Moving from the US to Switzerland for work - what should I know?
January 9, 2012 11:28 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking at a potential job in Berne/Neuchatel, Switzerland, and it would involve relocating my wife and 5 year old child. Does anyone have experience with relocating from the US to Switzerland, or any thoughts on life in Switzerland that they'd could share?

I'm a physician-scientist working for a large company, with the potential to move to a company whose European HQ is in Neuchatel. My wife is a nurse anesthetist, and my daughter is 5. I think it'd be a great adventure for us, and a great experience for my daughter. Assume that I'd be compensated at a respectable level (and hopefully in Swiss Francs), so money is probably not a huge issue - I was just in Geneva, so I know how far a US dollar goes in Switzerland.

My bigger questions are:

- Could my wife, who doesn't speak anything other than English, get by on a day-to-day basis?
- Could a nurse care for patients even if she only speaks English?
- How would a 5 y/o adapt (I suspect she'd be fine, but would like to hear the experience of others, if possible)
- How do the people tolerate "outsiders" (e.g., Americans)? Is the culture welcoming?
- What would schools be like for a 5 year old? My daughter goes to a Waldorf school her in the US, and we love the approach. Anything comparable?
- Housing: tiny? modest?
- Pets: Can we bring our dog and 2 cats over with us?
- Weather: thoughts?

If you have experience in this area and would be willing to let me pepper you with questions for 20 minutes on the phone, please let me know. I'd be grateful.
posted by scblackman to Travel & Transportation around Switzerland (12 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: I'd be happy, too, with input from folks who have moved from the US to other EU companies, for work.
posted by scblackman at 11:31 AM on January 9, 2012

I moved to Finland for two years, although Switzerland only joined the Schengen region for visas and entry just last year, I'd hesitate to draw comparisons just yet. So here are questions for you ask your potential employer:

1. Will the visa you will be working on enable your spouse to work in Switzerland? The USA for example has an H4 dependant spouse visa for H1B temporary work permit holders.

2. Regarding English, I did manage in Finland but worked in academia where there was a lot more English day to day than the medical field as you rightly ask. However, Switzerland, particularly Geneva is HQ to numerous IGOs like the UN, ILO etc as well as Zurich being a financial capital so there may be private hospitals attached to these bodies or otherwise private clinics, schools or other institutions that may actually require English speakers.

3. For your daughter, take a look at some of the materials on global nomads or third culture kids. There are pros and cons but everyone I know who has either done this or grown up like this has never regretted seeing the world. I left my passport country when I was 4.

5. Weather's impact will depend on where you are moving from. i.e from Chicago maybe not so much but I moved to the Arctic from the Equator ;)
posted by infini at 12:06 PM on January 9, 2012

I don't have this experience, but my beloved former next door neighbors made this exact move about 18 months ago (toddler kid in tow and everything). I am still in contact with them, if you don't mind trading emails back and fourth I could pass along your contact information.
posted by 8dot3 at 12:07 PM on January 9, 2012

Some thoughts:

1) A lot of the questions you ask us should be ones for which your company has an answer. Or, they should be able to put you in contact with someone local to the area who does have an answer. Large companies usually deal with employees moving overseas all the time. Lean on them for information.

2) Reach out to American expatriate communities in Bern for a lot of the questions you're asking.

3) Take some French and German lessons before you move. Professionals likely speak English well, but the day to day people you'll have to interact with (shopkeepers, landlords, etc., may not).
posted by dfriedman at 12:39 PM on January 9, 2012

Oh, and the other thing to keep in mind. You and your wife will have to file taxes in the US even if your only income is derived from Switzerland. Make sure that your company is (1) aware of this legal obligation of yours, and (2) will provide you access to an accountant who can help you, either in Bern or the US, for such things.

Also: maintain bank accounts in the US, and, if possible, US-domiciled credit cards, in order that your credit report and score in the United States does not disappear. This will make re-establishing residency in the US after you decide to come back (assuming you do) much easier.
posted by dfriedman at 12:43 PM on January 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

I just did this. I haven't been here long enough to give you any really useful feedback, but here are a few things we've learned so far:

Things aren't as expensive as you think. Meat, restaurants, Levis, and transportation are strikingly more expensive but everything else seems right about in line with what we were paying in a large US city. Apartments are slightly more expensive and somewhat smaller.

The trains are AMAZING. They go everywhere, all the time, and are always on time. They are also clean, comfortable, and silent. We are staying literally feet from train tracks right now and hardly even hear the train go by.

We are in the French-speaking area and speak French, so I can't really talk to whether you can get by with only English. I suspect you can get by with only English at work, depending on the office, but having some of the local language would probably help with the day-to-day stuff.

We came with two cats and it was no problem. You have to get special forms for the animals saying that have all the necessary vaccinations and there is an extra fee to put them on the plane. Then you show the papers to the customs officers when you arrive and pay another fee for each animal. There is no quarantine and the animals are allowed in as long as they are chipped and quarantined.

Again, we are new here and speak the language, but we have had nothing but positive experiences with people. Everyone has been welcoming, polite, helpful, etc. I also still can't get over the views-- there are alps on two sides of where we are now and vineyards on the other sides. Just gorgeous.

Feel free to send me a message if you have more questions or want to hear more about our experience.
posted by ohio at 1:24 PM on January 9, 2012 [4 favorites]

I should add that your vet should be able to help you organize the forms for the animals. Our vet surprised us by knowing exactly what the procedure was and had the correct forms on hand. The animals have to have a European microchip rather than an American one-- again, the vet should know about this and be able to get the right chip. You do have to take the forms to a USDA port vet (near you local airport, generally) to get the forms stamped. This was not a big deal at all.

This page has everything you need:
posted by ohio at 1:27 PM on January 9, 2012

The best place to look for most of the more specific questions (e.g. experience with children your daughter's age in Swiss schools in Neuchatel — schooling is very canton specific, as I understand) is English Forum, which is a big Swiss message board, mostly for American, Canadian, and British expats in Switzerland. You should probably be able to find discussions on many of the things you asked about, and can start a thread there for what you can't find. It's a ridiculously beautiful and comfortable country in a lot of ways , and it's adjacent to most of western Europe for easy traveling.
posted by Schismatic at 1:42 PM on January 9, 2012

I lived in Geneva for 5 years, but I'm from the UK. The move was done with my ex-wife's job so they took on a lot of the admin tasks, but I'll answer based on my experiences.

1. I knew people in Geneva who had lived there for several years and only spoke English (and their original native tongue which was not French) and made no attempt to learn French. They got by fine. Wouldn't be a personal choice, but they had no complaints, especially as they had lots of French speakers on hand for the occasional instances they 100% needed French.

4. The Swiss are a notoriously closed lot. You will meet Swiss through work who will be pleasant and civil but don't necessarily expect them to become friends outside of work. I suspect most of the people you spend time out of work will be expats - although having a child and making contacts through the school may help you out here.

6. Housing depends on what you can afford. Renting a flat in Geneva was a massive pain in the arse and took ages unless you had a large multinational corporation helping you. In the city it will most likely be a flat with no garden, moving further out you will find good-sized houses, but obviously prices will be increase the bigger you go.

8. Weather will be cloudy / grey / cold / snowy from about December to March. June, July & August are usually nice and can get quite "hot" (high 20s, low 30s C). As a rule though, you don't live in Switzerland for the weather.

One piece of advice would be that if the job is helping you move (with cash and / or admin tasks) then this will make it a much more pleasant experience. They are a bureaucratic nation and chores can take a while. Also, don't forget by law you need health insurance. When I was there it ran to something like USD250 a month with an annual excess of USD2,500. So you're obliged to pay 250 a month and assuming you have nothing serious you have to pay up to 2,500 a year in addition for the times you do go to the doctor. Coming from the UK this was a serious shock, as you're from the US, YMMV.

I'm not easily reached by phone these days having escaped from Switzerland to South America, but feel free to drop me a line - either by memail or my username at gmail.
posted by jontyjago at 1:49 PM on January 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

We moved from NYC to Paris when I was 4. I went to the neighborhood school and learned French within weeks by osmosis. My mother had a harder time of it.
posted by mareli at 2:06 PM on January 9, 2012

My dad's work (large, Swiss-held company) moved our whole family to German-speaking Switzerland when I was 8, for 3.5 years. Though I'm glad I got the chance to see Europe, I hated it on a day to day basis, and my mother was very depressed throughout.

Family: The family was my dad, my mom, me (age 8), brother (age 4), and sister (aged 2.5). We also had a dog, who came with no problems.

Work: My dad works for a Swiss-owned company, and they handled a lot of the relocation hassles for us - finding us a house to rent while we waited for our furnishings to come via sea freight (6 mos) , and then a bigger house in a small village for the rest of the 3 years.

My dad had by far the easiest time of it. The company paid for his German lessons, he had colleagues to socialize with (some of whom he is still in touch with, about 15 years after we returned to the States), and who shared his hobbies (climbing and mountaineering).

My mom had a very, very hard time. She had been a stay-at-home mom, and the visa we were on wouldn't have allowed her to work anyway. She was very socially isolated, compounded by being in a tiny village with one car for the family, and looking after three young children who were also having a rough time. She became profoundly depressed, and my dad, who had a much more fulfilling social life, wasn't very good at noticing and supporting her. It has been a very sore spot in their marriage, to this day.

School: The company paid for us to attend one of the international schools, following a British curriculum, that also taught us some German. The school was tiny - my grade varied between 12-18 kids. I hated it, and being fairly bookish and not good at schoolyard comebacks was teased very cruelly. Because the school was so tiny, there was no way to escape it, and I would come home from school crying nearly every day. I stopped doing my homework because I hated going to school so much. My siblings also had a hard time, though not as bad. The school was quite far, about 50 minutes each way in a little van-bus. Again, my mom was left to deal with the brunt of it, and my dad, enjoying his colleagues and his work, didn't notice our difficulties or listen when mom told him how serious it was. We actually had a bit of a fight about it over Thanksgiving this year. We also moved in the middle of the school year, which I strongly recommend not doing if possible.

I would have had a much better time if my dad had sent us to the local Swiss school. I would have learned proper German, and been better friends with the local Swiss kids we'd play pickup soccer with. The Swiss schools in the area (education is done on a canton by canton basis) seemed both rigorous and progressive - School for a half day on Saturday mornings was the norm, and I believe they covered a lot of subjects and I think French or English instruction, even at the elementary grades. The international school wasn't very rigorous, by my recollection.

The culture is very cool - people will be perfectly polite to you, but cold, eg. on public transit with our family. It was much more formal than in the U.S. At the time (mid-1990s), people still used Mr. So-and-so as the term of address in the office, and would shake hands with everyone getting on and off the elevator. That may have changed somewhat. It was very difficult to befriend the local Swiss people, and the only friends my parents had were my dad's colleagues. The Swiss are also not that tolerant of outsiders. The Swiss People's Party (Schweitzerische Volkspartei) holds a plurality of seats in the legislature, and is quite nationalistic and anti-immigration.

Ultimately, my siblings and I were very glad to leave Switzerland.

Looking back on it, while we had some good times, and I really enjoyed the skiing vacations and trips to Italy or Paris, it was miserable where it counts, in day-to-day life. The critical thing was that my dad was having a great time, and never really sat down and listened to the problems and struggles my mom, my siblings and I were having. There were a lot of things he could have done differently to make it better, particularly putting me in the local Swiss school and supporting my mom in finding a role and social circle for herself, that just didn't happen.

Wow, that was a novel. Anyway, this was just my experience. I'm happy to chat on phone or Skype if you like - send me a memail.
posted by foodmapper at 5:14 PM on January 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

A good resource is english forum (their capitalization, not mine). Search the archives for decent answers to a lot of common questions about moving to .ch as well as dealing with the amazing bureaucracy the Swiss have invented.
posted by dirtron at 8:45 PM on January 9, 2012

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