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SWISS CITIZENSHIP

How to apply for Swiss citizenship: An essential guide

There are many reasons persuading foreigners that it's time to become Swiss. The Local takes a look at the complicated process of taking out citizenship.

How to apply for Swiss citizenship: An essential guide
Taking out Swiss citizenship can be a costly and drawn-out experience and there are no guarantees. Photo: AFP

1. Switzerland has two processes for obtaining Swiss citizenship

Ordinary (or regular) naturalisation is the one most people go through; facilitated (or simplified) naturalisation is a shorter and less complicated process usually open to the foreign spouses (but not registered partners) and children of Swiss citizens, and, since early 2017, third generation foreigners.

READ: Am I eligible for Swiss citizenship? 

In the case of facilitated naturalisation for foreign spouses of Swiss nationals, you will generally need to have been married for at least three years and to have lived in Switzerland for at least five years in total, including for the 12 months leading up to submitting your application.
According to official statistics just over a quarter of the 44,141 naturalisations in 2018 were facilitated.

More information about simplified or facilitated naturalisation is available at the following link. 

Naturalisation through marriage: How your partner can obtain Swiss citizenship

2. There’s more than one set of requirements

To obtain regular naturalisation a foreigner must meet the requirements laid out by three levels of government: the commune, the canton and the Confederation.

Following changes to the federal foreigners’ law that came into effect on January 1st 2018, an applicant must now have lived in Switzerland for ten years (it was previously 12) or less if you spent your adolescence here, and have a C residence permit (before, other permit holders could also apply).

Applicants must also show they abide by Swiss law and order, pose no threat to the country’s internal or external security, and (here’s where it gets subjective) be well integrated – a broad term that covers your participation in Swiss economic, social and linguistic life.

It’s usually down to the cantons and communes to tell federal authorities how integrated they think an applicant is, though the new federal law stipulates a number of obligations, including the requirement that you encourage your family members to integrate, too.

EXPLAINED: How where you live in Switzerland impacts how much income tax you pay

3. If you’ve been on benefits recently, you can’t apply

Another change from 2018 is that if you’ve claimed social welfare assistance in the past three years you can’t apply for citizenship, unless you give back the amount you received. Claiming benefits goes against the federal requirement that an applicant must contribute to Switzerland’s economy either through being active in the workforce or undergoing training.

READ MORE: Why getting Swiss citizenship can be worth up to 10,000 francs a year

4. How long you’ve lived in your canton is a big factor

You may have lived ten years in Switzerland but how long have you lived in your current place of residence? Don’t expect to move canton (or even commune) and then apply for citizenship – every canton has its own rules on this but all expect you to have lived in the area for a certain length of time.

While cantons including Geneva and Bern only require two years’ residency, some require much longer, with St Gallen stipulating eight years. (Check your canton’s requirements here).

In Zurich, you are required to have lived for at least two uninterrupted years in the commune of prospective naturalisation.

READ MORE: Would you pass the Swiss citizenship test?

5. You must speak the local language to be in with a chance

Decent language skills have always been necessary for Swiss citizenship but requirements used to vary depending on the canton. But under the 2018 changes, there is now a required minimum level of language proficiency. Candidates must demonstrate A2 level writing ability (elementary) and B1 (intermediate) spoken skills under the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages.

Cantons are free to set a higher bar if they wish, as Thurgau has done by requiring citizenship candidates to have B1-level written German and B2 (upper intermediate) spoken German.

Note that you are exempt from having to prove your language competency if your native language is one of the Swiss national languages, or if you have done five years of compulsory schooling in Switzerland or if you have a secondary school leaving certificate or tertiary qualification completed in a Swiss national language.

6. Cantonal and communal rules vary considerably

Each canton has different requirements (look up yours here), usually centring around how integrated you are in the community you live in. Do you have Swiss friends and work colleagues who deem you part of the community? Do you know a thing or two about the local area? Are you down with Swiss traditions, politics and history?

READ MORE: The nine most surprising questions on Switzerland’s citizenship exam

7. Local residents can have a say

Most cantons and/or communes require you to face an interview to prove your integration and knowledge of Switzerland where you could be quizzed on anything from the number of lakes in your canton to which days are public holidays and the names of local traditions and festivals. In some cases a communal residents’ committee gathers to vote on your application, so it pays to keep in with the locals.

ln 2017 a Dutch woman hit the headlines after her citizenship application was turned down by her community because she campaigned against cowbells (though she later won citizenship on appeal).

8. It can take a while

The length of the process varies depending on where you live, but expect several years. The canton of Vaud has so far quoted up to two and a half years, but says that should be reduced to 18 months for applications after January 2018. And don’t think you can move during the process or you may end up having to start all over again.

9. It can be costly

Since there are three levels of authority, there are three different fees to pay. While the Confederation only requires 50-150 Swiss francs (€45 to €135), costs set out by the cantons and communes can be much higher.

Fees payable at the communal level range from 500 to 1,000 francs while cantons can charge up to 2,000 francs for the application process.

Geneva’s basic rate for an adult application is 1,250 francs, plus the communes then add an extra 500-1,000 francs. And all this with the chance that you could be turned down, as one long-term American resident was in 2014.

In Zurich, the cantonal fee is 1,700 francs and then communal fees must be added to that.

READ MORE: How much does it cost to become a Swiss citizen?

10. Your likelihood of success may depend on where you live

According to the Tages Anzeiger Western Switzerland is more generous with naturalisations than elsewhere. Official statistics show that Zurich naturalised the most people in 2018 (10,170), but this is also the most populous canton in Switzerland.

The canton of Geneva, population nearly half a million, naturalised 4,670 people last year, despite having a third of the population of Zurich and half the population of Bern, where only 2,675 people obtained citizenship.

11. Switzerland allows for dual-nationality

Swiss citizens can hold two passports, and many do. In fact around one in six people in the country are now dual nationals. This means you will only lose your other nationality if the country of that citizenship does not recognise dual nationality.

Member comments

  1. As a retired U.S. citizen, how could I meet the requirement for a lengthy stay in the canton of choice when we are only allowed 90 days on a tourist visa?

  2. Pretty much the same question. I’ve maintained an apartment in Geneva for about 2 years, but am limited to 90 day stays every 6 months. Would keeping my apartment there for 10 years qualify as 10 years of residence?

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For members

PENSIONS

OPINION: A lower retirement age for women in Switzerland can no longer be justified

Having a lower retirement age for women is a throwback to more patronising times, yet the Swiss government has struggled to introduce parity in this area for decades. As the latest reform attempt comes to a popular vote, Clare O’Dea asks what’s behind female resistance to this change.

OPINION: A lower retirement age for women in Switzerland can no longer be justified

The retirement age in Switzerland is 64 for women and 65 for men. For generations of Swiss people, this differential treatment is standard. The gap used to be bigger. From 1962 to 1997, women retired at 62.
On September 25, Swiss voters will have their say on a reform of the state pension system (AHV / AVS), which would raise the retirement age for women to 65 and use a VAT hike to help finance pensions. The Old Age and Survivors’ Insurance has been running a deficit since 2014 and this reform is billed as a crucial package to keep it viable.

Is earlier retirement for women a historical benefit worth defending or should it be abandoned in the interests of fairness and financial good sense? If women voters alone could decide, the proposal would be rejected.

READ ALSO: Reader question: How long must I work in Switzerland to qualify for a pension?

According to the most recent poll, 64 per cent of women intend to vote against the reform, while 71 of male voters approve of the law. This is a much higher gender difference than is usually seen, even in sex-specific voting issues. These numbers, if sustained, would ultimately deliver a yes vote but leave a bitter taste for women.

As a woman who will be directly affected by this decision in the not-too-distant future – well, 15 years from now – and someone who made all the classic gender-based “mistakes” when it comes to my own pension provision, I don’t see this potential change as a threat. If anything, it is an opportunity, a wake-up call.
Swiss women earn less than men over their lifetimes for several well-documented yet seemingly unshakable reasons. Mostly these relate directly or indirectly to time spent caring for children or other family members.

Caring responsibilities, even the hypothetical possibility of such responsibilities, influence women’s career choices, the number of hours they work, and their income. This burden also influences how women are perceived and rewarded as employees.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How does the Swiss pension system work – and how much will I receive?

But there is also a kind of fatalism on the part of women in long-term partnerships who know they can’t sustain a career as the “main earner” without a “wife-like” partner to rely on, so they do not try. Divorced women usually find it’s too late to catch up.

Three things that are bad for pension provision are career interruptions, part-time hours and lower pay. Yet this is the norm for most working women over the long term, mothers in particular.

As I see it, there are three ways to improve matters. Either women change to behave more like male workers, the system changes to accommodate existing patterns better, or we change the existing family patterns altogether.

(Photo by ROMAIN LAFABREGUE / AFP)

The problem is that mother workers can only become more like father workers when men pick up the slack (choosing family-friendly jobs, reducing their hours, taking family-centred career breaks, leaning in at home). Where else will the spare capacity come from?

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Everything you need to know about retiring in Switzerland

I think all three changes need to happen in parallel. Some progress has already been made. There is no point in hanging around with the retirement age reform. It’s one of the few changes that can be achieved with the stroke of a pen.

Those campaigning against harmonising the retirement age say that all the other things dragging down women’s lifetime earnings – the structure of the labour market, lack of affordable childcare, gender pay gap, the persistence of traditional gender roles – need to be fixed first before we demand an extra year of work from women. That seems defeatist and totally impractical to me.

The priority for all is to avoid women having a much greater risk of poverty in old age as they do now, especially divorced women and widows.

Swiss women currently receive 37 percent less than men through all three types of pension provision combined – the state pension, occupational schemes and private pension. The picture in Switzerland is worse than in most industrialised countries because of the prevalence of part-time work for women – a double-edged sword.

Swiss voters turned down two previous proposals to level up the retirement age for women – in 2004 and 2017. However, taking into account the compensatory measures included in the current reform, that potential extra working year should not be viewed as a penalty.

READ ALSO: Reader question: Can I take my pension money with me when I leave Switzerland?

If that year is spent working, not only will the women have their salary, but they will also have the opportunity to contribute a bit more to the two other streams of pension funding – occupational pensions and voluntary private pensions.

Working also means being physically active, having more social interactions and stimulating your brain. These are all pillars of brain health that help protect against the onset of dementia, a disease that women are twice as likely to suffer from.

The absolute refusal to acknowledge that an ageing population and increasing life expectancy require changes to long-standing pension norms is one of the blind spots of the Left in Switzerland. According to the UBS International Pension Gap Index, the proportion of active (working) to retired people will decrease from the current level of 3 to 1 down to 2 to 1 by 2050.

The reasons why Swiss women should retire one year earlier than men are lost of the mists of time. Well, not quite, there was some talk of “physiological disadvantage” and wives keeping their older retired husbands company. It seems rather silly now.

The final justification left for an early exit from the workforce is that it offers some compensation for all the other financial injustices. That’s a passive rather than an active approach to our problems. I see this reform as part of the solution. Let’s get on with it.

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