Will Swiss-born foreigners be granted automatic citizenship?

Two MPs have presented a request to the Council of States to allow those born in Switzerland of foreign parents get Swiss passport at birth.

Will Swiss-born foreigners be granted automatic citizenship?
Becoming Swiss may get just a bit easier. photo by Valeriano de Domenico/AFP

Unlike many other countries like the United States or Canada, being born in Switzerland doesn’t automatically mean the person is Swiss.

If their parents were born abroad and still hold foreign passports, a person will not obtain Swiss citizenship by birth. 

READ MORE: How to apply for Swiss citizenship: An essential guide

Even though they have lived their entire lives in Switzerland, they have the same nationality as their parents and will continue to be considered as foreigners – until and unless they become naturalised.

MP Paul Rechsteiner from the Social Democratic Party says anyone born in Switzerland should be automatically entitled to a Swiss passport.

The Green Party’s Lisa Mazzone is also in favour of at-birth citizenship for the second generation.

On Friday the two submitted their proposal to the Council of States, the upper house of the Federal Assembly.

“We have to facilitate citizen integration, and that includes second generation foreigners, who have their roots here but are often without a Swiss passport”, Mazzone said.

This is not the first attempt to grant citizenships to Swiss-born foreigners.

The Federal Council presented similar proposals three times — in 1983, 1994 and 2003. They  were supported by a large majority in parliament but nothing came out of them in the end.

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

“For almost 20 years nothing has happened and we have left the debate to those who always want more restrictions in this area. It’s time to go on the offensive again”, Mazzone noted.

Now is a better time to re-introduce the proposal, she said, because political climate in Switzerland has changed since the 2017 referendum which made it easier for third-generation immigrants to become citizens. 

For his part, Rechsteiner pointed out that “anyone born and raised here must be recognised as a full member of Swiss society, and therefore have a Swiss passport.”

As things stand now, foreigners born in Switzerland who want to obtain Swiss citizenship have to apply for naturalisation like any other immigrant. It can take up to a year, cost over 1,000 francs, and require proof of integration, language proficiency, lack of criminal record, and possibly other conditions, depending on canton.

IN NUMBERS: How many people become Swiss each year – and where do they come from?

Facilitated procedure is reserved for those married to Swiss nationals or the third generation of a family of foreign citizens, according to the State Secretariat  for Migration (SEM).

First and second generations are excluded from facilitated naturalisation — a quicker process with less stringent criteria — and must follow the ordinary route.

Figures from 2019, the last year for which statistics are available, show that the proportion of naturalised foreign nationals born in Switzerland is higher by more than 30 percent than that of foreigners born abroad, according to the Federal Statistical Office. 

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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?