Starting out in Geneva

Alex Williams generously shares with us a few tips for finding your feet, and work, at the international institutions in Geneva.

I have my diploma.  What next?

Aim to pass the freelance test organised within the UN Geneva interpretation section.  This is a less formal procedure than EU
accreditation but you will not be recruited by the UN office in Geneva (UNOG) unless you have sat and passed the test.

Again unlike at the EU, the test is not strictly speaking “inter-institutional”, since each specialised agency/entity covered by
the UN-AIIC agreement recruits independently. It is however recognised by most other agencies and organisations in Geneva as only WTO has enough staff interpreters to test independently.  Note that because of the way it recruits, UNOG-proper often accounts for the lion’s share of beginner interpreters’ workload.

You would be sensible to get in touch with the relevant head of booth at UNOG early on to make enquiries about future test dates and also to see about getting access to UN premises for dummy-booth work, which I cannot recommend highly enough.  Apart from the practice opportunities, being at the Palais des Nations as often as you can will show you are serious about sitting the test.  UNOG staff interpreters were usually happy to allow me to practice in a spare booth during public meetings ( has meeting listings; private sessions are a no-go)  and I was even able to sit in with two colleagues and listen while they worked. With such a variety of subject matter covered, it’s an excellent way to pick up useful vocabulary and “UN-speak” expressions that will come in handy later, so bring a notebook to the booth.

To obtain an entrance badge, the relevant head of booth will need to send a request to the security services, which are to be found at the Prégny entrance gate, further up the road from Place des Nations, near the Appia bus stop and opposite the Red Cross headquarters.  You will at some stage have to present yourself to have a photo badge made.

For budding members of the English booth, dummy booth on its own might be a little frustrating given the all-pervasiveness of World English, but make the most of the time by taking the other interpreters on relay. You can also download webcasts of UN General Assembly sessions in the original language at, as well as webcasts of the Human Rights Council and major conferences.

The test

The test is simultaneous interpretation only, with two speeches foreach language, read out by staff intepreters from the other booths.
The speeches are all ones which have been delivered at the UN but edited. The panel comprises at least 3 senior staff members from the candidate’s booth.  Each statement is introduced with the name of the country speaking as well as the context. If a more specialized statement will be given, vocabulary might be offered by the jury ahead of time. The panels listens to your version and compares it with a transcript of the statements.  The results are given straight after the tests, with feedback.

After the test

One of the first things to do is to make contact with Mme Raymonde Laurent, who runs OfficInter.  This is a private  company offering a range of services to freelance interpreters.  The most important of these is an availability database used to prepare lists of available freelances by language combination and date.  The vast majority of Geneva recruiters, both from the international organisations and the private market (plus certain non-local employers), use these lists, so make sure your name is on them by signing up with Mme Laurent and keeping her updated about your diary.  Fees are 100CHF per month (rising to 120 CHF after your first year), plus fees for all phone calls and emails.  It’s steep, but practically unavoidable.

OfficInter Sàrl (Raymonde Laurent)
25, chemin des Fins
CH-1218 Grand-Saconnex
(0041) (0)22 710 07 70

Unlike secretariats in certain other cities, OfficInter simply doesdiary-keeping and does not publicise interpreters to recruiters.  This means that you will need to do the legwork of sending out a CV and meeting potential employers yourself.  The list of email addresses and phone numbers she gives her clients is very helpful here.

Make sure you tell the recruiters at UNOG that you have passed the test, just to be sure that you’re on their radar.

Geneva is a local market by and large; unless your language combination is particularly sought-after, you are unlikely to get
regular work unless you establish Geneva as your professional domicile.  This does not mean that you need to live there but bear in mind that more often than not, work will be last-minute and for the odd day.  If you live elsewhere, think seriously about
travel/accommodation costs, which you would have to cover yourself if you were professionally domiciled in Geneva.  There is not yet any official record of domicile, but recruiters will ask.  The organisations are also currently working on a joint professional
domicile database.

Don’t expect to be flooded with work straight away.  It will come, particularly during the peak periods of early summer and the autumn months as of mid-September. You might consider contacting translation services at the organizations, some of whom would be only too happy to hear from qualified people willing to take on outsourced work at around 200CHF per thousand words (but subject to income tax).
Short-term in-house contracts might even materialise but depending on how things pan out, you may have to decide whether you are more focused on translation or interpreting and turn down job offers accordingly.  Take care about trumpeting your future interpreting career too loudly as it can get translator colleagues’ backs up.

Some other tips

Do your utmost not to antagonise recruiters.  Be keen but avoid being overly pushy or insistent.  If a recruiter suggests a period dummy boothing for an organization to get your head around their subject matter and terminology, seize the opportunity as it will certainly pay dividends later.  At the same time, it is worth sending recruiters an updated CV and availability card periodically; some may be reluctant to hire an absolute beginner but willing to have you once you have some experience under your belt.

Similarly, good relationships with colleagues are important.  This is a small, fairly close-knit world and people do talk, for better or
worse.  Be competent and pleasant and word will quickly get around, to your advantage.  Stay out of petty politics at all costs.

Keep a record of the dates and topics of your meetings, as this will come in handy when you have notched up enough days to consider joining AIIC (150 days) or apply for reclassification to UN category 1 status (200 days, full rather than two-thirds salary).

Ensure your affairs are in order in terms of residency and tax matters.  Seek advice about settling in Switzerland as it is not
entirely straightforward for freelances.  For EU citizens, residence in neighbouring France may be an easier option.  Note that contracts for the international organizations are tax-exempt but national tax authorities may ask for proof of employment, which any of the organizations can supply on request.

By contrast to work for the EU institutions, there is no employer pension contribution, although take-home pay is a little higher.  A
system exists whereby freelance interpreters can opt for a 13 percent deduction at source, to be paid into one of the two specialised funds recognised by the UN system (see or for more details).  Both funds claim to require AIIC membership for entry, but proof of regular conference interpreting work seems to suffice.