Expat dilemma: to be or not to be a Swiss citizen

Morven McLean
Morven McLean - [email protected]
Expat dilemma: to be or not to be a Swiss citizen

They have made their home in Switzerland and don’t plan to leave, but many long-term foreign residents are unable — or unwilling — to acquire a Swiss passport. The Local’s Morven McLean looks at the obstacles to citizenship and speaks to some new Swiss who have overcome them.


Official figures show that while the permanent resident foreign population is  growing — over 1.25 million now have a C permit —  the number of foreigners granted citizenship is not keeping up.

Since 2009 the number of regular naturalizations has fallen every year. In 2013 only two in every 100 foreigners in Switzerland were naturalized – a very low percentage in international terms. 

With parliament voting this year to lower the residency requirement for citizenship in Switzerland to 10 years from 12, many more expats are eligible to apply. 

But following February’s vote against mass immigration and the recent  Ecopop initiative, which sought (without success, however) to reduce the number of foreigners settling in the country, there are some who fear the atmosphere is turning hostile to foreigners.

An Englishwoman who has been in Switzerland for more than 20 years, and who works in academia, is one of those who admits to being put off requesting citizenship. 

“We are unsure that we would even be granted citizenship as the attitude towards foreigners has changed considerably since we first came,” she tells The Local.

“At that time we were welcomed with open arms and now we are not so sure we are welcome.”

Complicated process

Those who do decide to apply face the daunting prospect of the application process, which can cost in excess of three thousand Swiss francs, takes around three years, and involves interviews at the federal, cantonal and commune level. 

As the recent high-profile case of a retired American professor at ETH, the federal instiute of technology in Zurich, shows, acceptance by the federal authorities does not necessarily mean you will be deemed worthy by the canton or municipality you live in.

Irving Dunn, 75, a former chemical engineering teacher and researcher, has lived in the canton of Schwyz for 39 years and speaks fluent German.

But his inability to name all the lakes in the canton and his apparent lack of friends in his home town of Einsiedeln were considered signs he was not well integrated there. 

One young woman who has lived in Switzerland most of her life admits to “procrastinating” over her citizenship application given the complicated nature  of the process. She finally applied 18 months ago but had been thinking about it  since her child was born three years before that. 

Her main reasons for applying are to do with improved chances when it comes to  obtaining jobs and apartments.

“When I acquire Swiss citizenship l can put it on  my CV," she tells The Local.

"Potential employers will then hopefully no longer ask me if I intend to stay in the country," she says.

"It may make it easier to find a flat the next time I move. And if  ever have another child the paperwork will be simpler.” 

Committing and contributing

While the road to naturalization is a long and often bumpy one, many persevere  and are finally rewarded with their Swiss passport. 

Englishman Graham Flood-Hunt, a security advisor and trainer who lives in the canton of Fribourg, recently obtained his citizenship although doubts about his French ability caused him to postpone one interview. 

Whereas for Flood-Hunt the main lure of citizenship was being able to have a "wider spectrum of contract opportunities", because the family intended to stay in Switzerland “it seemed right that we commit ourselves and contribute by accepting the responsibilities that being a Swiss citizen entails: voting and military or civil protection service“.

In fact, Flood-Hunt is “happy” that his son will be required to do national service.

“I work for the Swiss armed forces and have witnessed what a great tool to  bring young people from all walks of life together army service can be," he says.

"You can have farmers, shopkeepers, IT experts and research scientists from ancient Swiss families or second generation Swiss, often of refugee background, from all over the country working side-by-side in harmony,” he says.

His wife, Julie Flood-Hunt, admits she is “not a huge fan of military service” but believes that apart from being a great leveller in Swiss society it teaches you leadership skills and is character-building. 

She gives her main motive for applying for naturalization as “the right to vote in national elections".

Jeannie Wurz, a journalist who comes from the United States who succeeded in becoming a Swiss citizen, also wanted a say in the political process.

At the same time she realized she was interacting more with Swiss than with expats. 

“I had lived in Switzerland as long as I lived in the town where I grew up—17 years," Wurz tells The Local.

"I was disgusted with the US government, with the bickering between Democrats and Republicans,  and later with the nightmare of tax reporting required by FATCA," she says.

"I wanted to be Swiss." 

Looking back, she says she knows that she has contributed to her community and made an  effort to integrate.

And there are many people like her.

“But I certainly wasn’t integrated early on," she says.

"I don’t think that citizenship should be easy to attain.” 


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