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Moving to Zurich

What to know if you're moving to Zurich

There are plenty of reasons for moving to Zurich! Switzerland’s largest city attracts numerous expats due to its booming economy and high quality of life. Our guide to Zurich introduces you to the Greater Zurich Area, Swiss visas and permits, and housing for expatriates.

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All about Switzerland

Use this guide to understand the requirements for moving to Switzerland. We cover a broad range of such topics as how to find housing in a competitive market, why you need a university degree in order to obtain a work permit, and how to fill out the eye exam required for the Swiss driver’s license. Whether you are moving to the alpine country for work, family, or to immerse yourself in one of the country’s four official languages, we list all the steps you need to move to the land of Swiss chocolate, cheese, and watches.

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Relocating to Zurich

The Pros and Cons

Moving to Zurich brings you to one of the northernmost regions in eastern Switzerland, not far from the German border. Zurich is situated in a very scenic area, with plenty of rivers and lakes (the largest being Lake Zurich, of course) and in convenient proximity to the Swiss Alps. Even if they are no winter sport fanatics, there are lots of reasons why expats keep moving to Zurich in droves: the canton is Switzerland’s economically strongest region. Expatriates often find employment in banking and insurance, business services, research and development, or the tourism industry.

Moving to Zurich allows you to enjoy an extremely high quality of life. In the Mercer 2014 and 2015 surveys on quality of life, Zurich ranked second out of more than 220 expat destinations worldwide. Unfortunately, just like mouth-watering chocolates and precision watches, this sort of quality made in Switzerland comes at a price as Zurich is rather costly. According to Mercer’s latest study, Zurich is also the fifth most expensive city around the globe. The Economist Intelligence Unit rated Zurich as the fourth priciest destination. Nonetheless, moving to Zurich seems to remain attractive enough, as proven by a glance at the city’s and region’s population figures.

City, Canton, Metropolitan Area

With over 390,000 inhabitants, Zurich is the largest city in Switzerland, although it’s not the Swiss capital. (This function has fallen to picturesque Bern) The town by the River Limmat forms the center of Switzerland’s most populous canton (1.41 million inhabitants in 2012) and the heart of an even larger, densely populated metropolitan area, with over two million residents. Thus moving to Zurich does not always mean that you are going to settle in the city of Zurich itself.

The historical core is indeed located in the charming old town by the riverside. However, this is but one of Zurich’s 34 neighborhoods (Quartiere), which are combined in 12 boroughs (Kreise). Beyond the city limits, moving to Zurich could as well mean living in one of the canton’s other 11 districts (Bezirke) and commuting to the office. After all, over 200,000 employees travel to work in Zurich every day! Or you might simply live and work in a neighboring city, such as Zug or Winterthur.

The Greater Zurich Area extends its influence even beyond the canton to some corners of Aargau (especially Baden-Brugg), St Gallen with its university town, Schaffhausen at the German border, Schwyz, and Thurgau, which are considered part of the Zurich metropolitan area, too. No matter where exactly your move takes you, though, you will probably run into a compatriot there.

Multicultural Zurich: You’ll Find It All

In the canton of Zurich, you’ll find people from various countries. Nearly one quarter of the population is foreign-born. In Zurich itself, you might notice that this percentage is even higher in the city: about 31% of all Zurich residents do not have the Swiss nationality. Considering the area’s excellent economic performance and its location close to Germany, it’s hardly surprising that lots of Germans decide upon moving to Zurich. There are also sizable communities of expatriates and immigrants from Italy, Portugal, Spain, Austria, France, the UK, other EU countries, Turkey, the states of former Yugoslavia, etc.

When relocating to Zurich, you have chosen to move to the so-called Deutschschweiz, i.e. the German-speaking part of Switzerland. Although the federal institutions of Switzerland have four official languages (French, German, Italian, and Romansh), this is not necessarily the case on the regional level. Thus, the only official language in the Zurich area is Standard German. The Swiss population also speaks a local variety of Schwyzerdütsch (Swiss German).

However, don’t worry too much about the language barrier. Most Swiss residents have good English skills, and many do speak two of the official languages, sometimes more. The most common languages among the expat population moving to Zurich are French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Turkish, and several Southeast European languages, such as Serbian. Moreover, 17% of all Zurich residents regularly use English in the workplace.

Before you move to Zurich, you have to cut through the red tape, though — Switzerland’s immigration requirements. The first thing to find out is whether you need a visa and/or a work and residence permit (called Bewilligung in Swiss legal jargon).

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Visas and Permits for Zurich, Switzerland

Short or Long Stays: Visa Requirements

If you go to Zurich on a short-term trip which lasts fewer than three months and does not involve gainful employment, you do not need a work or residence permit. Depending on your nationality, you may not even need a visa. A valid passport, as well as sufficient funds and a travel insurance policy worth at least 30,000 CHF, is enough for expats from various countries.

Make sure to check the visa requirements listed by the Swiss Federal Office for Migration.

If you have to enter Switzerland with a visa for a short-term stay, you should apply for a Schengen visa (category C) at the nearest Swiss representation. It allows you to reside in Switzerland for up to 90 days and to travel freely within the Schengen area. For example, if you’d like to go from Zurich to Germany, Italy, or France for a few days, a Schengen visa is what you need.

Stays of more than three months, however, require a different kind of visa: the category D visa.

Various Permits for Switzerland

Regardless of how long you are planning to stay in Switzerland, if you want to move to Zurich for a new job or a paid project, you’ll need an Arbeitsbewilligung (work permit). Applying for the appropriate work and/or residence permit is part of your visa application. There are three general categories of permits for Switzerland, according to the duration of your stay:

  • The Kurzaufenthaltsbewilligung is a permit for those who’d like to stay in Switzerland for up to one year and to whom a Schengen visa does not apply, e.g. expats on a short-term assignment or interns (stagiaires) between 18 and 30 years of age.
  • The Aufenthaltsbewilligung (category B) is the most common sort of permit. If you move to Switzerland to start working in Zurich, this is the permit you need.
  • The Niederlassungsbewilligung (category C) is an unlimited settlement permit. You must have lived in Switzerland for a while before applying for it.

How to Get a Work and Residence Permit

So how do get an Aufenthaltsbewilligung (residence permit) complete with Arbeitsbewilligung (work permit) for your time as an expat in Zurich? We will briefly introduce the most common procedures below.

EU/EFTA Nationals

If you are a national of an EU/EFTA member state (except for Bulgaria and Romania), you mostly need to have a confirmed job offer. However, from 1 June, 2013, onwards, there are certain quotas for job-seekers from all EU countries. This measure is renewed every year.

You can only start working if the annual quota for new employees from EU-8 countries or EU-17 countries, respectively, has not yet been reached. To find out if this quota is nearing the annual limit, please get in touch with the local migration office of the canton where your potential employer has their office.

Moreover, when you have found a job that fulfills the quota requirements, you still need to get your Arbeitsbewilligung within the first three months of your stay. Go to the local migration office (Migrationsamt des Kantons Zürich) with your valid ID, employment contract, and rental contract.

You should obtain your permit without further ado. If you have a job contract for at least one year, you’ll normally receive a permit valid for up to five years.

Third-Country Nationals

Getting a work and residence permit is more complicated for people who are not from an EU/EFTA state. First, you need a job offer in Zurich. While you lodge your visa application (if necessary), your employer applies for your work permit at the Amt für Wirtschaft und Arbeit Zürich. The company needs to prove that there was no suitable Swiss/EU/EFTA candidate available and that your salary and working conditions adhere to local standards. They have to show your qualifications, too, which is why your employer may ask you for a CV, diplomas, references, etc.

If the local AWA issues a permit, they will send it to the Federal Office for Migration. They check the application again, in a national context. If it’s successful, they’ll contact the migration office in your canton, i.e. the Migrationsamt des Kantons Zürich. The latter then transfers your work and residence permit to the Swiss mission. You can collect it together with your visa. Make sure to check how long your permit is valid and to ask how you can renew it.

The Final Step: Local Registration as a Resident Alien

Unfortunately, entering Switzerland with all the paperwork at hand does not mean the end of bureaucracy yet. Within 14 days of your arrival, you have to register with the municipal authorities for your residence certificate. This also applies to EU/EFTA nationals!

Bring your passport, rental contract, alien ID card (if you have one), proof of health insurance, and work/residence permit to the Kreisbüro of your borough in Zurich City or to the local Einwohnerkontrolle (registry office).

Expat Accommodation in Zurich

Once you have decided upon moving to Zurich, the big question is where to settle. Since the Greater Zurich Area is fairly large — it goes even beyond the 1700 km² of the canton — we cannot make any specific recommendations. The major factors in choosing a home are often the proximity to the workplace and the transport connections, to avoid too much stress during the daily commute, as well as the rental costs.

Where to Settle in the Greater Zurich Area: The Lokalisator

The Zurich Office for Statistics offers you a tool to make choosing a place to live in the Canton of Zurich easier: the Lokalisator. Unfortunately, it’s only available in German, but here are some tips for using it.

If you choose “ganzer Kanton” in the dropdown menus, it will search for results in the entire canton of Zurich. As an alternative, you can select various municipalities, districts, and regions. For example, if you already know you’ll be working in Winterthur and want to live nearby, you can select only data from “Region Winterthur” in the right dropdown menu instead.

Under Standortfaktoren, you can select those factors that matter to you when it comes to searching for a new home. For instance, ticking the box next to “S-Bahn Haltestelle” and choosing “nah” (close) on the sliding scale means that a stop for the regional express train shouldn’t be far. “Wohnungsmiete/m²” (rent per square meter) should probably be “tief” (low) — unless you can afford it.

You can also adjust for other factors (e.g. availability of schools, medical facilities, shopping opportunities, cultural institutions, household size, neighborhoods popular among families with kids, etc.). After you click on “Karte aktualisieren” (update map), the tool will highlight suitable areas in bright green.

The Expensive Hunt for Accommodation

As soon as you know where you’d like to relocate to, you can start hunting for an apartment or house. If you are busy, but have put aside a nice sum of money, look into hiring a real-estate agent or relocation agency in Zurich. The latter has the advantage that the staff will also help you with administrative issues, such as getting a residence certificate or enrolling your kids in school. If you are lucky, your future employer will recommend or even pay a relocation agent for you.

But even if you make do without professional help, moving to Zurich does not come cheap. We have already mentioned the high cost of living in our introduction to the Zurich area. Rents are no exception to this rule. The national average in 2015 was about 1,600 CHF for a one-bedroom apartment and 2,900 CHF for a three-bedroom apartment.

You should keep in mind that Zurich tends to be far more expensive than the rest of Switzerland, and rents keep rising. Also, don’t forget to check whether service charges and utility fees are included, or if you have to pay them extra.

The Most Popular Places to Live in Zurich

Certain areas in Zurich City are particularly coveted and especially expensive, i.e. districts 1, 2, and 8. Districts 6 and 7, near the Zürichberg, are also popular, but a little more affordable. 11 and 12 in the north of Zurich are less costly and more family-friendly than some trendier parts of town.

District 4 and 5 — Zurich’s industrial areas, former working-class neighborhoods and once infamous hangouts for drug addicts — are often snubbed by the more affluent population. However, the drug scene is more or less gone, and the process of gentrification has started in these neighborhoods. The area around Langstrasse, for instance, has become a favorite among creatives and designers.

Tips for the Property Hunt

Here are some multilingual online resources to look for a new place in Greater Zurich:

When you have found a place you like, move fast. The Zurich real-estate market is really competitive, and you have to convince a potential landlord to take you on as a new tenant. Always have a copy of your employment contract and references from previous landlords with you for such appointments.

Updated on: January 07, 2019
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