Together with all European states, Switzerland strictly regulates access to its territory. In order to cross its border, you need to have a recognised legitimating document, that is to say a “travel document” (a generic term which designates passports and other documents). In most cases, you will also need a visa.
Visa: One should understand this as an authorisation to enter the territory and to stay for a period.
However, one needs to distinguish between a visa and a residence permit.
A visa is the fist authorisation you have to obtain, generally from the SEM through a consulate. One obtains a residence permit for educational purposes from the cantonal authority (in Geneva, the OCPM). In practice, when one is subject to a visa obligation, investigation of the conditions for granting a visa will happen simultaneously with that for granting a residence permit for educational purposes.
However, a person can be exempted from the need to obtain a visa, but they will nonetheless have to get a residence permit for educational purposes if they wish to come and study in Switzerland.
To simplify things, one can say that a visa permits one to enter while the residence permit allows one to stay in the country for a specific purposes (in this case, for study).
Certain additional conditions also apply, such as not being subject to an entry ban or to deportation. These particular scenarios are beyond the scope of this guide.
Legal basis: Art. 5 FNIA, Schengen regulation, EGVO
Two visa granting regimes coexist. Schengen regulations for all stays of less than 90 days (three months), and national regulations for stays of more than 90 days (three months). The SEM provides a timeframe calculator on its website.
See also the Schengen system.
When the planned stay is longer than 90 days (which will generally be the case for a stay for study purposes), Switzerland issues its own rules for granting a visa. This is primarily what the EGVO is about.
Therefore, you first need to ask whether, given their nationality, the person wishing to immigrate is subject to a visa obligation or not.
The answer to this question can be found on the SEM website. In practice, almost all non-Europeans are subject to a visa obligation. In fact, only nationals of the following non-European countries are exempt from this obligation for stays of more than 90 days:
Brunei Darussalam, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, San Marino and Singapore.
Legal basis: Art. 5 para. 2 EGVO.
However, even if a student does not have to apply for a visa, it is obligatory for all persons to apply for a residence permit from their country of residence, and to wait there for a response.
There are exceptions to this principle, notably that in Art. 17 para. 2 of the FNIA, which states that a foreigner can stay in Switzerland during the procedure if admission conditions are “clearly being met.” This rule does not include non-Europeans applying for a residence permit for studies, because they do not have any right to immigrate.
This means that the authorities take a dim view of being confronted by a “fait accompli”. For example, where a student enters Switzerland illegally and begins their studies, only applying for a residence permit at a later stage. However, if the other conditions are being met, case law shows that such a step need not be insurmountable. In fact, the Federal Administrative Court admitted an appeal by an Algerian student subject to visa requirements who had entered Switzerland on a Schengen tourist visa, and begun her studies at EPFL1.
Future students from outside Europe therefore do not have the right to enter Switzerland with a view to requesting a stay for studies. With respect to the initial request, everything takes place outside of Switzerland.
Legal basis: Art. 17 FNIA