Navigating Swiss bureaucracy: 4 months in

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Two weeks ago, I received my health insurance card in the mail. That’s when it occurred to me: this is it. The final piece of the puzzle has arrived. Four months after relocating, I am officially settled into Switzerland — if one can ever truly be settled in here.

My favorite thing about reading expat blogs is the boring stuff: what kind of visa they’re on. How they managed to find an apartment and settle in. Struggles to learn the local language and fit in. So here is my own experience.

Immigration

I am on a special work permit (a carte de légitimation) for employees of international organizations. I really lucked out here, because apparently the work permit for regular employment is very, very hard to get for people who are neither Swiss nor EU citizens, and the process takes a few months. It only took me two weeks to get a visa, both because my organization is highly efficient at processing hiring paperwork, and because not a single other living soul in Washington, DC was also trying to get a Swiss visa, so the embassy people were probably super bored and itching for something to do. (I exaggerate, but every time I went to the Swiss Embassy in Washington, I was always the only person there.) Being on this work permit has several benefits: I don’t have to register with the local cantonal authorities, though I do have to pay Swiss taxes, and no one is forcing me to learn French except myself.

Banking

As an American, setting up a Swiss bank account was honestly kind of a nightmare. There are only, like, two people in Geneva who can help American citizens set up accounts with the very large and powerful bank I was going with, and it takes two weeks to even get an appointment with them. And then it’s another two or three weeks to start receiving your cards in the mail. They also have to send you, under separate cover, an access card and a card reader. I wasn’t able to set up online banking until I had been in Geneva for two months because the bank straight up forgot to send me the card reader. I ate nearly $200 in bank transfer fees to pay my rent using Bank of America for the first two months until I found out you can transfer money internationally for much, much cheaper via Transferwise. They will charge maybe a $9 fee on a $2,500 transfer. Lesson learned.

Housing

Before I moved to Switzerland, I spent hours each day looking at local real estate websites and scouring apartment listings. I even hired a super sweet French lady to call agents and set up viewing appointments for me. None of those worked out — the apartments were always unfurnished, and some literally did not have fridges or stoves. It seems the two most common ways for non-French-speaking expats to find housing in Geneva is either a sublet or a lease takeover, both of which they can find through local Facebook groups or expat forums like Glocals. I found my apartment, a sublet, through the latter.

Subletting has been nice because the apartment came fully furnished, and I don’t have to worry about communicating with building management or setting up internet, but it does prevent me from being able to put my name on the mailbox, which is actually a huge headache. Mail here is only delivered to names on mailboxes rather than apartment numbers, which means that every piece of mail I receive has to be addressed to “c/o [name of actual tenant I’m subletting from]”, and has already led to one piece of mail being lost to the postal labyrinth. My sublet ends next summer, so I think I’m going to start searching for a new apartment in late spring.

Health insurance

I’m not happy with the way health insurance works here. Everyone is legally required to have it, which is fine. My work has some kind of special arrangement with one insurance company, so I didn’t even bother shopping around for options, just met with their representative and filled out an application form. In the form, which was very detailed and probed intensely for medical history and pre-existing conditions, I disclosed truthfully that I live with chronic depression, have been to therapy, and was also taking anti-depressants for a few months earlier this year. (And honestly, who in DC isn’t on anxiety or depression meds at this point?)

A month later, the insurance company wrote back, clearly concerned, demanding that both my therapist and primary care physician back in DC provide them with detailed information about my mental health. My therapist gave them the information needed, but I’m pretty sure my PCP never did. Two weeks ago, I finally received a letter confirming that my insurance was approved, but asserting that anything related to depression would be exempt from coverage. I had to laugh.

American insurance companies have the worst reputation in the world, but I really had it pretty good in DC. I just pulled out an old pay stub and checked — each biweekly pay period, I was only paying $15.84 for medical insurance, dental insurance, and vision insurance combined. Which means I was only paying around $30 per month. Here, my health insurance is around CHF 360 a month. In DC, I only had to shell out a co-pay of $10 each time I saw my therapist, so I easily met with him once a week. In Geneva, I can’t imagine seeing a therapist without insurance — the cost must be exorbitant. The good news is that I am in an okay place and don’t feel like I need therapy at this point in life, so I will just have to monitor my mental health extra carefully and make do.

Language barrier

I’m not integrated into the local culture. And I don’t think I will be for a long, long time — not until I master French and can carry on meaningful conversations beyond “hi, I would like to buy this thing”. The language barrier has been incredibly difficult, in part because the locals just assume I can speak French and do not default to English unless I ask them to. Once, I was at a department store and saw a bathrobe on sale for 10 francs off the original price. When I took it to the register, the price that came up was the original. In the US, I would have asked for a price check, but here I was so frustrated by my lack of French and so worried that the cashier would openly judge me for being in his country and yet not speaking his language that I didn’t say anything. I am still scared — scared of farmers’ markets, scared of waiters, scared of going to the post office to ask why they’ve lost my package. But I do try, and I am making slow progress.

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