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Swiss Banking: Managing Your Personal Finances
At a Glance:
- You can open a personal bank account with a cantonal bank, a national bank, or an international bank in Switzerland.
- Most banks charge a small monthly fee and, although it is easier to wait until you arrive, opening a bank account before you leave for Switzerland is normally better in the long run.
- The rumors aren’t true — Switzerland has recently changed their legislation to reduce tax evasion and prevent anonymity.
The banking and finance industry in Switzerland accounts for a large proportion of the country’s annual GDP. With one of the most financially stable currencies in the world, this is not overly surprising. As the current world leader in private banking, it is safe to say that investing or saving your money in Switzerland will mean that it is in good hands.
There are hundreds of banks in Switzerland offering a variety of services. While well-known, multinational banks are a common find, Switzerland also plays host to smaller, national banks, as well as some regional or selected-clientele banks. All of the banks in Switzerland are now regulated by the Federal Banking Commission (FBC).
Keeping It in the Canton
The first step towards getting your finances in order after moving to Switzerland is opening a personal bank account. Deciding which bank to open a personal account with can be tricky as there are so many to choose from. There are three main types of bank to choose from for personal finances; individual cantonal banks, Swiss national banks and international banks.
There are 24 cantonal banks across Switzerland and each one is either fully or majority-owned by the individual canton in which it is situated. The cantonal banks therefore differ slightly, in terms of legal and organizational structure. Cantonal banks tend to be the market leaders in their individual canton and altogether, they account for just under one third of overall banking business in Switzerland.
However, every cantonal bank is a member of the Cantonal Banks Group, meaning that you can manage your finances and access your account nationwide. This also means that withdrawing money is easy and free of charge from any of the 1,600 cantonal bank ATMs across Switzerland, no matter what canton you’re in.
Here is a list of all the cantonal banks across Switzerland:
- Aargauische Kantonalbank
- Appenzeller Kantonalbank
- Banque Cantonale de Fribourg
- Banque Cantonale de Genève
- Banque Cantonale du Jura
- Banque Cantonale du Valais
- Banque Cantonale Neuchateloise
- Banque Cantonale Vaudoise
- Basellandschaftliche Kantonalbank
- Basler Kantonalbank
- Glarner Kantonalbank
- Graubündner Kantonalbank
- Luzerner Kantonalbank
- Nidwaldner Kantonalbank
- Obwaldner Kantonalbank
- Schaffhauser Kantonalbank
- Schwyzer Kantonalbank
The National Option
The second personal banking option you have in Switzerland is to opt for one of the Swiss national banks. As the name suggests, these banks operate nationwide, with the majority having at least one branch in every individual canton. The most popular national banks in Switzerland are:
The above banks not only have branches in Switzerland, but also in many other countries around the world. The main disadvantage of national banks is that some will have a minimum deposit requirement should you want to open a personal bank account. However, researching your options thoroughly through the above websites and talking to other expats living in Switzerland are the best ways to find the best banking option for you.
Sticking to What You Know
Another option for opening a bank account in Switzerland is to choose an international bank. This could be a good option for you if you’re planning on a short-term stay in Switzerland and want to stick with your home bank. However, all majority foreign-owned banks in Switzerland are regulated by the Association of Foreign Banks in Switzerland (AFBS) and it is often not possible to simply transfer your personal account with your global bank at home to a Swiss branch of the same bank.
Charges and Fees: What to Expect
Even for a basic account, you will have a small monthly fee to pay in Switzerland. For a basic account, these fees can be anything from 3 CHF to 11 CHF a month. Premium bank accounts charge slightly more and can cost anything up to 30 CHF a month. These fees normally cover your debit card charges. Banks often offer deals to reduce or waive fees if you have a savings account or a mortgage with the same bank, or if you choose to use online banking instead of paper banking.
Many banks also charge a transaction fee for withdrawing cash. In the majority of cases, there is only a fee if you withdraw cash from the ATM of another bank, however, others charge a fixed fee for every withdrawal. Some accounts will also be charged for transferring money or for paying a bill, but this fee is normally under half a franc.
You’ve Chosen Your Bank... Now What?
Opening a personal bank account in Switzerland is fairly straightforward, as long as you know what is expected of you. Although it is easier to open the account after you have arrived in Switzerland, this can cause some problems. For example, it is difficult to get a house or apartment in Switzerland if you do not have a Swiss bank account, but it is also difficult to open a Swiss bank account if you do not have a permanent address — it really is a vicious circle. Opening a Swiss account before you leave is possible — you just need to contact your chosen bank by phone, post or online and then send all of the necessary documentation (listed below) by post.
Most Swiss bank accounts take a minimum of seven days to become active, but some can take up to one month. In this sense, if you need the account right away, you’ll need to apply before you arrive in Switzerland.
If you chose to wait, opening the account is relatively simple — just call into your chosen branch and ask to open whatever type of account it is that you need. Most branches will have at least one employee who will have a good level of English so don’t panic. Banks in Switzerland are normally open Monday to Friday, from 9am until 5pm, but bear in mind that many close for an hour over lunchtime when you’re planning a visit.
Necessary Documentation for Opening a Swiss Bank Account
What to take with you:
- proof of identity (i.e. passport)
- residency status (i.e. visa)
- proof of address (i.e. a recent bill)
If you do not yet have a permanent residential address, some banks will ask either for a significant deposit or a reference letter from your employer.
International Transfers: Prepare to Pay
While it has become much easier to transfer money abroad in recent years, convenience certainly seems to come at a cost. The bank that you are transferring from will most likely charge a set fee for sending money abroad and this can be rather costly. While bank transfers are famously a safe way to transfer money, they are not always the most cost effective. Bank transfers between international accounts under the same bank, however, can sometimes be discounted or even free.
Wire transfers are another option and can be very useful if you need cash fast. They tend to take a lot less time than a bank transfer do and, should you not have access to a bank account, can be an easy solution to a cash flow problem. Once again, however, companies facilitating wire transfers tend to charge quite a bit and they don’t always use the best exchange rate.
A third option is transferring money abroad through a foreign exchange broker. This option is becoming increasingly popular, thanks to its convenience and low cost. Foreign exchange brokers typically use favorable exchange rates and charge low fees.
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