Work permits: Switzerland introduces new rules for language proficiency certificates

Starting in January 2020 applicants for certain work permits in Switzerland need to provide certificates from government-accredited institutions to prove their language proficiency.

Work permits: Switzerland introduces new rules for language proficiency certificates

A new law introduce 2019 made a certain level of integration a prerequisite for obtaining and retaining a Swiss permit.

That meant authorities could ask for proof of language proficiency.

While C permit applicants have been subject to language requirements in the past the 2019 law harmonized (minimum) language requirements throughout Switzerland for C-permit applications.

It also introduced language requirements for certain B-permit applicants, notably family members of non-EU nationals.

But since January 1st, C permit applicants and dependents of non-EU nationals applying for B permit applicants have been required to obtain certified language certificates from a government-accredited institution to prove that they have sufficient language skills to communicate with ease in at least one of the Swiss national languages.

The difference in 2020 is that throughout 2019 applicants were able to produce certificates from non-accredited language schools but since the start of the New Year the regulation has tightened. You can see the official list HERE.

READ ALSO: Are new language tests putting people off applying for Swiss citizenship?

The new requirement for certified language certificate is part of the revised Swiss Federal Act on Foreign Nationals and Integration, which was enacted on January 1st, 2019.

That law meant those dependents applying for B permit (which are long-term permits normally granted for stays exceeding 24 months) and those applying for C permits (permanent residence) would have to prove language efficiency. 

Exceptions to the 2019 language proficiency requirement were made for those whose native language is German, French or Italian, as well as foreigners who have completed primary or secondary school in one of the three languages, even if the school was outside Switzerland.

Foreigners have been warned to allow for more time to complete language courses and obtain the necessary qualification when submitting residency applications.

The new rules were designed to harmonise the language requirements for residency across Switzerland rather than the previous situation where different cantons had different rules.

Those who fail to meet the language requirements have been warned they could face consequences for example C permit holders could lose their permanent residency status and have their permit downgraded to B, which would shorten the time they are allowed to remain in Switzerland.

They would also lose certain tax advantages and may have to wait five years before they reapply for a C permit.




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EXPLAINED: Everything you need to know about Swiss language tests for residency

The language standards for permanent residency is different than that for citizenship. Here's what you need to know.

EXPLAINED: Everything you need to know about Swiss language tests for residency

Whether granting permanent residency or citizenship, whether you are ‘successfully integrated’ is the major question for Swiss authorities. 

Being successfully integrated means that they “should participate in the economic, social and cultural life of society”, according to the State Secretariat for Migration.

Reader question: What does being ‘successfully integrated’ in Switzerland mean?

Speaking a Swiss language is crucial. While you will not need to speak a Swiss language when you arrive, you will need to demonstrate a certain degree of language proficiency in order to stay long term. 

However, the level of language proficiency differs depending on the type of residency permission you want: residency permit, permanent residency or Swiss citizenship. 

This is outlined in the following table.

Image: Swiss State Secretariat for Migration

Image: Swiss State Secretariat for Migration

What does proficiency in a Swiss language mean?

Proficiency in a Swiss language refers to any of the major Swiss languages: Italian, German, French and Romansh. While Romansh is also a Swiss language, it is not spoken elsewhere and is only spoken by a handful of people in the canton of Graubünden. 

There are certain exceptions to these requirements for citizens of countries where these languages are spoken, as has been outlined here

English, while widely spoken in Switzerland, is not an official language of Switzerland and English proficiency will not grant you Swiss citizenship. 

Moving to Switzerland, it may appear you have three world languages to choose from, although by and large this is not the case. 

As the tests are done at a communal level, the language in the commune in question is the one you need to speak

Therefore, if you have flawless French and live in the German-speaking canton of Schwyz, you need to improve your German in order to make sure you pass the test. 

While some Swiss cantons are bilingual, this is comparatively rare at a municipal level. 

A Swiss Federal Supreme Court case from 2022 held that a person is required to demonstrate language proficiency in the administrative language of the municipality in which they apply, even if they are a native speaker of a different Swiss language. 

What Swiss language standards are required for a residency permit?

Fortunately for new arrivals, you do not need to show Swiss language proficiency. 

Generally speaking, those on short-term residency permits – such as B Permits and L Permits – are not required to show proficiency in a national language. 

There are some exceptions – for instance people on family reunification permits – however by and large people who have just arrived in Switzerland for work do not need to demonstrate language proficiency. 

What Swiss language standards are required for permanent residency?

While ‘permanent residency’ might sound like ‘residency permit’, it grants a far greater set of rights for the holder – and with it a more extensive array of responsibilities. 

EXPLAINED: What’s the difference between permanent residence and Swiss citizenship?

One of these obligations is Swiss language proficiency. 

For ordinary permanent residency – which is granted after an uninterrupted stay of five years or ten years in total – you need to demonstrate A2 level of a spoken Swiss language and A1 written. 

Citizens of Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Liechtenstein, Netherlands, Portugal and Spain are exempt from these language requirements. 

For fast-tracked permanent residency, the language level is a little higher. 

You must demonstrate A1 written but B1 spoken. 

There are also exceptions for people who can demonstrate they have a Swiss language as their mother tongue, or that they have attended compulsory schooling for a minimum of three years in a Swiss language. 

Demonstrating language proficiency must be done through an accredited test centre. The accreditation process is handled at a cantonal level. More information is available here

What Swiss language standard is required for citizenship?

The standard is slightly higher for citizenship than for permanent residency. 

Candidates must demonstrate A2 level writing ability and B1 spoken skills. This is the level set out in the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages.

These rules, which came into effect on January 1st, 2019, set up a uniform minimum level of language proficiency required on a federal basis. 

Previously, there was no consistency in language testing, with many cantons in the French-language region making a judgment based on the candidate’s oral skills.

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. The rules are also stricter in St Gallen and Schwyz. 

More information is available at the following link. 

Naturalisation: How well must I speak a Swiss language for citizenship?