A journey to becoming self-employed in Switzerland

I’ve been living in Switzerland for three years now, after I moved here fresh out of university in mid-2015.

For most of that time I was employed full-time, but back in May I decided to leave my job and see where I ended up.

I ended up landing a few clients and filling the self-employment forms instead of the unemployment benefits ones.

Here’s how I made it work, as well as a few things I wish I knew beforehand.

Introducing self-employment in Switzerland

I heard quite a bit about self-employment in Switzerland before I got myself set up. Some people said you needed 20k in the bank, that you had to have a lot of clients already, that they could be tough about accepting you for it.

Not much of that was true (see below what was).

I faffed around for too long working out what to do, and in the end just walked down to the Gemeindehaus in my tiny mountain town and smiled my best law-abiding-foreigner smile.

Yes, of course you can be self-employed. Sure, here’s the form. We can do it now.

It turned out being really easy. Of course, it’s still Switzerland – you’re going to have to fill in a few forms in German (or the language of your canton) and give over every detail they ask for. But once I went and spoke to my local authorities, it was all pretty simple. They were happy to help me through it, too.

Yes, you should have clients before you register

On my forms to register as a selbständigerwerbende Person, I had to list three clients I was already working with. That was fortunately easy.

Alongside being on the books of the parent group of my previous employer as a contracted consultant, I’d worked with four more companies by then.

I had to list whether it was one-off or ongoing work, how much they paid me, and provide contracts and invoices.

I also had to give them a business card. Which was a bit difficult, as I didn’t have business cards. I came back to the Gemeindehaus with a crumpled piece of paper that showed a page of my website on it.

They asked if I had anything better, and I told them no (I later invested in a printer – still no business cards).

They accepted it, and sent my forms and evidence file off to Bern.

They will send you a letter with confirmation and a nice invoice

At least this is how it worked for me.

A few weeks after my Gemeindehaus sent off the forms, I got a letter with one page saying I was a real, approved self-employed person paying my own AHV.

The other page included an invoice for CHF 4000 in tax, payable by the end of the month. Ha.

Get an accountant

After getting the letter, I fired off an email to a nearby English-speaking accountant I’d been recommended by a friend. I explained the nice invoice and asked if she had space for another clueless foreigner as a client.

We booked a meeting, which started off with her immediately picking up the phone to my Gemeindehaus and explaining the nice invoice was probably a bit inaccurate.

Tip: if you have income from sources that you’re already paying AHV etc on, obviously don’t put them on the self-employment form. 

Pro tip: get an accountant, especially if you’re not native Swiss. You’ll make things a million times easier.

I then received an updated invoice which made more sense.

You actually need to get organised now

I started out using AND CO for my time tracking, invoices, income and expenses – pretty much everything I need to do as a self-employed person… and, wait for it, it’s completely free. (Edit in 2020: I then switched to FreeAgent before settling with Xero which I love).

Whatever tool you use or don’t use, get organised.

Stay on top of your expenses so you know what you can claim at the end of the year. The accountant recommended I hold tight until Switzerland sends me a nice letter about my tax return, then give her a holler. But to be organised and equipped with a well-kept Excel sheet when I do so, please.

Message to past Lucy:

  • Stop avoiding the Gemeindehaus, they know what you need to do, are very efficient, and are actually friendly. Even if your lack of Swiss German gives them reason not to be.
  • It’s fine not to register as self-employed straight away. You need clients first anyway.
  • Get an accounting software and track everything.
  • Record all your expenses and get organised like, yesterday.
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