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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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Do foreigners in Switzerland have the same legal rights as the Swiss ?

Foreigners living in Switzerland may be wondering what their basic rights are compared to Swiss citizens. The answer depends on several factors.

Do foreigners in Switzerland have the same legal rights as the Swiss ?

There are currently 2.2 million foreign nationals living in Switzerland — roughly 25 percent of the population.

Simply put, everyone residing in the country legally, regardless of nationality, has the same basic constitutional rights as Swiss citizens do — for instance, the right to human dignity, free expression, equality, protection against discrimination, and freedom of religion, among other rights.

They also have the right to fair and equitable treatment in the workplace, in terms of wages, work hours, and other employment-related matters.

As the law states, cantons and municipalities “shall create favourable regulatory conditions for equal opportunities and for the participation of the foreign population in public life”. 

If they are arrested or imprisoned, foreigners also have the right to fair trial and to the same treatment as their Swiss-citizen counterparts, including legal representation and due process of the law.

Even those who are subject to deportation have the right to be represented by a lawyer.

And the Swiss legal system doesn’t necessarily favour Swiss litigants over foreign ones. For instance, in some cases, foreign nationals whose request for naturalisation was denied but who then appealed the decision, eventually won.

The most recent example is a man in the canton of Schwyz whose application for citizenship was rejected due to a minor car accident, but a Swiss court overturned the decision, ordering that the man be naturalised this year.

READ MORE : Foreigner wins appeal after being denied Swiss citizenship due to car accident

Where the rights and privileges differ between foreigners and Swiss, as well as among foreigners themselves, is when it comes to work and residency rights.

 EU / EFTA nationals

People from these countries, who have B or C permanent residence status have sweeping rights in terms of residence, employment (including self-employment), and home ownership.

The only right that is denied them is the vote, though some cantons and communes grant their resident foreigners the right to vote on local issues and to elect local politicians. 

READ MORE : Where in Switzerland can foreigners vote?

Apart from the limit on political participation, EU / EFTA nationals can live in Switzerland in pretty much the same way as their Swiss counterparts.

There are, however, some groups of foreigners whose rights are curtailed by the Swiss government.

Third country nationals

They are people from countries outside Europe, for whom various restrictions are in place in terms of entry, employment and residency.

For instance, their “future employer must prove that there is no suitable person to fill the job vacancy from Switzerland or from an EU/EFTA state”, according to State Secretariat for Migration. This could be seen as a discrimination of sorts, but that’s what the law says.

Once employed, however, “their salary, social security contributions and the terms of employment must be in accordance with conditions customary to the region, the profession and the particular sector” — in other words, no discrimination is allowed.

Another area where non-European foreigners are disadvantaged in comparison with their EU / EFTA counterparts is home ownership. While third-nation B-permit holders can buy a property to live in (but not rent out), they can’t purchase a holiday or second home without a special permission.

To sum up, all foreigners in Switzerland, regardless of their status, are entitled to fundamental “human” rights, including freedom of speech and religion, and freedom from discrimination in life and employment.

They also have the right to legal protection and representation during litigation or other court actions.

However they don’t have the right to participate in the country’s political process and, depending on their status, have equal access to residency and employment.