In late 2013, after over a year of traveling the world full-time, moving homes every month or so, and living out of a backpack, I was ready to slow down. To stay somewhere for a while longer. To have a home base. And because I always felt so at home in the Swiss Alps, because they kept calling me back over and over again, I decided I wanted to stay right here in Switzerland.
Of course, everyone said it would be impossible.
Swiss residency is hard to come by, they said.
And while that’s probably true, I decided, hey, you have not because you ask not. You can’t get what you don’t try to get. And so in autumn 2013 I called the Swiss immigration officials and asked them how I could apply for a long-stay visa.
This is the story of that process.
First, you should know that my residency isn’t an option listed anywhere online (or at least it wasn’t anywhere I could find). I don’t have family in Switzerland (or anywhere in Europe). I wasn’t getting married. I didn’t have (and didn’t want) any Swiss job offers. I wasn’t going to become a student. And I don’t qualify for asylum, obviously.
Nope. I wanted to come in as a self-sufficient, self-employed creative type. And I was guessing and hoping that might be an option.
So I called and explained my situation.
I should pause here to tell you that Switzerland operates on a more local level than most countries. For visas in other parts of the world, you are generally dealing with the country authorities. In Switzerland, you deal with the Canton authorities (Cantons are essentially regions). And so since I wanted to live in the Bernese Oberland, I was calling the Bern Canton office.
I told them I was financially self-sufficient and that I wanted to write a book about Switzerland (and needed to be here to do it). They said the first step for me would be to write their office a letter. And the letter should include:
:: Proof that I could financially support myself without taking a job in Switzerland (for the Swiss, this means you can prove you have $100 per day that you want to stay in the country)
:: The reason I wanted to stay (writing a book)
:: The length of the stay I was requesting (a year, which is a normal length of stay for visas, which are then usually renewable)
:: Confirmation that I have health insurance that covers me in Switzerland
:: Confirmation that I have a place to live in Switzerland
I wrote a two-page letter, polite and formal, explaining all these things—that I could financially support myself without taking a job here; that I was writing a book about Switzerland and needed to be in the country in order to do it; that I would like to stay for a year; that I have worldwide health coverage that includes Switzerland (through IMG Global); and that I was living in a spare room in a friend’s house and could continue to do so during my stay.
I also included a paragraph thanking them for their time and assistance and another paragraph asking if they would allow me to complete my application process while in Switzerland.
I’ll pause for a moment to explain that a little further: you see, the normal thing here in Switzerland (and most other European countries) is to apply for residency from your home country. Which means that in general I would need to return to the states and apply from there. I was already in Europe when I decided to apply and so I politely asked if they would make an exception. I told them I understood the normal process and if it was required I would happily return to the states, but I would love to stay and start working on the book if they allowed it.
I checked in several times over the next couple weeks to confirm they received my letter. Once they did confirm receipt, I was told to check in in three months if I hadn’t heard anything.
Unsure whether I could continue to stay in Switzerland at this point, I left for Croatia, which is outside the Schengen Zone (and thus allowed me to be fairly nearby without breaking any tourist visa restrictions). There, I explored, worked, and waited to hear.
After almost exactly three months (and plenty of polite follow-up emails), the Canton authorities emailed me with next steps. In order to approve my stay, they needed proof of all the claims I made in my letter. And I needed to bring them to the local government office, which meant it was time to go back to Switzerland.
I returned about a week later and took the following proofs to the office:
:: Bank statements showing I had the required funds
:: Tax forms for the previous two years showing that I was a financially independent freelancer in addition to having an appropriate amount of savings
:: Several letters from the editors I was working with confirming that they planned to continue working with me
:: A letter from the friends I was living with confirming that I had a room in their apartment and was welcome to stay. This also included information about how much rent I was paying monthly.
:: A copy of my health insurance certificate
:: A second letter signed by me confirming that I had no intention of taking a job in Switzerland
This may have been overkill (I really doubt if they looked at the tax forms or letters), but I wanted to be extremely thorough and professional. It was also important to me that they felt I was bringing more to the table than I was taking. I wasn’t going to take advantage of their healthcare system or social systems. Instead, I was going to be a self-sufficient, tax-paying, productive member of society who was there to promote tourism and bring money into the economy. Which is the thing every country wants to be sure of before granting a visa.
I was told to check in again in another three months. Which was really the only frustrating part of the process. Six months to grant the visa seems incredibly long to me. And though I was told that I was in their system and legally allowed to stay while waiting for my visa, I felt uncomfortable staying without any proof of residency or legal allowance to stay (they don’t give you any paperwork, likely because this process is normally done in your home country). And so those couple months of waiting for approval were nerve-wracking ones.
About two months later I received a letter requesting that I make an appointment to get my residence card, which I assumed (correctly) meant that I had been approved. I was required to pay several fees (one for the card itself; one to the local government office that handled my paperwork) to the tune of (if I’m remembering correctly) about $200. And then I went in to have my photo and fingerprints registered and was told my residence card would arrive shortly in the mail.
I was granted just under one year of residency from the time that I had re-entered Switzerland from Croatia.
Months later, this past fall, knowing I wanted another year here to finish my Switzerland guide (which wasn’t quite done) and continue living in the place I loved, I applied to renew my residence. I followed essentially the same process, except I didn’t mail a letter to Bern. Instead, I took the updated letter and proof of funds into my local government office. I also mentioned that I’d been contracted as a Central Europe Correspondent for one of my magazines, which was an additional reason to stay. I told them my health insurance was the same. And since everyone in Switzerland has to have their address registered with the local government, they already knew I had housing.
This time the process of approval took less than a month.
So, why am I telling you all about it now? Firstly, because a few readers have recently asked about the process.
Secondly, because I think it’s important to remember that just because people say something is impossible doesn’t mean it is and just because the way forward isn’t published or clear doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. A simple phone call to the appropriate authorities could open up a door. You never know.
And thirdly, because if you’re thinking about moving to Europe–anywhere in Europe–this is really helpful information to know. I’ve done a lot of interviews with expats who live in Europe and the processes are really similar country to country. Some take longer. Some have more paperwork. Some (like this one) don’t have published guidelines. But the bottom line for these countries is this: they want to know that you will be an asset. That you love their country. That you want to bring something to the table.
I’m not saying that always works. Sometimes you get the cranky immigration officer that day and have to try again later. Sometimes it takes some creative maneuvering to get yourself to the place you want to live. And sometimes you hear no a few times before you figure out a way to get a yes. But starting from a place of “what can I do for them?” is always going to give you a better chance at moving somewhere like Switzerland.
Going to Switzerland? Grab a copy of my brand new unconventional guide: Switzerland: 100 Locals Tell You Where to Go, What to Hike, & How to Fit In.
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