If you have an accident because you do not have the appropriate tyres in winter this could lead to an insurance claim being rejected.

Education

if you have school age children then choosing a school will be a major decision for you. When you register with your local commune you will be told when and where to apply for schools. Switzerland does not have a state-funded system like the UK. Each canton has its own education system, which may vary in terms of school year, curriculum and types of school available. You will normally be expected to send your child to a school in the canton where you pay taxes, although sometimes you may be able to make other arrangements. Children usually start school at seven years old and at that age a child with a mother tongue other than French usually handles the change of language very well, in fact often better than his or her parents do. There are no state nursery schools, although most cantons offer kindergarten places to five and six year olds. This kind of schooling is free to foreign nationals with a residence permit and is also the choice of most Swiss.

However, there are many good fee-paying schools which offer lessons in English. This may be a better option if your children are older and/or if you are not planning to stay in Switzerland for long.

Bills

One thing that is very different from the UK is the payment of bills. Everyone, from the plumber and the electrician to the doctor and the dentist, will finish their work and make no mention of money. However, they have your address and in the fullness of time you will receive their bill. This may take some weeks, but when it arrives it will be accompanied by "bulletin de versement", which you need to take to the bank or the post office for payment. You have 30 days to pay from the date on the bill. Some banks now offer internet banking where you can pay bills online. Swiss banks do not issue cheque books and cash is much more widely used.

Don't forget to keep a copy of all bills relating to medical services, including any prescriptions. You will need them for your health insurance at the end of the year. You should also keep any bills you receive relating to repairs to your home. You may be able to offset these against tax in the following year.

Credit cards are relatively new as most people pay their bills in cash. Your bank should issue you with a Maestro card which is like a direct debit card. This may all seem very unfamiliar, but most of the above only has to be done once, and then you can concentrate on your new life in Switzerland. If you have any questions or would like to more information or advice, please email us.

We have recently discovered this very useful booklet produced by the Canton de Vaud, which gives lots of useful information in English.

http://www.vaud.ch/fileadmin/user_upload/_temp_/Brochure_Bienvenue_5e_ed_ANG.pdf