It’s that time of the year when students who've been accepted at a Swiss university start to organize their future life here. If you come from a poor or not-so-rich country, this might be a challenge and I’ve talked to many people who were concerned that they won’t be able to afford living here, especially if they haven’t received a scholarship. What’s more, I’ve met people that haven’t even considered applying to a university here out of fear that they might not make ends meet. Therefore, I decided to create The Guide of the Poor Student in Zürich about how to live on a budget as a student, which can lead to living costs smaller than the ones estimated by ETHZ.
First, I have to make a few disclaimers/remarks:
- I didn’t receive a scholarship when I came here and my parents supported me financially using the savings of a lifetime during my first year. They are not rich, so I had to manage my finances quite carefully.
- I’m (perhaps wrongfully) anticipating that some people will think that I’m encouraging students to leave their home country. I’m not. This post is aimed at people that are already considering studying abroad for their own various reasons but are concerned with the amount of money they are going to need.
- The amount estimated by ETHZ is, of course, fair in most circumstances, and you should have extra money per month left for emergencies. However, when you are trying to live frugally, you’ll be willing to skip buying new clothes, going on trips and some other things, which is why I believe you can live with less than CHF 2,250 per month.
- I have lived with less than that, but my circumstances might not apply to everyone. For instance, you may not find accommodation as cheap as I have, but I will tell you which are the best options available.
- The article is biased toward ETHZ students, but there’s information applicable to students from other universities in Zürich, as well. Also, I’ve struggled to include information regarding students coming from non-EU countries based on what I know from friends. However, I personally haven’t been in this situation, so if you think there’s something I got wrong or haven’t covered, please let me know in the comment section and I’ll update the article.
So, let’s get started!
There are two main options for finding accommodation: you either opt for student houses or you find a place on your own (usually in a flat shared with other people). I’ve been living for the last two years in a student house, in a double room together with my boyfriend, but at first we also searched for shared flats, so I can say something about both of the options. In general, I think most of the people I know managed to find accommodation in the range of CHF 500 – 600 per month, but again, this heavily depends on luck.
The most popular choices for student houses are WOKO and JUWO, WOKO being slightly cheaper, from what I’ve heard. I don’t have much experience with JUWO, so I’ll talk only about WOKO. First of all, it’s a great option not only because it’s (usually) quite cheap, but also because you’ll be living together with a lot of students. This means you’ll meet awesome people from various fields of study from all around the world, parties are sometimes being organized, and therefore this might be a win for your social life.
How it usually works with WOKO if you don’t want to come to Zürich only for visiting flats is that you can email them and they’ll send you a list with rooms which are available at that time. I’ve heard that it’s better to email them at the end of the month because that’s when they know which tenants will leave their rooms and you might be among the first to grab a good room. Once you want a room, you secure it by paying a deposit, so you should have some money prepared for this. In general, the upfront costs when you arrive here will be quite high, after which they will settle down.
I suggest searching for a WOKO room as early as June or July for two reasons. The first is that in a longer period of time you have a higher chance of finding something affordable than if you start in August. The second is that it might be preferable to secure it even before you come here. Let’s say that you find a nice and cheap room starting from July, but you plan to come to Zürich in September, so you might be reluctant to rent a room if you know you won’t be living there for two months. However, you can (most of the times) find somebody to whom to sublet your room even for a small period, so you might actually not waste money. Even without this option, if it’s a really good deal, let’s say CHF 385/month (which is the typical price for a room in the house where I’m living), if you keep the room for the entire two-year period of your studies1, it will amount to only around CHF 30 extra per month. A room that costs around CHF 400/month in Zürich is still a very good deal.
Finding a flat on your own
If you are living abroad, you should be aware that it can be difficult to find a flat on your own without being physically present in Zürich. Most people want to meet their future tenants or flatmates, so you might need to make a trip here especially for this. Living alone will be very expensive, so I assume you’ll most likely prefer a shared flat. One of the best places where to find one is wgzimmer. Some things I’ve noticed, in no particular order:
- Expect to send 50+ messages to people, out of which only a handful of them will reply.
- You have to be very proactive: start your day by checking new ads and respond to them immediately. People might receive 20+ messages in a couple of hours, so if you’re not really quick they might ignore your message as they already have too many requests (see above).
- There will be scams. If you find a room with CHF 500/month in the city center, that’s probably one of them. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. One way I’ve gotten rid of such scams is asking if I can come to visit the flat (even though I didn’t want to come to Zürich for this) or if a friend can do it for me. You usually don’t hear back from them after that.
- Don’t send money without a contract.
- If you post an ad that you’re looking for a place, expect such scams. The best way is to search for them yourself. People that have the best rooms already have many offers, they wouldn’t waste their time contacting others.
- An exception to the point above is (I believe) asking friends of friends or posting in a group in which you already know some people. The reason is that in a shared flat there's usually a selection phase in which current tenants choose the future one. If you know somebody from the apartment or even the person leaving the room, there are higher chances of you getting the place.
- On wgzimmer, you can search for shared rooms in Zürich City (which is obviously the city itself) or in Zürich, which includes the city and smaller "villages" around it. The canton of Zürich is very well connected through a network of trains, so even if you live outside the city, you can commute to the university in a reasonably short amount of time. You might be tempted to live outside the city because the rents are lower there, but pay attention to how much you’ll have to pay on public transport. If inside the city a public transport pass is around CHF 60 per month, if you live outside the city you might pay even CHF 200, so the tradeoff might not be worth it.
Health insurance [Top]
This is one of the issues on which your nationality can make a big difference in your wallet. If you’re from an EU country, you should know that you have the possibility to apply for an European Health Insurance Card (EUHIC) and then apply for an exemption from the mandatory Swiss insurance. You’re basically still insured in your home country, but you benefit from coverage in other EU countries and Switzerland under certain conditions. Therefore, the price to pay for this is the price you’d pay for medical insurance in your home country. I don’t know how the EUHIC works if you need extensive health investigations, because I usually do these when I go back home, but I once went to the emergency unit of a hospital in Zürich. Out of the total costs of roughly CHF 700, I paid only a lump sum of approximately CHF 90, so it was really helpful.
If you’re a non-EU national, you’ll have to pay for the Swiss medical insurance, which will be higher (on the ETHZ website they estimate the costs to be CHF 300).
Later edit: A friend told me that even without the EUHIC you can avoid purchasing the “full” Swiss health insurance (the one that’s around CHF 300). There is an offer for students from SWICA for which you pay a little under CHF 100 per month and enjoy almost the same benefits as with the “full” health insurance, but you still have to apply for an exemption.
One thing you should know about Switzerland is that, irrespective of your type of insurance, if you go to the doctor, you usually have to pay for the costs of the visit yourself, after which the insurance company will reimburse you the money. Well, the thing with the EUHIC is that it is still not clear to me what exactly it covers — for instance, on the website of KVG (an institution which sort of mediates the contact between the Swiss and the EU health systems), they say the following:
Persons who are insured with an official health insurance of one of the EU states or Iceland, Norway or Liechtenstein (EFTA) have a claim to necessary medical treatment in case of illness, recreational accident or maternity during a temporary stay in Switzerland, providing the treatment cannot wait until they return to their home country.
The last part seems tricky to me: “providing the treatment cannot wait until they return to their home country.” Therefore, I have personally avoided seeking treatment in Switzerland, except in that emergency case, because I didn’t want to pay a huge bill without knowing whether it will be reimbursed or not, so I preferred going back to Romania for medical investigations that were not urgent. The emergency case was a bit special because I got a bill that had already been routed through KVG and I had to pay only the lump sum (so not all the expenses, which would then be reimbursed, as it’s usually the case).
Back to the SWICA insurance, its advantage is that you know what it covers and the insurance company will start paying for your medical expenses after they’ve exceeded CHF 300 over the course of one year. So, in this case, there’s less uncertainty and panic when a CHF 700 bill arrives in your mailbox.
How much money you spend on food can vary wildly depending on whether you’re the type who can live by eating reheated pasta for days in a row or the kind who wants their meals always fresh and different. Either way, there are tricks to reduce your spending on food.
If you are on a tight budget, the best thing you can do is to cook for yourself. You can bring your food at university in a food container and you’ll find plenty of microwaves all over the campus where you can reheat it.
Meat is very expensive here, so you might be tempted to become a vegetarian. Even though I fully support this, I will tell you that you can also find cheaper meat at Turkish shops in Zürich (although that’s usually frozen). Speaking about these shops, they are also nice for cheaper vegetables, pickles, rice and some other things — but not everything is cheaper, so pay attention to what you buy there. The most popular ones that I know of are Aksa and Barkat. Another option is going to Lidl or ALDI, which have lower prices, as well, for all kinds of products, not only meat. In the top cheapest supermarket chains next come Denner, Migros, and Coop.
Another option for saving money on groceries is going to Germany to shop, which is not so far away. From what I’ve heard, the preferred city for this purpose is Konstanz. Pay attention, though, that you can only cross the border with limited quantities of certain foods (for instance, a maximum of 1 kg of meat). I personally never tried it because I don’t eat meat and you can’t stack up in your fridge vegetables and dairy products for a very long time. As for other things like rice, pasta, flour, etc. that you can keep for longer, I thought the difference in price might not be so great to be worth the costs of the trip (both in money and time). Also take into account the fact that, when you know products are cheaper, you might buy even more food than you usually do, and that’s not saving money.
If you don’t have time to cook at home, the second best option is going to canteens on campus, which have reasonable prices for students. For instance, you can buy a meal for as little as CHF 5.40 (at a UZH mensa) or CHF 6.20 (at an ETHZ mensa), which is still pretty nice2. For comparison, if you’re the kind that likes to go out to proper restaurants, expect to pay at least CHF 40 for such an outing.
The cheapest option is by far having your own bike. You can buy a second-hand bike for as little as CHF 150 and that amounts to approximately 2.5 months of a public transport pass. A hidden benefit is that you’ll also become more fit in the process, whether you like it or not (Zürich is a quite hilly city).
You can also consider shared bikes, which might be convenient, depending on where you live. For instance, ETH offers students a discount for PubliBike yearly subscriptions, which cost only CHF 60 (yes, for the entire year). This lets you use PubliBikes for free during the first 30 minutes of the ride, after which you pay a fee per every extra minute — or you can bring the bike to a station, lock it, unlock it, and have 30 minutes for free again.
If you still want a public transport pass, you should know that it’s cheaper to buy it for an entire year than renewing it each month, saving CHF 14.5 per month for a Zürich city pass. This means that you must have CHF 570 upfront for the pass — this is why I said that you will spend a lot of money when you first get here, after which things will calm down.
Edited on July 2, 2020: PubliBike student subscription fees have increased from CHF 15 to CHF 60.
Earning extra money [Top]
If all the prices until now sound depressing, rest assured that you’ll get used to them once you get here. This isn’t to say that they become less depressing, though, just that you get accustomed to the feeling. Anyway, you can find additional sources of income.
This is again one of those places where nationality matters. If you’re a non-EU/EFTA national (also known as a third state national), it might be harder to find the internship because:
A third state national can take a job in Switzerland only if a person cannot be hired from within the Swiss labour market or an EU/EFTA state. Employers must show that they made “intensive efforts” to find a Swiss, EU/EFTA citizen or any foreign national already in Switzerland with a permit to work. Moreover, employers must show why those with priority who applied were not suitable for the job.
These being said, I know people in this situation that still managed to get an internship in Switzerland, so it isn’t impossible, and it’s certainly easier if the internship is a mandatory part of your studies. You might also want to try other European countries such as the UK, Germany or France. The salaries might not be as high as in Switzerland, but it’s still something (and the living costs are lower there).
You have at least two options for doing an internship: either during the summer “break” (which isn’t really a break, but I’ll come back to that shortly), or you can take a semester off for this purpose.
Regarding the first option, you should know that the examination period is in August, even though the lectures end in May. This leaves a grayish area of two months that’s known as the I-must-study-buuuut-it’s-summer period, or the summer “break” that I mentioned before. In August you don’t have exams for the entire month, and if you do some fancy tricks like taking more courses that have end-of-semester examinations (as the name implies, you take these exams at the end of the semester rather than in August) and only one or two courses that have their exams in August, you can say that you have three months during which you can do an internship. Yes, it’s hard, but it’s not impossible — I know people who have done this and they are still alive.
The other option is taking a semester off to do an internship, which leaves you six months for this purpose. This is the chill option, as you have only the internship to focus on during this period and the longer period allows you to work on a bigger project than you’d be able to in only three months. Plus, a six-month internship also means having a salary for six months, so you will earn more money in the process. I personally took this route.
Or, you can be hardcore and do both of them. (Hello, Eric!)
Another option for earning extra money is working part-time during your studies. There are plenty of such offers for students on different platforms, but you must be aware of a couple of things. First, you are allowed to work only for up to 15 hours per week. Second, things get more complicated (again) if you are from a non-EU country: you are allowed to work only after you’ve lived for six months in Switzerland. If you are a Master student, there’s a workaround and you can work at your ETH department during those first six months. You can find more information about it on the ETHZ website.
Financial aid from ETHZ
Apart from the scholarships awarded by ETHZ at the beginning of your studies, the university also offers a financial aid that is primarily granted based on needs, not performance. You cannot benefit from this financial aid during your first year at ETHZ, so you have to find other means of financing yourself during that period. Moreover, this aid is not meant to be your main source of income even after that because (a) it won’t cover all your living expenses, and (b) you can’t rely on when the money is going to arrive in your bank account. The timeline is like this: you apply for the scholarship in the spring semester of your first year, the decision is communicated around December, and the money comes sometime in the next spring semester. So it’s a really helpful aid for the second half of your second year at ETHZ, but before that, you must have other financial means of supporting yourself.
A little money on the side
Here’s a funny way of making extra cash that I’ve stumbled across: participating in studies. You know how you sometimes see cited studies about how x% of people make some weird decision if they’re put under stress or if they’re primed in a certain way? Well, you can participate in such studies conducted at ETHZ/UZH and in exchange you receive a one-time payment that usually “depends on your performance.” It can be an amount as small as CHF 20 - 30 for a study that lasts one hour or even more than CHF 200 for a more complicated study (these ones are rare, though)3. It’s not too much, but I’ve always wondered when reading about such studies how it’s like to actually participate in them. And now I’m wondering how badly the results of such studies are biased towards highly educated young students in search of making money on the side.
Enjoying life [Top]
All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. Let’s see what affordable options are there to have fun. Well, the good news is that, when you’re a student, you’re most likely hanging out with other students, and guess what — they also don’t have too much money to spare! So you’ll often have house parties meant to… put you into a good mood before actually going out to a bar or a club. There is a special word for this in German — it’s called Vorglühen (in English it’s something like pre-drinking). That’s because when you go out you’ll pay for a beer CHF 7-8 or more. Don’t ask me about cocktails, you can barely touch those things. Don’t forget that, when you decide to go back home at night, you have to pay a surcharge of CHF 5 for the night buses/trains4.
If you want something more informal like just having a beer in the evening with friends, I have good news regarding this, as well. If you are part of the student association, which costs less than CHF 10 per semester, you have one free coffee or one free beer per day (for some departments you can have two free items per day, beer/coffee). Also, because going to a bar is quite expensive, when it’s nice outside, a lot of groups of friends just tend to buy beer from the supermarket, head to the lake and drink there, which is even better, in my opinion.
And there are also the apéros, the lovely, wonderful apéros. This is the Swiss way of socializing and you’ll quickly get used to them once you get here, even hunt for them, because they always include free food and drinks. They usually take place after an event or a talk held by some professor, after which you’re supposed to join the apéro and follow-up on the conversation, perhaps ask clarifying questions to the speakers or bring your own thoughts to the table. Only that you will never see one hundred attendants gathered around the speaker(s), but instead crowding in over the buffet. There was even a WhatsApp group that was called “Free Food @ ETH,” where people posted every time there was an apéro somewhere on the campus (which was almost every evening during the semester). Needless to say, it’s not nice to join an apéro without actually having attended the event before it, but I suppose a hungry stomach can do that to you.
One way to relax over the weekend is going on a hike. You don’t even have to go far away in the mountains (the train tickets might be more expensive there) because there are plenty of nice hiking routes close to Zürich. You just pack some sandwiches and water and you’re good to go.
One amazing perk of studying at ETHZ and UZH is the network of gyms that you have access to, which is called ASVZ, for which you pay a modest fee of CHF 30 per semester (which is, anyway, included in the semester fee, so you cannot opt out). They have plenty of classes for a wide range of activities like bodybuilding, martial arts, dancing, yoga, cardio and so much more. Plus, they have sport centers on the two main campuses and a few more in the city. Basically, you have no excuse to be a couch potato (this is a self-reminder).
Another thing that I've only recently found out about is that on Wednesdays there's free admission to the Kunsthaus, which is the biggest art museum in Zürich. You can find works by Vincent van Gogh, Claude Monet, Edvard Munch, Pablo Picasso, and Marc Chagall, among others. It's really worth it. Speaking about cultural endeavours, as a student you benefit from tickets at reduced prices at the Opera if you're part of Club Jung.
These are the most useful aspects about the (future) life of a student in Zürich that I could think of. Once you live here, you discover more tips on your own, which is part of the beauty of it. If you have any more questions, you can leave them in the comment section or contact me directly. Likewise, if you've been living here for a while and you have pieces of advice you'd like to share, the comment section is down below.
Enjoy your student life in Zürich!
1. There are also Master’s degrees that last one year and a half, but these tend to be fewer. [Back]
2. Here’s a tip that not many people know, even after having lived for some time here. If you go to UZH, sometimes, for some menus, they’ll explicitly ask you if you want an optional side dish in the plate. You can choose not to have that and take a salad or a small soup instead, which is included in the same price. If you take both the side and a salad/soup, you’ll have to pay extra. [Back]
3. The study that was better remunerated involved taking iron supplements at certain intervals and having blood drawn about six times over two months. It was interesting for me because I have low iron levels and I was curious to see whether they would raise after the study. There was another interesting study I went to that measured the dilation of my pupils while making some decisions about food. [Back]
4. Or, you can take a bike on your way back home — your own bike or a shared one — but be careful about your level of tipsyness, you don't want to hit a Mercedes on your way home. This also perhaps explains why bike sharing companies are complaining about their bikes getting thrown in the lake at night. [Back]
The other photos are by (in the order of appearance):