Safe deposit boxes provide an alternative to keeping your valuable assets in a private safe at home.
The main benefit of renting a safe deposit box is that, generally speaking, your valuables will be far better protected at the bank than they are in your home. Even if the bank were to go bankrupt, you would still retain full control over the contents of your safe deposit box.
Opening a safe deposit box
In order to open a safe deposit box in Switzerland, you will first be required to open a checking or savings account at the same bank. Before you do, we recommend that you compare account fees to make sure you don’t overpay for an account just to be able to open a safe deposit box.
You will usually have to apply for the safe deposit box in person at the bank branch office. It’s also possible for 2 people (more at some banks) to co-sign the rental agreement and enjoy shared access to the safe deposit box.
The boxes are usually bolted with two locks, each with their own key. The first lock can only be opened by an eligible bank employee, while the second can only be opened with your key.
Depending on the bank, you may have to meet additional criteria in order to open a deposit box. These might include maintaining a minimum amount of assets in your (obligatory) bank account. Most Swiss banks normally require a minimum rental period of 1 year, but there are some banks that do not stipulate a minimum rental period.
As a rule, you can terminate your rental contract at the end of each calendar year. If you do not, your agreement will automatically be extended for an additional year. Some banks, however, let you close your safe deposit box whenever you choose.
Access at regular bank hours only
When you open a safe deposit box, you receive 2 keys (primary key plus a spare). If you lose these keys, the entire safe deposit box must be replaced. Depending on the bank’s supplier, you could end up paying up to 1000 francs for your carelessness. Making additional copies of the key is forbidden. Some banks provide a secure key storage facility for a fee of between 40 and 200 francs.
It’s important to understand that you can only access your safe deposit box during the trading hours of the bank branch office which houses your safe. You will also have to prove your identity to bank personnel in order to access the deposit box. Some banks impose further verification tests before granting you access to safe deposit boxes.
A limited number of banks offer "auto safes" which can be accessed around the clock.
Bank vaults: Differences in sizes and costs
Many Swiss banks provide safe deposit boxes - but not necessarily at all branch offices. The prices and sizes of boxes vary between banks and even between bank branches.
Differences in the cost and size of deposit safes are considerable. Depending on which Swiss bank you opt for, the smallest safe deposit boxes may come at a rental fee of anywhere between 50 and 200 francs per year. The smallest sizes available can be as small as 0.6 or as large as 11 liters.
The largest deposit boxes may have a capacity of 20,000 liters (cubic decimeters). Fortunately the per-liter cost gets lower when you rent larger safes. Depending on how big you want to go, you can end up paying up to 10,000 francs per year in rental.
Safe deposit box secrecy is still a given
The content of safe deposit boxes is known only to you. Even the recent attacks on Swiss banking secrecy and their after effects have not dislodged the safe deposit box as a symbol of privacy.
Agreements made between Switzerland and some other countries (such as the United States) relating to the automatic exchange of information only apply to bank accounts, and not to safe deposit boxes.
The bank has no knowledge of the contents of your safe. However, banks do have the right to request a declaration of your stored property or even to break into your safe, if there is strong evidence of criminal activity on your part.
A safe deposit box is primarily meant for the safe keeping of valuables like cash, coins, gemstones, gold, jewelry, fine art or important documents. Weapons, poisonous chemicals and hazardous biological substances should not be stored in a safe deposit box.
Insurance is up to you
Swiss bank vaults are known for their high level of security, but it’s up to you to insure the contents of your deposit box if you feel this is necessary.
Banks accept no liability for damage caused by environmental hazards, such as humidity or mildew.
However, Swiss home insurance companies offer policies which cover the contents of your safe deposit box. Depending on what you plan to store, it may be necessary to take out additional coverage for jewelry or cash.
Deposit boxes for customers living outside of Switzerland
If you don’t reside in Switzerland, you can still open a safe deposit box, but be prepared to pay more for it than locals do. First of all, your bank account for non-Swiss residents is subject to an additional annual fee. Additionally, some Swiss banks require that you put down a deposit of between 500 and 1000 francs on your box key.
Wealth protection against negative interest rates?
The current negative interest rate environment has thrown safe deposit boxes back into the limelight as a tool for protecting money from negative rates. But if your only reason for opening a safe deposit box is to store cash, you should understand that the safe deposit rental fees you pay are almost the same thing as negative interest rates.
Example: If you were to deposit 50,000 francs in a deposit box with rental fees of 100 francs per year, you would in effect be paying a negative rate of 0.2 percent per annum to store your money.
In order to accurately estimate the total cost of storing money this way, you must also account for the costs of setting up your deposit box and adding extended coverage to your home insurance policy.
Smallest deposit boxes for cash
If all you plan to use your safe deposit box for is to store cash, you shouldn’t need more than the smallest available deposit box. With a surface area of just 18.1 x 7.4 centimeters and a thickness of only 0.1 millimeters, Swiss 1000 franc notes provide and extremely space efficient method of storing wealth. 100,000 francs worth of these notes will stack up to just 1 centimeter, and occupy around 0.0133 liters of your valuable space.
Considering the fact that the smallest safe deposit boxes at Swiss banks often measure at least 4 centimeters in height and 20 centimeters in width, you could easily pack 1 million Swiss francs into the cheapest deposit box. When large amounts of money require safekeeping, paying a 50 franc annual fee for a safe deposit box might work out a whole lot cheaper than paying a negative interest rate.