Saturday, 11 June 2011

Getting Started: Town Hall Registration and Opening a Bank Account

Town Hall Registration document and Swiss Bank debit card

Town Hall Registration

The first thing you need to do when arriving in Switzerland to work is register at the local Town Hall, assuming you have an address you can register at.

By law you have to register at the 'Canton' Town Hall within 8 days of arriving.

The Swiss registration document you get - an A4 print out with a stamp on it - is the starting point for other essentials such as being able to open a Swiss current bank account for your salary to be paid into.

Be warned that this piece of paper doesn't come cheap (nothing does in Switzerland!) and you will have to hand over the princely sum of CHF 85 (UKP 65) for this sheet of A4 paper (which will have to be paid again if you move, which involves a new registration).

The process of registration is relatively straightforward, but allow yourself a couple of days before starting work to get everything sorted out, as places like banks and town halls only tend to be open during working hours. I was lucky in that I had a Swiss umbrella company to help me through the Town Hall process, which can initially look very intimidating if you can't read or speak German.

As I indicated in an earlier blog post, the tax you pay depends on the 'canton' in which you live.

There is also a 'religious tax' that will be deducted from your salary if you specify ANY religion when asked.

The trick is to insist that your religion is "None"! I've been surprised at how many of my work colleagues didn't know about this additional tax that comes into play if you're a bit naïve and specify 'Church of England' or 'Catholic' when asked what your religion is at the registration process. It's worth reading a book like Living and Working in Switzerland (regarded by most British ex-pats as 'the bible' on surviving here) BEFORE you come out. It will help you work out the nuances and many rules and regulations of a country that seems totally obsessed with being as bureaucratic as it's humanly possible to be.

For your initial registration you will need a couple of passport-sized photographs, your passport itself, the names of your parents (even if no longer alive), and some sort of proof of the address you are going to be living at. As well as 85 Swiss Francs in cash.

The address you give will be printed on your registration document and needs to be one you can be reached at. You will be asked to sign a declaration that you have no criminal record, and apparently the reason you're asked for your parents names is to check their criminal records as well, which seems a little excessive.

Other than that it's pretty straightforward, and the staff at the Town Hall I went to spoke very good English.

If my experience is typical you will queue for 10-15 minutes, and then spend 10-15 minutes answering questions and filling in a quick questionnaire with the help of a member of staff before being presented with your sheet of A4, folded in half in a plastic wallet that is your 'local' identity card. Don't lose it because if you do there is an extortionate charge to replace it! I THINK I was told that a more formal registration document, with a photo, would be sent to me in a few weeks, but honestly can't remember the specifics and nothing's arrived yet. I'll update this post if/when a better photo id card arrives. As a result of registering I received an invitation to attend an evening session on "Living and Working in Switzerland for English speakers" (on July 7th - full blog report to follow!) which arrived about a week later, and the Swiss do seem very good at trying to acclimatise foreigners. The Town Hall is worth visiting if my local one is typical, because it had an English guide to 'What's On' in the area, as well as internet addresses for useful stuff that's in English.

Once you have the A4 registration document with the Town Hall stamp on it, you have enough to open a Swiss bank account - assuming you have some money to open the account with!

Opening a Swiss Bank Account

I'm amazed at how many of my British colleagues haven't got around to this basic step yet, even after being out here a couple of months. They are having their salaries paid into a UK bank account, meaning that they're paying extortionate bank 'wire and foreign currency conversion' charges twice: once to get their salary across to the UK in sterling, then again to change currency back to Swiss Francs in Switzerland where they need it.

I found opening an account very quick and easy: I just walked into a branch of Credit Suisse (one of only two banks I've seen out here, the other being UBS) and the whole thing was dealt with in about 10 minutes.

There are several types of account you will be offered, if my experience is typical.

The Basic Current Account costs 30CHF (UKP25) a quarter (which is automatically debited from your account every 3 months)

The Basic Current Account gets you a debit card, online banking, an optional savings account, a folder containing information in your chosen language and a nice pen too!

You will be given a little credit-card sized sticker for your wallet with all your bank details on immediately so that you can give your employers your bank account details within minutes of walking into the branch.

When you open the account you also choose what language you want to receive all correspondence in (you can choose to receive only electronic communication if you don't want snail mail). That being said, I have had one or two pieces of bank mail that have arrived written in German, despite most being in the requested English.

If you want a credit card you need to open a Silver account, which is the next step up from the basic account, but to upgrade to this you need to have a long-term work permit (at least a year) which I didn't have at the time I applied, and at the time of writing I still don't know if I've got the short-term 6 month permit that has to be renewed every 6 months (which is no good for getting a credit card OR a mobile phone contract) or the longer 5 year one that's really what's needed. My Swiss 'umbrella company' employers tell me that they have no way of telling until it's issued which one I'll get, but that they always try for the 5 year work permit on the basis that they want people to stay beyond their initial six month contracts.

The downside of the fast bank account allocation process is the wait time for the debit card that will allow you to use ATM machines to withdraw the money you've paid in. I was told this would take 'up to 10 days' although apparently it was delivered just 5 days later (to the serviced accommodation company who sat on it for another 4 days).

The Swiss Maestro debit card that the banks issue is also a lot less useful than a UK debit card.

You'll notice from the photo at the top of this blog entry that there is no embossed card number - it's printed in a small font at the bottom of the card, along with the bank account details. Further clues as to the uselessnes of this card are the lack of the usual security code on the back next to the signature strip. Trying to use this card for any sort of online transaction seems impossible eg Easyjet quite deliberately specify 'UK Maestro Card' in their payment options. The general concensus from other ex-pats seems to be that the Swiss debit cards are pretty useless other than as a way of retrieving your salary from an ATM machine. You are probably going to want to get a Swiss credit card at the earliest opportunity.

One thing to be aware of is that the online banking side of things is very security driven, although bizarrely the debit card and its PIN number were NOT sent by registered post. Nor was the hardware RSA key required to use online banking. But the password for online banking used in conjunction with the hardware RSA key IS sent by registered post - and that means a delay in being able to get hold of it if you're not at home when the postman calls. The online site that allows arrangement for collection of registered mail from a nearby post office (only open weekdays, and closed for long lunch breaks) requires not just an address, but a phone number - awkward if like me work haven't got your desk phone number sorted out and won't have for a week or two, quite aside from needing to arrange to collect it during hours when you should be at work.

More annoyingly, the debit card that is sent isn't what the Swiss call a 'Cash Card', which seems to be the main way of paying for things here - think of something like an 'Oyster Card' that's used to pay for relatively low cost items.

The staff canteens at my work place will only take Cash Card payment not cash, but despite being told I could buy a Cash Card for about 20 CHF (UKP 15 - ouch!) all of the places I tried said they no longer sell them.

The bank-issued Debit Card is NOT a 'Cash Card'

So although I had been told that when it arrived my debit card would be a 'Cash Card' too, the accompanying letter makes it quite clear it isn't and that if I need one (well, duh!) I'll have to order one online. This involves more expense (Welcome to Switzerland!) at 15CHF (about UKP12) as well as the hope that it will arrive in the post without you having to re-arrange delivery because you're not at home to receive it.

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