Living in Switzerland – Postgraduate Guide |
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Living in Switzerland – Postgraduate Guide

Written by Mark Bennett

Switzerland is a small country, but it's also a land of great diversity. Not only have the three main linguistic areas developed their own culture, traditions, economy and cuisine, but the great number of foreigners settled in Switzerland have also brought with them their various cultures and languages. With four national languages (German, French, Italian and Romansh) and over 21% of the population consisting of foreign citizens, Switzerland is a unique melting pot in the heart of Europe. Although the majority of people (60%) speak German – or, more precisely, Swiss-German – Swiss residents often speak at least two languages. Cross-cultural encounters are part of daily life in Switzerland; multilingualism is often helpful!

All of this makes studying a Masters degree in Switzerland an exciting and fulfilling experience. In fact, nearly a third of Masters students studying in Switzerland are from abroad (this figure rises to over 50% for research students!).

What's it like to study abroad in Switzerland?

Switzerland's landscape, geography and leisure activities are as diverse as its cultural identity. The country is known as a summer and winter sports paradise (Zermatt, St Moritz, Interlaken, Gstaad, the Jungfrau, Verbier are but a few of the many suggestive names). It hosts cosmopolitan cities like Geneva, Zurich and Basel, as well as several charming smaller towns (Lucerne, Neuchâtel, Lugano, etc.).

The country has long been one of the world's great tourist destinations and boasts an extraordinary abundance of natural beauties and interesting attractions. The 4,000 metre peaks of the Alps began attracting the first modern tourists during the 19th century.

Lifestyle can vary greatly depending on the area of the country and the background of the inhabitants. Nowadays, the Swiss population is mainly modern and urban, with one-third of the population living in the five biggest cities (Zurich, Basel, Geneva, Bern and Lausanne), another third in smaller urban areas and the final one-third in rural areas. Traditions are kept alive especially in these mountain and rural areas. However, even the biggest Swiss city, Zurich, has only 390,000 inhabitants.

Swiss food and drink

Switzerland's diverse combination of European cultures has led to a rich fusion of French, German and Italian cuisine. Generally speaking, if there's a food you enjoy from one of Switzerland's neighbours you'll be able to find a Swiss version. There are also some characteristically Swiss dishes that are worth trying during your time as a Masters student. These include international favourites such as fondue (made with cheese, or chocolate) as well as a range of appealing deserts involving cookies, brownies and cooked apples.

Swiss drinks include a range of wines and beers as well as the infamous Absinthe, originally distilled in the Jura region of Switzerland.

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You will be able to choose from a range of housing options, with a combination of university residences and private rental options available to postgraduate students, depending on the arrangements at specific universities.

In some cases and depending on the terms of their agreements with the university, international students and researchers will be offered accommodation opportunities by their institution. Usually though, each person must find their own accommodation. The most common solution for international students or researchers is to rent an apartment or a house, or a room in students' residences.

Student housing associations are the cheapest option, with a range of rooms and flats to suit most budgets. The average prices is in the region of €700 per month, but varies between cities.

If you decide to rent privately, expect to pay upwards of €1,300 per month for a one bedroom flat, depending on the city and location.

In addition, individual universities often maintain resources on their websites for international students, including practical guides to finding accommodation and living in their immediate vicinity. If you can't find this information, consider getting in touch with your institution's international office and asking if they can help you.

Living costs

Switzerland is not a particularly cheap place to live, which is the price you pay for life in one of the world’s wealthiest and most developed nations. However, if you study outside Zurich and Geneva, you should find Switzerland more affordable. In most areas of Switzerland, the cost of living is cheaper than Paris or London, although some items, such as food, are on average more expensive than elsewhere in Europe.

As a general rule, you should be able to get by on around €1,940 per month, including rent. This includes health insurance, food, daily transportation, small daily expenses, and educational material; your own costs will vary depending on requirements, and may be lower or higher than this estimate.

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Working whilst studying

EU/EEA nationals can work for up to 15 hours a week during term time, and full-time during university breaks. However, you’ll need to report your employment status to the relevant immigration authorities.

If you’re from outside the EU/EFTA region, you’ll have to wait until six months into your studies before you can start working, however. In order to do this, your potential employer will have to request for the immigration authorities to carry out an employment check and, if successful, issue a work permit.

For more information, you can contact a Swiss Embassy or your university. Universities may also maintain offices to help students find appropriate employment in their local area.

Further information

By now you should have a good idea of what to expect from life as a Masters student in Switzerland. You'll know how to get started finding accommodation, looking for a job and working on your French, or German, or Italian. . . There are a few other things you'll want to read up on before you head off to study a Masters in Switzerland though. See below for a concise introduction to transport in Switzerland and Swiss bank accounts (no, not that kind of Swiss bank account!).

Travel and transportation

Switzerland's various borders make travel to and from other European countries particularly convenient. Various road and rail networks are available to facilitate travel in and around Switzerland; the country's largest airport is Zurich Airport, which provides international air travel links with various destinations. Switzerland also offers several more unique modes of transport. If your journey crosses one of the country's famous lakes you can usually travel using a boat service and, if you want to make a trip under your own power you can find detailed information on hiking, cycling and even canoeing routes around the country at the website of SwitzerlandMobility.

Money and banking

The Swiss banking system is renowned for protecting the privacy of transactions, leading to the possession of a 'Swiss bank account' being associated with secretive and potentially ill-gotten deposits. You'll be pleased to hear that these days the Swiss banking system operates according to international law and opening an account as a student is unlikely to be regarded as suspicious! Most banks will be happy to provide you with an account along with access to modern services including international money transfers and ATM withdrawal facilities. Some Swiss banks also provide services designed specifically for students. In order to open an account you will usually need to present proof of identification and accommodation.

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Last updated: 01 December 2023