An Intern’s Guide to Geneva

Author: Hajer Hadi

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, based on experiences gained during her internship in Geneva from September to November 2018. This was independently-arranged and she did not receive grant funding or academic credit (ECTS points). 

It was during a Sunday morning coffee that it hit me; despite being in the middle of my second degree, I didn’t have any experience as an intern. So before thinking too much about it, I opened my laptop and started searching for global health internships. Although I had missed many June deadlines, I found a couple of places to apply to. As the weeks went on with no answer, I began to think I was too late.

However, at last an NGO in Geneva replied! While I hesitated at first – I decided to seize this opportunity in the international city; home to the United Nations, World Health Organization, the World Trade Organization, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and numerous other intergovernmental organizations. I had never been to Switzerland before and had high expectations of the country – the land of wine, chocolate, cheese and watches.

Fork of Vevey: the world’s largest fork – Photo by Hajer

The logistics were one of the biggest challenges and took a lot longer than I expected. On arrival, I found Geneva to be small, busy and overcrowded – not what I expected in terms of history, aesthetics or culture. It’s also one of the most expensive cities worldwide and it’s not as picturesque as the neighboring cities, however there are beautiful views of Mont Salève and Mont Blanc. It’s easy to walk, bike or take public transport around town, and you can travel from one side to the other in just 30 minutes. What surprised me was the efficiency of services: Swiss punctuality really does exist!

Even though Geneva is small, it is the second-most populated city in Switzerland, after Zürich. Diversity is everywhere and the international atmosphere can be felt in every corner; it can be overwhelming for a newcomer at times.

Jet d’Eau – Photo by Hajer

My first three weeks getting settled in were bumpy, and I initially felt underwhelmed and bored. I found myself working in a relatively small team and mostly alone in an office, without any specific tasks. I had done my homework and read a lot about the organization and their work. However, those preparations did not seem to pay off and I couldn’t help but think; is this what I signed up for? My colleagues were kind, but I worried that I had made the wrong decision by coming to Geneva.

However, I built up the courage to ask my boss about writing my own project on Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) prevalence in some European countries, as I noticed that the most recent reports were outdated. They agreed, and the internship improved from then on. I was excited to have a tangible project, particularly in an area I am passionate about.

Delicious traditional fondue and lunch at Birdie Food and Coffee – Photo by Hajer Hadi and Wael Saad

The internship taught me a great deal about advocating for myself and juggling logistical problems, leading to a lot of personal and professional growth. I met a range of interesting people with different backgrounds and cultures – which allowed me to reflect on my role as a student and future global health professional. As an extroverted introvert, I had to challenge myself to go out and meet new people, and this turned out to be a great way of improving my experience. I was shocked at how many interns also felt homesick and lonely sometimes; it was a relief to know that I wasn’t alone!

Advice for planning an internship in Geneva

Work Permit/Visa: First things first: Ask yourself if you’ll need a work permit/visa. If you come from the Schengen area and plan to stay in Switzerland for more than 90 days, you will likely need it. If you’re not sure, contact the Swiss embassy in your country and check.

 Insurance: Make sure that medical treatment is covered, either through your travel insurance or European Health Insurance Card.

 Housing: I’ve been to many cities, but Geneva has been the one where I struggled the most to find accommodation. Usually I’m pretty good at it! Part of the problem was I was too late – the deadlines for finding student housing were in June and July. So be prepared mentally to get rejected more than 15 times when applying for accommodation.

Start looking for housing as early as possible, ideally at least 2-3 months in advance. Rent prices are really high, so expect to spend around half of your budget on accommodation. My NGO sent me a list of Foyers (college dorms) and I also used Google a lot. Fortunately, I found a couple of places that gave me a temporary stay until I found longer-term accommodation. Using GLocals I found a place in Annemasse, near the border with France, which was perfect, despite the long commute.

 Living expenses: Keep in mind that Geneva is a very expensive city, especially if your internship is unpaid like mine was. But there are cheap supermarkets like Lidl, Denner and Migros, plus grocery stores in neighboring France – like Carrefour in Ferney-Voltaire or Annemasse. Remember that the majority of supermarkets are closed on Sundays!

Overall: With proper planning and forward organization, the experience has been incredibly rewarding. Just so you know – it’s completely normal to go through a difficult time at the beginning, especially over transcontinental planning. Trying to adjust to a new system, new culture, new people can be exhausting but is a fantastic opportunity for new learning experiences. Before travelling to Geneva, I just knew the basics – the main language is French, but I was told that “everybody speaks English too”. It’s a lie! In reality I found that very few people spoke English. Nevertheless, you’ll adjust. My advice to you is to try to enjoy your stay, whether it’s bumpy, bad or different from your expectations!

 Top tips and recommendations:

  • Airbnb – can be worthwhile; one of my friends used it and found a really cheap option.
  • GLocals – is a really useful website for meeting expats and locals, join local activities and events and find accommodation
  • Foyers –foyers and foyer etudiants (student residences and accommodation) fill up quickly so start looking early.
  • La Cigue – website for finding shared accommodation – Put your name and e-mail, and you’ll get some offers once in a while.
  • Facebook expats groups: Geneva Expats, Geneva Interns Association, etc. – can be a good way to find accommodation. Post that you’re looking for cheap accommodation or shared flats for students or other interns.
  • Public transport – very convenient as the city is so small.
  • Apps: SBB + OTPG give you times for the trams, trains and buses.
  • Coffee: I’m a coffee lover, and would highly recommend Boreal Coffee Shop – they have the best coffee in town. If you’re a Starbucks fan you’ll find it all around the city, or if you’re in a hurry try Brezelkönig at Gare Cornavin – for cheap and extremely good coffee.
  • Traditional Fondue – You can’t visit Geneva without tasting their specialty! It’s a traditional Swiss dish of melted cheese served in a pot and eaten by dipping bread. I recommend Bains des Pâquis.
  • Language Café – Mundo Lingo in Ethno Bar is a free language social event that happens in different countries; it’s a great way to socialize and meet new people. It’s every Tuesday at around 7pm.
  • Volunteering – If you want to work during your free time it’s possible to volunteer in a couple of organizations around Geneva. If you’re looking for paid work, you could try signing up to be a petsitter!
  • Weekend trips – Lugano, Interlaken, Lucerne, Annecy, Lausanne, Montreux, and Gruyeres
  • Extra information – This website has a really good way of describing life in Geneva
Hajer in Geneva



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