Unfortunately, housing is likely to be the most stressful part of being in Switzerland, but if you know about how it works and the expectations, it’ll hopefully make it a little easier for you to manage. So much of the stress arises because the system is just completely different from other places.
Americans: Be sure to keep up with your housing expenses (rent, utilities, repairs, etc.) as you’ll likely be able to effectively write them off on your U.S. taxes at the end of the year.
Finding a place to live
Try to forget everything you know about the process of finding a place to live, because nearly every expectation you have isn’t going to apply in Switzerland.
Due to a bit of an extreme housing shortage, apartments in Geneva rent quickly. Most apartments are rented by a handful of management companies, which you will hear referred to as the regie. You’ll lease your apartment through them and pay your rent to them, but they may not be your first contact during the process.
When a tenant wants to move out, it’s often up to them to find a new tenant. They’ll post about the apartment on Facebook groups, Craigslist, or a similar site. And note: for tenants, there’s a skill in crafting a posting that won’t get too much attention. Because of the housing shortage, it’s super easy to find a new tenant. Just because a post has limited information and photos doesn’t mean it isn’t legitimate. Here are a few links to get you started:
The current tenant also shows the place to potential tenants, and in many cases, the current tenant effectively chooses the new tenant. And they can base their decisions on whatever they want. For example, if the current tenant wants to sell their furniture and appliances, they can base their decision on which tenant agrees to buy the most items from them. (Tip: If you really want a particular place, be sure to agree to buy as many of their items as possible.)
If you’re coming to Geneva as a student or intern, there are some easier options available to you for housing including what are called “foyers” as well as shared apartments. The Geneva Interns Association has produced some great information on this topic as well as some tips for avoiding common scams in the area.
The rental process
Generally, there are guidelines for what makes the best package for renting a place, though the rules are a bit flexible. For example, you’ll be told that you need three paystubs from your job here – if you’re new to Geneva, you won’t be able to provide that, but they will make exceptions if you seem like you’ll be a good tenant otherwise.
You’ll need to get a document (called an attestation de non-poursuite) from the government stating that you are not in default on any debts here, regardless of how long you’ve been in Geneva. You can obtain it from the canton in person for a cost of CHF 17 (bring cash as they don’t take credit cards). It appears as though you can now order it online and then print it out, though I don’t know much about this process or whether all regies are willing to accept it.
Another feature of Swiss apartments is that you’ll need to open up a savings account with your bank that you’ll use to store your rent deposit, which is typically three months’ worth. You’ll regain access to the money once you move out. There are companies that will cover this for you at a cost. Learn more about the whole process.
When your lease is ready to sign, you’ll need to visit the regie’s office to go over the paperwork. It’ll likely be done all in French, so bring someone to translate for you if needed.
Once you’re ready to move in, you’ll likely meet in the apartment with the regie and the leaving tenant. The regie employee will go through a very detailed checklist with both of you to detail the status of the apartment. Chances are that employee will not speak English, so be sure to have a French translator with you if you can.
Lastly, do know that apartment leases are typically open-ended. You’ll need to provide notice that you’re moving out, but you won’t need to sign a new lease from year to year. From what I gather, there aren’t regular rent increases, but if they do implement one, they’ll give you a head’s up.
Read more here.
Finding temporary housing or short-term leases
Newcomers to Geneva will often need to first find a temporary place to live and then begin to look for a more permanent home. You’ll find a large number of people who will sublet their apartments, many of which will come furnished.
The most important thing to know about this process is that many of these short-term leases (usually three months or less) are going to be off-book, meaning that the regie will probably not know that you will be living there. All paperwork will be done through the current tenant, and you’ll likely have to setup a rent deposit account with your bank for them.
The main downside to doing this is that you will not be able to put your name on your mailbox. Instead, they’ll instruct you to receive mail under their name, using the format of “s/c Jane Doe”, the French equivalent of c/o in the U.S. While this is rather common here, that doesn’t mean the Swiss Post is going to always deliver your mail correctly, but it should generally be fine.
You’ll hear stories of people who lived in six different places during their first six months in Geneva. It’s rather common, unfortunately.
For you Americans, you need to know that most apartments in Geneva do not have air conditioning, and it can be a bit unbearable at times. Some apartment leases even forbid them.
Swiss electronic stores sell an air conditioning unit (“climatiseur” in French) that can stand up anywhere, and they have a small exhaust pipe that you put in your window. Depending on your windows, you’ll also likely need one of these so that you’re not letting in a lot of hot air while trying to cool your apartment.
And if you need a fan, be sure to buy one early. Supposedly there’s often a shortage in Geneva if you wait until it gets really hot.
Heat will generally be available in your apartment from the beginning of October to the end of March, though it may vary a bit depending on seasonal differences and your regie.
Be sure to read the “Heating” section below under “Utilities” to learn about how much it’s going to cost you.
Your basic utilities will likely be handled through Services Industriels de Genève (SIG). You’ll receive a bill from them periodically, roughly every two months. For most residences, it’s always an estimate, and they’ll settle up with you at the end of the year. Generally, they’ll owe you money, which they’ll credit to future bills.
You can sign up for e-billing through UBS, which will allow your SIG bills to automatically come out of your account on the due date.
Cable & Internet
There are several companies that provide home cable and internet in Geneva, though I’m only familiar with Swisscom. Compared to American companies, it’s a decent price and service, and using the service may also get you a discount on your cell phone plan with them.
Just a note: there won’t be many English channels. Of our 200+ channels, a majority of them are German, and many are French and Italian. There are other languages as well, but you will find about 10-15 English-language channels. You’ll get all of the BBC and ITV channels out of the UK as well as CNN International. (Be sure to check out the British shows “Come Dine with Me” and “Four in a Bed” – they were two of our early favorites.)
Everyone living in Switzerland is subject to an annual TV and radio tax of CHF 365 per household if you have a device that can pick up Swiss TV channels and radio. Have a smartphone? You have such a device.
They send around a person every now and then to each residence to find out if you are subject to the tax, and then you’ll receive a bill soon thereafter. The company responsible for collecting the tax is Serafe.
Heating / Hot Water
Your monthly rent will likely include a monthly deposit for “chauffage”, which covers your heating and hot water. At the end of each year of your lease, your management company will calculate their costs throughout the year and either bill you for the difference or send you a refund (though the latter is very unlikely). There’s a good chance that the bill will be several hundred CHF, though you can find multiple stories of people having to pay thousands, particularly after cold winters and in old buildings.
There’s a good chance your apartment will come with a cave, French for cellar, which will give you a little storage closet in the basement of your building. Just know that’s what they’re talking about when they talk about the cave.
Regular trash is picked up on two days each week in the city. If you live in an apartment, you’ll place your trash in a bin just outside your building (look for the bin with your street number painted on it). Your regie will have someone take the bin to the street on the appropriate days, and they’ll also put it back in the correct location.
The canton of Geneva is the only one in Switzerland that doesn’t charge a hefty tax of between 1 and 4 francs on the purchase of trash bags. The country has a goal of ensuring that at least 50% of all waste is recycled, and other cantons have had great success with this tax, which pays for collection costs. As a result, you can use any trash bags in Geneva, but doing so in other cantons can result in significant fines.
Learning the Swiss recycling system is nearly a full-time job on its own. You’ll need to learn how, when, and where each type of item is recycled.
- Clear glass (verre blanc) – you should find locations to place them in your neighborhood. Don’t do it on weekends or at night, though.
- Colored glass (verre coloure) – you should find locations to place them in your neighborhood. Don’t do it on weekends or at night, though.
- PET plastic – look for the PET label on the plastic, which is usually just items like water, juice, and soda bottles. You should find locations to place them in your neighborhood.
- Other plastics – some plastics, like milk containers, can often be recycled at your grocery store.
- Aluminum – you should find locations to place them in your neighborhood.
- Coffee capsules – you should find locations to place them in your neighborhood.
- Batteries – can often be recycled at your grocery store.
- Paper/Cardboard – has to be tied up and set outside near the street the night before pickup for your neighborhood. See the schedule here.
- Electronics – you should be able to return them to any store that sells comparable items. Generally, when you buy electronics, you’ll pay a recycling fee.
- Organic waste – save all of your food and vegetable waste and recycle it in the “compost” bin, which will normally be by the glass and PET recycling locations.
Oh, and don’t do your recycling on Sundays. It just might get you a hefty fine.