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Refugees in Switzerland: Work, Support, Bank Accounts and Insurance Explained

January 24, 2023 - Raphael Knecht

Are refugees in Switzerland allowed to hold jobs? Do they pay social security contributions? Can asylum seekers open accounts at Swiss banks? answers the most important financial questions about being a refugee in Switzerland.

Are refugees in Switzerland allowed to hold jobs? Do they pay social security contributions? Can asylum seekers open accounts at Swiss banks? answers the most important financial questions about being a refugee in Switzerland.

As a new arrival in Switzerland, you will be confronted with numerous questions -including many financial questions – right from the start. In this guide, online comparison service answers key financial questions which asylum seekers are likely to face.

Your residence status determines what kind of support are you eligible for, whether or not you are able to work in Switzerland, and many other things. Your residence status is assigned to you in the form of an identification document once your application for asylum is processed. There are a number of difference residence statuses which may be given to refugees.

  • B permit: Recognized refugee
  • F permit: Temporarily admitted refugee
  • N permit: Person whose application for refugee status is being processed
  • S permit: Vulnerable person

This guide is only directed at refugees who do not have permanent residence (C permit).

Can a refugee receive Swiss welfare benefits?

As a refugee in Switzerland, you are eligible to receive welfare if you are unable to cover your living expenses yourself. However, welfare varies somewhat between cantons, so the benefits you can claim and the conditions attached are determined by which canton you are assigned to by the refugee office.

Cantons generally have fixed amounts for welfare benefits. For recognized refugees, these amounts are based on the guidelines set out by the Swiss conference for social services. In many cantons, the fixed benefit is 400 francs per month.

The size of welfare benefits typically varies between residence permits. In many cases, recognized refugees (B permit) receive exactly the same welfare benefits as Swiss do. Those with other statuses – and particularly those with N permits – often receive much lower welfare payments.

Details about welfare for refugees can often be found on the websites of cantonal governments. If you cannot find the necessary information, contact the office indicated on the website. Use the links below to find information about social help for refugees on the cantonal websites.

If your application for asylum is rejected, you lose your right to claim welfare benefits. However, you can request emergency assistance if you require it. This assistance is limited to the basic provisions which are considered necessary, such as food, clothing, and shelter.

Are refugees allowed to work in Switzerland?

Whether or not you may be employed in Switzerland depends on your residence status. These are the rules for holding jobs in Switzerland:

  • Recognized refugee (B permit): No additional work permit is needed, but you must register your employment with the cantonal government.
  • Temporarily admitted refugee (F permit): No additional work permit is needed, but you must register your employment with the cantonal government.
  • Asylum seeker (N permit): You must obtain an additional work permit from the cantonal government, and may not become self-employed.
  • Vulnerable persons (S permit): You must obtain an additional work permit from the cantonal government in order to become employed.

If you have a B or F permit, then all that is necessary is for your employer to declare your employment to the cantonal authorities. You can begin working as soon as this process is complete. If you want to become self-employed, then you have to declare this to your cantonal authority yourself. The necessary form can be downloaded here. C permit holders do not have to declare their employment.

If you need a work permit (as an N or S permit holder), your prospective employer has to apply obtain one before you can begin working. Because of that requirement, it is important that you present your asylum permit when you apply for jobs. Your employment can only begin once you receive the permit from the canton. Whether or not you receive the permit depends on whether the job offer meets salary and working condition requirements. If you change jobs, you must obtain a new work permit.

If you are classified as a vulnerable person (S permit) and want to become self-employed in Switzerland, you have to apply for a permit in the canton where you will be carrying out your self-employed activities. You also need to apply for a permit if you change your position or career.

Can a refugee receive Swiss unemployment benefits?

For refugees who are permitted to work in Switzerland, unemployment insurance requirements are the same as for other people in Switzerland. You can claim unemployment insurance benefits if you have contributed to Swiss unemployment insurance for at least one year. In concrete terms, this means you need to have worked in Switzerland for at least one year in order to receive unemployment benefits. You can find detailed information in the guide to unemployment insurance in Switzerland.

If you, as a refugee, have only recently arrived in Switzerland, you probably will not meet the requirements. In that case, you cannot claim unemployment money. But regardless of your residence status and whether or not you have worked in Switzerland, you can still sign up to receive help with finding employment from the job distribution office.

Do refugees have to contribute to Swiss social security (OASI/DI)?

Yes. Refugees who live or work in Switzerland have to pay contributions for old age pensions (OASI) and disability insurance (DI). The obligation to contribute begins on January 1 the year after you turn 20, and lasts until standard retirement age (65 for men, 64 for women). The obligation begins earlier if you are employed – on the January 1 following your seventeenth birthday.

If you are employed, your payments are deducted straight from your salary by your employer. As a self-employed individual, you will receive bills from the social security office. If you are not employed, you have to register with the social security office in your canton of residence. They will tell you have much you have to contribute based on your wealth and income.

Refugees can receive a regular Swiss old-age pension if they live in Switzerland and have wither contributed to the OASI for at least one year or accumulated one year’s worth of credits for child-rearing or caretaking. The same applies if you have lived in Switzerland with your employed spouse, and they contributed at least twice the minimum contribution every year.

If you return to your home country, then whether or not you can receive a Swiss pension depends on if your country has a relevant social security agreement with Switzerland. If it does, you can claim a Swiss pension when you reach OASI retirement age. If it does not, you can cash out your OASI benefits (minus interest) when you leave Switzerland.

Do refugees need to pay taxes?

Yes, refugees in Switzerland are considered to be tax residents. If you are not a C permit holder (permanent resident), then taxes are deducted directly from your salary as a withholding tax. The size of the tax depends on your specific situation and on which canton you live in.

If you earn less than what is considered necessary to secure an acceptable standard of living, you can apply for a tax waiver from your municipality. You can find useful tips in the guide to saving on taxes in Switzerland.

Do refugees in Switzerland pay additional levies?

In Switzerland, a special tax is levied on the wealth of refugees, vulnerable persons without residence permits, temporarily-admitted refugees, rejected asylum seekers, and people who are legally scheduled for deportation. If you have one of these statuses and hold wealth (cash and bank account balances, for example), you are required to pay a special levy of up to 15,000 francs. This levy helps to finance federal expenses (welfare and administration, for example).

The obligation to pay this levy falls away when you as an asylum seeker, temporarily-admitted person, or rejected asylum seeker receive a residence permit. The same applies when an asylum seeker is granted asylum or is temporarily admitted as a refugee.

Asylum seekers, vulnerable persons without residence permits, temporarily-admitted refugees, rejected asylum seekers, and people with pending deportations, can claim reimbursement of the levy if they leave Switzerland of their own accord within seven months of applying for asylum. Important: You have to claim reimbursement before you leave the country.

The special tax for refugees is only levied on wealth. It does not apply to income (a salary earned in Switzerland, for example). Up until 2018, a special tax was also levied on the income of refugees. At the time, refugees had to pay 10 percent of the income they earned to the federal government. The levy on income was abolished on January 1, 2018.

Do refugees have to get Swiss health insurance?

Yes. Refugees in Switzerland also need to be provided with basic medical care, so getting health insurance is obligatory. Unless you are dependent on welfare, you have to sign up for mandatory health insurance on your own within three months of arriving in Switzerland. The insurance covers you retroactively from the time you apply for asylum. You pay the insurance premiums and out-of-pocket costs (deductibles and copayments) yourself.

What can I do if I cannot afford the health insurance premiums?

If you are subscribed to welfare, then the social services help you cover the costs of compulsory health insurance. This means that refugees who receive welfare benefits often are not free to choose a health insurance themselves because the canton can decide which insurance providers you can use.

As with other people who receive welfare, refugees may be required to repay all or part of welfare benefits if their financial situation improves in the future. The rules governing if and when you have to repay welfare benefits vary between cantons.

Are refugees insured against disabilities?

Yes. All residents of Switzerland have obligatory disability insurance. This insurance is paid for by your social security contributions.

Are refugees insured against accidents?

Yes. If you work for a Swiss employer, then they are required to take out accident insurance on your behalf. If you are not employed, then the cost of healthcare resulting from accidents is insured by your mandatory health insurance.

Are refugees insured against financial liabilities?

Getting personal liability insurance is not obligatory. As a refugee being cared for by the government, you are not automatically insured against personal liability. However, some cantons and municipalities cover the cost of personal liability insurance as a welfare benefit. Refugees who live in private people’s homes may be covered by their host’s personal liability insurance. In this case, whether or not they are insured depends on the insurance used.

Important: Even if your host’s personal liability insurance covers you, it may not cover damages you inflict on your host or their property, and vice versa.

Do refugees get a pension fund?

In Switzerland, subscribing to occupational pension funds is only obligatory if you work for an employer and earn more than 22,050 francs per year. Your pension fund contributions are deducted directly from your salary by your employer.

If you participate in a pension fund, you can claim an old-age pension (at retirement age) and a disability pension (if you become at least 40 percent disabled). Pension funds also pay out survivor’s pensions to your (possible) dependents if you die. If you leave Switzerland for good, you may have the option of withdrawing your pension fund benefits, depending on which country you move to.

Can a refugee open a bank account in Switzerland?

Refugees in Switzerland are allowed to open bank accounts, but it is up to each bank to decide on their residence status requirements. Credit cards and prepaid credit cards are not normally issued to refugees. The exact terms and conditions are different from bank to bank. You can find an overview in the guide to Swiss bank accounts for refugees.

Banks may run special offers for specific groups of refugees – in reaction to a specific war, for example. In this case, refugees belonging to the target group may be able to get a bank account with no basic account fees, or benefit from other special terms and conditions.

Where can refugees get Swiss francs?

If you have foreign currency in cash and want to exchange it into Swiss francs, then you have several options. A simple solution is to exchange the money at a bank. But whether or not a bank can exchange the currency, or places limits on the amount you can exchange, depends on both the bank and the individual branch office. It can be beneficial to call the bank first. Large bank branches, and specifically those at airports, are more likely to exchange many different currencies.

You can also exchange money at the SBB/CFF Change counters found in larger Swiss train stations. The exchange rates are not always the most favorable, and not all currencies can be exchange for Swiss francs.

If you have an account with a peer-to-peer currency exchange platform like Currencyfair or Wise, check if it offers exchange in the currency you have. The exchange rates are often much more favorable than those of banks or the SBB/CFF. However, these platforms cannot be used to change money in cash. If you have cash that you want to exchange, you will first have to find a way to deposit it into your account.

In some cases – such as when a war breaks out – changing certain currencies may no longer be possible. For example, when Russian troops moved into Ukraine in 2022, many Ukrainian refugees brought Ukrainian hryvnias with them when they fled to Switzerland. But they were unable to exchange their money or buy anything with it. The Federal Department of Finance and the Swiss National Bank worked out the following solution: Refugees with S permits could do a one-time exchange of up to 10,000 hryvnias (around 250 francs) into Swiss francs at specific Credit Suisse and UBS branch offices.

How can refugees send money home from Switzerland?

In Switzerland, there are many different ways to send money to other countries. You can find an overview in the guide to international money transfers. The primary requirement is that there are financial services providers in the recipient’s country that can process the transaction. If you want to send money to a country in which banks have become insolvent or are not allowed to receive certain currencies because of the war, then you will have to find other ways to send money home.

Can a refugee get a Swiss mobile plan?

Yes, all the big Swiss telecom services providers let refugees sign up for mobile plans and other telecom plans. Getting prepaid mobile services is exceptionally easy. In many cases, you simply need to show your passport or refugee residence permit to get a prepaid mobile SIM. Some plans are only available to people with long-term or permanent residence in Switzerland.

  • Salt: Prepaid mobile is available to refugees aged 16 and over who present a valid identification document, with no limitations. Salt plans are available to people with B permits. Refugees with F permits can subscribe to a plan (SIM only, no devices) by paying a deposit as collateral for their phone bill.
  • Sunrise: Prepaid SIMs are available to anyone who presents a valid identification document (passport, ID card, residence permit). In order to get a plan, you must have permanent residence in Switzerland. This applies regardless of your nationality and refugee status.
  • Swisscom: There are no special limitations for refugees. To subscribe to plans, you must have an address in Switzerland and an identification document issued by a Swiss government authority. You can also order plans online. You do not need to be resident in Switzerland to get Swisscom prepaid products.

Telecom companies may run special offers with discounted or even completely free mobile plans for specific groups of refugees (people with S permits, for example). It is worth checking the websites of major Swiss telecom companies to see if they have any special offers for refugees before getting a paid plan.

More on this topic:
Bank accounts for foreigners in Switzerland
Financial guide for cross-border workers in Switzerland
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Editor Raphael Knecht
Raphael Knecht was an analyst and a specialized editor at until the end of February 2023. Since then, he is supporting the editorial team as a freelancer.
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