With a community of over 2 million migrants, Switzerland has become a top destination for expats. Families with children, couples and single people have plenty of reasons why they choose to relocate to the land of cheese and watchmaking: the country offers one of the world’s best education systems, financial stability, high quality of life, safe cities, and stunning natural wonders.
This land of promise does, however, come with its own challenges. Bureaucratic issues, housing, job search, learning one of the local languages (or two!) and the struggle to make new friends are some of the most common challenges. Keeping these issues in mind, it may seem that building a social life in Switzerland is an arduous endeavor.
If you are reading this article, chances are you are in the same boat. Good news is you are not alone. We have looked through the lenses of expats who, just like most of us, found it challenging to build a social life in Switzerland. Learn about how they overcame tough challenges and find some useful tips on how to build a 'tip-top' life in the country.
1. Alessandra's story
Name: Alessandra Melli
Living in: Basel
Alessandra is building a fulfilled life in Switzerland © Alessandra's personal archive
An internship brought 34-year-old Italian Alessandra to Basel. Love made her stay. Despite some early struggle, she has found a good work-life balance. Alessandra tells us why she has taken up hiking, what she thinks about Swiss people, and she also gives newcomers some tips to integrate into Swiss life.
Why did you relocate to Switzerland?
I moved to Basel in 2017 to start my career in Regulatory Affairs within a pharmaceutical company. My husband (boyfriend at that time) was already settled here. We met back in 2015 when I first arrived in Basel for a 6-month-intership as part of my PhD. At that time it was already clear to me that my work and love life had to be here.
Therefore, after earning my degree I started applying for jobs in the Basel area. It was pretty tough to transition from Academia to industry, and eventually I ended up in Germany for a postdoc. After 1,5 years of postdoc experience, I succeeded and found a job in Switzerland! Relocation was pretty smooth, since I was quite close to the German-Swiss border.
«Transitioning from academia to industry was difficult. It took me 1,5 years to find a job in Switzerland»
Switzerland seems to be perfect place to live in...
I come from a medium-sized city in South Italy where everyone knows everyone. Summer starts in May and ends in October. It was February when I first moved here in 2015, and it was also the first time I saw the snow. My worst struggle? The weather. It still is now. Winter feels incredibly long. And I don’t practise any winter sport. I miss going to the beach. That is something that mountains, rivers or lakes cannot replace, unfortunately.
In my hometown, almost everything is open round-the-clock, and you barely hear any languages other than Italian. In Switzerland, I still struggle with the opening hours of shops and restaurants. I always feel stressed thinking that I have to hurry on weekends. Everything is pretty much closed on Sundays.
Despite that, I have a good work-life balance. Here I can also connect with a lot of expats from different backgrounds, which is very enriching. Generally speaking, Swiss people are kind. They have a great culture of respect for someone else's time and personal space. And the public services run incredibly well.
Alessandra found her home in Basel © unsplash.com
«Here I have the opportunity to connect with a lot of expats from different backgrounds. It’s very enriching.»
How did you feel when you relocated to Switzerland?
I didn’t experience culture shock, but it took me a while to build my own social life. Even though my husband was already living here. In fact, he is an experienced alpinist and climber and most of his friends are too. It’s not really my cup of tea. However, I have started hiking which is good for the body and the mind. Apparently, it is something that pretty much all Swiss people do. You kind of become a little bit more Swiss when you go hiking. And I genuinely like the beautiful landscapes of the Alps.
I met a good girl friend of mine through Facebook. She posted in an expats group and we met up for coffee. I also socialise with people from work. My suggestion to newcomers is to take the initiative. Invite people out for a drink or coffee. You don’t know whom you may share interests or hobbies with until you talk with people.
«My suggestion to newcomers? Take the initiative. Invite people out for coffee.»
What would you have done differently?
I wish I were less shy and had engaged in social activities earlier. I could have connected with more people through social media as well. Having some friends to share moments – and struggle – with makes a huge difference. It’s the key to feeling at home in my opinion.
2. Ahmet's story
Name: Ahmet Bilge
Living in: Winterthur
Ahmet is doing what he loves in Switzerland © Ahmet's personal archive
Ahmet knows first-hand what it’s like to start over in a new country – he grew up between the US and Turkey. From struggling to find a flat, to overcoming his shyness to speak Swiss German through stand-up comedy, Ahmet tells us about his 10-year journey living in Switzerland.
Tell us about you.
I'm 30 years old and I live in Winterthur. I grew up in the US, then I spent some time in Turkey and I've been living in Switzerland since 2010. And I do live English standup comedy shows all around Switzerland ("The American Standup Show"). I first moved to Switzerland to study at ETH. Afterwards I threw everything away to follow my passion.
Like most expats, my first problem here was finding housing which turned out to be quite a task. But after a few weeks of struggling I managed to find a place. One tip is to look slightly outside of Zurich- City, many little towns like Uster, Winterthur are only 10-20 minutes away by train, significantly cheaper & also easier to find flats.
«My first problem was finding housing, which turned out to be quite a task»
What did you think of Switzerland when you first arrived?
My first impressions of Switzerland were not necessarily positive. So expensive. Seemingly so quiet. And of course so different from anywhere I had lived before. It was definitely a culture shock to suddenly find myself in Zurich, where shops close at 8pm and cows can be found roaming freely 10 minutes outside the city.
Switzerland is definitely a very unusual and interesting place to live in. The culture can sometimes be very rigid and people can be hard to warm up to. At the same time, Swiss people are very polite. The younger generations really appreciate the diversity of expats in Switzerland. Bigger cities tend to be rather liberal and the countryside a bit more conservative. Depending on the location where you live, you may find it easier or more challenging to settle in.
Winterthur is Ahmet's current location © unsplash.com
How did you go about building your social life in Switzerland?
For a long time I waited for my social life in Switzerland to organically sort itself out. And honestly it never did. I realized I need to take the initiative and actively meet new people. I became much more social after starting doing standup comedy. It allowed me to be more confident with strangers in both English and German. It was a great way to meet other expats and Swiss people and bond with them.
The most important thing is to make sure you put in the work to fit in. Keep trying. Meet new people. Time is the biggest component to fit in over here. Once you get used to living in Switzerland, few other places on earth can match up to it. It is so peaceful, so orderly and many things work really well.
«Put in the work to fit in. Keep trying. Meet new people. Time is the biggest component to fit in over here.»
What are the biggest challenges of living in Switzerland?
There are things that I still struggle with. Swiss German being the most important one. Never have I heard such terrifying sounds. I learned German in high school, but Swiss German is still very hard to learn. Also the last thing I struggle with as a Turkish guy is the food. Switzerland is amazing in many different aspects, but the cuisine is not one of them in my opinion.
Tip: There are four official languages in Switzerland: German, French, Italian and Romansh. Speaking one of them will help you integrate better into Swiss life. Want more information about language courses in your area? Check out our video and find more information here.
«My biggest tip for newcomers? Join a club or an activity.»
Looking back, what would you have done differently when you relocated to Switzerland?
I wish I had started socializing earlier. My biggest tip for newcomers? Join a club or an activity. Whether it's jogging, football, karaoke, cooking lessons. You name it. There are a multitude of events happening in the Zurich area every single day where both expats and Swiss people meet. You will notice that you build a group of friends super quickly! Also try to learn German. This will help you both socially and professionally.
3. Şiyma's story
Name: Şiyma Barkin
Living in: Geneva
Şiyma and her family are thriving in Switzerland © Şiyma's personal archive
Part of a family of five who recently relocated to Switzerland, Şiyma tells us how they managed to find a flat, she dismantles some cliché about Swiss people and gives us tips to socialise in the Geneva area, featuring school events, mountain clean-up tours and local meet-ups. She also explains why Switzerland is a safe environment to raise children.
Tell us about your family.
We are a family of five and we currently live in Eaux Vives, Geneva. I come from Turkey and my husband Kirill comes from Uzbekistan. Our children were born in Turkey. We also have a cat, Mitty, which is considered a member of the family! For the past six years we have been living and working across continents. Due to work, my husband relocated to Geneva in 2019, and the kids and myself finally joined him in June 2021. Kirill is a program manager at the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, and I have been working at UNICEF for twenty years, mostly on areas related to the protection of children and child rights.
Most expats seem to struggle with housing...How was that for your family?
Finding accomodation in Switzerland was a challenge for us too. In the beginning we thought that we could find something on our own, but we ended up getting help from a relocation agency. Finding a flat for a family is a difficult task since the system is quite bureaucratic and the competition is high. Some expats get help from their employer but if that isn’t the case, I recommend making such “investment”and get support from an agency, especially if you move here with your family. It will save time and some headache.
«Get support from a relocation agency. It will save you time and some headache.»
How have you managed the language barrier so far?
My husband is fluent in French, and I have a decent level to get by (B1 level). The Swiss people we have met have been super supportive and appreciative when I try to communicate in French. Our kids attend “welcome classes” for non-French speaking kids at the public school. They already speak three languages. French will be the fourth. So far it has been a good experience but let’s see how it goes. I worry that when the kids move into different academic tracks, our older child might not have enough time to master French as well as the younger. In any case, we keep an open mind and take it as an opportunity to learn a new language and to integrate into Swiss life.
What were your expectations before relocating to Switzerland?
We had visited Switzerland on work trips, so we pretty much had an idea about what to expect. Cliché says that Swiss people are reserved and not that friendly. For us, it has been the opposite. Our neighbours organised a raclette day to welcome us, and we have had some apero in the courtyard. We have even joined them at a volunteering event to support a homeless centre. Our next door neighbours – a wonderful elderly Swiss couple – offered to speak French with our children so that they learn the language quickly.
«It’s a cliché that Swiss people are reserved and not that friendly. Our neighbours welcomed us with open arms.»
What do you like most about living in Geneva?
The beauty of Geneva is the mix of nationalities living here. Everyone seems to get along very well. It’s a great place for expats. The nature surrounding Lake Geneva is breathtaking. I even started going for a quick dip at sunrise. And the public transport is extremely reliable. As a family, we really appreciate the safety and independence our children have here. In other countries, we had to drive our kids to school whereas here they are able to go on their own. It’s a very safe environment for children. Furthermore, there are many concerts and events in the area – we have already been to the Montreaux Jazz Festival and the lovely La D'aube concerts. And We have learnt to appreciate good cheese and always enjoy a fondue or raclette.
Geneva became a home to Şiyma and her family © unsplash.com
«The beauty of Geneva is the mix of nationalities living here.»
How is the family going about building their social life in Switzerland?
For us it’s important to keep an open mind and consider all opportunities out there. Our family motto has always been to embrace different cultures and to focus on the positive. My husband has been hiking and joining clean-up tours as a volunteer. He has even been featured in the Pro Natura magazine as a result of his dedication to keep this beautiful country clean! I joined a biodanza course and I take part in Arts & Coffee meet ups to improve my French. Our kids are making friends through scouting and are involved in other after school activities. We have met other parents at school events, which is a great way to socialise as well.
What tips would you give expats who want to build their social life in Switzerland?
Keep an open mind. Never compare things between your country and Switzerland. Every country is different. I would encourage every expat to try meet new people, speak a local language, and get outside of their comfort zone. The Packimpex magazine gives expats good tips on socialising. Join Facebook groups – the Expats in Geneva is a very popular group and people post a lot of questions regularly. It’s a very helpful tool to meet new people.
Building your social life in Switzerland. A cheat sheet
Are you ready to build your social life in Switzerland, but don’t know where to start? Here’s 5 ways for you to make new friends, integrate quicker into Swiss life and have fun in the process.
Take the initiative: Most expats regret not having taken the initiative earlier on. The fear of not fitting in, the language barrier and some cultural differences hold us back. But if you want to build a social life in Switzerland – or in any other country for that matter – you need to take small steps every week to make it happen. Don’t wait for your social life to organically sort itself out. It won’t. So, get out there and talk to people. Make small talk. Say “yes” more often and keep a positive attitude.
Learn Swiss German, French or Italian: At least try. Sign up to a course and give it a go. Most Swiss people speak two official languages, plus English – to a very high standard. If you struggle in the beginning, you can get by with English. However, Swiss people really appreciate it when foreigners try to speak one of the national languages. It makes a huge difference in daily life. Besides, language schools are a great place to meet expats like yourself. Read more about language courses in Switzerland here.
Hobbies, interests, and community: How we spend our free time tells a lot about our personality. Sharing our interests with others is a great way to connect with like-minded people and make new friends. Whether it's sports, nature, board games, photography, or alphorn playing (so Swiss!), there is a club for everyone – according to swissinfo.ch, there are over 80,000 clubs in Switzerland. Check out websites like Internations and glocals.com, as well as the activities and events that your local community organises every month.
Socialise with your co-workers: Use your workplace as a platform to make connections. Most expats find it easier to talk with coworkers than with strangers. Especially if you work for an international company. Talk with your colleagues during coffee breaks. Make small talk post team meetings. You will soon realise that you have more in common than you may think. Fostering friendships at work will make your life more fun both inside and outside of your workplace.
Connect on social media: Go on to Facebook or Meetup.com. Join an expat group in your local area – there are groups in pretty much every city in Switzerland. Message them, introduce yourself and join their WhatsApp groups and weekly gatherings. It’s a great way to meet people, ask for advice and have fun.
Are you relocating to Switzerland?
Have questions about how to build your social life? Or just want to know more about topics like health insurance? Taxes or housing? Work permits?
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