Flanked by the Alps and Jura mountains, on the shores of Lake Geneva (or Lac Leman as it’s known locally) you’d be hard pushed to find a more scenically beautiful European city to live in than Geneva.
Geneva is in the French speaking part of Switzerland and is encircled almost entirely by France and so it has, not surprisingly, a very French look and ambiance. It is, however, one of the most international cities in Europe, possibly the world, with around 45% of the city’s population being expatriates representing nearly 200 nationalities. Perhaps this is not surprising, as it is home to many international organisations and NGOs such as the UN, World Health Organisation and Red Cross, a host of financial institutions as well as the World headquarters for a number of multi-national companies such as Caterpillar and Cargill.>
Despite being such an international city, it is surprisingly small with a city population of under 200,000 - making it the same size as Bath in the UK. Even the population of the whole canton is still below half a million putting it on a par with Bristol in the UK. This does have its down side: the selection of shops, and goods in them, are extremely limited when compared with the UK or US.
Many expats wait until they go home to buy clothes, shoes, toiletries and not uncommonly furniture and there was even someone who shipped a fountain from the States! But the expansion of internet shopping and international delivery is easing this problem, you can have items shipped from most department stores in the US and UK (but don't forget the tax!).
It is very much a city of culture where museums, exhibitions, art galleries and theatres abound; although one will find very few productions in English. Pathe, the owner of the main cinema complexes, will show most major releases in English, albeit for a short period of time,but there are still many independent cinemas and international film festivals.
There is an amazing array of restaurants offering cuisines from around the world (although often adapted to European tastes), as well as traditional French and Swiss fare. The quality of food is superb - in over 15 years we have yet to have a bad meal despite being on a family quest to do so. Don’t forget that Geneva is a major Swiss wine producer, so it is traditional to have a glass of local wine with your “plat du jour” at lunchtime.
The year round outdoor lifestyle is a prized asset of living in the Geneva area. With the French and Swiss Alps as well as the Jura within striking distance, residents have the easiest of access to the best of European skiing, climbing, mountain-biking and hill walking. Unlike many cities, Geneva has many parks most of which have great play areas for kids of all ages.
The region offers a never-ending list of things to do; horse-riding, cycling and tennis being some of the most popular, while the lake offers many attractions and a diverse range of water sports with sailing being number 1 – don’t forget, the previous America’s Cup winners Alinghi come from here.
Above anything else, the biggest benefit Geneva offers to families is that it is a safe place to live. It is therefore not surprising that Geneva consistently comes in the top five European cities in the Quality of Living Survey and Personal Safety Survey*. However, this does come at a price: Geneva comes in at the ninth most expensive city in the world according to the 2020 Cost of Living Survey*.
Two other Swiss cities, Zurich at fourth and Bern at eighth score even higher. In comparison, New York is the highest ranking American city at sixth and London, surprisingly, is only 19th. The three Swiss cities are the only European entries (apart from London) in the global top 20 and the strength of the Swiss Franc has only made it more expensive.
Finally the housing shortage is abating because the strength of the Swiss Franc has forced many international companies to move expats elsewhere. However, if your company or organisation is moving you to Geneva, I would still recommend a re-location agent. Although beware, as not all of them are very efficient or professional and most know nothing about the difference between the international schools, so don't rely on them for that, but they do have good contacts and should be able to find you what you want.
With the falling numbers of international companies setting up in Geneva and neighbouring Vaud, the housing situation in the whole region is very much a buyers market so do negotiate on price. If you don’t have a re-location agent don't worry as it is now much easier to find rented accommodation over the internet as it is in other parts of the world.
The following websites may help: www.toutimmo.ch, www.immostreet.ch, wwww.homegate.ch. If you are coming from outside of continental Europe, be prepared to downsize. The average 4-bedroom house is around 160 square metres (approx 1,800 sq ft) of habitable space (there may be plenty more room in the rafters). On the upside, most have basements with natural light which are great for playrooms/games rooms and studies and most have a laundry room too.
You can guarantee Swiss efficiency in the area of plumbing and heating; both are excellent. Workmen, however, are in huge demand and are renowned for being unreliable and don’t turn up when they say they will. Speaking with expat neighbours or parents at school will often find you a group of dependable, inexpensive but experienced workers from Eastern Europe.
Your work permit may determine where you live: a G Frontalier means that you have to live in neighbouring France, while residents with B and C permits can choose. There are now many other types of permit offered by the Geneva Government so it would be wise to check with an expert, particularly which is better for you for tax reasons – remember Switzerland is not part of the EU.
Traffic and Driving
Although Geneva is fairly small and you can get “into town” in 20 minutes from even the most far-flung villages in the canton (outside of rush-hour), I would recommend that you live on the same side that you work. Traffic is constantly getting worse…nothing like cities across Europe and the US, but the cantonal government (which is anti car)keep threatening a central city car ban.
Even so, no-one has drivers: they are only for the extremely wealthy or senior consulate officials. Buying or even bringing your own car from home is extremely easy, although registering it can give one an interesting insight into Swiss bureaucracy. The Swiss government require you to transfer your driving licence within the year, but they will not accept licences from many Middle Eastern and African countries so you will have to take the Swiss driving test
I would recommend you live in the area the school generally serves, not just to keep your fuel costs down, but it also makes playdates easier. I have known many mums hanging around a shopping mall on Wednesday morning because “it wasn’t worth going home” when school finishes around midday (this is true in most Geneva schools, both private and state) or the child had a playdate on the other side of town. I would honestly recommend you choose your school, then your accommodation.
Once you’ve selected the house and school of your choice, living and settling into Geneva is very easy. For instance, to open a bank account you just take your passport, some cash, a cheque or wire transfer - but this will only get you a debit and hole-in-the-wall card. If you want a credit card, the bank will want to see bank statements and/or an attestation (letter of employment from your company).
Most expats choose UBS or Credit Suisse as information can be sent in English. With recent problems between the US tax authorities and Swiss banks those from the US should probably take professional advice about opening an account here.
Note, it is very difficult to get a joint account, so be aware of what sort of account you have (I have power of attorney over my husband’s which is about the best we could do). You don’t want to be in the situation when the hole-in-the-wall eats your card and in order to replace it the bank needs your husband’s signature and he’s the other side of the world! You may wish to opt for separate accounts.
The Swiss are very old fashioned about money, it is basically a cash society and cheque books don’t exist. Many payments are made with ‘bulletins de versements’ which are payable at the post office, you will often see Swiss people in the post office paying their bills with huge wads of cash! However,internet banking does exist for all. Note that the Swiss still have Swiss francs, although Euros are accepted in some large stores.
Phones and Internet
There is very little control when it comes to buying a mobile phone with a pay-as-you-go card; your money, some ID and a Swiss address is enough. Internet access is equally easy; your rented accommodation will have a phone line but you will have to wait a while to get ADSL (broadband) access - no one really seems to know why, that's just the way it is.
The Swiss health system is heralded around the world as probably being one of the best, but it must also be one of the most expensive for health insurance – if you are still negotiating a corporate relocation package, make sure you get health insurance, including dental and orthodontics for the whole family. The system is very easy in that many doctors act as general practitioners; you don’t have to register with them, just call when you need an appointment. You get the same easy access to specialists, too, although some health insurance companies now have lists that are acceptable to them, so do check. Children have to be registered with a paediatrician; I would ask parents at school or neighbours for recommendations.
In our experience the Cantonal Hospital in Geneva is second to none and the only place to go in a real emergency. A private hospital, La Tour, also has an accident and emergency department which is often used by parents whose children need attention after a fall or who are suddenly taken ill. There is also an incredibly efficient doctor call-out service available throughout Geneva, but you do pay for the convenience.
Groceries and Markets
When you arrive, you will no doubt need to shop, but do check opening hours. Other than shopping malls, department stores and large retail chains, many shops still shut at lunchtimes during the week. All shops shut on Sundays except those at the airport and main station which include a Migros (local supermarket chain). Be warned that your local Swiss supermarket will shut at around 6.00pm on most weekdays and Saturdays, though finally there is often later closing 7.00pm on Thursday and Friday. Oh yes, and have a Franc piece ready for the deposit on the supermarket trolley and be aware there will be no-one to pack your groceries for you.
Thankfully, the two major chains of Migros and the Co-op have online shopping facilities and home delivery. Many people shop in France where the hyper-markets usually stay open until 9.00pm, but again, all shops close on Sunday. Food is much cheaper over the boarder, but there are very strict customs allowances on certain food items, so be careful not to “smuggle” as the fines are quite high.
There are also classic French fresh food markets selling local produce every day of the week. Given the international community, some supermarkets sell a small range of American and English products for those who are homesick – there are also two specialist stores selling a wider range of goods. And there are small grocery stores catering to those who like Asian, African and Middle Eastern food.
Expats do tend to stay within their own communities making friends through the international playgroups, schools and churches, although the Swiss are very welcoming. There are also organizations like the American International Women's Club which despite its name welcomes women of all nationalities. www.aiwcgeneva.org .
On the whole, living in Geneva is easy. Many expats seem to get by without much French, but I would recommend that if you wish to make the most of your time here you get lessons. Not only is a language school a good place to make friends, you may well find that you just fall in love with Geneva, like me, and decide to make it your permanent home.
*Source: Mercer Human Resource Consulting