Work permits

Who needs a work permit? And how do you apply for it?

Since 1998, Switzerland has a dual priority system for the issuance of work permits: this means priority is given to workers from EU member states and a more restrictive admission policy is operated for non-EU citizens.

Work permits are usually linked to residency permits. There are different types of residency permit - depending on nationality, type of employment contract, the industry in which you work and demand in the Swiss labour market. See the residency permits section in this guide for more details for further details.

EU citizens

Since 2002, a Swiss/EU bilateral agreement has enabled easier entry, residency and employment in Switzerland for EU nationals as well as citizens from Norway, Iceland (EFTA members) and - conditionally - Liechtenstein.

EU citizens now have:

  • free choice of residency and employment between the cantons (geographic mobility)
  • the right to change jobs and employers (job mobility)
  • the right to bring their family to Switzerland
  • a right to work for their family members.

Eventually, EU citizens will have complete freedom of movement within Switzerland and likewise for Swiss citizens in EU states. However, there will be a fixed quota for work permits until the 31st May 2007 of a maximum of 15,000 new long-term residence permits per year and 115,500 new short-term residence permits a year.

On the 31st May 2007, quotas for EU citizens wishing to work in Switzerland will be suspended. As of June 2009, Switzerland will decide whether or not to extend the agreement. If the response is positive, freedom of movement will be fully introduced between Switzerland and the EU as of June 2014.

Job searches: For job searches lasting up to 3 months, EU citizens don’t need a permit for residence or work. If your search lasts longer, you have to apply for a residence permit for a further 3 months. These permits are not subject to quotas, and provide no access to the social security system in Switzerland.

Non-EU citizens

Non-EU-citizens can only get a work permit if their employer proves that they could not fill the respective position with a Swiss or EU citizen. This can become a complex and bureaucratic process for both employer and employee. There are some exceptions to this rule for highly qualified/specialised and/or top executive management positions.

If an employer wants to hire you, he must send you an official offer of employment. If you accept the offer, your employer then applies for a residence permit in the local canton’s police section for foreigners. If a residence permit is approved, your employer sends you a ‘pre-authorisation for a residency permit’ ( Zusicherung der Aufenthaltsbewilligung - Autorisation de Séjour) in addition to your employment contract. On arrival in Switzerland, you present this document in the formal application for the actual residency permit.

The process of work permit application can take several months and there are no guarantees that a permit will be issued. An employer might say they will be able to get a permit, but the ultimate decision will be made by the Swiss authorities. The decision on whether or not a permit will be granted depends on a variety of changing criteria such as the type of job, your qualifications, nationality etc. Within the limits prescribed legally, individual cantonal authorities have a large degree of freedom, so the ultimate decision could depend on the mood an official is in when your application is examined.

Employees of international organizations

Employees of international organizations don’t need a Swiss work permit (if the United Nations would have to go through the nightmare of permit approval for every employee, it would probably immediately move to another country). Instead of a work permit, a special identity card ( Identitätskarte - Carte de Légitimation) is issued. Holders enjoy preferential treatment in customs, for immigration and for housing.

Working illegally

Due to the restrictive immigration laws and the comparatively high salary level, there are quite a few foreigners that work in Switzerland illegally (e.g. without an official residence permit). However, we do not recommend you to work without a respective permit under any circumstances. Illegal workers are under constant threat of deportation and are often exploited by employers. As you have no legal right to work, your employer cannot even be forced to pay you for any work you have done.

Further reading

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