Whether a foreigner will need a visa for Switzerland depends on their nationality, the intended length of their stay in Switzerland and the reason for their stay in the country.

The rules for citizens of European Union (EU) states and countries that form part of the European Free Trade Association differ quite markedly to the regulations for foreign nationals from elsewhere.

Citizens from the EU, the EFTA, and countries on the Swiss government’s designated list are afforded visa-free entry and can stay for 90 days, as long as their passport is valid for at least six months.

Foreign nationals of non-visa-exempt countries will need to apply for a Schengen visa. Expats who need a Schengen visa for Switzerland will need to apply at the designated Swiss foreign mission in their home country.

Applicants need to provide paperwork including their passport, a completed application form and proof of income. In some situations, they may need documents explaining their reasons for travelling and a letter from a Swiss sponsor. Processing times vary, but it's best for travellers to apply as soon as they’ve confirmed their travel plans.

Expats who want to work or live in the country for longer than three months need to apply for a Swiss residence permit. This applies to all foreign nationals, but the process is much more straightforward for EU/EFTA citizens.

Permits are issued by cantonal (state) immigration offices, so expats should contact the office where they hope to be based – each canton has different quotas for non-European workers.


Residence permits for EU/EFTA nationals

EU/EFTA nationals shouldn’t struggle to obtain a residence permit for Switzerland. They simply need to find out about the various permit categories available, choose the one that suits their situation, and apply accordingly.

There is no escaping the red tape that comes with the application process, but it is not all that difficult or time-consuming, especially in comparison to the process the non-EU/EFTA nationals need to go through. 


Residence permits for non-EU/EFTA nationals

Expats who are not from an EU/EFTA member-state might find it difficult to obtain a residence permit for Switzerland. The Swiss government has imposed strict employment quotas to ensure that local Swiss workers, followed by EU nationals, are given priority when it comes to jobs.

In practice, permits are mostly granted to wealthy and highly skilled expats with the right qualifications. Once a canton’s quota has been met for any given year, even the most qualified expats will need to wait till the following year to get their permit. 

Most residence permits for Switzerland are linked to an employment contract, while most jobs require a residence permit. There is no easy way to sidestep this dilemma, but finding a company willing to act as a sponsor isn’t impossible for those who are highly skilled in certain fields. That said, companies have to prove that the position couldn’t be filled by a Swiss, EU or EFTA citizen if they want to employ someone from elsewhere.

After an expat secures a job, their employer applies for a Residence Permit Assurance (Zusicherung der Aufenthaltsbewilligung/Assurance d'Autorisation de Séjour) with the local authorities. Once granted, the document is sent to the applicant, and should be presented with their passport upon entry.

After arriving, expats should apply for their residence permit at their local migration office. The process differs between cantons, so they should check the requirements beforehand.