A major advantage of storing valuables in a safe deposit box is that the risk of theft or damage is very low compared to storing them at home. An advantage over balances in bank accounts is that assets held in bank safe deposit boxes are not affected by bank insolvencies and remain your sole property.
Renting a safe deposit box
Swiss banks require that you open a private account or savings account with them before you can rent a safe deposit box. A good first step is to compare the costs of private accounts or compare the interest rates of savings accounts in order to find the most affordable combination.
In order to rent a safe deposit box, you will typically have to go to a bank branch office in person. It is also possible for two people (in some cases more) to jointly rent a safe deposit box and be listed on the rental agreement.
Bank safe deposit boxes normally have double locks. The key to one of the locks is held by the bank and the key to the second lock is held by you.
Some banks have additional criteria for the renting of safe deposit boxes. For example, they may require that you hold a specified minimum balance on the linked account to guarantee payment of rental fees. The minimum rental term is typically 1 year, but some banks do not have minimum rental terms.
Safe deposit box rental agreements can normally be terminated at the end of each calendar year. If notice is not given, the contract is automatically extended for an additional year. Some banks allow renters to terminate rental agreements at any time.
Access during standard business hours
Swiss banks typically give you a pair of 2 identical keys. If the keys are lost, the entire lock must be replaced. This can cost up to 1000 francs. Having a key duplicated to replace a lost key or to create a spare is generally forbidden. It is worth noting that the cost of replacing bank safe locks is typically insured by Swiss household insurance.
To prevent keys from being lost or stolen, some banks offer a key safekeeping service by which keys are collected at the bank teller when access is required, and then deposited at the teller before leaving the bank. The fee for this service is charged in addition to safe deposit box rents and ranges between 40 and 400 francs per annum (depending on the bank).
Typically, safe deposit boxes can only be accessed during the standard business hours of their corresponding bank branch offices. When this is the case, you must verify your identity at the bank teller before you are able to access your safe deposit box. Some banks require additional verification, such as signature examinations.
There are also banks which use automated verification systems at some branches. If your safe deposit box is located at a bank branch office which uses automatic verification, you can access your safe deposit box at any time of the day or week.
Huge differences in safe deposit box pricing
Most Swiss banks offer safe deposit boxes, but some banks only offer this service at some of their branch offices. Available sizes and rental fees may also vary between individual branch offices.
There are notable differences in the costs and sizes of safe deposit boxes offered by Swiss banks. The smallest safe deposit boxes offered have a storage capacity of up to 10 liters. These cost between 60 and 200 francs per year – depending on the bank and branch office.
The largest safe deposit boxes offered by Swiss banks have storage volumes as high as 20,000 liters (cubic decimeters). The higher the volume, the lower the per-liter rental cost of safe deposit boxes. The largest bank safe deposit boxes available can cost up to 10,000 francs per year to rent.
Privacy as an added benefit
Bank safe deposit boxes continue to live up to their mythical status as a safe haven of privacy. Just like personal property held in a rental home, the contents of safe deposit boxes are the sole property of renters.
Unlike bank balances and whole life insurance policies – which are subject to automatic information exchange agreements for holders from some countries – the contents of bank safe deposit boxes benefit from total privacy.
The bank does not hold contents of safe deposit boxes on your behalf, but simply rents you secure storage space. However, as the owner of the rental space, a bank may forcibly open a safe deposit box under exceptional circumstances (when instructed to by a Swiss court order, for example).
Bank safe deposit boxes are provided primarily for the purpose of storing valuables like important documents, money, coins, precious stones, jewelry, works of art and other personal valuables. Logically, storing dangerous items like weapons and hazardous chemical or biological substances is forbidden.
Banks do not insure contents
Swiss bank safe deposit boxes have a reputation for security. Climate and humidity controls and fireproofing are typically included in bank safe deposit box facilities.
However, if you want to insure your personal property, it is up to you as the renter to get third-party insurance. Unlike some non-bank safe deposit box providers, banks do not have insurance which covers the contents of safe deposit boxes against theft, fire, flooding, and other hazards.
Banks also cannot be held liable for the possible deterioration of stored property caused by humidity or mold.
The valuables insurance offered by many Swiss insurance providers – typically as a rider for household insurance – generally covers jewelry, watches, works of art and furs held in bank safe deposit boxes. Some household insurance policies extend all coverage to the contents of rented bank safes. A handful of Swiss insurers will insure money and cash equivalents held in safe deposit boxes based on special agreements, but this is the exception.
Safe deposit boxes for non-residents
If you live outside of Switzerland, renting a Swiss bank safe deposit box can be difficult and expensive. The reason for this is that Swiss banks require you to have a bank account with them in order to open a safe deposit box. Many Swiss banks now have high eligibility criteria which new non-resident customers must meet in order to open accounts. If you are able to open a Swiss bank account, you should take account fees into consideration. While there are accounts with low or no annual fees (savings accounts, for example), most Swiss banks charge an additional non-resident account fee if you live outside of Switzerland. Some Swiss banks will also require you as a non-resident to put down a deposit for deposit box keys, and this deposit can range between 500 and 1000 francs.
If you are not eligible to open a Swiss bank account or if the cost of bank account fees is prohibitive, you could consider a Swiss non-bank safe deposit box. You do not need to hold a Swiss bank account to open these.
Using bank safe deposit boxes to avoid negative interest rates
Holding money in bank safe deposit boxes provides an alternative to holding bank balances. They are a popular instrument for avoiding negative interest rates. However, if your primary purpose for renting a safe deposit box is to securely store money, it is important to note that the rent you pay is effectively negative interest.
Example: If you hold 50,000 Swiss francs in a bank safe deposit box with a 100-franc annual rental fee, you are effectively paying negative interest at the rate of 0.2% per annum. In this case, holding money in a safe deposit box would only be more profitable than investing it in a bank account if the negative interest charged by the bank were higher than 0.2%.
In addition to the rent you pay for a bank safe deposit box, you should also account for possible additional costs. These may include extra insurance costs and transportation costs (to and from your safe deposit box) directly related to using a safe deposit box.