The reasons for returning to Switzerland are as varied as those for leaving it. For some, their big idea abroad just did not work out, other people ran into financial hardship, and others yet simply want to get back to their loved ones. As different as these stories may be, however, a typical problem facing returnees often concerns finding a new accommodation in Switzerland.

Finding a suitable apartment is hard enough in itself: its size has to be right, the neighbors should be nice, proper shopping facilities must not be too far away – and of course you need to be able to afford the object of your dreams. And once you have actually found a nice apartment, you still need to be accepted by the landlord or landlady. For that to happen, a plethora of documents is required – and this is where the problems for many Swiss returnees truly start.


No apartment without registration

For example, an extract from the debt collection register is usually requested. This can be obtained from the relevant debt collection office, which is determined by your legal commune of residence (domicile). In other words, you need to be registered with a commune. In order to register, however, you must first be able to convince local authorities that you wish to move your centre of life (“Lebensmittelpunkt”) there. In this context, returnees might be asked for a tenancy agreement.

And this is exactly where the vicious circle begins to unravel: Since you often cannot register with local authorities without a tenancy agreement, you do not have a legal commune of residence in Switzerland. This means that no debt collection office can issue an extract from the debt collection register, since none is competent. As a consequence, you often cannot get a tenancy agreement – which, however, you need for the registration in the first place.

Nonetheless, it shall be highlighted at this point that there are significant differences in the way communes approach this matter in practice. This is due to diverging cantonal legislations regarding population and registration as well as to the relatively free hand that is given to communal authorities in implementing these regulations. In our experience, though, some communes have proved to be much stricter than others. Therefore, it is always advisable to contact the relevant authorities as early as possible and to explain your situation.

Apart from the extract from the debt collection register, your financial standing (income and/or assets) may also play a major role when it comes to being accepted by a landlord or landlady. Thus, if you do not (yet) have a regular income to show, for example because you have not yet found a job in Switzerland, you may be rejected. Other factors that may dampen your chances include a lack of local references or – especially for Swiss citizens born abroad – insufficient proficiency in the local language.


Potential issues with customs and health insurance

Finding an accommodation in Switzerland can thus for many reasons turn out to be a significant challenge for Swiss returnees. In fact, this might even considerably complicate your undertaking of returning to Switzerland as a whole, given that the absence of a tenancy agreement can also have an impact on the duty-free importation of your household effects as well as on your health insurance coverage.

To be able to import your household effects duty-free, you must have transferred your domicile to Switzerland. For this reason, the customs authorities require, among other things, a tenancy agreement and/or a confirmation of registration from your new commune of residence in Switzerland. As long as you are unable to present this, your possessions must be regularly cleared through customs – or remain abroad for the time being. Although you may also apply for provisional customs treatment, this might again prove difficult, especially since you need to pay a deposit and submit the missing documents within six months.

Complications can also arise with regard to health insurance if you cannot prove that you have taken residence in Switzerland: Health insurance companies usually require a confirmation of registration from your new commune of residence. However, as mentioned above, this can be challenging without a tenancy agreement. Health insurance companies thus at times simply reject Swiss returnees – despite the fact that, according to Art. 24 para. 2 of the Swiss Civil Code, it could be argued that Swiss citizens “automatically” have their civil law domicile in Switzerland after giving up their domicile abroad and after returning to Switzerland, even without explicit registration with a commune of residence. However, the legal situation has not been fully clarified in this regard.


Pragmatic Solutions

In certain cases, these complications may be prevented. The simplest solution has proven to be to stay with your family for the first few months after returning to Switzerland, and to register with local authorities as part of that household. Thereby, you will gain access to the above-mentioned services, and you will be able to start looking for accommodation.

Alternatively, you could also try to convince the landlord or landlady of your solvency. If available and possible, you could, for example, ask a family member to co-sign the tenancy agreement (“joint and several obligation”, cf. Art. 143 ff. OR). Sometimes it might also be helpful to provide your landlord/landlady with a statement of your bank account – at least if it is worth showing – or to offer a higher rent deposit.

Of course, these options are not available to everyone. Instead, you could also try to obtain equivalent documents from your former country of residence and use those in your search for accommodation. For example, in certain cases Swiss citizens, who had returned from Germany, were able to present a Schufa credit report instead of an extract from the debt collection register. This enabled them to get an apartment, register with local authorities and simplify numerous subsequent bureaucratic processes.

Other Swiss abroad were able to register “provisionally” with their new commune of residence until they definitely were accepted by their landlord/landlady. To do this, they needed a hotel confirmation and a bit of luck – as already mentioned, the goodwill of communal authorities can play a decisive role here. In any case, it is worthwhile to get in touch with them as early as possible.

Finally, with regard to health insurance, it shall be mentioned that, after having legally taken domicile in Switzerland, you have three months to get your health insurance, and you will also be included retroactively in the basic insurance plan for that period. However, you will have to pay the corresponding monthly premiums for any medical costs that may have been incurred during said period.


Do you have questions about returning to Switzerland? Then take advantage of over 60 years of expertise and become a member of Soliswiss – the Cooperative for Swiss Abroad, Returnees and Globetrotters – for just CHF 60 per year!