This article was written in November 2014 but all things here are still valid in 2019, so please read on. If you want a fresher idea about tech in Switzerland, read also “Five years after moving to Switzerland. Why I am still here.”
In 2014, I was a twenty-something, recent college-graduate in computer science who grew up in Germany. I moved to Switzerland to work as a full-stack software engineer. I consider myself lucky to be residing in one of the most liveable cities of the world. I will outline some reasons why I moved here to work in tech.
1. High living standard
Although Zurich is among the most expensive places in the world, it is easy to live here due to the high salaries. A comparison of net-salaries in Europe shows that while average pay in West-European countries are around EUR 2000, Swiss companies pay EUR 4000 on average. The average net-salary in Zurich is around CHF 5500 but skewed upwards by people making insane salaries at UBS, Credit-Suisse and other banks and multinationals.
Like many places, Switzerland lacks qualified software engineers. The average market salary is high and it is the only place in Europe where it is on San Francisco/Bay-Area level.
Switzerland’s tax system is simple: There are federal taxes, canton taxes and city taxes. Combined they amount to only 15% — 25% of gross-earnings for higher-middle class salaries. This is really little compared to other countries (e.g., Germany which is around 45-50% for the same income bracket).
In the canton of Zurich, a junior software engineer can get CHF 6000 per month after taxes. A senior engineer can earn up to CHF 9500 after taxes. If one goes into management, obviously, there is no upper limit.
No capital gain tax
Switzerland is one of the few countries in the world that doesn’t have a capital gain tax: If you make money with stocks, you pay 0% taxes (if you keep the stocks for at least six months). Read more on this topic in “How buying real-estate can kill you financially and two reasons to go for stocks instead”
Swiss law forces everyone to be insured. However, it is up to you “how fancy” your insurance is. You can choose between different models that vary in the monthly payment and “the franchise” (=deductible). Like many young people, I chose a insurance with the maximum franchise of CHF 2500. It costs around CHF 250 a month. If I go to the doctor, I pay everything up to CHF 2500,- a year out of pocket (this is the “franchise”). If I get seriously sick and the treatment costs more than that, the insurance kicks in. Another model would be to pay CHF 350 a month and have a mere CHF 300 of franchise.
You have expected to cover small costs like teeth issues, cavity fillings yourself but you are protected against major, black swan events (e.g.g, cancer). Compare this to the German system that on paper covers everything and “medicine is free” but in reality you have to pay for good-quality cavity fillings anyway out of pocket. Also in Germany, health insurance premiums depend on your salary and om Switzerland it they depend on your risk preference.
2. Economy and democracy
Since over two hundred years Switzerland is politically neutral, meaning that they officially don’t take any side in foreign policy issues or take sides in the case of war.
Switzerland is ranked the most stable economy in the world and the most competitive nation. The Swiss Franc is tied to gold-assets of 7% and it is the sixth most-traded currency in the world. If you get your salary in Swiss Francs, you maximize the chances that the salary you earn will actually be worth something in the future. If you think that is a crazy thought that any European currency will collapse, look at Ukraine: The savings of people there became only one third worth in value due to the local conflicts. If you think, “yeah that is Eastern Europe”, think of crises with Greece and how it impacts the Euro.
Switzerland is the only country in the world that implements direct democracy. That means every Swiss person can do and undo any political decision by organizing a referendum. You can really feel the difference to the rest of Europe. When people talk about politics, the Swiss literally say “we decided that …” whereas the Germans say “they decided that …”.
Swiss really stand behind decisions made by political parties, even the ones they despise. Also, they often vote for a left-wing party on topic X but vote for a right-wing party on topic Y, this doesn’t seem to happen in other countries.
(The theoretical downside of direct democracy is that if the population is stupid, you’ll get stupid decisions instantly forced onto everyone. A small, well-educated population like the Swiss should not have this problem though — I hope.)
3. Reasonable living costs
Switzerland has a bad reputation when it comes to costs. Yes, Switzerland can be super-expensive, but you can always choose what you buy and how fancy you live. For Swiss standards, I managed to live frugally when I was single and moved her post-studies: I lived on less than CHF 1600 a month. My costs consisted of living space, insurance, transportation and food. I shared a flat and payed less than CHF 800 for rent. My health-insurance / related costs were around CHF 250. For food, I spent around CHF 200–500 per month and my ticket for commuting was less than CHF 120, this includes trips to Germany. If I would have chosen to live more fancy, I would rent a bigger apartment and spend maybe CHF 2600 per month. Considering getting CHF 6500 after taxes as a junior engineer, that is great living-cost to savings-rate ratio.
If you eat out in Zurich and get shocked by the prices, remember that both people and space is expensive here. You don’t pay for the food (“material cost”) but you pay for the rent and the waiter’s salary which can be CHF 3500– CHF 4500. Hence, a beer has to cost around CHF 5–8, and a quality meal at least CHF 20.
That said, electronics — especially Apple stuff — is cheaper in Switzerland than almost anywhere else, with the possible exception of the US. This is due to the low sales taxes of 7.7% in Switzerland (compared to 19% in Germany).
If you prefer to cook for yourself, you can shop at Aldi-Suisse, Lidl, Denner, Migros or Coop (order from cheap to expensive). Compared to Germany, costs are 20–30% higher for vegetables and fruits, 50% higher for dairy products or fish and 2x-3x for meat because there are import taxes on meat to protect the local market. If you can cook for yourself, you don’t have to spend much more on food than you’d be spending elsewhere.
Healthy, non-processed, natural food is comparably cheap. However, unhealthy, processed, artificial food is expensive. If you want to try cheap processed food, you can find 50% discounted food every evening before the shops close:
(If you want to be super-hardcore about food-costs and dental treatment, you can drive over to Germany, Lottstetten, which takes about 30 minutes, a city optimized for Swiss “tourists”.)
It is hard to find something reasonably priced while you are not in Zürich physically. Therefore, it might be a good idea to find a room (via Airbnb) first. CHF 600– CHF 950 for a room in a shared apartment via Airbnb is okay.
How to find a permanent place to live: Regardless of your needs, the trick to find a suitable place is to never stop looking. Set an e-mail reminder on comparis.ch and wait for the right deal to come in. (Also, englishforum, comparis or ronorp are good places to start looking for apartments). When you see something, that fits your needs, try to be the first to e-mail the landlord with a personalised cover letter stating why you want the apartment. If you can’t think of anything creative, say you have close friends living in the district.
One third of residents in Zurich don’t have a Swiss passport. In some districts half are not Swiss. Anyhow, there is no “clash of cultures” or anything like the things you hear from big cities in the rest of Europe because people who move here are either well-off already or come here for highly-qualified work and these types usually don’t cause trouble. Some people say the Swiss are particularly hostile to all kinds of foreigners (including Germans and Italians) which might be true on the countryside. However, I did not experience such things in Zurich.
5. Low bureaucracy
After university, I had offers from the same company, for the same position both in Switzerland and Germany. The German work-contract was ten pages long, while the Swiss work-contract was only one page.
In Germany, I had to wait three hours in line just to deregister and let the authorities know that I am moving away from Germany. In Switzerland, it took me twenty minutes to become resident of the city and get a 5-year work permit (without having to wait in line at all).
6. Simple entrepreneurship
It takes 25.000 Euros to start a GmbH (=limited liability company) in Germany, while in Switzerland one only needs CHF 20.000 (EUR 17.000). Taking into account that the average net-salary is double in Switzerland, you can assume that you’ll be able to finance a GmbH much faster here. Also, paperwork to setup sole-proprietorships and all entrepreneur-related activities is easy.
In Zurich, doing business is straight forward: Things are about perceived quality, reputation and durability. Switzerland is not a cost-sensitive market and Swiss value quality over price. If you have a good product or service to sell, you can charge a lot. People have money and are willing to spend it.
7. Easy immigration (for EU citizens)
Thanks to the EU free movement of person regulation, the immigration process is simple for EU-citizens. If you have two things, (1) a job-offer and and (2) a place where you can live, you get a B-permit valid for five years within twenty minutes.
As a person in tech, getting a job is not too hard. Finding a great job might be tricky because the Swiss market is small compared to London, Berlin or other truly big cities. (That is why you can email me at email@example.com and I can help find you a job if you’re a national of these countries.) Yet, the job-to-people ratio in Zurich, which has only 400.000 inhabitants, is much higher than in other major cities in Europe that have millions inhabitants.
If you are not from the EU, a Swiss company can still get you a work permit. However this is hard. The company has to proof to the canton that they published jobs adverts and couldn’t find anyone in the EU. Also, they have to show a stack of resumes to the authorities and point out how these applicants were not suited for the job and why this particular applicant is suited. I heard of some companies who have done this successfully in other cantons but this is already many years ago and immigration was easier back then.
8. Cheap, high-speed (mobile) internet.
Update summer 2018: The internet at my home:
For $65/month I get a Fiber7 internet subscription that gives me a stable 1 GB line. Fiber7 was just a tiny player on the internet market a few years ago but managed to grow and beat Swisscom, UPC and other Swiss “conglomerates”. (see 6. Simple entrepreneurship.)
I use lycamobile.ch’s prepaid offering for mobile internet. 1 GB for 5.90 CHF a month. I can cancel this anytime (e.g., when I am abroad for some weeks) and it’s cheaper than the long-term commitment subscriptions of other providers. I call and text people using Skype which costs me a couple of cents per minute or per sms even for international calls. For calls within Switzerland I am subscribed to Skype’s “Switzerland pack”. Skype’s call identification service makes it look like I am calling from my actual phone although I call via the Skype app. Also, audio quality is way better in this way. It’s a setup I use for many years and it works great.
9. No second chance to come here
Immigration to Switzerland spiked in the summer of 2014 due to the referendum for a cap on immigration that was accepted by a majority. The laws will be introduced in a few years to limit the number of immigrants. No one really knows how the Swiss government is going to sell this to the EU, since it might break some bilateral contracts. Update 2018: The Swiss solved this, as usual, in a reasonable way: For professions that have a high unemployment rate (e.g., marketing), Swiss employers have to first check a national database of unemployed people and try to fill the roles from that database first before advertising it publicly. For professions like tech with a very low unemployment rate, there are no changes.
Due to the high salaries, Switzerland has an unparalleled living-standard and this gives people financial stability which leads to lots of personal freedom: Some like saving money. Others prefer buying cars, living in a big, modern apartment or going on luxury vacations. Many like having lots of free time and decide to work part-time, only 4 days a week. All this is fine. Whatever you like to do, Switzerland, a small but great country gives you the freedom to do what you enjoy.
If you want to hear more from me follow me on Twitter.
I help programmers find work in Switzerland. Please feel free to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org, (You must have citizenship of a EU-28 country or have a Swiss work permit because visa sponsorship in 99% of cases isn’t a thing here.)
If you like this article, you might love:
- Five years after moving to Switzerland. Why I am still here.
- Why software engineers don’t get jobs: Four horror stories
- Switzerland: How buying real-estate can kill you financially and two reasons to go for stocks instead
- Compassion — An efficient alternative to rigid Code of Conducts
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