Thanks to the relationship between Switzerland and the EU (please don’t ask me about Brexit), I didn’t have a whole lot of trouble getting into Switzerland. In fact, I was pretty much able to turn up one day and start telling people that I live here.
The real challenge was making sure that I could stay. EU and EFTA nationals may remain in the country for up to three months without a permit to look for work, and another three with a temporary residence permit, as long as they can support themselves financially.
After that, you really do need a “proper” residence permit, and for that you need a job.
The challenges of getting a permit in Switzerland
This is where things get tricky: Swiss employers like you to put a lot of information at the top of your CV, including a picture, date of birth, civil status, nationality. . . and whether you have a residence permit. This means that one of the first things potential employers learn about you is that hiring you would involve a lot of extra admin, as they would have to help you obtain that much-needed permit. It’s not a great start to a job application and you may find your enquiries being answered suspiciously quickly as hirers “regret to inform you” that you were unsuccessful.
Time is ticking, and it feels like you are running out of options. Your expectations of working abroad have taken a nosedive, along with your self-esteem. The country you fantasized about moving to doesn’t seem to want you, and you don’t know what to do. This is the situation I found myself in earlier this year, when someone suggested that I become self-employed.
What a revelation: Instead of waiting for a corporation to give me a chance, I could take control. Rather than scramble with scores of other applicants—many of them potentially already residence permit or Swiss passport holders—I could create my own job.
Gaining my permit for self-employment and registering the business
Rather than scramble with scores of other applicants—many of them already Swiss passport holders—I could create my own job.
The process of applying for a permit for self-employment in Switzerland varies between cantons (the different regions which make up the country). One of the best things to do is to call your local immigration office or go there in person to run through exactly what you need to submit.
Among other things, I had to provide: a business plan (to show how I intended to earn money); evidence of clients (I submitted contracts with a couple of organizations who had agreed to use my services); and a passport photo (mine is horrendous).
After the permit finally came through, I also registered my business on Lucerne’s Handelsregister, or business directory. This is not mandatory and does involve yet another administration fee, but, already feeling like an outsider, I wanted everything to be as official and as “Swiss” as possible.
Compared with the permit application, the process is fairly straightforward and, for residents in Switzerland, can be conducted through Easygov.
Gaining traction—and clients
With the paperwork done, it was time to find clients. I created a website, printed business cards and networked like crazy.
Before I started a business, I always thought of networking events as cringey. Awkward. Not for me. But with bills to pay and a business to grow, I knew I had to put myself out there—and I’m glad I did.
The international community in Switzerland (as a writer and editor of English-language texts, English speakers are my main audience) is buzzing with entrepreneurs. Arriving in a place where their skills and experience may not be appreciated or understood, these people are masters in capitalizing on their passions and expertise to create something new. What’s more, they are often brimming with empathy and advice for others who are not so far along in their business-building journey.
One of the key lessons I have learned so far is the value of strategic volunteering. Strategic volunteering is an arrangement in which an individual helps a company or organization with the aim of developing a specific skillset or gaining more experience in a particular field.
Strategic volunteering can be an excellent networking opportunity and is a great way for freelancers to build up a portfolio and a reputation in their new country. Personal connections and word-of-mouth play a huge role in the Swiss job market, and as a newcomer it can be incredibly difficult to compete. It takes time, patience, and hard work to prove yourself and to build a network of your own.
Is it worth it?
My business is still at a very early stage, even though it has taken an enormous amount of work to get this far. On bad days, it feels like I’m going nowhere. But on a good day, I can look back and marvel at how much I’ve progressed in only a few short months: I have improved my IT skills, learned about marketing techniques, and spent far more time following Swiss administrative procedures than I like to dwell upon. All this and more in a country in which I had only just arrived, knowing very few people and very little about how things were done.
Self-employment abroad is a legitimate option, even if it’s not an easy one. If the purpose of travel is to broaden our horizons, then it is logical that we should allow it to shape our views on working life and consider trying something new. Setting up a business in Switzerland has opened my eyes to opportunities I never knew existed and encouraged me to evaluate what I really want from my career.
Plus, come winter, I know that I can stay home and work in my pyjamas while everyone else has to trudge through the snow.Add this article to your reading list