Foreigner Students

Outline of the Swiss migration policy

The myth of Switzerland as a “land of refuge” is persistent – at least as persistent as its very own legislation on foreigners and asylum seekers. The Swiss Asylum Law (LAsi) – which was already considered as one of the most restrictive in Europe by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) – was nevertheless hardened once again in June 2012: No asylum seekers will be allowed to work, it will take longer to obtain a residence permit or family regrouping and it will also be possible to intern « recalcitrant » asylum seekers.

As for the Swiss Law on Foreigners (LEtr), it now makes it reprehensible under criminal law to help illegal migrants in any way, which has caused a great deal of reactions from representatives of the church, teachers, nurses and other persons or organizations that bring their support to people with an illegal status. Furthermore, new modifications of the LEtr are under way in order to make the integration dispositive more coercive. So much for the “land of refuge”, although those facts don’t stop politicians and other parasites to blabber on about Switzerland’s so called laxity in the area of migration.

Those laws have important implications on the possibilities to come study in a Swiss university for they regulate the granting of the different residence permits that are necessary in order to enroll in all universities in the country.

Foreigner with a desire to study in Switzerland: welcome to the realm of discrimination, economical and political arbitrary, for you now find yourself necessarily in one of the following situations:

If you are a national of one of the 27 countries member of the EU, Norway, Liechtenstein or Iceland, you have the benefit of the Agreement on the Free Movement of Persons (AFMP) that gives you a right to obtain automatically a “B” residence permit, in other words, the grail in order to access academic studies. However, not everyone is treated in the same even inside the AFMP! The law puts some restrictions for Romanian and Bulgarian nationals (until 2016).

If you are a non-EU national, your stay in Switzerland is regulated by the LEtr. You have no direct right to obtain a “B” residence permit; it will be a high mountain to climb. Previously, the Swiss legislation distinguished between three “circles” of priority in its migration policy: EU and EFTA (first circle); USA, Canada, Australia, New-Zealand and Japan (second circle) and the rest of the world (third circle). Although this “circle” model was officially abandoned in 2006 because it was judged too discriminatory, the conditions you have to fulfill in order to come study here in Switzerland are far less restrictive for a North American than for an African student. A so-called “black list” even exists (for countries like Cameroon, Algeria, Burundi, Guinea etc.). For the nationals of these countries, the authorization to receive a resident permit depends on the decision of the Federal Office for Migration (ODM) in Bern. For other foreigners, this is normally the task of the Swiss cantons (Swiss federal entities). As far as the enrollment in the university is concerned, it is wise to check the brochure “S’immatriculer à l’Université de Genève” (available on UNIGE’s website) where the conditions of enrollment for nationals each country are specified.

If you are an asylum seeker (“N” residence permit), provisionally admitted (“F” residence permit) or a person in need of protection (“S” residence permit), you will suffer daily harassment from the administration but you should be able to enroll. If you do not have any legal status, the situation is delicate. As the enrollment in the university is independent from the residence permit, you should be able to study. In case of any problem, do not hesitate to make contact with the CUAE.

General points on the “B” residence permit

The conditions you have to fulfill in order to obtain a “B” residence permit differ whether you are a EU national or not. In Geneva, the office that is responsible for delivering residence permits is called in French “l’Office Cantonal de la Population (OCP)”.

For EU national students, you have a right to stay if you fulfill the following conditions:

Be enrolled in a university, a HES school or in another granted institution,

establish in a plausible manner that you have sufficient financial resources (through a declaration or by any other mean of your choice),

detain a health insurance that covers all risks.

In principle, during the 14 days following your entry on swiss territory, you must send a form that you will find on the website of the OCP under “Entrée–Membre UE/AELE », with 2 photos passport format, a copy of your identification card and a photocopy of your (already paid) student’s fee form that acts as proof of your enrollment in the school for the following year.

You then receive either a « L » permit for a short term stay, if you come to study for less than a year, or a « B » residence permit for a longer stay. However, the latter will have to be renewed every year within the same conditions.

Your spouse or same-sex-listed-partner and the children that are under your legal responsibility also have a right to stay in Switzerland. If your spouse/partner is extra-European, she or he will be dependent on your residence permit.

For non-EU national students, you may (but you are not entitled to) obtain a residence permit on the following conditions:

be undergoing a recognized training/education for a duration of maximum eight years with a fixed study plan (be cautious),

have the required formation level and skills,

have an « appropriate » accommodation,

have sufficient financial resources; it is for example necessary to have a guarantor domiciled in Switzerland, to have enough savings or prove access to a sufficient education loan,

for the nationals of certain countries, the approbation of the Federal Office for Migration (ODM).

You then either receive a “L” permit (short term) or a “B” permit (if your stay lasts longer than a year). The latter can be renewed every year on the same conditions if your study-plan hasn’t changed.

Your spouse or partner and children that are less than 18 years old can obtain a residence permit if they come live with you and that they are not dependent on social assistance. The authorization to stay for your relatives is not guaranteed. The administrative procedure must be undertaken in the first 12 months of your stay in Geneva for children that are over 12 years old and in the first five years of your stay for the others.

Practical advice

If you want to make a faculty change, think it through before and seek for information; such a change of faculty, even if it has been accepted by the university – except in the case of particular exceptions – is a motive of refusal of the renewal of your residence permit.

The same applies if you interrupt your studies (even temporarily) and take a time off or decide to extend the duration of your studies (birth, work, illness etc.). Going over the “normal” duration of the study time (minimal time in which it is possible to obtain the diploma your are seeking according to European standards + one year) can be a motive to refuse your renewal of your residence permit.

Obtain thorough information on the necessary visas for trips – even very short ones – outside of Switzerland. Be particularly careful during the period when you have to renew your “B” permit.

When you come to be in contact the OCP (by phone, e-mail, mail or interviews): pay attention to all the information that is given, systematically point out the fulfillment of all conditions (accommodation, financial resources, academic situation), even if the OCP is only asking for a specific information, try not to change your version of the facts that concern you.

In particular, do not mention that you receive social assistance or a public study loan in Switzerland for it could be considered that you do not fulfill the sufficient financial resources criteria.

Act in time and watch out for deadlines when you receive a letter or an e-mail from the OCP, keep records of all correspondence and use registered mail service.

Obtain the specific information on the deadlines for family regrouping. Some are limited to twelve months.

Work authorization

In order to be able to work, you need to go through a procedure with “Forum-Carriere”# and the OCP to obtain and specific authorization. Non-EU nationals have to wait six months after the beginning of their studies to obtain this authorization. However, you don’t need to go through any particular formalities before you seek a job . A good starting point is the job offer section on Forum-Carriere’s website To gain access to those job offers, you have to go to their office (4 rue De-Candolle) with your student card and register over there. Until last year, it was possible to work up to 20 hours per week during the semester and full time during the holidays. However, the Federal Office for Migration has recently required the Genevan authorities (i.e the OCP) to reduce the maximum work time to 15 hours per week. The OCP is supposed to enforce the federal regulation from the 1st of September 2012 onwards. The situation remains politically uncertain. Be sure to check regularly for further information. When you do find a job, your employer will have to sign the income part of the OCP’s form. You therefore have to send the same form that you have filled out for your residence permit but this time, you fill out the part that concerns your income. You then must go to Uni-emploi’s office with your form signed to get a the letter from the University that confirms that it is possible for you to work alongside your studies. If you study in a HES school on the other hand, you will obtain this letter from their secretarial office. Then send the letter from the university or HES school and the OCP form signed by your employer to the OCP who will have to give their approval.
Any demand during the academic year costs 95 Swiss francs for non-EU nationals and 65 Swiss francs for EU nationals. You can try to get your employer to pay for this tax but there is no clear rule that legally binds your employer to do so. However, if you do the same demand while renewing your residence permit, it won’t cost you anything (even if you fill out two or three forms for different employers).
You do not need to fill out this form for an activity that is only occasional (max. 5 hours per week for a single month period). For a regular activity (max. 10 hours per week for a 3 months period) or a full time activity during the holidays (max. 4 months during the year), you only need to come to Uni-emploi who will give you a free authorization and will then send a copy to the OCP.
Recent modifications of the Swiss legislation enables theoretically for foreign students that have graduated from a university or HES school to stay in Switzerland after their studies in order to find a job that has a “scientific or economical preponderant interest [for Switzerland]”. Students can therefore be admitted provisionally for six months starting at the end of their studies in order to find a job that fulfills this requirement. As we write these lines, we do not know yet what the OCP is effectively making of these new rules.

Health and other problems

In the matter of health insurance (which is mandatory for Swiss and foreigners), you can refer yourself to the specific section of our student guide on the question (in French).

If you wish to meet people from your country, the Contact Center between Swiss and Immigrants# can put you in contact with different associations. There a are also interest groups with students from different communities within the university. Students without any legal status can get some help from the “Collectif de soutien aux sans-papiers#”.

Finally, if you have questions concerning your stay in Geneva, do not hesitate to come see the CUAE secretaries who can advise you, or refer yourself to our “legal problems” section of our student guide (in French).

Starting for the academic year 2012-2013 onwards, the Old Age Insurance (AVS) number has become the student’s universal identification number for the administration even though it doesn’t show on your student’s card. If you do not have an AVS number, the university is in principle obliged to provide you with one no matter under what legal status you lie. If you have any doubts, do not hesitate to contact the secretaries of the CUAE.

# Office Cantonal de la Population (OCP)
route de Chancy 88, 1213 Onex, case postale 2652, 1211 Genève 2, 022 546 46 46,,ouverture des guichets: du lundi au vendredi 7h30 – 15h30, tram 14, bus K et L arrêt Bandol

# Centre de Carrière
rue De-Candolle 4 (rez), 1211 Genève 4, 022 379 77 02,, Horaires d’ouverture des guichets : du lundi au vendredi 09h00-13h00.

# Centre de Contact Suisse-Immigrés (CCSI)
route des Acacias 25, 1227 Les Acacias, 022 304 48 60,,, tram 15, arrêt Industrielle ou bus 11, arrêt Epinettes

# Collectif de soutien aux sans-papiers de Genève (CSSP)
route des Acacias 25, 1227 Les Acacias, 022 301 63 33,,, tram 15, arrêt Industrielle ou bus 11, arrêt Epinettes