Private banking and wealth management

All questions Regulation

What are the main sources of law and regulation relevant for private banking?

The Swiss legislation relevant for private banking and wealth management comprises a number of legal and regulatory instruments, the applicability of which depends on the actual services offered by the wealth manager. In terms of ranking from the least regulated to most regulated, the services may be listed as follows: advisory, portfolio management (without custody of client assets), portfolio management for collective investment schemes, securities dealing (including brokerage services) and finally banking (including custody and lending). The main statutes relevant for private banking are:

  • the Federal Banking Act of 1934 (BA);
  • the Federal Stock Exchanges and Securities Trading Act of 1995 (SESTA);
  • the Federal Collective Investment Schemes Act of 2006 (CISA);
  • the Federal Act on the Swiss Financial Market Supervisory Authority (FINMASA); and
  • the Federal Act on Combating Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing in the Financial Sector of 1997 (AMLA).

These statutes are supplemented by ordinances enacted by the Swiss Federal Council or, as regards more technical aspects, by the Swiss Financial Market Supervisory Authority (FINMA). Their practical application is further regulated by a number of FINMA circulars.

The relevant statutes relating to financial services and institutions are in the process of being revised; see ‘Update and trends’.

Regulatory bodies

What are the main government, regulatory or self-regulatory bodies relevant for private banking and wealth management?

Under Swiss law, banks are subject to licensing requirements and the ongoing supervision of FINMA. In contrast, entities or individuals providing exclusively wealth management services (discretionary and non-discretionary advisory services) are not, as a matter of principle, subject to prudential supervision in Switzerland, unless these activities are conducted in connection with collective investment schemes, or the wealth manager offers securities dealing or brokerage services or manages assets of Swiss pension funds. Wealth managers that manage their clients’ assets or execute investment transactions as investment advisers are characterised as financial intermediaries and, as such, are subject to the Swiss anti-money laundering regulations. Investment advisory services without any transaction execution are not subject, in the current state of legislation, to any supervision or similar regulatory requirements at all.

In terms of supervisory authorities, FINMA is an independent and single integrated authority for the Swiss markets, which is responsible for the supervision of banks, securities dealers, stock exchanges and collective investment schemes. It further monitors the private insurance sector, as well as certain financial intermediaries, for the purpose of combating money laundering and terrorist financing. FINMA’s activities are overseen in turn by the Swiss parliament and, although it carries out its activities independently, FINMA has a duty to report to the Swiss Federal Council.

Financial intermediaries subject to the AMLA are required to be registered, at their preference, either with a self-regulatory organisation (SRO) recognised by FINMA or FINMA itself (banks and other regulated firms are automatically subject to FINMA’s supervision in respect to anti-money laundering requirements). The SROs are responsible for monitoring their members as regards their compliance with their obligations under the Swiss anti-money laundering regulations. The SROs are in turn subject to FINMA authorisation and supervision.

In addition, given the high degree of self-regulation in Switzerland in the private banking and wealth management sector, the primary SROs active in those markets need to be mentioned and include: (i) the Swiss Bankers Association (SBA); (ii) the Swiss Funds and Asset Management Association (SFAMA); and (iii) the Swiss Asset Managers’ Association (ASG). Some of the codes of conduct and guidelines issued by those bodies have been recognised by FINMA as minimum standards for the relevant industry and apply to all firms active in the relevant fields, irrespective of their membership of one of the above-named industry bodies.

Private wealth services

How are private wealth services commonly provided in your jurisdiction?

In Switzerland, private wealth services are provided on a heterogeneous basis with the use of different business models. Large universal banks and wealth management banking institutions (private banks) coexist with other players such as independent asset managers, family offices and trust companies. Independent asset managers represent the lion’s share of the para-banking sector within the Swiss financial industry, with a limited level of regulatory oversight for the time being (see ‘Update and trends’).

Definition of private banking

What is the definition of private banking or similar business in your jurisdiction?

As a matter of principle, private banking and wealth management activities cover the provision of investment advice, the management of client assets and investment research in relation thereof, as well as custody and securities dealing services. These activities, if not carried out by banks, are not regulated in Switzerland for the time being (with the exception of AMLA regulations), provided these are limited to investment management, to the exclusion of the management or distribution or collective investment schemes, the management of Swiss pension funds or the performance of securities dealing activities.

Licensing requirements

What are the main licensing requirements for a private bank?

As mentioned above, banks (providing private banking services) are subject to licensing requirements and FINMA’s ongoing supervision. Under Swiss law, banks are defined as business entities that solicit or take deposits from the public (or refinance themselves with substantial amounts from other unrelated banks) to provide financing to a large number of persons or entities. To the extent that a firm offers custody services, which are not limited to being used for securities transactions, it is required to be licensed as a bank.

In a nutshell, the conditions for the granting of a licence to conduct banking activities encompass financial and organisational requirements, as well as ‘fit and proper’ tests imposed on managers and qualified shareholders. To this end, the applicant must establish that these persons enjoy a good reputation and thereby ensure the proper conduct of business operations (ie, the guarantee of irreproachable activity).

The granting of a banking licence is further subject to a minimum equity requirement. The fully paid-up share capital of a Swiss bank must amount to a minimum of 10 million Swiss francs and must not be directly or indirectly financed by the bank, offset against claims of the bank or secured by assets of the bank. For the rest, the Swiss regulatory banks’ capital and liquidity regimes reflect the Basel III recommendations with, arguably, a certain level of ‘Swiss finish’, with some of the requirements going beyond Based III.

Further, applicants are to appoint a recognised auditor specifically for the authorisation procedure. They are also to appoint an external audit company supervised by the Federal Audit Oversight Authority for the purpose of their ongoing supervision. The role of such a company is to assist FINMA in its supervisory functions. In this context, FINMA requires that financial and regulatory audits be conducted separately, and, where appropriate, that these two different audits be carried out by different audit firms.

Finally, it is worth noting that banks that are directly or indirectly owned or controlled by foreign nationals are subject to additional licensing requirements.

Licensing conditions

What are the main ongoing conditions of a licence for a private bank?

After the delivery of the banking licence, FINMA monitors compliance with licensing criteria and the applicable regulatory obligations on an ongoing basis. If, at a later stage, any of the licence requirements cease to be fulfilled or in case of breach of regulatory obligations, FINMA may take administrative measures and, as a last resort, withdraw the banking licence. Any changes to the organisational documents or any other conditions of the licence need to be notified to FINMA in advance and an application lodged seeking approval thereof, prior to the changes becoming effective.

Organisational forms

What are the most common forms of organisation of a private bank?

The most common form of organisation of private banks is a Swiss corporation, with some notable former private bankers having restructured from a partnership into a corporation in the past years. The Association of Swiss Private Banks (ABPS) counts 10 members, which are all Swiss banks that are privately owned and not listed entities. However, out of the 10, six banks, which also form the Swiss Private Bankers’ Association, remain organised as private partnerships, with the partners having unlimited personal liability. By contrast, banks providing wealth management services as part of their broader activities (based on the model of ‘universal bank’) always take the form of Swiss corporations.

Foreign banks having a presence in Switzerland usually set up a subsidiary or a branch, depending on the scope and the intensity of the activities performed on Swiss soil, as well as certain tax and operational considerations.


Obtaining a licence

How long does it take to obtain a licence for a private bank?

The process to obtain a banking licence, as a matter of principle, takes about six to nine months from the date the application is filed with FINMA. The duration may, however, vary in the presence of certain specific factors, such as the complexity of the structure or the involvement of foreign supervisory authorities in the event that the applicant has connections with foreign countries.

Licence withdrawal

What are the processes and conditions for closure or withdrawal of licences?

According to article 37 FINMASA, FINMA must revoke the licence granted to a bank in the event that the latter no longer fulfils the licensing requirements or has seriously violated applicable regulatory provisions. FINMA may take this measure only in the event that it appears that the legal situation cannot be restored by means of a less restrictive measure, in accordance with the principle of proportionality. The withdrawal of a licence is not a criminal sanction, but an administrative measure whose purpose is to protect the bank’s creditors. It is worth noting that the consequences of a withdrawal of a licence are the same whether the entity exercised its banking activities with or without a licence.

The withdrawal of the licence is ordered on the basis of a decision of the regulator, which triggers the winding-up of the bank. In this context, the governing bodies of the bank are no longer entitled to represent the bank, and a liquidator, supervised by FINMA, is appointed for the purpose of the liquidation procedure. For the rest, the bank is liquidated in accordance with the specific provisions of the BA and the Swiss Debt Collection and Bankruptcy Act.

Wealth management licensing

Is wealth management subject to supervision or licensing?

Wealth management activities (ie, the provision of investment advice, the management of client assets and research), provided they do not include client money custody, distribution or the management of collective investment schemes, the management of the assets of Swiss pension funds, or securities dealing activities, are not subject, for the time being (see ‘Update and trends’), to supervision or licensing requirements, to the exclusion of compliance with Swiss anti-money laundering regulations.


What are the main licensing requirements for wealth management?

For the time being, there are no ongoing licensing requirements for wealth management, as defined in question 10, other than registration with an SRO or FINMA for Swiss anti-money laundering compliance purposes, which is not per se a licence (ie, no continuing prudential supervision, capital or equity requirements or rules of conduct). This will change with the entry into force of the new Financial Institutions Act (FinIA), which is expected by 1 January 2020.

What are the main ongoing conditions of a wealth management licence?

See question 11.

Anti-money laundering and financial crime prevention


What are the main anti-money laundering and financial crime prevention requirements for private banking and wealth management in your jurisdiction?

The anti-money laundering and financial crime requirements imposed upon financial intermediaries within private banking are essentially know-your-customer rules and procedures, as well as certain organisational requirements (eg, internal controls, documentation and ongoing education).

In addition, a financial intermediary has a reporting duty to the regulatory body in the event that he or she is aware of, or has reasonable suspicion, as regards the criminal origin of the assets involved (eg, the assets are connected to a predicate offence of money laundering, a criminal organisation or terrorism financing activities). In case of reporting, the financial intermediary is to monitor the clients’ assets for a period of up to 20 days (during which the regulatory body is to review the reporting made). If the case is transferred to a criminal prosecution authority following the reporting, the financial intermediary is to implement a full freeze on the account for up to five days until a decision to maintain the freeze is made by the criminal authority. An immediate freezing of assets is, however, required for assets connected to persons whose details were transmitted to the financial intermediary by FINMA, the Federal Gaming Board or an SRO due to a suspicion of being involved with or supporting terroristic activities.

Politically exposed persons

What is the definition of a politically exposed person (PEP) in local law? Are there increased due diligence requirements for establishing a private banking relationship for a PEP?

According to the AMLA, foreign and national PEPs are defined as persons who are or have been entrusted with leading public functions in politics, administration, the military and justice on a national level abroad, respectively, in Switzerland, as well as members of the board of directors or of the management of state-owned enterprises with national importance. This definition also covers persons who are or have been entrusted with a leading function in intergovernmental organisations or international sport associations.

Business relationships with foreign PEPs and their family members or close associates (ie, individuals who are related to them or closely connected socially or professionally) are deemed to be de facto high-risk relationships and involve increased due diligence duties. By contrast, relationships with domestic PEPs or those exposed in international organisations, as well as their family members or close associates, are deemed to present high risks only when combined with one or more further risk criteria (eg, the residence or nationality of the contracting party or the beneficial owner, the complexity of the structure, the amount of the assets etc).

The increased due diligence duties in this context presuppose that the financial intermediary performs, in a proportionate manner, further clarifications on the contracting party, the beneficial owner and the assets involved. He or she is further to implement an effective monitoring system of these relationships and to ensure the detection of high risks in this respect.

Documentation requirements

What is the minimum identification documentation required for account opening? Describe the customary level of due diligence and information required to establish a private banking relationship in your jurisdiction.

Under the AMLA, financial intermediaries such as banks and asset managers are subject to various know-your-customer duties, which are in line with international standards.

In particular, they are required to verify, prior to entering into any business relationship, the identity of their contractual counterparties with a copy of a passport, identity card, driving licence or other similar documents. They further must record the first and last names, date of birth, nationality and address of their clients in their files. Further specific requirements apply to relationships established by correspondence or the internet. In this respect, it worth noting that, since 1 January 2016, the Swiss legal framework provides for the possibility for financial intermediaries to on-board clients exclusively online. In this context, FINMA published a circular on video and online identification (FINMA Circular 2016/7) which entered into force on 18 March 2016 (and which is currently under revision to reflect the feedback of financial intermediaries and the technological evolution since then). One of the main purposes of this circular is to clarify and facilitate video and online client identification for financial intermediaries subject to KYC duties.

Financial intermediaries are also to identify the beneficial owner of the assets involved (ie, the person who has a financial interest in such assets), as well as the persons controlling legal entities conducting business activities. Under certain circumstances (eg, the contracting party is different from the beneficial owner of the assets), financial intermediaries are to obtain a written declaration signed by the contracting party in this respect. They usually document the identity of the beneficial owner (including his or her nationality, address and date of birth) with a specific form (eg, the Form A developed by the SBA).

Further, financial intermediaries are to clarify the economic background and purpose of a transaction or business relationship if: (i) it appears unusual, unless its legality is clear; or (ii) there are indications that suggest the assets may be the proceeds of a crime or a qualified tax offence (see question 16) or are related to a criminal organisation. Enhanced due diligence obligations apply with regard to higher-risk business relationships or transactions.

In practice, in the presence of an independent asset manager, banks usually delegate their know-your customer duties to the said manager and rely on his or her indications for anti-money laundering purposes.

It is worth noting that on 1 June 2018, the Federal Council opened up a consultation procedure on the revision of the AMLA. The purpose of this revision is to reflect the outcome of the latest FATF review of the Swiss AML framework. Among other things, the draft provides for the extension of due diligence obligations to advisory services related to the setting up, management and administration of offshore companies and trusts, regardless of the absence of any pure financial intermediation activity (ie, services involving (i) financial transactions or (ii) an activity of a corporate body of an offshore company). The draft further provides for the removal of the 20 day period during which the regulatory body is to review the reporting made by the financial intermediary and revert, as the case may be. According to the Federal Council, this would allow the regulatory body to prioritise the filings and treat them in a more efficient manner. The consultation procedure is opened up until 21 September 2018 and will likely trigger intense discussions in the Swiss parliament.

Tax offence

Are tax offences predicate offences for money laundering? What is the definition and scope of the main predicate offences?

Since 1 January 2016, qualified tax offences in relation to direct taxes constitute predicate offences for money laundering within the meaning of the revised article 305-bis of the Swiss Criminal Code (SCC).

Qualified tax offences are defined as tax fraud, provided that the evaded tax amount in a particular tax period exceeds 300,000 Swiss francs. The qualified tax fraud presupposes in this context the use of false, falsified or untrue official documents (such as financial statements or salary certificates).

Qualified tax offences committed abroad may also be considered as predicate offences for the purposes of article 305-bis SCC, provided that: (i) these are also treated as an offence in that foreign country; and (ii) the evaded tax amount reaches the equivalent above threshold in Swiss francs.

For the rest, one should mention that qualified tax offences in relation to indirect taxes have constituted a predicate offence for money laundering since 2009. From 1 January 2016, the definition of this offence has been extended and is no longer limited to customs contraband.

Compliance verification

What is the minimum compliance verification required from financial intermediaries in connection to tax compliance of their clients?

Since 2012, the Swiss Federal Council has been keen to implement its ‘clean money strategy’ through, inter alia, the introduction of enhanced due diligence requirements applicable to financial intermediaries in connection with the tax compliance of their clients. Such initiative has been subject to intense discussions and debates for years. For the time being, no specific prescriptive requirements as regards the review of the tax compliance of the clients’ assets have been implemented in the Swiss legal framework.

That being said, with the revision of the AMLA, a risk-based approach is now generally applied by financial intermediaries to assess the tax compliance of clients’ assets. In addition, the participation of Switzerland in the automatic exchange of information within the OECD since 2018 will likely alleviate to a certain degree the risks related to tax compliance. As of today, tax information about clients with residence in countries having entered into an agreement with Switzerland for this purpose are automatically transmitted to the foreign tax authority through the Swiss tax authorities. According to the Automatic Exchange of Information Act, which entered into force on 1 January 2017, financial institutions have become subject to a duty to obtain from their clients opening accounts after this date a specific self-certification indicating their name, address, tax residence, tax identification number and date of birth.


What is the liability for failing to comply with money laundering or financial crime rules?

Financial intermediaries may face criminal liability for failing to comply with their duty of diligence. According to article 305-ter (1) SCC, they may be sentenced to imprisonment of up to a year and to a fine (capped at 1.08 million Swiss francs). In addition, in the event that they do not comply with their reporting duty to the regulatory body, they may be subject to a fine of up to 500,000 Swiss francs under the AMLA. Finally, financial intermediaries may be subject to further fines and disciplinary measures imposed by their SROs or, for banks, the Supervisory Commission of the SBA, in case of violation of their anti-money laundering self-regulatory rules.

Clients, as well as banks’ and wealth managers’ employees, committing money laundering offences may be subject to criminal sanctions, including imprisonment for up to five years and a fine of up to 1.5 million Swiss francs.

Client segmentation and protection

Types of client

Does your jurisdiction’s legal and regulatory framework distinguish between types of client for private banking purposes?

For the time being (see ‘Update and trends’), the Swiss legal framework applicable to private banking does not provide for any structured uniform client segmentation per se. Typically, the concept of high net worth individuals is only relevant for the purpose of the distribution of collective investment schemes or structured products in Switzerland, which are not addressed here. In terms of securities and brokerage services, the concepts of ‘clients’ and ‘public’ do not comprise regulated financial services providers, as well institutional investors with professional treasury management.

The situation will change with the new Financial Services Act (FinSA) (see ‘Update and trends’).

Client segmentation

What are the consequences of client segmentation?

See question 19.

Consumer protection

Is there consumer protection or similar legislation in your jurisdiction relevant to private banking and wealth management?

Generally speaking, Swiss regulatory law does not provide for a specific consumer protection legal framework. That being said, within the provision of certain types of credit facilities, Swiss financial institutions are to observe a series of mandatory consumer protection rules which cannot be varied to the detriment of consumers.

Within national and international transactions with consumers under the Swiss Code of Civil Procedure, the Lugano Convention or the Swiss Private International Law Act (PILA), depending on the countries involved, specific consumer protection rules may apply as regards the determination of the competent jurisdiction or the applicable law.

Exchange controls and withdrawals

Exchange controls and restrictions

Describe any exchange controls or restrictions on the movement of funds.

There are no foreign exchange controls applicable in Switzerland.

By contrast, certain restrictions on movements on funds are imposed by the Federal Council Ordinances implementing international, European and national sanctions taken against certain countries or targeted individuals or entities.

Withdrawal restrictions

Are there restrictions on cash withdrawals imposed by law or regulation? Do banks customarily impose restrictions on account withdrawals?

In principle, there are no restrictions on (cash) withdrawals imposed by Swiss law or regulation. On the contrary, the only legal means of discharging a debt in Swiss francs is by way of cash; any other settlement methods (wire, cheque etc) are purely contractual. In practice, most banking institutions have in recent years included in their general terms and conditions restrictions on cash withdrawals, as well as certain other types of non-transparent transactions which otherwise would expose the banking institution to increased risks.

Indeed, in accordance with the AMLA regulations, in the event that a financial intermediary has made a report to the regulatory body, it is to ensure the paper trail of transactions involving substantial amounts, and therefore may be required to impose restrictions on (cash) withdrawals. Likewise, in the event that a financial intermediary terminates a suspicious relationship without having made any report (because of an absence of reasonable grounds to suspect money laundering or terrorism financing), he or she may authorise (cash) withdrawals of substantial amounts only if the paper trail is ensured. Banks are, however, free to impose further restrictions in their internal policies, based on their own assessment of the risks associated with such transactions, within the limits of the banking contractual relationship with the client.

Are there any restrictions on other withdrawals from an account in your jurisdiction?

The same regime as described in question 23 applies to other withdrawals.



Describe the private banking confidentiality obligations.

Banks incorporated in Switzerland, as well as Swiss branches and representative offices of foreign banks, are bound by a statutory duty of confidentiality towards their clients (ie, banking secrecy). The disclosure of client information to third parties, including parent and affiliated companies, is prohibited in this context.

Banking secrecy is, however, not absolute and may be waived or does not apply under certain exceptional circumstances. In recent years, the importance and scope of Swiss banking secrecy has been subject to intense discussion following pressure of foreign countries. The situation has, however, changed as regards tax matters with the implementation of the automatic exchange of information (see question 31).

In principle, clients of independent asset managers do not benefit from the protection of the banking secrecy that applies to relationships entered into with banks and securities dealers within the meaning of the BA and SESTA. As a result, specific confidentiality provisions are usually incorporated in the contractual documentation in this respect.

Besides the above, clients’ data is also protected by the provisions of the Data Protection Act (DPA), which is generally in line with European legislation on data protection. Currently, the DPA is under revision in order - at least in theory - to harmonise it with the new data protection standards adopted by the EU (ie, the EU General Data Protection Regulation 2016/679 (GDPR) and EU Directive 2016/680). The draft bill has recently been split into two separate projects and priority has been given to the implementation of the EU Directive 2016/680 over the GDPR. At the time of writing, the Swiss legislator has not yet published a time frame for this reform, which will allow Switzerland to uphold its status as a country providing for an equivalent level of data protection and to be recognised as such by EU member states.


What information and documents are within the scope of confidentiality?

Swiss banking secrecy encompasses all information and documents that pertain to the contractual relationship between the bank and its clients. That said, Swiss case law and scholars make it clear that purely internal notes and instructions of a bank (ie, not specifically relating to a client or containing client-identifying information) pertain to the bank’s own private sphere and are not covered by banking secrecy.

Likewise, the contractual confidentiality provisions within asset management agreements usually cover a similar scope of information.

For the purposes of data protection, the term ‘personal data’ comprises any information which relates to an identified or identifiable person (ie, the data subject), it being understood that Swiss law adopts a ‘relative’ approach to the identification, in the sense that the ability to identify a data subject from the data is assessed relative to the person processing the data, by reference to legal means to access other data that may be correlated to the dataset under review, and not merely based on the theoretical ability of any person to reverse engineer a dataset.

Expectations and limitations

What are the exceptions and limitations to the duty of confidentiality?

As mentioned above, Swiss banking secrecy does not apply in certain exceptional situations. This is the case when a bank is under a disclosure of information duty to Swiss public or judicial authorities, in accordance with relevant Swiss procedural regulations. Further, communication of information for the purposes of consolidated supervision over a banking group to which a Swiss bank belongs (provided that such communication is necessary and fulfils further conditions) may be allowed despite banking secrecy. Finally, banks are authorised to disclose client-related data provided the client has given his or her consent. To be valid, the banking secrecy waiver is to be expressly given in writing and the client is to be specifically informed on the consequences of such a waiver. Further, its scope is to be clearly defined.

The exceptions and limitations to the contractual confidentiality duty in asset management agreements with independent asset managers depend on the terms of the contractual provisions. In any event, such confidentiality duty would not apply if the independent asset manager is under a disclosure obligation to a Swiss public or judicial authority, as per the relevant procedural regulations.

In terms of data protection, the exceptions and limitations in relation to the processing or communication of personal data generally rely on the data subject’s consent, a legal obligation or a prevailing public or private interest. Certain limitations also apply in the event of a transmission of data abroad, namely in the event that the foreign country to which the data is transmitted does not offer an adequate level of data protection.


What is the liability for breach of confidentiality?

Under Swiss law, a breach of banking secrecy is considered as a breach of the client-bank relationship, and may give rise to criminal and civil liability.

The potential sanction for an intentional breach of banking secrecy is a fine of up to 1.08 million Swiss francs or a jail sentence of up to three years for the individuals involved. In cases where a pecuniary advantage was obtained for the individual involved or a third party through the breach, the potential jail sentence is up to five years or a fine. In case of negligence, the sanction is a fine of up to 250,000 Swiss francs. Further, an intentional breach may be considered as an activity contrary to proper banking practice (article 3, paragraph 2(c) BA). In practice, the Swiss bank and its management would run a risk of sanctions and may ultimately lead to the withdrawal of the Swiss banking licence, as well as personal bans from exercising any managerial roles in regulated entities for the individuals.

Finally, the Swiss bank would also incur a civil liability based on breach of contract towards its clients for any financial prejudice suffered by them as a result of the disclosure information. The extent of liability for breach of contract will depend on the terms of the contractual agreement, in particular any indemnification or limitation of liability provisions.

As regards the confidentiality duty provided contractually with independent asset managers, in addition to civil liability as described above, the latter may incur criminal liability. Article 162 SCC provides that any person who discloses a manufacturing or business secret which that person was legally or contractually bound to maintain commits a criminal offence. This offence is punishable by imprisonment for up to three years or a fine capped at 1.08 million Swiss francs.

For the rest, the potential sanctions in case of intentional breach of certain provisions of the DPA is a fine capped at 10,000 Swiss francs.

Cross-border services


What is the general framework dealing with cross-border private banking services into your jurisdiction?

The regime for cross-border banking and wealth management activities is quite liberal in Switzerland. Foreign banks that operate on a strict cross-border basis (ie, by offering their services to Swiss clients without having a permanent presence in Switzerland) are not subject to any licensing requirements with FINMA. If, however, their activities involve a physical presence in Switzerland on a permanent basis (ie, the existence of a permanent establishment in the form of a Swiss branch or Swiss representative office), this cross-border exemption is not available. In practice, FINMA considers a foreign bank to have a Swiss presence as soon as employees are hired in Switzerland. That being said, the regulator may also look at further criteria to determine whether a foreign bank has a Swiss presence.

For the rest, wealth management services (to the exclusion of the distribution and management of collective investment schemes, the management of assets of Swiss pension funds, as well as securities dealing activities) may be freely carried out by independent wealth managers on a cross-border basis in Switzerland, irrespective of the presence test.

Licensing requirements

Are there any licensing requirements for cross-border private banking services into your jurisdiction?

As mentioned above, in the event that a foreign bank (ie, an entity that: (i) benefits from a licence to conduct banking activities in its home jurisdiction; (ii) uses the terms ‘bank’ or ‘banker’ in its corporate name, purpose or documentation; or (iii) conducts banking activities) meets the presence test in Switzerland, it is to request, prior to exercising its activities, a licence with FINMA for the establishment of a branch or a representative office.

Among different licensing requirements, the principle of reciprocity is to be satisfied in the country in which the foreign bank has its registered office. This presupposes that a Swiss bank is entitled to establish a representative branch, office or agency in the relevant foreign country without being subject to substantially more restrictive provisions than those applicable in Switzerland.


What forms of cross-border services are regulated and how?

Wealth management, advisory and banking services rendered purely on a cross-border basis are not regulated in Switzerland at the time of writing, provided these do not comprise the distribution of collective investment schemes, the management of assets of Swiss pension funds or securities dealing activities.

Employee travel

May employees of foreign private banking institutions travel to meet clients and prospective clients in your jurisdiction? Are there any licensing or registration requirements?

Employees of foreign private banking institutions may travel to meet clients and prospective clients in Switzerland, provided this does not create a permanent presence in Switzerland and no activity of distribution of collective investment schemes is performed. In this context, certain non-regulatory restrictions, such as under immigration law, may apply.

Exchanging documents

May foreign private banking institutions send documents to clients and prospective clients in your jurisdiction? Are there any licensing or registration requirements?

No licensing or registration requirements apply for the sending of documents to Swiss-resident clients, provided these do not constitute distribution of collective investment schemes (or assimilated investment products). However, pursuant to the Unfair Competition Act, commercial information sent to clients must not violate their privacy, nor use abusive, misleading or unfair methods.

Tax disclosure and reporting

Taxpayer requirements

What are the main requirements on individual taxpayers in your jurisdiction to disclose or establish tax-compliant status of private banking accounts to the authorities in your jurisdiction? Does the requirement differ for domestic and foreign private banking accounts?

Swiss tax residents are to disclose to tax authorities, for the purpose of income and wealth taxes, private banking accounts both in Switzerland and abroad. The disclosure of Swiss banking accounts owned by foreign taxpayers depend on the applicable foreign tax law.

A Swiss withholding tax applies on Swiss source income (interest and dividends) payable on private banking accounts regardless of the residence of the taxpayer. Subject to certain conditions, foreign taxpayers may qualify for a partial or total exemption of such tax in application of a double tax treaty between Switzerland and their country of residence.

Reporting requirements

Are there any reporting requirements imposed on the private banks or financial intermediaries in your jurisdiction in respect to their domestic and international clients?

Specific requirements apply to Swiss banks for US taxpayers in application of the Agreement between Switzerland and the United States for Cooperation to Facilitate the Implementation of FATCA and its implementing Act and Ordinance. Under this regime, banks are to report account details directly to the US tax authorities, provided the consent of the US taxpayer concerned is given (FATCA Model 2). In the absence of such consent, financial institutions are allowed to disclose data only through administrative assistance channels. On 8 October 2014, the Federal Council adopted a specific mandate to discuss with the US a changeover to Model 1 (ie, automatic exchange of information through the Swiss tax authorities). At present, it is still unknown when the new agreement introducing a Model 1 IGA arrangement will be implemented with the United States.

With the implementation of the automatic exchange of information, Swiss banks have become subject to new obligations imposed by the legal framework which relies on the Common Reporting and Due Diligence Standard elaborated by the OECD, as transposed into Swiss law or in an international agreement. They are to collect and exchange foreign clients’ information (ie, taxpayers’ name, address, date and place of birth, account number, taxpayers’ identification number and account balance or value, and information on income and the beneficial owners) with Swiss tax authorities, who in turn transmit the information to the tax authorities of the country of residence of the taxpayers, which have an agreement in place with Switzerland in this respect. To date, Switzerland has implemented the automatic exchange of information with 38 partner states and territories, including the EU.

Finally, for the time being, no reporting or disclosure duty exists in relation to Swiss taxpayer clients.

Client consent on reporting

Is client consent required to permit reporting by the private bank or financial intermediary? Can such consent be revoked? What is the consequence of consent not being given or being revoked?

Under Swiss law, customer data obtained within a banking relationship is subject to banking secrecy, which prohibits, in principle, the disclosure of such data to third parties (see question 41 et seq for further details). As a result, and as mentioned in question 31, the US taxpayer’s consent is required for the disclosure of information in accordance with the FATCA regime. Under Swiss law, the consent given in this context may be revoked at any time. The consequence of such a revocation is that the banking institution is no longer allowed to disclose customer data. No retroactive effect may apply in this context, unless otherwise agreed by both parties.

With the introduction of the automatic exchange of information, the scope of the Swiss banking secrecy has been further reduced in tax-related matters (tax transparency principle prevailing), insofar as customer consent is no longer required for this purpose given that the disclosure of data to the Swiss tax authorities is provided for by law.


Asset-holding structures

What is the most common legal structure for holding private assets in your jurisdiction? Describe the benefits, risks and costs of the most common structures.

In general, Swiss-resident clients hold individual accounts with Swiss banks. In certain cases, Swiss residents may hold their assets through a holding company in the form of a Swiss corporation. That being said, there is no particular benefit to do so under Swiss law, with the exception of certain investments, such as in the private equity sector.

By contrast, foreign clients usually hold their assets either through individual accounts or structure accounts. The latter comprises accounts owned by: (i) offshore private investment companies with or without an overlying foreign trust or foundation; (ii) trustees (in case of a trust); or (iii) foundations. The risks associated with the holding of assets in this manner depend on the applicable foreign tax law.

The costs depend on the providers offering administration services in relation to these structures.


What is the customary level of know-your-customer (KYC) and other information required to establish a private banking relationship where assets are held in the name of a legal structure?

In the event that the contracting party is a domiciliary company (this term includes foundations, (trustees of) trusts, fiduciary companies or similar associations that do not exercise any business activities), financial intermediaries are to identify their beneficial owners or beneficiaries, which may differ from the definition of controlling person in question 35. In this case, the contracting party is to confirm in writing the name, date of birth, nationality and domicile of the beneficial owner or beneficiary. As regards trusts, financial intermediaries are further to: (i) collect the same information on the settlor (effective and not fiduciary); (ii) record the characteristics of the trust (eg, revocable, discretionary etc); and (iii) identify the trustee and the protector of the trust. Likewise, in the event that the contracting party is a foundation, the financial intermediary is to collect the above information not only as regards the beneficiary but also in relation to the founder (effective and not fiduciary). With respect to operating companies, see question 35.

Controlling person

What is the definition of controlling person in your jurisdiction?

Since 1 January 2016, financial intermediaries are to establish the identity of the beneficial owners of operating companies and partnerships (ie, controlling person). Under the AMLA, a controlling person is defined - in accordance with the FATF standards and recommendations - as the individual holding 25 per cent of the share capital or voting rights or controlling the company in any other manner. In the event that no beneficial owner can be identified, the identity of the most senior member of management of the entity is to be recorded for this purpose. In this context, the contracting party of the financial intermediary is to confirm in writing the name and the address of the controlling person.

It is worth noting that structures listed on a stock exchange, as well as entities owned by such structures, are not subject to such identification requirements.

With respect to trusts, foundations and similar arrangements, the concept of controlling person tracks the FATF Recommendations and includes the settlor, the trustees, the protector (if any), the beneficiaries or class of beneficiaries, and any other natural person exercising ultimate effective control over the trust, and in the case of a legal arrangement other than a trust, such term means persons in equivalent or similar positions.


Are there any regulatory or tax obstacles to the use of structures to hold private assets?

There are no regulatory obstacles to the use of structures to hold private assets. From an anti-money laundering perspective, the use of an offshore structure is a high-risk indicia, unless there is a clear business rationale for the recourse to such a structure.

The potential tax obstacles to this use depend on the tax legislation of the country of residence of the taxpayers, as well as of the structures. For Swiss individual taxpayers, depending on the type of private assets involved (eg, securities portfolio), the use of a holding company would typically not make sense from a pure tax perspective, given that private capital gains are not taxable in Switzerland, whereas dividends from a structure would be. However, there may be other objectives for using a structure that outweigh any tax considerations, including liability limitation (eg, venture capital investments), holding organisation and reinvestment planning, estate planning, asset protection and the like.

Contract provisions

Types of contract

Describe the various types of private banking and wealth management contracts and their main features.

Private banking and wealth management contracts may take different forms, depending on the activities performed by the bank or the independent asset manager.

Asset management contracts are usually defined as mandate agreements where the client grants the bank or the independent asset manager a power of attorney to manage his or her assets on a discretionary or non-discretionary basis. Such contracts, when concluded with a bank or another entity subject to FINMA supervision, are to comply with certain regulatory and self-regulatory requirements (see question 39).

Independent asset managers or banks may also render purely advisory services on the basis of advisory mandate agreements. In this context, the client is advised in his or her own investment decisions or benefits from recommendations in relation thereto. This type of agreement is not subject to specific regulatory provisions per se and essentially obeys to the general provisions of the Swiss Code of Obligations applicable to mandate agreements.

In the absence of an asset management or advisory agreement, banks usually have an execution-only relationship with their clients. Their activities are thus limited to the execution of clients’ instructions.

In practice, Swiss banks and asset managers provide in their contractual documentation that the relationship is governed by Swiss law. In an international context, such a choice of law is valid under the PILA, provided that the contract is not characterised as a consumer contract (ie, a contract pertaining to goods or services of ordinary consumption intended for personal or family use that is not connected with the consumer’s professional or business activity). Should this be the case, the contract must be governed by the law of the state of the consumer’s habitual residence if: (i) the financial intermediary has received the request as regards the conclusion of the contract in that state; (ii) the contract was entered into after an offer or advertising in that state and the consumer undertook the necessary steps for the conclusion of the contract in that state; or (iii) the consumer was solicited to go to a foreign state to conclude the contract.

Only private banking and wealth management contracts related to services of ordinary consumption may be considered as consumer contracts, which considerably limits the scope of application of the above principle. According to certain Swiss scholars, private banking and wealth management contracts do not fall within this definition.

Liability standard

What is the liability standard provided for by law? Can it be varied by contract and what is the customary negotiated liability standard in your jurisdiction?

Under Swiss law, whoever causes damage, either intentionally or by negligence, may occur civil liability based on both tort or breach of contract. The claimant is to prove the existence of: (i) an unlawful act, respectively, a breach of contract; (ii) damage; (iii) a causal link between the unlawful act, respectively, the breach of contract and the damage; and (iv) a fault of the defendant. In case of breach of contract, the fault of the other party is presumed and must be rebutted by the latter.

Notwithstanding the above, parties may contractually limit their civil liability within the limits set forth in article 100 SCO. Under this article, an agreement according to which liability for unlawful intent or gross negligence would be excluded is null and void. In addition, a waiver of liability for simple negligence may be considered to be null and void at the discretion of the judge if, inter alia, the liability arises out of the conduct of a business that is carried on under an official licence (eg, banking licence according to Swiss case law). By contrast, a bank may exclude its liability in case of simple negligence committed by its representatives or agents. As a result, banks usually provide in their general terms and conditions that they may be held personally liable only in the event of wilful misconduct or gross negligence.

Mandatory legal provisions

Are any mandatory provisions imposed by law or regulation in private banking or wealth management contracts? Are there any mandatory requirements for any disclosure, notice, form or content of any of the private banking contract documentation?

From a contractual law perspective, the Swiss Code of Obligations provides for a right for either party to a mandate agreement to terminate the contractual relationship at any time with immediate effect. Such a provision is of mandatory nature may not be contractually varied.

On the topic of the retrocessions paid by third parties within asset management activities (ie, inducements), the Swiss Supreme Court held, in a landmark decision in 2006, that inducements are subject to a statutory restitution duty and are, as a matter of principle, payable to the client of the receiving financial intermediary. Nonetheless, an arrangement whereby the client agrees that a financial intermediary may retain inducements is valid, provided the client was duly informed of the existence and calculation formula of such retrocessions, and the client expressly waived his or her statutory restitution claim. In a subsequent decision rendered on 30 October 2012, the Swiss Supreme Court ruled that the distribution fees that the promoter of a financial product pays to the distributor could be characterised as retrocessions, and therefore be subject to the same legal regime. As a result of the above case law, banks and independent asset managers intending to retain inducements received from third parties are to ensure that the contractual documentation governing its client relationships meets the requirements set forth by the Swiss Supreme Court. In this context and from a regulatory perspective, the level of information (ex ante disclosure) that needs to be provided to clients is detailed in FINMA Circular 01/2009 on Guidelines on asset management and in the guidelines of the relevant professional organisations. Asset managers must typically advise their customers of any conflicts of interest that might arise as a result of accepting third-party inducements. Among other duties, they are to inform their clients of the calculation parameters, as well as of the spread of inducements they might receive from third parties (prospective information duty), and of the amounts of any inducements effectively received in the past (retrospective reporting, upon request of the client).

For the rest, banks are subject to the Portfolio Management Guidelines issued by the SBA and recognised by FINMA as the minimum standard in accordance with Circular 01/2009. In a nutshell, both Guidelines: (i) provide that asset management agreements are to be in writing (including any equivalent electronic form); (ii) impose on asset managers certain duties of care, loyalty and information in relation to their clients, as well as a duty to comply with a fit and proper test; and (iii) require that the agreements specify the terms of the remuneration of the service provider. In practice, the Guidelines enacted by SROs for independent asset managers contain similar provisions.

Limitation period

What is the applicable limitation period for claims under a private banking or wealth management contract? Can the limitation period be varied contractually? How can the limitation period be tolled or waived?

The applicable limitation period for claims depends on the type of civil liability the bank or the independent asset manager may face.

As a rule, the general limitation period for the initiation of proceedings in contractual matters is 10 years. That being said, claims for interests are time-barred after five years. As far as asset management agreements are concerned, it worth noting that the Swiss Supreme Court has recently clarified that the statute of limitations applicable to claims based on the restitution of inducements (see question 39) is 10 years after the receipt by the service provider of the inducements in question.

With respect to tort or unlawful enrichment, the statute of limitations is one year from the date on which the concerned person gained knowledge of the damage or, respectively, of its right to ask for restitution, but, in any event, 10 years from the day when the harmful act took place.

Under Swiss law, the limitation period may be varied provided that, inter alia, a potential reduction of the period does not unfairly jeopardise the rights of the creditor. Further, subject to certain exceptions, one may waive in advance the applicable limitation period.

The running of the statute of limitations is interrupted by debt enforcement proceedings, an application for conciliation, the commencement of a court action or raising an objection before a court or arbitral tribunal, or a petition for bankruptcy. Where a claim is interrupted, a new limitation period starts to run. By contrast, the limitation period does not start running and, if it has begun, is suspended, inter alia, for as long as the claim cannot be brought before a Swiss court.


Competent authorities

What are the local competent authorities for dispute resolution in the private banking industry?

Civil courts are usually competent for dispute resolution in the private banking industry. The general terms and conditions of banks, as well as asset management agreements concluded with independent asset managers, provide in principle that the civil courts of the canton where these are located are competent to review the matter. It should be noted, however, that consumers within the meaning of the Swiss Code of Civil Procedure, the PILA or the Lugano Convention may bring their action before the canton or the country of their residence.

The procedure in Switzerland is governed by the Civil Code of Procedure and usually starts with a request for a conciliation hearing with the justice of peace. That being said, in the event, inter alia, the value in dispute exceeds 100,000 Swiss francs, the parties can jointly waive the conciliation proceedings and submit their dispute directly to the competent civil court.

The action before the court is open with the filing of a written statement of claim. Upon receipt of the advance on the costs, the court notifies the statement of claim to the defendant. The latter is to file a statement of defence in turn. Depending on the complexity of the matter and other criteria, hearings or other rounds of written briefs take place. In this context, the parties submit their evidence or request for evidence (eg, witness hearing). After this phase, the court renders its judgment, which is subject to appeal.

In Switzerland, clients of Swiss banks may lodge a complaint with the Swiss Banking Ombudsman, which is supported by the Swiss Banking Ombudsman Foundation, established by the SBA. The Swiss Banking Ombudsman acts as a mediator with the objective to settle conflicts and avoid legal proceedings between banks and their clients. Ombudsman services are free of charge for banks’ clients. Concurrently, the Ombudsman is responsible for the Central Claims Office in relation to dormant assets.


Are private banking disputes subject to disclosure to the local regulator? Can a client lodge a complaint with the local regulator? How are complaints investigated?

Private banking disputes are usually disclosed in the audit reports drafted by the regulatory auditors of banks to FINMA’s attention (see question 5). In addition, banks are to report immediately to FINMA any incident of substantial interest, as well as any changes affecting the ongoing licensing requirements or having an impact on the fit and proper test (ie, guarantee of irreproachable activity).

Separately, a client may file a complaint with FINMA, which has full discretion whether to initiate a formal investigation for the purposes of its regulatory supervision. In this context, the complaining client will not be party to any administrative action that FINMA may take and such client will not have any right to be informed or take part in the proceedings (administrative enforcement case).


Update & trends

Updates and trends

In November 2015, the Swiss Federal Council published two new drafts of the FinSA and the Financial Institutions Act (FinIA). While the purpose of the FinIA is to provide for a ‘new legal framework’ governing all financial institutions, the objective of the FinSA is to regulate the provision of financial services, on a professional basis, whether performed in Switzerland or on a cross-border basis. Within the debates in Parliament, the draft FinSA and FinIA initially published by the Federal Council were subject to intense discussions and were amended in various respects. On 15 June 2018, Parliament finally agreed on all provisions of the FinSA and the FinIA. The new legislation is now considered as final, subject to a potential referendum. Its expected date of entry into force is currently 1 January 2020. The drafts of the implementing ordinances of both acts will be subject to a consultation procedure by the end of 2018.

According to the FinIA, asset managers, as well as trustees, who are currently not subject to any ongoing prudential supervision, will be newly supervised. They will be directly subject to FINMA’s general supervision (including authorisation process and enforcement proceedings). That being said, day-to-day supervision will be entrusted to supervisory organisations approved and monitored by FINMA. The FinIA will namely provide for specific governance requirements applicable to asset managers and trustees whose gross revenues exceed certain thresholds.

The FinSA will implement a new regime aiming at strengthening client protection, increasing transparency in financial services and aligning Swiss financial services regulation to MiFID 2. In this context, financial services providers will have to perform an assessment of appropriateness when advising clients on individual transactions in the context of advisory or discretionary asset management services. By contrast, an assessment of suitability will be required when providing investment advice on their entire portfolio or in case of discretionary asset management services. Furthermore, the FinSA will introduce client segmentation - much like MiFID 2 - with three main segments (retail clients, professional clients and institutional clients). It is worth noting that the concept of qualified investors under the CISA will not be abolished and will remain relevant in the context of assessing whether a specific collective investment scheme can be offered. The provisions on the various duties of the financial services providers, as well as the offered financial products, will be adapted to the protection needs of the respective client segment. The FinSA will further provide for an opting system in favour of the clients (subject to certain conditions). Finally, on the specific topic of retrocessions, which was heavily debated during the consultation procedure, these will continue to be allowed subject to complying with the current transparency regime. The principles laid down in Swiss case law and FINMA Circular 01/2009 will be crystallised in the FinSA.

Since 2015, FINMA’s focus has been on adapting the applicable legal and regulatory framework to the needs of the financial technology (fintech) sector. According to the Swiss regulator, regulation in this context should be based on the following principles:

  • the neutral nature of the regulation as regards technological change;
  • the use of a principles-based approach (as opposed to a rules-based approach); and
  • precluding the emergence of technology-based regulatory gaps which undermine client protection and the system as a whole.

In this context, on 1 February 2017 the Federal Council proposed to implement in Swiss banking legislation the following three main measures:

  • the introduction of a maximum period of 60 days (as opposed to seven days, in accordance with FINMA’s current practice) for the holding of monies on settlement accounts (eg, for crowdfunding projects), without any limitation in terms of amounts;
  • the creation of an innovation area called ‘sandbox’, where companies are allowed to accept public deposits up to a total amount of 1 million Swiss francs and without the need to apply for a banking licence, subject to certain conditions, such as disclosures and prohibition on investing deposits; and
  • the introduction of a new fintech licence granted to institutions whose activities are limited to deposit-taking activities, to the exclusion of lending activities involving maturity transformation. In such a case, the total amount of the deposits would not exceed 100 million Swiss francs. Moreover, the minimum equity capital of companies benefitting from such a licence would have to amount to 5 per cent of the deposits and would be, in any case, above 300,000 Swiss francs (minimum capital).

The first two ‘pillars’ of the fintech sandbox regime were adopted by the Federal Council on 5 July 2017, and entered into force on 1 August 2017. In this context, FINMA revised its Circular 03/2008 on ‘Public deposits with non-banks’ in order to further outline the sandbox regime and provide for concrete examples of its application. The revised Circular, which entered into force on 1 January 2018, clarified, among other things, that the settlement account exemption does not apply to cryptocurrency dealers as long as their activity is comparable to that of a foreign exchange trader.

With respect to the third item, the ‘fintech licence light’ will be implemented at a later stage. The legal basis for this was voted on by Parliament as part of the FinSA and FinIA package, and subject to the consultation of the implementing ordinance this is expected to enter into force as early as 1 January 2019. In addition to a prohibition on lending, as well as investment activities, holders of such a licence will be subject to a certain number of (relaxed) requirements in terms of organisation, risk management, compliance, financial resources and audit. The provisions of the BA and the Banking Ordinance will apply to them by analogy and to the extent that this is necessary.

In the past couple of years, FINMA has further been focusing on new forms of capital raising by start-ups in the form of initial coin offerings (ICOs), token-generating events and token sales. Due to the increase in the number of companies using such business models, on 16 February 2018 FINMA published its guidelines for enquiries regarding the regulatory framework for initial coin offerings. The guidelines are intended to provide more transparency regarding FINMA’s practice on this topic, and also to allow it to streamline enquiries as regards possible or existing ICO launches. It is worth noting that FINMA has already initiated a certain number of investigations against several ICOs with a view to determining the existence of potential breaches of supervisory law. In specific instances, FINMA has decided to close down a number of cryptocurrency providers.

The Swiss banking regulatory framework is expected to remain in a state of flux for the years to come, with changes aiming equally at strengthening client protection and promoting innovation in the financial sector.