For members


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

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

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

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.

But 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 all 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. 


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For members


Reader question: How can I find a good lawyer in Switzerland?

Although you hope to never need one, sometimes you might have to seek legal advice in Switzerland. This is how to find it.

Reader question: How can I find a good lawyer in Switzerland?

When you move to a new country, including Switzerland, you have to look for a whole new network of professionals.

You may or may not have immediate need for the proverbial butcher, baker, and the candlestick maker, but sooner or later you will have to find other professionals, with the most essential one being a doctor.

READ MORE: What you should know about finding a doctor in Switzerland

Chances are you will also need, at one time or another, a legal counsel. That should in principle not be a problem as Switzerland has an abundance of lawyers — 7,317 currently practicing in the country, according to European data.

The question of how to find one that best suits your needs depends on many factors — for instance, what kind of legal advice you are seeking (estate planning, inheritance, divorce, etc), whether you speak the language of your region or need an English-speaking attorney,  and whether you can pay (the often exorbitant) fees, or need free counselling instead.

Speaking of fees, the hourly rates vary widely from one lawyer or legal practice to another, with some charging as little as 100 francs or as much as 1,000.

Much depends on the lawyer’s location — with the ones practicing in large cities like Zurich and Geneva being more expensive than their counterparts in small towns or rural regions  — the area of specialisation and general reputation — the more prominent the attorney is with a roster of famous or well-heeled clients, the higher fees they will typically charge.

An important thing to know is that, depending on the advice you are seeking, you may not need a lawyer at all, but rather a public notary; in Switzerland, these professionals perform many tasks that only attorneys can do in other countries, such as drawing contracts and establishing other legal documents.

Here are some tips on how to find a lawyer or a notary that best fits your needs:

Word of mouth

As with any other services, personal recommendations from people you know and trust are best.

This will spare you the effort of “investigating” the person, such as researching their credentials and feedback from previous clients — the due diligence process that everyone should undertake before hiring any professional.

Professional associations

If you don’t know anyone who can recommend an attorney, do your own research.

Professional organisations such as the Swiss Bar Association (SBA) and the Swiss Federation of Notaries are good resources, as they both allow you to look for professionals in or near your place of residence.

English-speaking attorneys

Many Swiss lawyers and notaries, especially those practicing in large urban centres where many foreign residents live, speak English.

But if you want to make sure yours does, the UK government put together a list of English speaking attorneys in Switzerland, which should help you with your search.

‘Free’ legal advice

In principle, all legal assistance comes at a cost, except for exceptional cases, which are defined by each canton.

SBA has a canton-by-canton list, where the designation “GRATIS JUDICATURE” stands for “free legal advice”.

However, there is also such a thing in Switzerland as “legal protection insurance” (Rechtsschutzversicherungen in German, protection juridique in French, and protezione giuridica in Italian).

It covers attorney and other associated fees if you undertake court action against someone, are sued, or simply need legal advice.

There are two different types of legal protection insurance — one specifically for traffic accidents and the other for all other matters. Sometimes they are combined.

Typically, this insurance covers costs of legal representation associated with contract disputes, employment, loans and debts, healthcare, housing, retail purchases, and travel.

The annual cost of this insurance, which you can purchase from practically every carrier in Switzerland, is minimal, especially if you consider how much you’d have to spend if you hired an attorney yourself.

Another benefit of these policies is that a lawyer will be assigned to you by the insurance company so you won’t have the headache of looking for one on your own.

This article provides more information about this insurance:

EXPLAINED: Why you need ‘legal protection insurance’ in Switzerland