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Living in Zurich
A comprehensive guide about living well in Zurich
Are you planning to spend a few years as an expat living in Zurich? Lucky you! You’re going to benefit from one of the most popular destinations worldwide. Our guide to Zurich briefly introduces you to leisure, transportation, healthcare, and education in the city by the River Limmat.
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Life in Zurich
The Good Life!
Expatriates moving to Switzerland’s most populous city can look forward to the excellent quality of living in Zurich. In the Mercer Quality of Life Survey, the city ranked second out of 200 expat hotspots for the last couple of years. Before 2009, Zurich even used to be the destination with the best quality of life worldwide.
The high rankings for expat living in Zurich are due to several factors. We have already mentioned some in our guide on moving to Zurich: picturesque scenery, an overall lack of pollution (despite a great degree of urbanization), and personal safety. In addition to these benefits, the residents of both city and canton profit from other advantages. Life in Zurich provides countless leisure activities, good transport infrastructure, top-notch medical facilities, and schools for expat kids.
What to Do in Your Leisure Time?
When it comes to making the most out of your spare time, Zurich has something in store for everyone. Local events such as the Sächsilüüte (a spring festival), the Knabenschiessen (a shooting competition and fun fair), and the tri-annual Züri Fäscht combine the touristy and the traditional. Once you’ve dealt with the practical issues of living in Zurich, take some time for sight-seeing: stroll along the lake promenade, sip a cup of hot chocolate at the Confiserie Sprüngli, or admire the panoramic view from the nearby Uetliberg.
Living in Zurich suits culture vultures, party animals, fashionistas, and hobby athletes alike. The city features around 50 museums and 100 galleries, from exhibitions on Swiss national history to cutting-edge design. With various concerts, movie nights, and theater performances, the summer open-air season is a highlight of living in Zurich. Of course, venues like the Zurich Opera House or the Zurich Playhouse offer high-brow entertainment all year long. If you have some energy left after power-shopping in Bahnhofsstrasse or exploring Zurich’s club scene, the Alps are only a stone’s throw away: hiking trails and ski resorts provide fun for outdoor enthusiasts.
An International Transport Hub
Organizing your daily schedule for living in Zurich is made easier by Zurich’s well-developed transport infrastructure. Expats from overseas arrive via the International Aiport Zürich. The headquarters of the flag carrier Swiss Air over 80 national and international airlines. From here, you can easily reach Zurich by train, or take one of the 15 regional bus lines to the countryside. There are also taxi ranks outside Terminal 1 and 2, but a ride to the city center is rather expensive (ca. 70 CHF).
Expatriates from continental Europe often start their life in Zurich by arriving in the center of town, at the central station. Zurich has various international train connections to Austria, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Southeast Europe, and some other destinations. Moreover, the central station is an important stop for local commuter trains.
Using Local Transport to Discover Zurich
Zurich’s public transport network (the ZVV) includes suburban trains (S-Bahn), buses, especially in rural areas, and trams in Zurich City. If you intend to frequently use public transportation while living in Zurich, purchase a personalized monthly ticket. For daily passengers, this is the cheapest option and the easiest way of navigating various fare zones. Also, if you possess such a personalized ticket, you don’t have to worry about forgetting to validate your ticket. Otherwise, you may have to pay a fine of at least 100 CHF on the spot!
Taxis, however, are the costliest way of getting around in Zurich. There are various taxi companies, all equally expensive. But if it’s late at night or you’re in a hurry, you might remember how to contact Taxi 444 (0 444 444 444).
Want to Drive on Your Own? Exchange Your Driving License
If you prefer to drive your own car when living in Zurich, you need to exchange your foreign driver’s license for a Swiss permit within one year.
- Fill out an application form and attach a passport photo.
- Do a vision test.
- Bring along the form, the test results, your foreign license, your alien ID and residence certificate to the Strassenverkehrsamt Zürich.
- If your foreign license was issued in one of these countries, you’ll simply get the Swiss permit via mail: Andorra, Australia, Canada, Croatia, EU/EFTA member states, Israel, Japan, South Korea, Morocco, Monaco, New Zealand, San Marino, Singapore, Taiwan, Tunisia, and the US.
- Residents from other countries need to pass a practical road test within three months.
Expats living in Zurich can read more about cars and driving in our guide on driving in Switzerland.
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Healthcare in Zurich
Immunizations and Health Tips
Living in Zurich exposes you to very few health risks. You should, however, make sure to get booster shots for all standard immunizations before moving to Switzerland. These immunizations include DPT (diphtheria, pertussis, and tetanus) and MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella). Doctors also recommend a vaccination for hepatitis B.
Unfortunately, the Alpine regions in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland are risk areas for tick-borne diseases. Ticks can transmit TBE (a form of encephalitis) and lyme disease. The former can be life-threatening; the latter may lead to chronic and painful health conditions if it’s not diagnosed and treated in its early stages. Therefore, you should know how to prevent tick bites and how to recognize related symptoms if you want to spend a lot of time outdoors in Zurich.
Zurich has a moderate alpine climate, with temperatures ranging between an average low of -4 °C in winter and an average 23°C in summer. Depending on where you come from, this may be a bit cooler than what you are used to. So don’t forget to pack appropriate clothes for the local weather!
Medical Emergencies — Who to Call
In case that you should have a medical emergency during your time as an expat in Zurich, these are the important phone numbers:
- 118 (fire)
- 117 (police)
- 144 (ambulance)
- 143 (mental health / crisis hotline)
- 145 (poison hotline)
By dialing 044 421 21 21, you can contact the emergency medical services, with a doctor on duty for advice and house calls 24/7. If you simply need to pick up some over-the-counter medication outside official opening hours, call 0900 55 35 55. This line provides information on all nearby pharmacies with after-hours service. In central Zurich, the Bellevue Apotheke (Theaterstrasse 14, near Bellevueplatz) is available around the clock.
There’s little reason to worry about the language barrier when making emergency calls. English is a mandatory foreign language in schools throughout Switzerland. Given that 30% of all residents in Zurich are foreign-born, emergency staff should have some English skills for such situations.
Swiss Health Insurances
In Switzerland, you are legally obliged to have health insurance. If you want to stay in the country for a short time only — e.g. as a business traveler on a Schengen visa — a travel insurance policy (worth 30,000 CHF or more) should suffice. However, if you live and work in Switzerland, you need medical insurance from a local provider.
Exemptions from this rule are possible in a few cases: for instance, foreign exchange students may be excluded from mandatory Swiss healthcare. A similar exceptional case could be made for expats whose international health insurance is both cheaper and better than comparable policies in the Swiss market. To enquire about exemptions, contact the health office in the canton of Zurich.
Insurance for Expats
Most expatriates have to take out Swiss health insurance. You pay the contributions out of your own pocket, and you need to insure all family members individually. No health insurance provider may refuse you for a basic policy, regardless of your health. However, if you’d like to have top-up insurance, you’ll need to fill out a questionnaire and/or undergo a medical check-up exam. Since basic insurance policies exclude, for example, dental care or treatment in private clinics, lots of people in Switzerland have additional medical insurance.
Even with a basic healthcare policy, you need to make co-payments. Adult patients have to pay at least 300 CHF per year as a standardized co-payment (Franchise). Secondly, for examinations and treatments that you actually receive, you’ll have to pay up 10% of the costs yourself. Usually, you pay medical bills from your own pocket and get reimbursed by the insurance company.
To compare various insurance providers in Switzerland, check out Comparis.ch.
Medical Services in Zurich
In the city of Zurich and the surrounding canton, there are lots of family doctors and medical specialists, as well as several public hospitals and private clinics. You can look up a doctor in the Doctor.ch online directory. The two biggest public clinics (Listenspitäler) in and near Zurich are the University Hospital Zurich and the Hospital of Winterthur.
Education for Expat Children in Zurich
Step One: Pre-School and Primary School
In Switzerland, all 26 different cantons are, to a certain extent, autonomous when it comes to organizing their education system. In the canton of Zurich, obligatory schooling begins at the age of four. Four- and five-year-old children attend two years of kindergarten before they start primary school. There are daycare facilities for younger kids and nurseries for the little ones, but these are not in any way mandatory. We will come back to daycare and pre-school for expat kids below.
After the first two years of playful education in kindergarten, children in Zurich go on to primary school. The so-called Primarstufe (primary education) is divided into two levels, year one to three and year four to six. The curriculum includes such subjects as German, English, and French, math, basic lessons in geography, history, and the sciences, as well as arts, music, and physical education.
Step Two: Secondary Education
After grade six, students will attend a secondary school for three years. At this type of school, teenagers are taught in two or three different sections, according to their grades and academic skills. After two or three years, the best students can sit the entrance exam for a Gymnasium — an upper secondary supposed to prepare them for university.
Those who can’t or don’t want to attend a Gymnasium can opt for vocational training in a company or add yet another few years of secondary school, often called Berufsschule, Berufssmittelschule, or Fachmittelschule. These schools have a more vocational and practical focus than a Gymnasium.
Going to University
As far as tertiary education is concerned, the Greater Zurich Area boasts several renowned universities. The University of Zurich offers what is probably the widest range of degree courses in Switzerland, including several English-language Master’s programs. The ETH Zurich also has a number of English Master’s degrees, mostly in the natural sciences: after all, the ETH’s most famous lecturer was none other than Albert Einstein! About 90 km outside Zurich, there’s the University of St Gallen, a popular law and business school, which attracts lots of foreign students.
Not Mastering the Language? Join an International School
Public education in the canton of Zurich has the distinct advantage that it’s mostly free. However, many public schools in the Zurich aren’t day schools and end in the early afternoon. What’s even more important for expats, though, is the potential language barrier.
The official language in the classroom is Standard German, and younger kids may also receive instructions in the local version of Schwyzerdütsch (Swiss German). Several secondary schools of the Gymnasium type have bilingual sections (German-English, German-French, or German-Italian) for older students. However, even there lies a strong focus on the German language.
Fortunately, there are a number of international schools in the Zurich area. While they often demand high tuition fees, many of them also offer after-school hours for older kids and even foreign-language daycare for toddlers. To learn more about individual schools, please check out the websites listed below.
Selected International Schools in Zurich
- Inter-Community School Zurich
- Zurich International School
- International School Zurich North
- International School Zurich West
- Lakeside School: Bilingual Day School
- Swiss International School
- Tandem International Multilingual School
- Taz Horgen Bilingual Day School
- D’Insle: Bilingual Montessori School
- Rietberg Montessori School
- Wings School Daycare and Pre-School
- Doubledecker Pre-School
- Globegarden Daycare
- Crossing Borders Bilingual Daycare
- Japanese School of Zurich
- Lycée Français de Zurich
- Scuola Italiana di Zurigo
- Liceo Artistico (Kantonsschule Freudenberg)
- Liceo Vermigli
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