Even after moving abroad, many Swiss people still need to maintain a bank account in Switzerland. However, not all banks offer solutions for the Swiss abroad – and even where they do, it is often associated with high fees. This is why it is essential to be well informed. We outline the questions you need to ask your bank before moving abroad.
This article first appeared on our blog in April 2020. As it has proven such a popular read, we have taken it out of the archive, added a little to it, and updated it.
Even after moving away, many Swiss people living abroad still depend on a bank account in Switzerland. For example, some Swiss health insurances and 2nd pillar pension funds require a bank account in Switzerland – or at least a Swiss IBAN number. If you want to withdraw your AHV pension to a Swiss account, this must be done to an account in your name. Other Swiss expatriates abroad own properties in their former home country and rely on a Swiss account because of the associated mortgage. Others again need to prove a certain income and/or assets due to the legal provisions of their new country in order to be able to settle there permanently and open a local bank account. Finally, some individuals simply want to park their money in stable Switzerland for security purposes, especially where they migrate to states liable to instability.
However, it can be challenging for people moving abroad to keep an account in Switzerland or to open one. Again and again, we are told of Swiss expats whose bank has massively increased the fees for their account. Others, on the other hand, have to go to great lengths to access and manage their money from abroad. Particularly unpleasant is when you learn while abroad that your Swiss bank is completely terminating your customer relationship. In the past, some banks have acted without any qualms here, closing accounts at short notice even during travel restrictions due to the Coronavirus, for example. When living abroad, Swiss people have to overcome a number of hurdles in relation to certain specific aspects.
The big issue is that Swiss banks have found that including Swiss nationals abroad among their clientele is not particularly attractive. This is mainly the result of increasingly strict national and international regulations, for example in connection with combating money laundering and tax evasion. Banks are subject to strict compliance standards in these areas, and associated costs and risks. This is why many banks have decided to make their services available only to a limited extent, if at all, to Swiss expats (and in general, to any person residing abroad) – or to sharply increase their charges.
The scope of services available, as well as the fees, vary from bank to bank, sometimes even from person to person, depending on whether there is an existing long-term bank relationship, whether the person has a securities account with the bank or, for example, a mortgage. Thus, it is worthwhile to ask your own bank and take the time to review the offers from different financial institutions. Particular attention should be paid to the following key issues:
Is it even possible to have an account as a Swiss national living abroad?
In the end, this depends on the bank. For example, a few banks require their customers to have their domicile in Switzerland. Thus, in the case of an existing customer relationship, you would be required to terminate your account with the bank and look for another one should you be moving abroad (which, by definition, involves the fact of giving up your Swiss domiciled status). If, on the other hand, you have already moved abroad, you will not be able to open an account with this bank as a Swiss citizen abroad.
Other banks do not rebuff Swiss nationals abroad, however, their offer is restricted to certain countries – often Switzerland’s immediate neighbours (Germany, Austria, Italy, France) or EU/EFTA countries. If you emigrate to one of these countries, you can basically keep your account with those banks or open a new one.
Finally, only with very few banks can you keep your account or open a new one where your move to a country outside Europe. But beware: in this case too, for some countries there could be an issue. For example, Swiss nationals living in the US have a particularly difficult time – Swiss banks are generally very cautious in this situation and, as a result, often no accounts can be opened or kept. If you live in a country that is on a sanctions list, only in exceptional cases might you be able to hold an account in Switzerland.
What kind of financial services do I really need?
The offer made available by banks can also vary greatly in terms of types of financial services. For example, not with all institutions and not in all countries is it possible to open a securities account; moreover, access to Lombard loans can also be prevented. A pension account is also something often missing from the services available to the Swiss living abroad.
At the same time, fees can change depending on the type of account. Some banks, for example, can provide Swiss nationals living abroad with a savings account for free, whereas a private account is subject to a fee. If your purpose is simply to park your money in Switzerland, you should choose a savings account.
Ideally, you should identify exactly what you need before contacting your bank. As well as saving you money, you can also save time and nasty surprises.
Do I need to be physically present in Switzerland to open an account?
Swiss banks require your presence in Switzerland to open a new account. Once again, this is due, among other things, to measures aimed at combating money laundering and other criminal activities: the institution must be able to check various information according to the know-your-customer principle and thus, your presence is required. For the same reason, you are also required to sign the contract with the bank on-site – you cannot have your signature certified via an embassy or consulate. With certain exceptions, you cannot open an account online. Especially for Swiss nationals living abroad, the opening of a new account can take a long time. Thus, contact the bank as early as possible, so that, ideally, you only have to travel to Switzerland for signatures.
What additional fees will I incur?
In general: Due to the increased clarifications on the part of compliance and regulations, Swiss citizens abroad generally pay significantly higher fees for the management of Swiss accounts compared to someone who lives in Switzerland. Depending on the country where you live, these additional costs can amount to several hundred francs per month or year, while Swiss nationals resident in Germany, Austria, Italy or France are generally subject to relatively cheaper fees – especially compared to Swiss nationals living outside Europe.
However, some banks waive the additional fees for certain customer groups, e.g. particularly wealthy persons or young people. This can also be the case for some types of account (e.g. pension accounts).
Does e-banking work abroad?
E-banking has become a basic need for many people these days. Many financial institutions now also offer solutions for Swiss nationals living abroad – but these may be subject to certain restrictions – depending on local regulations or the offer of the specific bank. For example, some banks categorically prevent Swiss nationals residing in certain countries from using e-banking, while other institutions merely restrict the scope of services (e.g. prohibition of trading or holding securities). Thus, before you decide on a bank, you should clarify the e-banking issue in detail – if this is relevant for you. The same is true for mobile e-banking.
What about credit cards?
In order to be able to easily process payments or withdraw cash in the country you move to, having a credit card is a great advantage. However, this is not always possible and it depends on your bank. Even if you are one of the lucky ones who can obtain a credit card for your Swiss account, you should first inquire about the terms and conditions. Especially as withdrawing cash abroad or even in Switzerland may quickly lead to high fees, as well as when paying at credit card terminals. As an alternative, debit cards could be an interesting option in this context – and in this case also, it is best to compare fees.
Time is money – but patience pays off
As you can see, a host of aspects need to be carefully considered if you want to retain or open an account with a Swiss bank while living abroad. The same is true for mortgages – another future article will analyse this in greater detail.
Even when they have a Swiss address saved, banks increasingly require a certificate of domicile. Thus, today, one has to expect that the bank will learn relatively quickly about a move abroad. If there are any doubts about tax domicile, the account may be quickly closed.
Forewarned is forearmed. If you are moving abroad and you hold an account with a Swiss bank that you would like to keep, you should contact them as early as possible to clarify the above mentioned questions. Think about your own specific needs and expectations and ask your bank about these questions, with specific reference to the country you are moving to. It can also be useful to compare the offer with that of other financial institutions and, if necessary, look into changing. Take some time over this, it’s worth it. By the way: Swiss banks are not allowed to contact you abroad. Thus, you will have to contact the bank to receive an offer.
In the end, the good news is: it is possible once again to access a bank account at a Swiss financial institution without encountering major hurdles – except for those domiciled in a sanctioned country. For example, the Geneva Cantonal Bank BCGE and the Zurich Cantonal Bank ZKB offer both private and savings accounts with good, fair conditions. At Baloise Bank AG, our members can also benefit from preferential conditions in the area of “mortgages for real estate in Switzerland” and can access other services from the bank. The commitment of these banks to the Swiss living abroad is supported at the highest level, which makes it likely that this type of offer will remain available.
All these three financial institutions are part of our Soliswiss partner network and we can put you in touch directly with the appropriate contact person
With reference to this, we owe a big thank you to the ASO Organisation of the Swiss Abroad, SwissCommunity. For years now, this organisation has been working at the political level to improve the situation for Swiss nationals abroad with regard to banking services. All these efforts were met with success: Swiss nationals abroad from many countries of residence are able to maintain banking relationships at several Swiss banks based on acceptable terms.
Conclusion: a bank account in Switzerland does not always have to be excessively expensive. If you have any questions with regard to the above, please don’t hesitate to contact us without any obligation. We will be happy to provide you with the details of the appropriate contact persons. We will also be happy to advise you on which financial institution may be especially suited to any specific request.