Debugging the Swiss Bureaucracy

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I guess I should start by saying a few words about myself. My name is Zsolt and I was an intern in the software engineering group in the summer of 1998. At that time I was two and a half years into my PhD, in Bonnie Scotland. I had a Romanian passport, since I was born and lived in Timisoara, Romania for the first 25 years of my life, just a few kilometres from Hungary, the country where my father was born. In other words I am a Hungarian from Romania. And this is how everything started...

After successfully applying for a summer internship, I sent all the required documents to Switzerland for a work permit. I had been told that the process will take 10 to 12 weeks (which seemed incredibly slow, but there was plenty of time, since it was February and I was planning to start on the 1st of June). After the first week of April I received the contract from my employer.

Along with the contract, there was a letter boldly stating that in approximately 4 weeks I will receive a document from the "alien police" (Fremdenpolizei) which should grant me entry and residence in Switzerland for the duration of my internship. There were 2 aspects that made me nervous:

  • I had only 3 weeks until the day of taking up employment;
  • I was no ET and therefore couldn't understand why would the "alien police" have to deal with my case.

Checking the home page of the Swiss Embassy in UK, I learnt that as a holder of a Romania passport I would have to apply for a visa before I can enter Switzerland. I made a quick phone call to London, then another one to the General Consulate in Manchester. Why Manchester? Because the pedantic Swiss system decided to split UK in two: Southern and Central England residents would be dealt with by the London Office, whereas Wales, Northern England, Scotland and Northern Ireland would have to contact the Manchester Office, furthermore there are no exceptions. Officers in London will not deal with anybody living in the north, they would just throw an exception and forward the request to Manchester. Thinking I was on the proper track, I sent all the documents I had by fax (the contract and some paper from the employment office in Zurich) and phoned Manchester to find out when I could get my visa. The answer was that they have to get a letter from Fremdenpolizei. So I asked my employer if I could get one of these Fremdenpolizei letters. Two weeks before the date I was supposed to start working I received from my employer a copy of the Fremdenpolizei letter and instructions to go to London! I phoned London and I was told, politely, to bugger off, if anything gets to them they will forward it to Manchester since I am a resident of Scotland they will not deal with my request. So, back on the phone to Manchester, faxed them the letter, and the answer was: "Yes, this is the letter you require in order to get the visa, however we need to get it through proper diplomatic channels. We cannot accept your copy." This was 1998 AD, when such forms probably are stored electronically (or at least should be), there was a registration number on it and it would have took 5 seconds to check its validity. No! The rule requires proper diplomatic channels and the rules have to be followed. By now I had only 10 days left, my plane ticket was booked and I started having nightmares about missing the flight. And miracle! The bureaucratic machine, grinding slowly, made it in time! Manchester got the letter through proper channels, and after this final hurdle I was on the plane with a Swiss visa.

The flight to Zurich was OK, not much happened except that I was thinking about this form I had received along with my visa which said that I had to undergo a medical examination within five days from arrival in Switzerland. And the medical examination was nothing more than an X-ray, allegedly to screen tuberculosis. I wasn't happy about it... Once in Zurich I checked in to the flat provided by my employer and asked the landlord for directions in the city and I also mentioned about the medical test. The landlords answer, in decent English, was "They treat you as cows! What is this?" At this point I realised that there are humans too in Switzerland and not only a rigid bureaucratic system which constantly reminded me of a communist regime I was hoping to forget.

One would think that this was enough for the 4 months I was staying, but it wasn't. I had invited my Mother over to Zurich for a holiday. Actually I was planning to have both my parents over, but my Father was in Glasgow for Easter and used up all of his holidays. So, I phoned home, told my Mum that she would be more than welcome. She phoned up the Swiss Embassy in Bucharest, Romania and was told that I had to go to the Canton's Police and fill in a form there. OK, so next day I went to the Canton's Police in Kasernen Strasse. The person at the entrance reminded me of an officer close to retirement from the time of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, moustache, round face and a parental smile. He told me in English that they don't deal with such issues and actually is the Fremdenpolizei (does it sound familiar?) that I have to go to. At the Fremdenpolizei (which is close to the Marriot Hotel) I received a form stating that I have to go to the city chambers (Stadthaus) with my residence permit, income statement, tax declaration, rental agreement and some sort of identity (of course the form was in German). All this was necessary to be able to act as a guarantor for my Mother, and made me feel as if she was not welcome here; guilty unless proven innocent.

At the city chambers the officer was very helpful. I gave her my residence permit (which was L - for learner). She looked at me and said that I did not qualify to be a guarantor. I would need an A or B permit which is issued for full time employees. Then I gave her my employment contract, and looking a little bit puzzled, said that the money I earn definitely is more than what is required to be a guarantor. After a few seconds she said "You can try to get the guarantor letter but it is not certain that you will get it." So I went ahead with the bureaucratic process and I was told that it will take three weeks to get an answer, after which, if successful, I will have to make one more payment. Then my Mum can go to the Swiss Embassy in Romania and hopefully in 24 hours she will be issued with a visa. The Embassy in Bucharest still had the right to deny issuing the visa.

Exactly 3 weeks later, I received the approval and my Mother went to the Embassy in Romania to collect her visa. At the entrance to the Embassy there was a sign about the fee for the Visa (which was quite steep) and the denominations which should be used for the payment. In Romania the denominations were 50,000 10,000 5,000 1,000 and so on. For reasons unclear to we 'mere mortals' the Embassy would only accept 50,000 and 10,000 notes and the payment had to be four 50,000 notes and two 10,000. After paying, 24 hours later my Mum had this piece of paper in her passport stating that she would be allowed to enter Switzerland. Once in Switzerland she had a great time and enjoyed her stay.

Beautiful surroundings, warm people and a rigid bureaucratic system, is this Switzerland? I guess that there would be more to say...


PS: BTW, if you change your address in Switzerland, and move into a new Kreis, don't forget to re-register with the Kreisburo!

Copyright (©) 2007 Dirk Riehle. Some rights reserved. (Creative Commons License BY-NC-SA.) Original Web Location: