Switzerland is the gem of the Alps. Famous for much more than chocolate and cheese, this lovely European country also boasts excellent healthcare, low crime rates, and high quality of life, hence why many U.S. citizens choose Switzerland as their place to retire. But how do you settle down in Switzerland as a U.S. citizen?
To retire in Switzerland as a U.S. citizen, you must receive a visa from the Swiss consulate, apply for a non-working residency permit within two weeks of arriving, and prove you’re retired (via Social Security verification). You will also have to purchase health and accident insurance plans.
In the rest of this article, we’ll detail everything you need for a successful visa application in Switzerland, namely taxes, healthcare, and pension requirements. We’ll also give you some tips for a successful transition to Swiss residency and culture.
Retirement in Switzerland
If you’ve decided on Switzerland as the ideal place to live out your golden years, you’ve made an excellent choice. It is beautiful, historic, and welcoming. Whether you decide to live in one of the major cities or a mountain village, Switzerland can offer you a fantastic place to retire.
There are several steps to retiring in Switzerland, the most lengthy being the proofs required for a resident’s visa. Once your visa has been approved and granted, you will be free to move to the country.
It’s important to remember that once there, you will have to apply for a non-working residency permit within two weeks. These will last five years and automatically renew if you are still living within the regulations. You can apply for permanent residency (or citizenship, a more lengthy process) after ten years.
Next, you’ll learn about Switzerland’s healthcare and tax systems and how to continue receiving a retiree’s pension or Social Security from the U.S. while in Switzerland.
Apply for a Visa
Switzerland will require a visa for you to stay there for longer than 90 days (and we all hope that retirement lasts longer than three months). To apply for a visa as a U.S. citizen, you will have to go through the Swiss consulate (most major cities in America have a consulate office). The process usually takes 6-8 weeks for application and visa approval.
There are 26 cantons in Switzerland, and each of them has slightly different rules for expats looking to relocate. If you know where you want to live, you will have to look up the specific regulations for moving there as a retired U.S. citizen. Most of the time, the cantons follow the general visa rules, but occasionally there are additional requirements in residency permits and applications.
To get a retirement visa from the Swiss government, you must first provide proof of four different things:
- You are retired.
- You have a good healthcare plan.
- You can support yourself without working in Switzerland.
- You have a close enough connection to the country.
Once you have all of these documented, you can apply for a visa and begin to plan your move to Switzerland. The consulate will accept your application and proofs and get back to you with an acceptance (or further requests for adequate documentation) within two months.
This is the most crucial step of the process – after you have a visa, it’s just the logistics of moving!
Prove You’re Retired
To retire to Switzerland, you must be retired in America already. Switzerland allows anyone over the age of 55 to become a legal resident, assuming they can prove that they are no longer working. It’s generally pretty easy to prove this if you’ve already retired in America and receive some kind of pension or benefits.
If you are receiving Social Security benefits, you can provide the Swiss consulate with a copy of your benefits verification letter, which you can get from any Social Security office by requesting a copy. This will be all the proof you need to show the Swiss government that you won’t be seeking work in their country.
There are other ways to prove this if you don’t receive benefits from Social Security. Proof of a private pension would work, as well as a copy of your latest (retired status) tax returns.
Prove You Can Support Yourself
Even though you’ve retired, you need to be able to provide for yourself. This is also easy to prove and often goes hand in hand with the proof of retirement. If your Social Security benefits or private pension payments are enough to live on, the Swiss consulate will accept this as proof of your ability to live without working.
Suppose you are retiring without a pension or benefits. In that case, you could also provide a bank statement or tax return to prove that you are self-sufficient enough to retire in Switzerland and can live comfortably on what you already have, especially considering the country’s relatively high cost of living.
Prove You Have Healthcare
Switzerland has some of the best healthcare globally and is famous for its high quality of medical help, which is another reason people love to retire to the country. Access to this is available to every Swiss resident and citizen because a health insurance plan and an accident insurance plan are required for all individuals living in Switzerland.
To receive a Swiss visa, you must prove that you have these insurance plans, which you can easily purchase. Since you will need it to live there anyway, it doesn’t hurt to enroll in a healthcare plan early and send a copy of your insurance plan with your visa application.
Prove You Have a Close Connection to the Country
Of the four requirements for a Swiss visa, proof of a close connection to Switzerland can be the most difficult to meet. A possible connection to the country is usually taken on a person-to-person basis, so what works for one individual may not work for another hopeful retiree. While the consulate might not always accept your proofs, several things generally work to show your sustained interest in the country.
Establishing a relationship with Switzerland by visiting often (and staying for a month or two) will commonly prove that you are interested in living in the country. Or family members already living in Switzerland can work for the visa application to prove past residency.
Buying property in Switzerland might also seem like a surefire way to prove your connection, but it does not always work. While you might still want to purchase property if you are going to move there, it’s easier (and cheaper, tax-wise) to rent a house. Buying property to prove you want to live in Switzerland is not always enough for proof of a close tie.
Pay for Swiss Taxes and Pension
Once you have received a visa and applied for a residency permit in the country, you are ready to retire. However, it’s vital to understand the economics of moving, the Swiss taxing system, and how it could affect you as a non-citizen.
Taxes in Switzerland are remarkably low, which is one of the most quoted reasons people move there. It’s considered a tax haven, with the highest income bracket taxed at just 17%. This is great for retirees and anyone retiring to Switzerland in a higher tax bracket, as long as you can avoid extra taxes for American income.
There are specific rules for American pensions and Social Security benefits, making it difficult to receive payments without being taxed twice.
Taxing Your Assets in Switzerland
Once you move to Switzerland, your worldwide assets and incomes become taxable by the country, including any pension payments. There also could be an inheritance tax if you pass away while residing in Switzerland (which is waived for a spousal inheritance). Depending on your country of origin, you could be taxed twice for certain things if the two countries don’t have a bilateral agreement in place.
When you move, you have a choice in how to pay your Swiss taxes. You can either pay in one lump sum at the beginning of your stay or pay monthly (as Swiss residents generally do). The lump-sum is more expensive and won’t save you any money in the long run unless you are in particular circumstances.
Once you have started paying taxes and applied for your residence permit, you will have all of the rights of a permanent resident living in Switzerland. As long as you continue to live within your residence permit regulations, such as not looking for work and keeping up with your healthcare, you can live in Switzerland with ease.
How To Receive an American Pension While Living in Switzerland
The most common problem for American retirees in Switzerland is being taxed twice for pension payments. This is usually because they are paid through the American Social Security system (or a private American pension) and transfer the money to Switzerland, making the cash eligible for taxes in both countries, which takes a chunk out of the paycheck.
If you are receiving Social Security benefits from America, you might be able to use the proof of your eligibility to switch to a Swiss retirement benefit plan. The services might be slightly different, but it is relatively easy to qualify if you’ve already qualified in the U.S. and is a surefire way to prevent having your income taxed twice.
There are individual private pensions and retirement plans that might not qualify for a Swiss benefits plan. While you have to prove your independence to move to Switzerland, the exchange rate and double taxation might gouge some of your income. If you can’t get Swiss retirement benefits, there is another way to transfer your money.
To avoid double taxation without Swiss benefits, you can set up a Swiss bank account while keeping your American bank account running. If the payments are made to your American account (and taxed in America), you can transfer to your Swiss account without labeling it as income. This loophole doesn’t always work perfectly but can prevent the problem of double-taxed income.
Purchase Swiss Healthcare Plans
A health and accident insurance plan is required in Switzerland if you intend to live there. You must apply for health insurance within three months of moving to the country, making things more comfortable in the visa process the sooner you do apply. The healthcare system in Switzerland is top-notch, so it’s definitely worth the required payments.
You need two kinds of Swiss healthcare plans: a health insurance plan and an accident insurance plan. They have monthly payments and have a retention fee capped at only 10%. Each canton has a different healthcare policy, so look up specific requirements within your canton.
Swiss Health Insurance
The Swiss healthcare system provides some of the best medical care globally, with mandatory health insurance for every long-term resident and Swiss citizen. There are several approved companies for Swiss healthcare to choose from. You can add to your healthcare package if you have specific needs that aren’t covered and change your deductible amount (by paying more or less of a premium).
You will pay a monthly fee to be part of the health insurance and a deductible on healthcare needs. After the deductible has been reached, you will still have to pay a retention fee (of up to 10%) on any procedures. The only other potential cost is a small fee if you end up staying in a hospital.
Swiss Accident Insurance
Accident insurance is required as part of health insurance. If you are retiring to Switzerland, you won’t get access to accident insurance through an employer, so it’s essential to have it with your health insurance. Many health insurance plans offer it as part of the payments, so as long as you have an adequate health plan, this should be included in the program.
Cultural Differences in Switzerland
If you are seriously interested in moving to Switzerland, you’ve likely researched this European country (and probably even visited it a few times). Even so, some cultural differences might surprise you when you settle down in Europe. It’s essential to have a good understanding of local culture and customs.
Many online forums and websites will help you with tips and tricks for living in a new country as a U.S. citizen. These range from things like greeting new neighbors to tipping at restaurants. While you won’t be mocked or banished for not knowing these little rules, it is helpful for you to settle in and feel at home in the country.
Here is a quick video put together by a Swiss citizen to help visitors and prospective retirees, listing some of the cultural differences, as well as ways to assimilate yourself well in the country:
Best Places to Retire in Switzerland
While Switzerland is one of the top retirement destinations for Americans, there are specific cities and cantons in the country that are more popular than others. Whether you are craving the bustling and active city life or a peaceful and relaxing village retirement, there is a canton in Switzerland that will suit your needs.
The best places to retire in Switzerland are:
- Zurich: Zurich is the most popular retirement destination in Switzerland. With all of the culture and history of a large European city, it offers the highest quality of life. As the largest city in Switzerland, Zurich is busy and exciting. However, the city is also the most expensive in the country.
- Bern: Bern is another highly sought-after destination. It is older than Zurich and has the feel of an old-world European city. As the capital city of Switzerland, it is the center of government and culture. There are Swiss festivals and cultural events and all of the amenities of a modern city.
- Geneva: Geneva sits directly on the French border and is the largest city in its French-speaking section. Geneva is a fantastic place to visit or retire, with easy access to the rest of the continent and Swiss and French cultures. If you are looking for a modern European lifestyle with all of the benefits of living in Switzerland, Geneva is an excellent choice.
- Appenzell: If you are looking for a quieter retirement location, the canton of Appenzell is the ideal place to settle down. With the lowest cost of living and crime rates in the country, Appenzell, Ausserrhoden, is a perfectly picturesque mountain village, surrounded by the Alps and brimming with culture.
- Gimmelwald: Located near Bern, Gimmelwald is also a popular retirement village. It has a bustling, traffic-free village center that provides all of life’s necessities and is within an easy drive to the capital and other places of interest in Switzerland. Gimmelwald is the perfect compromise between city and country life.
Once you are approved of a visa and a resident’s permit, all that’s left is to get ready to live in one of the most beautiful countries in Europe. For history, culture, safety, and overall quality of life, Switzerland is an excellent place to live out your golden years. The mountains and cities are waiting for you to make your home there!
- Smart Asset: How to Retire in Switzerland
- Expatica: A Guide to Retiring in Switzerland
- Swiss Info: Retiring to Switzerland
- Wise: A Guide to Retiring in Switzerland
- After 55: What’s Considered Income When You’re Retired?
- Britannica: Geneva Switzerland
- Bern: Visit Bern
- Swiss Authorities: Basic Health Insurance
- Swiss Authorities: Accident Insurance