Swiss citizenship For Members

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

The Local
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EXPLAINED: What's the difference between permanent residence and Swiss citizenship?
Once you leave Switzerland, your permit will expire. Photo by AFP

The ‘Settled Foreign Nationals’ C-permit grants sweeping rights to its holders. But is it as good as a Swiss passport?


What is the permanent residence permit and who is eligible for it?

According to the State Secretariat for Migration (SEM), citizens of 16 EU countries and EFTA nationals “are granted settlement permits pursuant to treaties or reciprocal agreements after five years’ regular and uninterrupted residence in Switzerland”.

SEM added that Cyprus, Malta, the EU-8 member states, Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia, are excluded, as no such treaties exist.

UK citizens who became permanent resident before Brexit, can keep their C-permits indefinitely.

How to apply for Swiss citizenship: An essential guide

Foreigners from ‘third nations’ can apply for permanent residency after ten years of living continuously in Switzerland under the B or L permit.

What rights does the C-permit give?

Unlike ‘lower’ type of permits - such as L for ‘short-term residents’ and B for ‘resident foreign nationals’ - which are regulated by various conditions and restrictions - those who have a C-permit enjoy almost the same rights as Swiss citizens.

Among them are unrestricted access to employment, being able to change jobs or cantons of residence, setting up own businesses, buying real estate without any restrictions, and having access to educational grants.


READ MORE: EU immigration: Switzerland’s foreign workers in numbers 

So is a C-permit equivalent to Swiss citizenship?

Many people think so, which may explain why only a small percentage of permanent foreign residents get naturalised — just over two percent, according to research by the University of Neuchâtel.

But a C-permit does have certain limitations.

For instance, the permit is valid indefinitely, as long as its holder doesn't leave Switzerland permanently.

Citizens get a Swiss passport, which allows them to come and go as they like - and conveys as many rights as a passport held by an eighth-generation Swiss. 

Citizens also have full rights to vote, whereas C Permit holders can usually at most only vote at a local level. 

In addition, citizens are allowed to run for office at a local, cantonal or federal level. 

There are more responsibilities however, the most notable of which is military service, which is an obligation for all men under the age of 34 in Switzerland regardless of how you got your nationality. 

READ MORE: Do naturalised Swiss citizens have to do military service?


What happens if you decide to go back to your home country?

With a Swiss passport you have the right to come back any time. But if you leave the country for longer than six months as a C-permit holder, you will lose your permanent resident status.

If you do eventually come back, you will have to go through the time-consuming steps of re-applying for a new permit.

However, there are ways to avoid this.

C-permit can be kept valid for up to four years if you are leaving Switzerland for professional reasons or to further your education. In such cases, you can put your permit on hold until you return.

To do this, you must submit a request for a temporary suspension of the permit to your cantonal authorities at least 30 days before your departure date.

Perhaps the biggest drawback of having the permanent residence status rather than full citizenship, is that you don’t have the right to vote — though some Swiss cantons and municipalities allow foreigners to do so. 


What are some other differences?

As can probably be expected, Swiss citizenship is more difficult to obtain than permanent residency. 

Applicants for Swiss citizenship need to jump through more hoops, including a canton-based test which seeks to determine how integrated a person is in Swiss life. 

These tests differ greatly at a cantonal level and can sometimes ask absurd questions, as The Local has covered in depth here

In addition, the language level is higher for Swiss citizenship than for a residency permit, which The Local outlined in the following article. 

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


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