Accessing social security in an unpredictable global career situation

At the beginning of our international careers, we tend to disregard social security, but later wish we had addressed this subject earlier. It is crucial to consider social security as early as possible, for instance, when assessing job opportunities and choosing employers.

Social security
Chloé Favre


Stagiaire académique (2022)
Nicole Toepperwien



At a glance

When it comes to social security, there is no one-size-fits-all. Each situation is different (depending on your employer, type of contract, canton of residence in Switzerland, or time requirements). Furthermore, today’s careers are no longer linear; short-term contracts and consultancies are the new normal, leading to increased complexity regarding social security questions. But there are ways to mitigate risks and act preventively. Learn more about this important subject with recommendations given by our partner, Soliswiss.

During Forum cinfo 2022, Soliswiss, a cooperative that provides expert advice on social security matters to Swiss citizens living abroad or working for multilateral organisations, gave an overview of the main challenges and offered recommendations regarding social security and international careers.

A few words about social security

Social security is supposed to mitigate risks that could arise outside of your control and, if something happens, may heavily impact you financially and otherwise. The government, in many cases, covers these risks or provides access to social security through health, accident and disability insurance, unemployment insurance, maternity leave or pension schemes. When you work for an international organisation, you are often no longer covered by a national social security system. Therefore, international organisations will provide some social security - if you continue to work for them.

General concerns about social security

A short survey conducted among the audience of the Forum cinfo 2022 revealed that unemployment, pensions and healthcare were the main areas of concern. This came as no surprise to our experts at cinfo, who admitted that unemployment in particular is the aspect from which staff in international organisations have little to no protection, often having to rely on their savings in this situation.

Unemployment is an aspect from which staff in international organisations have little to no protection.

Growing challenges in accessing social security as an international worker

Although some challenges have existed for a long time, they are becoming more pronounced due to changes in career modalities.

Linear careers are the exception rather than the rule

In the past, many worked for one organisation for their entire career. Today, however, international cooperation professionals tend to work for a variety of employers (in NGOs, as national or international civil servants), with a growing trend towards consultancies. This poses extreme challenges for social security. For the most part, employees are well covered while working abroad as employees of Swiss or international organisations; the challenge arises when contracts change and international employers frequently or intermittently work as self-employed consultants.

The uberisation of UN jobs

The recent increase in consultant positions at the UN (as opposed to staff positions), described by one Forum participant as "uberisation", increases the number of employees working without the social security cover provided by the mandated organisation. It is up to the consultant to personally arrange social security through national or private schemes. If consultants are no longer permanently resident in Switzerland, it can become costly or even impossible to maintain all aspects of social security.

Strict deadlines for maintaining or accessing social security

There are often strict deadlines and waiting periods for maintaining or accessing aspects of social security, such as the following:

  • All international civil servants employed by the UN are required to pay into the UN pension scheme. The civil servant contributes one third and the UN as employer two thirds. However, you are only entitled to a pension if you have worked for the UN for at least five years. If the total length of service is less than five years, your contribution is paid out as a lump sum, but the employer's contribution is lost.
  • Sometimes the voluntary AVS is an option if you want to continue contributing to the Swiss old-age and disability pension scheme. However, there is a strict one-year registration period and you are only eligible if you live outside the European Union or EFTA and have been affiliated to the AHV for the five years immediately preceding your application to join the voluntary AVS.
  • If you work for the UN or certain other international organisations in Geneva, you have three months to decide whether you want to continue contributing to the AVS, the disability insurance, the maternity insurance and the unemployment insurance, or only to the unemployment insurance. If you fail to act, you will lose access to Swiss social security and will have to rely entirely on one of your organisations.

Certain things are simply not covered

Unemployment insurance is only available in very rare cases. There is no private insurance solution to fill the gap.

Several aspects of social security tend to end if you leave the organisation before retirement, including in some cases health insurance. Depending on your age and state of health, it can be very difficult to get affordable health insurance if you live in a country that does not provide access to public health (insurance) systems.

Recommendations to stay one step ahead of your worries (knowing that every situation is different)

  • Assess risks as early as possible
  • Consider all family members
  • Define possible career changes and what benefits will be lost or retained in different scenarios
  • Understand what parts of social security you have access to, what is covered and where there are potential gaps
  • Decide which risks you are willing to take and which you want to mitigate
  • Be proactive and keep your options open: for example, it's always possible to opt out of the Voluntary AVS, but not to register once the registration deadline has passed
  • Sometimes you can opt for 'creative' approaches: e.g. remain resident in Switzerland as an employee or self-employed, as far as the law allows
  • Reassess from time to time

Where to seek guidance?

Soliswiss is the expert in social security issues; its team of specialists is available for one-on-one consultations and offers memberships for ongoing support.