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Living in Switzerland - A Guide for Students

by Dr. Lutz-Peter Berg, Swiss Science & Technology Office

Switzerland is a small country, but it is 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 students studying in Switzerland are from abroad (this figure rises to over 50% for research students!).

You'll also have plenty to do as an international Masters student in Switzerland. 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 4000 metre-high peaks of the Alps began attracting the first modern tourists during the 19th Century. Since then, Switzerland has developed into a treasured destination for travellers of every nationality, age and condition, who find modern tourist facilities, sightseeing for every taste, and a hospitable welcome.

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, Basel, as well as several enchanting smaller towns (Lucerne, Neuchâtel, Lugano, etc.).

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 370,000 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.

You can view listings for accommodation services and organisations in major Swiss university cities at the website of the Rectors Conference of the Swiss Universities.

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 a fairly affordable place to live as an international Masters student. Taken as a whole, the costs for food, utilities and transportation are broadly comparable with neighbouring regions in Europe.

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 an estimate, depending on the exact location of your stay, and on the entity of personal demands, living in Switzerland has a monthly expenditure of between Fr1,500-2,500 ($1,530-2,550 USD). This includes housing, health insurance, food, daily transportation, small daily expenses, and educational material; your own costs will vary depending on requirements, and may be lower than this estimate.

Typical student prices in Switzerland

The following tables give approximate prices for some of the common items and services you are likely to purchase whilst studying abroad in Switzerland:

Item Price (Fr) Price ($)
Milk (1 litre) 1.40 1.35
Loaf of bread (500g) 2.40 2.35
Potatoes (1kg) 2.45 2.40
Chicken breasts (1kg) 20.80 20.65
Rice (1kg) 2.40 2.35

Entertainment & Leisure
Item Price (Fr) Price ($)
Cinema ticket 18 17.90
Mid-price bottle of wine 12 11.90
Cup of coffee 4.50 4.45
Draught beer (0.5 litre) 6.50 6.45
Inexpensive restaurant meal 20 19.85

Monthly Utilities
Item Price (Fr) Price ($)
Monthly travel pass 75 95.00
Broadband internet (10mbps, uncapped) 47.20 59.70
Domestic utilities (Electricity, Heating, Water and Waste) 131.85 99.75

Note Information in the above tables is based on crowd-sourced data collected by Numbeo. Figures are approximate and provided for comparative purposes only. They do not take account of student discounts and may vary over time or between cities.

Learn more about studying in Switzerland

Looking for more information about Masters study in Switzerland? Our detailed guide covers everything from university rankings and courses to fees, funding and applications.

Working whilst studying

You will usually be allowed to undertake some work alongside your studies whilst registered on a Swiss Masters programme. The extent of this work and the procedure for confirming your entitlement will depend upon your visa and residency conditions and, therefore, upon your nationality.

It is worth bearing in mind that you will not necessarily be permitted to support yourself entirely through work whilst resident in Switzerland as a student. This is partly to ensure that you progress through your studies at a satisfactory rate, and partly to prevent against abuse of student visa and immigration systems for other purposes. Your right to work will be dependent on your visa and residence permit, both of which will usually require you to demonstrate existing funds sufficient to support you as a Masters student in Switzerland.

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.

Remember that you can also use PostgraduateFunding.com to search a comprehensive database of small grants available to all postgraduate students. These could be a great way of topping up your funding if you have difficulty finding work alongside your studies.

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. Read 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 - 21/11/2016

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