The twists and turns of obtaining a Swiss residence permit

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11 September 2020
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11 September 2020

The twists and turns of obtaining a Swiss residence permit

Mirela Stoia is the Immigration Practice Leader at PWC Switzerland. Her multilingual and diverse team operates throughout Switzerland providing pro-active, pragmatic and best in class immigration services. Growing up in several countries and working for many years with international corporations, Mirela has gained a deep understanding of multi-cultural dynamics and fluency in French, English, German, Romanian, Italian and Hungarian.

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Located in the center of Europe, known for its stable economic and political situation, and considered a world leader in research and development, Switzerland has always been attractive to foreign investors and employees coming from abroad.

Over the past years, immigration has been a particularly hot topic in Switzerland. Following a 2014 federal referendum aiming at curbing the rate of immigration, the Swiss government lowered the work permit quotas for non-EU nationals wishing to enter the Swiss labor market. This, however, gave rise to multiple protests. Willing to make the system more flexible again and to meet the different economic needs of each canton, the Swiss government has raised back the non-EU work permit quota in 2018.

Here is an overview of the rather complex Swiss immigration system and the strict requirements that a Canadian, as other non-EU nationals, needs to fulfill in order to obtain a Swiss work and/or residence permit.

The Swiss immigration system

Switzerland has a dual system for the admission of foreign nationals: while nationals from EU/EEA states can benefit from the Agreement on the free movement of persons, much stricter conditions apply to non-EU nationals – including Canadians – who wish to obtain a Swiss work and/or residence permit.

Under the Federal Act on Foreign Nationals and Integration (“Swiss Foreigners Act”) the main legal grounds enabling a non-EU national to obtain a Swiss residence permit are as follows:

  • Employment (highly qualified specialists or management employees);

  • Investment into an existing business or creation of a new business that serves a macro-economical interest;

  • Family reunion (for spouses and children);

  • Studies;

  • Retirement;

  • Lump sum taxation regime for high net worth individuals;

We are covering in this article only the first three points mentioned above. However, PwC’s Immigration Team can provide full service and support for obtaining a Swiss residence permit under the retirement and lump sum taxation schemes. To obtain a student permit, for which the main requirements are an admission to a university or other recognized school and sufficient financial means, usually the students proceed with the filing of the application on their own as the procedure is straight forward and the school/institution provide the necessary guidance.

Swiss residence permits obtained based on employment

Only highly qualified employees from non-EU countries or occupying executive management positions are eligible for a Swiss work and/or residence permit. Usually this means that he/she must hold a university degree and several years relevant work experience to qualify.

Non-EU nationals can only be admitted to the Swiss labor market if the employing entity proves that it could not find any Swiss or EU national for the specific position. Thus, Swiss companies are required to perform a labor market search by registering all vacant positions with the relevant Regional Employment Office, i.e. OCE in Geneva[1], ORP in Lausanne[2], RAV in Zürich[3] etc. and post the job ad on Swiss/EU job search websites for the duration of 2-3 months.

The Swiss authorities furthermore examine if the Swiss salary and employment conditions customary for the location, profession and sector are met. If in the relevant sector there is no generally binding collective bargaining agreement that sets minimum wages, Swiss standard salaries are calculated individually based on several criteria such as age, educational/professional background, type of activity and place of work in Switzerland. This results in locally, occupationally or industry customary wages for an economic sector or for a particular occupation.

Furthermore, there must be a work permit quota available for the issuance of a non-EU work permit.

The particular case of intra-company assignments

Highly qualified employees transferred to Switzerland on the basis of an intra-company assignment are eligible to a Swiss work and residence permit if they have been employed by the assigning entity for at least 12 months and if the employment conditions meet the Swiss legal requirements.

The particular case of an entity set-up

There has to be a substantial investment of micro-economic interest, which contributes to the diversification of the regional economy, the creation of jobs for local employees and which generates new mandates for the Swiss economy. A business that develops a new technology/product has generally more chances of success to sponsor a work permit than a non-innovative business. The work permit application must be supported by a detailed business plan. This option is only applicable for foreign investors who wish to get involved in running the business. There is no minimum investment amount required, however the company must have a certain economic impact on the Swiss market and that contribute to the Swiss economy through the creation of new jobs.

Family reunification

In case of non-EU nationals, only spouses or children not older than 18 years are entitled to a Swiss residence permit based on family reunion. For the spouse’s application, an attestation confirming the enrolment into a French class in order to reach A1 level (oral) is required. A list of recognized language schools can be found with this link:   https://www.fideinfo.ch/doc/08_Sprachenpass/fideFR08_ListeDesCentresDEvaluationFideAccredites.pdf

Parents or grand-parents are not eligible to a Swiss residence permit based on family reunion. Common law spouses may be admitted under certain (strict) conditions.

Only married partners of B permit holders are entitled to take up employment based on their residence permits. Common law spouses or spouses holding a L permit may not automatically take up employment and require a prior work permit approval.

Main permit categories

  • L type permit: short-term residence permit issued for up to 12 months, extendable to a maximum of 24 months; the holder can only work for a specific employer.

  • B type permit: long-term residence permit issued for long term employment/residence, usually not transferrable to another employer in the first years.

  • C type permit: it is the Swiss “green card”, issued to Canadian nationals after five years of continuous residence, if they are well integrated.

The processing time for a Canadian national to obtain a Swiss residence permit usually takes between 6 and 14 weeks, depending on the workload of the three competent authorities on the cantonal and federal level. Given the strict legal requirements and the complexity of the immigration procedure, it is recommended to first proceed to an eligibility assessment.

PwC’s Immigration Team has, over the years, developed a strong methodology for supporting clients with these strategic aspects, as well as with the administrative ones. The team’s deep understanding of the Swiss immigration rules and regulations and its deep knowledge of the practices of the immigration authorities can be of great help.

To summarize, even though the Swiss labor market usually appears extremely attractive to foreign workers, it is not easily accessible for non-EU nationals. Furthermore, the discretionary power of the Swiss immigration authorities, as well as the differences in practice between each canton, makes it difficult to assess the chances of success of each permit application.

This should however not be dissuasive. Indeed, one should always keep in mind that a significant portion of Switzerland’s workforce is made up of foreign employees, who enjoy Switzerland’s diversity, as well as the opportunities, stability and high quality of life it offers.

Mirela Stoia

PwC | Director – Immigration Practice Leader
Geneva | Switzerland

[1] https://www.ge.ch/recruter-candidat-inscrit-au-chomage/mode-emploi-avantages

[2] https://www.vd.ch/themes/economie/employeurs/obligation-dannoncer-un-emploi-vacant/

[3] https://awa.zh.ch/internet/volkswirtschaftsdirektion/awa/de/arbeitsmarkt/stellen_personal.html