The OSA was founded in 1916 during the First World War by the New Helvetic Society (NHS). The NHS, established just two years previously, thus materialized one of its pivotal ideas - to strengthen Swiss expatriates' links with their homeland and enable them to play a more active part in national life.
The first decisive moments in 'construction work' for the Swiss abroad were the NHS Swiss clubs created in rapid succession by the large Swiss committees abroad. As an advisory committee for Swiss diaspora affairs, the NHS Committee for Swiss Abroad, the forerunner of today's Council of the Swiss Abroad, started work in 1917. In April 1918 the first Conference for the Swiss Abroad was held within the framework of the Basle Trade Fair, thus paving the way for the traditional annual Swiss Abroad Congresses.
Soon after the end of the war a permanent secretariat was set up in Geneva in 1919. The Secretariat for the Swiss Abroad (SSA) moved to Fribourg in 1923 and finally settled in Bern in 1928. It has occupied its own building at no. 26 Alpenstrasse since 1957, acquired thanks to a generous legacy.
Over the years OSA's sphere of activity has constantly adapted to new challenges. One of the early priorities was care for home-coming expatriates who had sometimes lost their livelihood through war and revolution. Until the Pro Helvetia cultural foundation was set up after World War II, one of the OSA's main areas of activity was the promotion of Switzerland's cultural assets abroad. Keeping Swiss expatriates informed was always considered essential and for sixty years they received the monthly magazine "Echo". Together with the Federal Department for Foreign Affairs, the OSA has been publishing the "Swiss Review" magazine since 1970.
The Solidarity Fund for Swiss Abroad, today re-baptised "Soliswiss", was set up in 1958 as the OSA's "daughter" organisation, an independent body to protect expatriates against loss of livelihood brought about by political factors. Constant efforts to improve legal status of Swiss living abroad culminated in 1966 with the firm rooting of the Fifth Switzerland in the Federal Constitution (article 45bis; today article 40 BV). However, the core of activity has always been individual advice, care and support for compatriots abroad.
In March 1989 the NHS granted its successful "daughter" organisation legal independence with the status of a private law foundation, subject to federal foundation supervision.
OSA archives are deposited at the Swiss Federal Archives.