Guide to setting up your finances in Switzerland

16th November 2018
Guide to setting up your finances in Switzerland

Switzerland is synonymous with mountains, cheese and, of course, banks. With such a reputation for secure financial institutions comes a certain reputation that can suggest it will be difficult to get your finances set up in Switzerland. In this guide we will give you a few pointers to help you get started.

According to the 2018 HSBC Expat Explorer survey, almost two-thirds of expats around the world have a higher income as a result of moving abroad, putting an extra USD21,000 into their pockets annually. Switzerland was, rather unsurprisingly, ranked number 1 in the survey for economics with expats earning more than USD61,000 extra since moving to Switzerland. The average expat earns USD203,000 a year, which is almost twice the global average.

Switzerland is still separate from the EU, meaning it has its own currency - the Swiss Franc (CHF). However, you may find a few places that will accept Euros, such as the Swiss Federal Railway, motorway toll booths and the airports. Furthermore, many banks will allow you to open accounts in different currencies, such as Euros or US Dollars.

As mentioned above, Switzerland does have a reputation for its large and secure banks. These banks are available if you are looking to invest a significant amount of money when moving to Switzerland. However, this could be an over the top approach for the majority of expats looking for a standard current account for wages to be paid into and for paying rent and bills etc.

In an ideal world scenario, you would be able to go to Switzerland and visit a branch of your chosen bank in person to set up an account before you fully move and get yourself settled in your new home. However, this is not always possible and creates a difficult situation whereby you need to be a resident to set up an account, but you cannot get a house without a Swiss account. Thankfully some of the larger Swiss banks have branches in the UK that you can visit and open an account before moving, whereas others have a longer postal application process that is more drawn-out but is still possible.

The easiest way of setting up a Swiss bank account is to move to Switzerland first and then visit the local branch. The process of setting up an account is very similar to setting up an account in the UK, so expect to provide previous addresses and proof of employment, as well as your passport and visa documentation. Banks in Switzerland generally fall into two categories, national banks (such as UBS, Credit Suisse, Raiffeisen and the Swiss post office) and cantonal banks that are only available to residents of that region (for example, Banque Cantonale de Genève).

As a simpler interim solution, before you move, you might want to consider talking to your existing bank as many of the high street banks (such as HSBC, Lloyds and Halifax) offer international accounts. HSBC, in particular, is a favourite amongst expats and even commissions a popular expat survey and report each year. This is a good route to take if you are not sure how long you will stay in Switzerland for, or if you are taking a fixed term contract, as it is easy to take your account with you if you have to move abroad again.

Another popular option amongst expats, especially those that move from country to country on a regular basis, is to open an offshore account. Offshore banking simply means you have a bank account in a location outside the country you're living in. This location is usually a low tax jurisdiction that offers economic stability as well as flexibility. Having an offshore account gives you the opportunity to keep your money in a central location - so you can stay with the same bank, even if you move around the globe.

When researching moving to Switzerland and the financial options available it is highly likely that you will come across the term ‘numbered account’. This is where the identity of the account holder is kept private and their name is omitted and replaced by a multi-digit number or code. Numbered accounts were historically used for avoiding various taxes, but these days they are more often used for extra security. Numbered accounts are still widely available, however, they are notoriously difficult to set up as you are expected to go through numerous lengthy identity and background checks, as well as being subject to much larger banking fees than a standard account. Although numbered accounts have their advantages they are not necessarily recommended for the vast majority of expats moving to Switzerland.

As mentioned above, there are a number of options available when it comes to selecting a bank account type, from staying with your existing UK bank (by converting to an international account), opening a specialist offshore account if you are planning on moving around the world or opting for a simple and everyday Swiss account. You should expect each bank and account type to have varied fees, minimum balances and opening deposits. It is also worth keeping in mind the various levels of security and background checks that you might have to go through which will vary from the easiest being with your existing bank to the extensive (and often expensive) process of opening a numbered account.

It goes without saying that getting the right bank account when moving to Switzerland is vitally important, so understanding and researching the different options is time well spent. You might also consider speaking to any other Brits within your company who have also moved to Switzerland to get their recommendations. As well as gaining some invaluable advice from others that have been through the same process, it could also set the wheels in motion for forming new relationships with colleagues in your new neighbourhood.

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