Sans-Papiers: These are your rights!

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Are you living or working in Switzerland without a residence permit?

Approximately 150,000 people live in Switzerland without a valid residence permit. Most "Sans-Papiers" or "illegal immigrants" are workers without regular residence status, mainly working as cleaners, in private households, on construction sites, in restaurants and hotels, in transport or in agriculture.

Regardless of whether you entered Switzerland without a visa or a valid residence permit or whether you outstayed your expired residence permit: You still have basic rights. Human rights are not linked to residence status. They apply for everyone.

This page contains useful information for everyday life and informs you about your rights. Counselling centres for Sans-Papiers in the canton where you live can also be of help. They can confidentially explain all aspects of your situation to you. These bodies are independent and subject to professional secrecy. It is never too early or too late to get informed. You can find useful addresses here.

You can also find more information at the Unia trade union. Generally: Your documents and personal belongings belong to you. No person or agency has the authority to confiscate them. It is important that you are able to

substantiate your claims, so make sure to keep all evidence: text messages, letters, contracts, diaries, etc.

Further information which you may find useful, can be found in, for example, the Dossier «My Rights at the Workplace» (in German) or from your regional Unia office.

Topic Overview:

1. Regularisation of residence

People from outside the EU have hardly any opportunities to obtain a residence permit for Switzerland. As Sans-Papiers, the only way for them to regularise their status is to obtain a hardship permit or to marry/register a partnership.

  • Hardship permit

    The law currently stipulates that Sans-Papiers must leave Switzerland immediately, except in cases of "severe personal hardship". 

    Decisions on hardship applications are the responsibility of the cantons: Applications must be submitted to the migration authority of the canton of residence. The overall personal situation is examined on a case-by-case basis. The practice differs from canton to canton and is highly dependent on the political context. If a canton accepts a hardship application, the federal government must subsequently also give its consent to regularisation. In most cases it will do so.

    The authorities assume that a stay of less than five years does not constitute a case of hardship. Only in the case of a longer stay will an application be seriously examined. Various criteria are taken into account that prove "advanced integration", such as the length of stay in Switzerland, financial independence, integration, health, criminal record and many others. In concrete terms, many Sans-Papiers are regularised who have been in Switzerland for more than 10 years (or 5 years for families with school-age children), are financially independent, have no criminal record and speak the official language of their place of residence fluently.

    Even if you have received a legally binding, negative asylum decision, you can still apply under a hardship clause for a residence permit, provided your residence has been known to the Swiss authorities for at least 5 years. In practice, however, 5 years is far from sufficient in many cantons.

    Victims of human trafficking are particularly protected. If you have been forced to work under the threat of violence or because of alleged debts, have been exploited sexually or at work, for example, or have been coerced into committing crimes or begging, you can be supported and receive regularisation. This applies even if you formally consented to your exploitation.

  • Family reunification

    Marriage and registered partnership

    Everyone has the right to marry. In practice, however, this is not easy for Sans-Papiers,  because foreign nationals who want to marry have to prove their legal residence in Switzerland. In addition, civil registry offices are obliged to notify the migration authorities of illegal brides and grooms present. However, the Federal Supreme Court has ruled that Sans-Papiers may not generally be refused marriage in Switzerland. This means that each individual case must be examined and the migration office must issue a so-called toleration of residence if certain criteria are met so that the marriage preparation procedure can be carried out. The exact practice varies from canton to canton. Find out how to proceed from a counselling centre.

    Same-sex couples can marry. They can also convert a previously formed registered partnership into a marriage by submitting a joint declaration to a civil registry office.

    If a marriage or partnership of convenience is suspected, the authorities in Switzerland must refuse the marriage or partnership. In this case, you have no other option than to travel to the country of your nationality and then either marry there and subsequently apply for family reunification in Switzerland, or apply for a visa for the purpose of marriage or partnership preparation in Switzerland so that you can enter Switzerland normally for the marriage or partnership.

    If you divorce during the first three years after marriage or partnership, you risk – even if you are a victim of domestic violence – your residence permit (B permit) not being renewed. If you already lived in Switzerland for several years before getting married, you may have to apply for a hardship permit, depending on your situation (with or without children).

    Other cases

    If you are a minor and one of your parents has a standard situation, this person can apply for a residence permit for you. The same applies if you are the mother of a minor who has Swiss or European nationality or is a regular resident of Switzerland.

  • Statelessness

    You are stateless in Switzerland if, through no fault of your own, you do not have or no longer have a nationality and have no possibility of obtaining one. You can apply for recognition of your statelessness at the State Secretariat for Migration (SEM) in order to obtain a residence permit (B) and a travel document for travelling abroad. If you are a minor and have already lived in Switzerland for 5 years, you can also apply for facilitated naturalisation. The process is complex and takes a long time. In particular, you must be able to prove that no other state recognises you as a dependant. Recognition is necessary, however, because as a stateless person you run the risk of (repeated) detention pending deportation, even if your deportation violates applicable law.

2. Health

Sans-Papiers often live under difficult conditions. Their work is often exhausting and harmful to their health. Added to this is the stress of living without a regular residence status. This can have a negative impact on your health. 

The Health Guide of the Swiss Red Cross (SRC), Caritas and the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH) provides further information (available from the counselling centres or at

  • Right to healthcare

    In Switzerland, all healthcare facilities and doctors are obliged to provide assistance in emergency situations. If you need medical assistance, either because you are sick or injured, you must be treated, with or without health insurance. There are social workers in the hospitals. They can help you if you have any problems.

    Doctors and hospital staff are obliged to maintain confidentiality. They may not report your name, date of birth or contact details to the police or the migration office.

    Tip: Various private organisations provide free or low-cost health care at the local level. In some cantons, public hospitals are even obliged to provide primary health care at public expense because certain institutions have set aside reserves precisely for this purpose (social services, cantonal authorities, hospitals, etc.). If you have not taken out health insurance and the local public institutions are not obliged to pay for your treatment, you may have to bear the costs yourself. In this case, payment can be made in instalments.

  • Right to health insurance

    You have the right to take out health and accident insurance. The only data required for this are your surname, first name, date of birth and a contact address.

    All persons with statutory health insurance are entitled to the same catalogue of benefits, regardless of their residence status. The cost of medical treatment, hospital stays, pregnancies and births are paid for by the health insurance.

    Dental treatment, on the other hand, is not covered by basic insurance.

    Health insurance in Switzerland is not free. You pay a monthly amount (the "premium") and part of the medical treatment costs ("deductible"), while 10% of the costs are paid ("retention"). If you have a low income, it is possible in certain cantons to apply for a premium reduction ("Reduktion"). The health insurance funds are also bound by confidentiality.

     They may only disclose your personal data to the migration authorities if you have given written consent or, if consent cannot be obtained, if it is in your interest, which is never the case. Nevertheless, we recommend that you provide the address of a reliable, "legal" third party when taking out the insurance.

    Attention! If you do not have health insurance, you will have issues with medical care, payment for services received and treatments. The differences between cantons are significant.

    You must take out insurance within 3 months of arriving in Switzerland. In the event of late registration (after more than 3 months from arrival), the insurer may demand a premium surcharge of 50% for a period equivalent to twice the duration of the delay. However, this does not mean that the insurance then takes effect retroactively, although you must pay the premium retroactively.

    Many people take out voluntary supplementary insurance without being able to pay for it: The consequences are considerable in terms of debt and thus preventing future regularisation of your status.

    Tip: Never sign anything unless you are sure you understand what it is about.

  • Right to accident insurance

    All employees in Switzerland are compulsorily insured against occupational accidents and illnesses, even without a residence permit. This includes homeworkers, apprentices, trainees and volunteers. If you work at least 8 hours a week for the same employer, you are also insured against non-occupational accidents. The premiums for compulsory insurance are paid by the employer. The premiums for compulsory insurance against non-occupational accidents are in principle to be borne by the employee, unless the employer voluntarily pays the premium.

    Attention! Even if your employer does not comply with their social security obligation, you are insured and receive the benefits.

     If you receive medical treatment for an occupational accident or disease, you do not have to pay the bill yourself: The costs are covered by your employer's accident insurance.

    Attention! As a rule, accident insurance companies are subject to a duty of confidentiality. However, they are legally obliged to inform the migration authorities if they find evidence of undeclared work, i.e. work that has not been registered with the social security authorities.

  • Reproductive rights (contraception, abortion, etc.) and prevention of sexually transmitted infections (HIV/Aids, other STIs)

    Doctors, hospitals and special counselling centres provide information on contraceptives for women and men and on abortion. 

    By using condoms during sex, you protect yourself from HIV/Aids and other sexually transmitted diseases. They are available without a prescription in every pharmacy or supermarket, and are even dispensed free of charge by some institutions. You can undergo an HIV test free of charge and anonymously at special clinics. Information on the topic of HIV/AIDS can be found in various languages at or

3. Work

If you agree with a person that you will work for them and they promise you a wage in return, this is considered a contract of employment. Even if it is just a verbal agreement. An employment contract does not allow you to regularise your situation, but it guarantees you minimum working conditions.

  • Rights at work
    • Right to working conditions and wages in accordance with collective agreements, local customs, professional practices and standard employment contracts.
    • Minors: Work ban for under-15s and duration should not exceed 9 hours per day. Under 18s no night and Sunday work. If you live with the employer as a domestic worker, the employer must provide you with accommodation that protects your privacy.
    • Reasonable notice periods. Your employer must inform you early enough if they no longer want to employ you.
    • Entitlement to AHV/IV (see chapter on social insurance).

    Unfortunately, many Sans-Papiers receive too low a wage or no wage at all, which is illegal. If talking directly to the employer does not help, you can take legal action before an employment tribunal in certain cantons.

    An action before the labour court can also be brought by a person authorised by you. This means you can assert your rights in court up to five years retroactively, even if you have left Switzerland.

    Tip: When you first introduce yourself to an employer, ask questions about the job:

    How much will you earn? How many hours do you have to work? Which tasks do you have to perform, and which do you not have to perform?

    Make your working hours as clear as possible. This is especially important if you live with the employer. Also make a record of which days you have off. Ask if you can have these arrangements in writing. Employers are legally obliged to issue you with an employment contract.

    Tip: Write down daily how much work you did and what you worked on. Keep written work instructions (paper, SMS, email, etc.) and take photos of your workplace. If you have documented the work you have done, it is easier to assert your claims in the event of problems with your employer.

    Tip: If you are a member of a trade union, you will be advised and supported every step of the way. Do not hesitate to ask at a trade union office near you.

    Attention! Many people are victims of human trafficking without being aware of it. If you work in Switzerland because of false promises or deception about working conditions, if you are forced to work under threat of violence or to pay a large debt – even with your consent - you can receive support and get out of this situation. Check with a member organisation of the Swiss Platform against Human Trafficking:

  • Social security

    Social security is compulsory for all people living and working in Switzerland. The most important are Old-age insurance (AHV), disability insurance (IV), family allowances, unemployment insurance (ALV), accident insurance (UVG), compensation for loss of earnings (EO), occupational benefit plans (BVG) and maternity insurance. All employers must register their employees with the social insurances.

    Attention! Being registered with social security does not mean you have a residence permit. Your residence status remains irregular. If you are registered with the social insurances, you will receive an insurance certificate (AHV pass). Your employer then still employs you illegally, but you are against disability and receive a small pension when you retire, even if you are no longer living in Switzerland.

    Attention! There are employers who deduct contributions from wages but do not pay them into the insurance companies! If you have not received an AHV card, it means that your employer has not insured you correctly.

    Tip: Talk to your employer about registering with social security. Always find out beforehand from a trade union or an advice centre about the usual practice in your canton of residence.

    Tip: If you wish to leave Switzerland: Make sure you find out about your pension before you leave.

    • Family allowances and compensation for loss of earnings: You are entitled to these allowances if you have registered with the competent cantonal fund and have an AHV certificate.
    • Insolvency compensation: You are entitled to this benefit if your employer is insolvent.
    • Unemployment insurance: You are not entitled to unemployment insurance benefits, not even to labour market measures.

4. Education and training

Sans-Papiers children have special rights and opportunities. They can go to school and often receive further support. If you have a child or are a minor yourself, find out about the school situation in your canton from an advice centre.

  • Childcare and kindergarten

    In many cantons, day-care centres and other care facilities are accessible to Sans-Papiers. The costs are partially covered by the cantons. Furthermore, in most cantons it is possible or even obligatory for children without a regular residence status to attend kindergarten.

  • Compulsory school

    Throughout the period of compulsory education, public schools must accept all children up to the age of 16, regardless of their residence status. Access to compulsory school is free.

    Tip: Under-16s are best advised to contact their school counselling service as well as a counselling centre.

  • Non-compulsory school

    There is no basic right to education after compulsory schooling. In certain cantons, however, you can attend a school at upper secondary level (Gymnasium/vocational baccalaureate school/specialist secondary school), a university or a university of applied sciences under certain conditions. Some bridging opportunities are also possible on request. In the case of non-governmental schools, there is the problem of funding.

  • Vocational training

    Vocational apprenticeships are not possible without a residence permit. However, if Sans-Papiers have their sights set on a vocational apprenticeship, they can apply for a residence permit for the duration of this apprenticeship. The following conditions must be fulfilled:

    • You must have attended school in Switzerland for at least 5 years.
    • You must submit your application within 12 months of the end of compulsory education.
    • You must be able to show that you are "well integrated" and respect the Swiss legal system.
    • You most openly make your identity known.
    • The employer must make its willingness to employ you known to the cantonal authorities.

    Attention! There is no fundamental entitlement to a permit to take up and terminate vocational training. Permission is only granted if all requirements are met. The risk is great: If your application is rejected, there is a possibility of deportation, both for you and for your family. In particular, your whole family's situation will be examined. At this point, there is no guarantee that your residence permit will be extended at the end of the training, even though this is usually the case in practice.

  • Support for families

    There are benefits for families with children in many areas of life. This concerns school offers, but also cultural and artistic leisure activities.

    Tip: Schools and teachers are not allowed to give the contact details of minors to the police. Teachers are confidants and almost always have sympathy for the difficult situation of the children of Sans-Papiers. Attend parents' evenings and other school events. If you're apprehensive, bring someone with you.

5. Language courses and social activities

  • Language courses and social activities

    We recommend that you learn how to both speak and write the local language. This will prove highly advantageous for your everyday life in Switzerland. You will be able to participate in society and build your network more effectively, as well as stand up for your interests.

    Local authorities and organisations often offer free or low-cost language courses at times that fit in with work. In many cantons there is also easier access to various activities for Sans-Papiers.

    This can help you to maintain your contacts, to express yourself and to inform yourself. Many organisations offer conversation workshops as well as easily accessible social, political, artistic, cultural and sporting activities.

    Learning the local language and customs as well as social networking are fundamental prerequisites when it comes to regularising your status.

    Tip: The educational institution for adults ECAP allows you to attend a wide variety of courses without risk:

6. Living

  • Living

    Without a residence permit, it is difficult to find accommodation. Sans-Papiers are often forced to rent small, overpriced apartments. You are able to conclude a legally valid tenancy agreement. However, landlords or agencies often require proof of your residence status. 

    Sans-Papiers often find a place to live by getting a person who lives here legally to rent it on their behalf. However, this person makes themself liable to prosecution: They can be punished with up to 12 months in prison, but usually they are only sentenced to a fine in lieu of jail time equivalent to several days.

    The landlord may not charge rent that is higher than the local rent. The price must also not be massively higher than that of the previous tenant. The landlord may demand a deposit equivalent to a maximum of three months' rent. If you pay the rent and do not cause any damage, then the deposit will be paid back to you as soon as you move out. It is very important to ask for a receipt for the deposit. If you are a domestic worker and live with your employer, there are special conditions that protect you.

    Tip: It is important to be able to provide proof of payment. Ask if the landlord can provide you with payment slips so that you can pay the rent under your real name. Payment receipts are the best evidence that you have paid your rent and for subsequent claims against the landlord/lessor.

    Tip: If the landlord charges too high a rent or does not pay back the deposit, try to negotiate with them with the help of a counselling centre. If this does not help, you can call in an arbitration board free of charge in certain cantons. If the landlord offers unsuitable accommodation at a disproportionate rent (unhealthy rooms, cellar, etc.), they can be sentenced to imprisonment or a fine for taking advantage of your weak position.

7. Police and judiciary

In the eyes of the authorities, Sans-Papiers are breaking the law by their mere presence in Switzerland. Working without a permit is an additional violation of the law. However, the police and the judiciary must inform you of your rights and respect them.

Police and judiciary

  • Police checks and your rights
    • The police are not allowed to carry out checks without having a reason to do so. However, they have the right to arrest you and check your identity in both private and public spaces if they have reason to believe that you are connected to a crime.
    • Participation in unauthorised demonstrations (or in authorised ones during which violent confrontations occur) may allow the police to arrest you.
    • Without a residence permit, you will probably be taken to a police station. The police can question you in the first 24 hours of your pre-trial detention without the presence of a lawyer. After 24 hours and before a possible detention review, you should ask to be advised by a lawyer or advocate (free of charge).
    • This is followed by questioning. The interrogators must treat you decently: they may not use threats, or physical or psychological violence.
    • You should ask for an interpreter for your interview. Never answer or sign anything if you have not understood everything clearly.
    • You always have the right to refuse to give evidence. You do not have to provide information about your address, your employer or your circle of friends. You may respond with: "I have nothing to say about that". It's better to say nothing than to lie. Lies are usually recognised and you may be interpreted as untrustworthy. However, you must provide your personal details – i.e. first name, surname, date of birth and place of origin.
    • The police are not allowed to carry out a body search during a simple check without reason. This includes simple pat-down searches and especially intimate body searches. However, they may search you once at the police station if they deem it necessary. Body searches must always be carried out in two steps (first the top, then the bottom half of the body or vice versa, but never the whole body at the same time) and by a person of the same sex. If you are a trans person, your request to be searched by a person whose registered sex matches your gender identity should be considered. Searches which involve undressing, for example intimate searches, may only be carried out by medically trained personnel who are not members of the police force. If you are having a vaginal or anal examination, it must be carried out by a doctor or healthcare professional, however they do not necessarily have to be the same sex as you. You cannot refuse to be searched. However, you can refuse a vaginal or anal examination if it causes you significant distress.
    • The police may only conduct house searches with a house search warrant. According to the Foreign Nationals and Integration Act, the police may search the person concerned  during an expulsion or deportation procedure, as well as his or her belongings that he or she is carrying, in order to secure travel and identity documents, even without a court order.
    • The police may confiscate items and documents you have brought with you for safekeeping. You should ask for a receipt for all confiscated items. You should ask for your personal notes, calendar, phone or similar items to be kept securely. Police officers are not allowed to read or make copies of your personal items. Only an investigating judge can overturn this.
    • Lock your mobile phone with a code so that the police cannot easily view your messages and contacts. You are in no way obliged to pass on this code.
    • Be sure to report assaults to the human rights organisation "Augenauf".

    In principle, you will be released after questioning assuming you have not committed any offences apart from your irregular stay.

    If criminal proceedings are initiated or discontinued, if you are arrested or released, or if a criminal judgement is passed against you, the authorities will communicate with each other. Generally, the police will report you to the migration authorities after questioning, whereupon a judge will decide to deport you to a country of your nationality. This is usually accompanied by a ban from Switzerland for at least 2 to 3 years. You can be sentenced to a fine or imprisonment of one year or more. The judicial authority can order a search of your home or other premises if they suspect that you are hiding there or that your travel documents are there. The immigration police may order detention pending deportation. You will remain in detention until the authorities can arrange your departure. The lawfulness of this detention must be established within 96 hours by a judge. The maximum duration of detention pending deportation or expulsion, in addition to a possible detention for disobedience, is 18 months (12 months for minors between 15 and 18 years of age). You can lodge an appeal against the arrest warrant, but this is subject to a fee. Every 3 months, the extension of detention must also be reviewed by a judge in a hearing.

    Your employer also risks criminal sanctions (fines, fines or imprisonment).

    As far as your friend(s) are concerned: Most people who are in contact with you do not risk sanctions unless the authorities consider that they are "facilitating" your stay (for example, if they are hosting you). In this case, they usually risk a small fine.

    Tip: Contact a legal advice centre immediately if you have been stopped by the police.

8. Support in emergencies

  • Support in emergencies

    If you are in need of assistance, you are not entitled to social assistance. However, you are entitled to emergency assistance such as food, shelter, clothing and basic medical expenses. However, this means that you have to register with the cantonal authorities and makes it more difficult for you to apply for regularisation, as you are no longer financially independent.

    If your asylum application is rejected or if you have received a decision of non-admission, you are entitled to emergency assistance under certain conditions, which guarantees you a minimum level of subsistence.

9. Discrimination

  • Discrimination

    Discrimination violates fundamental human rights and human dignity. Nevertheless, many people in Switzerland experience racism and discrimination – in private, in dealings with authorities, in public and at work.

    Swiss laws do a poor job of combating racism and other types of discrimination.

    People facing discrimination face various obstacles, including the problem of providing evidence and the fear of social, political, legal and financial consequences.

    We stand by them! Every day, solidarity-based organisations and trade unions work to improve laws and their application so that racism and all other types of discrimination can be punished effectively. Keep as much evidence as possible and contact an advice centre: You will receive support.

10. The risk of being reported to the migration authorities

  • The risk of being reported to the migration authorities

    The law obliges certain authorities to transfer your data to the migration authorities if you suspect that your residence status is not regular or are informed that this is the case. It's important to know what they are.

    In most cantons, these authorities must systematically transmit data about you to the migration authorities:

    • Police authorities, criminal investigation authorities and criminal courts
    • Tax authorities and social security enforcement authorities
    • Asylum authorities
    • Civil registry offices (except for the preparation of birth certificates and paternity acknowledgments in most cases)
    • Labour inspectors, labour market control offices, unemployment funds and labour offices

    In contrast, you can usually trust the following authorities and organisations:

    • School boards and educational institutions
    • Medical authorities, health services and medical staff
    • Health insurance enforcement authorities
    • Victim support services
    • Lawyers
    • Associations (advice centres, law firms, aid organisations), trade unions

    Tip: This list is not exhaustive and there exist differences from canton to canton. If you have doubts about which authorities you can trust – especially in the civil courts and labour courts – contact a counselling centre or a trade union.

Unia demands

We demand collective regularisation

For years, Sans-Papiers in Switzerland have been fighting together with support groups for collective regularisation. A number of successes have been achieved: Thousands of residence permits and the right to health insurance for all. In regions where the Sans-Papiers are well organised, new paths can open up. For example, the "Opération Papyrus" campaign in Geneva led to the regularisation of the residence status of over 2,800 Sans-Papiers in 2017 and 2018. Geneva criteria for regularisation:

  • Duration of stay of five years for families with school-age children – the requirement of a stay of five years refers to one family member.
  • Residence period of ten years for individuals, childless couples or couples with children not yet of school age
  • Good "integration"; confirmation of language level A2 must at least be in progress
  • No criminal convictions, no repeated convictions for irregular residence and unauthorised work and no successive bans on entering Switzerland
  • Complete financial independence and freedom from debt
  • Currently working

A good reason, then, to get involved in the various Sans-Papiers collectives in support of the Sans-Papiers in your region!

Tip: As a working Sans-Papier you can join a union without risk. Every day, trade unions fight for a just society based on solidarity. Because it represents the interests of all its members regardless of their legal situation, a trade union can advise and support you, for example in court proceedings.

Useful Addresses

This page was developed by the Unia Trade Union in cooperation with the contact points for Sans-Papiers.