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On 1st June 2002, a new permit system was introduced for most EU citizens under a bilateral agreement between Switzerland and the EU. This agreement applies to EU nationals from: Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland (EEA), Ireland, Italy, Liechtenstein (EEA), Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Norway (EEA), Portugal, Spain, Sweden and the UK. Transitional measures apply to some member states such as Bulgaria, Croatia and Romania.
The agreement will eventually culminate in all EU citizens having complete freedom of movement within Switzerland and Swiss citizens within EU countries – scheduled to take effect from 1st June 2014, with the exception of Bulgaria and Romania (from 1st June 2019). Under the agreement, Swiss employers are no longer required to prove that they cannot find a Swiss person to do a job before employing an EU citizen, and employers aren’t required to disclose salaries to the authorities.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Following a referendum in February 2014 – when the Swiss voted to limit the freedom of movement of foreigners – the whole question of immigration has been thrown into uncertainty and turmoil. Switzerland has three years in which to enact the referendum result, but when (or if) it does it will have serious implications for EU-Swiss relations and will effectively renounce its agreement on the free movement of people with the EU. Switzerland had already imposed limited work permit quotas in 2012 for EU nationals, as it was permitted to do under the EU-Swiss bilateral agreement. Contact your local Swiss embassy to find out the latest situation.
In 2007, quotas for most EU work permits were suspended, although the Swiss authorities reserved the right to reintroduce quotas if the flow of workers from certain EU countries was overwhelming. This they did from 1st May 2012 when they introduced quotas (2,000 per year) and B permits for nationals of EU-8 member states: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, the Czech Republic and Hungary. This measure (initially for one year) applies to those who come to Switzerland to become self-employed or who possess an employment contract valid for a year or more.
Companies registered in an EU country can send their employees to work in Switzerland for a maximum of 90 days per calendar year without obtaining a work permit. They must, however, register employees with the Federal Office for Migration (www.bfm.admin.ch) and provide the same conditions with regard to working time, salary and holidays as are mandatory for all employees in Switzerland.
For stays of up to 12 months and extendable for an additional six months, an L-EC/EFTA permit is issued, which can be transferred between employers and can be renewed if the employment continues or a new job is found after that time. L-EC permit holders can bring their families to Switzerland.
EU citizens with an employment contract for an unlimited term receive a B-EC/EFTA permit that’s valid for five years, which allows employees to change jobs or cantons without any restrictions. If a B-EC/EFTA permit holder loses his job he can stay in Switzerland for the duration of the permit, provided he has sufficient funds to live and doesn’t become dependent on social security. He can also claim unemployment benefits under the same conditions as a Swiss citizen, look for a new job or become self-employed. After five years a B-EC/EFTA permit is automatically converted to a C permit (Niedertassungs-bewilligung, permis d’etablissement).
EU citizens wishing to work but not to be resident in Switzerland can obtain a G-EC cross-border permit. EU citizens are allowed to bring their family members to Switzerland, including children or grandchildren aged under 21 who are financially dependent on the petitioner, as well as financially dependent parents and grandparents.
Non-EU citizens (and EU citizens who don’t qualify under the new rules – see above) – officially termed ‘third-state’ nationals – must obtain a visa to work in Switzerland. Since the introduction of the Swiss-EU agreement it has become much more difficult for third-state nationals to obtain work permits and in general these are only available to highly qualified people with a higher education qualification and several years of work experience.
Before applying for an annual permit for a non-EU national, a Swiss employer must ‘ensure that no resident Swiss or EU resident can do the equivalent job as that of the migrant they wish to bring into the country’ and have previously advertised the job vacancy in Switzerland.
There are strict annual permit quotas in each canton, plus a federal government quota that can be used in exceptional circumstances. Each canton’s quota is based on economic factors and manpower requirements in the canton. In deciding whether to grant a permit, the authorities consider the provision of essential services and supplies, economic necessity due to lack of personnel, and the promotion of commercial development. The authorities can usually exercise their discretion within the bounds of the law.
Each year the Federal Council fixes quotas for the number of non-EU nationals who may work in Switzerland. There are separate quotas in all cantons and your success in applying for a work permit varies according to the canton and often depends on the number of unemployed persons in a particular canton.
If an application for a permit is rejected, the reason is given to the prospective employer in writing, who will inform you of any right of appeal, the relevant appeal authority and any time restrictions that apply.
It can take up to three months for a non-EU national to obtain a residence permit to live or work in Switzerland – from the initial job application, interview and written job offer, until receipt of your permit approval. You must enter Switzerland within three months of the date of issue of your residence permit approval; if you’re unable to take up employment within this period, you should inform your prospective employer so that he can apply for an extension.
Third-state nationals who are resident in Switzerland (or in any other Schengen country) can travel freely to all Schengen member countries without a visa, simply by showing their Swiss residence permit (B, C or L) or Schengen ID card (issued to third-state nationals resident in Switzerland) and a valid travel document e.g. a passport.
In 2012, the quota for third-state nationals was 8,500 – 5,000 short-stay L permits and 3,500 annual B permits.
Employees of International Organisations
Foreigners employed in Switzerland by international organisations, such as the United Nations in Geneva, have a special status. They don’t require a normal residence permit, but are issued with an identity card (Identitatskarte, carte de legitimation) obtained by their employer. Customs, immigration and housing regulations for employees of international organisations differ considerably from those of ‘normal’ permit holders (if the UN had to put up with the usual Swiss red tape, they would have gone elsewhere!).
There are some 30,000 international employees and their families registered in Switzerland.
[Hampshire, David. (2015). Employment Conditions. In Living and Working in Switzerland (15th ed., pp. 44, 45, 46). Bath: Survival Books.]