Information for private customers
This page features answers to questions that frequently arise in connection with banks and banking services in Switzerland.
Opening a bank account
In principle, anyone with the legal capacity to act can open a bank account in Switzerland, but Swiss banks must also comply with the foreign legal and regulatory provisions applicable to cross-border business, among others. Banks additionally reserve the right to reject customers. For example, a bank might refuse to enter into a business relationship with a politically exposed person it believes could pose a risk to its reputation. It may also reject a prospective customer if it has doubts about the origins of that person’s funds.
First of all, the bank’s staff have to ask all the questions needed to fulfil the bank’s legal due diligence obligations (see the Agreement on the Swiss banks’ code of conduct with regard to the exercise of due diligence (CDB 20)). In particular, they will ask for proof of your identity and – apart from in certain exceptional cases – an explanation as to who is the beneficial owner of the assets. The bank will also require a declaration of your status as a US or non-US person. Its staff might additionally ask about and request proof of the origin of the funds, the nature of your business activities, your general financial situation and your usual financial transactions.
All banks operating in Switzerland must be licensed by the Swiss Financial Market Supervisory Authority FINMA, which is a member of the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision and regulates and supervises all banks in Switzerland according to the Basel Committee’s standards. These standards cover not only equity and capital adequacy but also the entire scope of prudential and conduct rules. As an additional safety measure, Swiss law demands capital adequacy standards that are even higher than those required by the Basel Capital Accord. Swiss banks can therefore certainly be counted among the safest in the world. They are all obliged to be members of the deposit insurance scheme esisuisse, which takes effect should a bank nevertheless become insolvent. For more information on deposit insurance, please see www.esisuisse.ch.
Money laundering is the covert introduction of illegally acquired assets into the legitimate economy with the aim of disguising their true origin.
It is usually associated with drug trafficking or organised crime, but there are many other crimes it may be linked to, e.g. embezzlement, corruption, extortion and human trafficking. Serious tax offences were also added to this list in 2016.
Switzerland was among the first countries to take measures to combat money laundering. Thanks to the Agreement on the Swiss banks’ code of conduct with regard to the exercise of due diligence (CDB), introduced in 1977, it was a pioneer in terms of verifying the identity of the contracting partner and establishing the identity of the beneficial owner. The CDB is at the centre of Switzerland’s efforts to combat money laundering. It is updated on a regular basis, the currently valid version being CDB 20.
The Swiss legal apparatus for combating money laundering has expanded steadily since the CDB was introduced. It now also includes provisions in the Swiss Criminal Code (Arts. 305bis and 305ter SCC) as well as the Federal Act on Combating Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing and its Ordinance (AMLA and AMLO), a corresponding ordinance from the Swiss Financial Market Supervisory Authority FINMA (AMLO-FINMA), and a number of FINMA circulars with relevance for banks. More information can be found here.
Protection of privacy
Protection of privacy is a basic human right. Article 13 of the Swiss Federal Constitution therefore states that every person has the right to privacy in their private and family life, in their home and in relation to their mail and telecommunications, as well as the right to be protected against the misuse of their personal data.
Both companies and private individuals have a strong interest in ensuring that their data are protected. Banks, which have a long tradition of discretion and confidentiality, are acutely aware that detailed information about a person’s financial situation is among the most sensitive forms of personal data.
More information on data protection and bank-client confidentiality can be found here.
Trading in financial instruments
The risks that can arise when trading in financial instruments depend on the type of instruments you are trading: shares, bonds, real estate, crypto assets or others. Various risks are also associated with buying and selling financial instruments and holding them in custody. The new Financial Services Act (FinSA) governs the protection of customers using financial services. It defines the requirements for providing financial services in an honest, diligent and transparent manner and sets out how financial instruments are to be produced and offered. A detailed overview of the risks involved can be found here.
The QR bill was launched on 30 June 2020 as an alternative to the red and orange payment slips used for bills in Switzerland. It is intended to standardise digital payment processing. Over the longer term, the QR bill will replace the rather laborious payment slips altogether. It has a number of advantages for anyone sending out or receiving bills. The former benefit from improved data quality, ease of use (all you need is a printer) and faster cash flow, the latter from increased simplicity and the choice between analogue and digital payment methods.
Most people in Switzerland need to borrow money to buy a home because they cannot afford to do so using just their savings. A mortgage is a type of loan for homebuyers that is secured against the property itself. Anyone taking out a mortgage normally has to pay at least 20% of the purchase price using their own funds and pay the mortgage provider annual interest at an agreed rate.
You can find information about mortgage market regulation here.
Assets without contact and dormant assets
If you suspect that a bank known to you in Switzerland holds assets without contact or dormant assets to which you are entitled, please contact the bank directly. If you do not know which bank holds the assets, you should contact the Swiss Banking Ombudsman. You can find more information here.
Since January 2015, the law has required banks to post details of assets for which the last customer contact was at least 60 years ago on a website and hand such assets over to the State after a further year in the absence of any customer contact.
You can find more information on assets without contact and dormant assets here.
Contact for information and mediation
You can turn to the Swiss Banking Ombudsman if you have questions or complaints about banking or other financial services provided by institutions affiliated to the Ombudsman, which offers information and mediation but has no legal powers.
Links & Documents
Information from the SBA regarding the disclosure of client data and other information in international payment transactions and investments in foreign securities (2016)
Swiss Bankers Association (SBA)
Information from the SBA regarding the disclosure of client details in payment transactions, securities transactions and other transaction types in connection with SWIFT (2009)
Swiss Bankers Association (SBA)