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LIVING IN SWITZERLAND

Citizenship: How personal debt could stop you from becoming Swiss

Switzerland imposes strict criteria for obtaining a citizenship or even a settlement permit. Financial responsibility plays a huge role.

Credit cards laid out next to an open laptop
Are you in debt? If so, it might put your chances of Swiss citizenship in doubt. Photo by Dylan Gillis on Unsplash

Foreign nationals in Switzerland must fulfil a number of conditions for naturalisation, including the length of residency, language skills, and degree of integration into Swiss society.

Perhaps a lesser known but similarly important requirement is financial stability, as two recent examples cited by Swiss media have shown.

How to apply for Swiss citizenship: An essential guide

One concerns a 28-year-old man from Winterthur in canton Zurich, who was born to a Franco-Swiss mother and a Lebanese father.

He was mistakenly considered to be Swiss all his life, but the error was caught in 2015 when the man tried to renew his passport and the authorities discovered that he is not registered in the digital database of citizens.

READ MORE: I thought I was Swiss? How being mistaken as a national can put you on the road to citizenship

The man’s attempts to apply for a facilitated naturalisation were thwarted due to his difficult financial situation: between 2011 and 2017, he accumulated 60,000 francs in debt and also has several pending court proceedings.

Another case in point is a 45-year-old German man in Zurich who applied for a permanent settlement permit C after having lived in Switzerland since 2011. The required length of stay in Switzerland for a citizen of a EU state is five years, so in this regard the man was eligible for a C-permit.

However, both his request and subsequent court appeals were denied because the man has not worked since 2014 and has accumulated around 75,000 francs in debt.

What does the law say?

While the amount of money owed is not specifically mentioned in the Foreign Nationals and Integration Act (FNIA), it does set “successful integration” as one of the conditions for obtaining Swiss citizenship.

State Secretariat for Migration (SEM) defines integration as “personal responsibility”, self-sufficiency, and participation in the country’s economy.

Having considerable debts that are not being paid off indicates lack of all the above-mentioned qualities.

READ MORE: What does being ‘successfully integrated’ in Switzerland mean?

In its handbook on naturalisation, SEM notes that “compliance with Swiss law is measured in particular by an exemplary financial reputation”.

SEM goes on to list non-payment of taxes, health insurance premiums, fines, rents, or accumulation of debt as valid reasons for denying citizenship.

And there is more

Foreign nationals could see their permits downgraded or cancelled altogether if they receive social benefits. which is taken to mean that these individuals are not self-sufficient and don’t contribute to Switzerland’s economy — the very opposite of what authorities expect of candidates for naturalisation.

Foreign welfare recipients are also excluded from applying for Swiss citizenship if they had been on social assistance in the three years prior to their application.

An exception is made , however, if the benefits are paid back in full.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: How applying for social benefits could see your Swiss work permit cancelled

As naturalisation statistics are kept by individual cantons, no national data is available to show how many people had their naturalisation requests denied because of debts and other financial problems.

By the way, the notion of integration, or lack thereof, sometimes includes factors other than financial stability.

These links list other reasons that various cantons used to deny citizenship to their foreign residents.

Brit denied Swiss citizenship after ‘failing raclette question’

Woman refused Swiss citizenship after responding ‘uh’ over 200 times in interview

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OFFBEAT

Is Switzerland’s male-only mandatory military service ‘discriminatory’?

Under Swiss law, all men must serve at least one year in compulsory national service. But is this discriminatory?

Swiss military members walk across a road carrying guns
A new lawsuit seeks to challenge Switzerland's male-only military service requirement. Is this discriminatory? FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP

All men aged between the ages of 18 and 30 are required to complete compulsory military service in Switzerland. 

A lawsuit which worked its way through the Swiss courts has now ended up in the European Court of Human Rights, where the judges will decide if Switzerland’s male-only conscription requirement violates anti-discrimination rules. 

Switzerland’s NZZ newspaper wrote on Monday the case has “explosive potential” and has “what it takes to cause a tremor” to a policy which was first laid out in Switzerland’s 1848 and 1874 Federal Constitutions. 

What is Switzerland’s compulsory military service? 

Article 59 of the Federal Constitution of Switzerland says “Every man with Swiss citizenship is liable for military service. Alternative civilian service shall be provided for by law.”

Recruits must generally do 18 weeks of boot camp (longer in some cases). 

They are then required to spend several weeks in the army every year until they have completed a minimum 245 days of service.

Military service is compulsory for Swiss men aged 18 and over. Women can chose to do military service but this is rare.

What about national rather than military service? 

Introduced in 1996, this is an alternative to the army, originally intended for those who objected to military service on moral grounds. 

READ MORE: The Swiss army’s growing problem with civilian service

Service is longer there than in the army, from the age of 20 to 40. 

This must be for 340 days in total, longer than the military service requirement. 

What about foreigners and dual nationals? 

Once you become a Swiss citizen and are between the ages of 18 and 30, you can expect to be conscripted. 

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

In general, having another citizenship in addition to the Swiss one is not going to exempt you from military service in Switzerland.

However, there is one exception: the obligation to serve will be waved, provided you can show that you have fulfilled your military duties in your other home country.

If you are a Swiss (naturalised or not) who lives abroad, you are not required to serve in the military in Switzerland, though you can voluntarily enlist. 

How do Swiss people feel about military and national service? 

Generally, the obligation is viewed relatively positively, both by the general public and by those who take part in compulsory service. 

While several other European countries have gotten rid of mandatory service, a 2013 referendum which attempted to abolish conscription was rejected by 73 percent of Swiss voters. 

What is the court case and what does it say? 

Martin D. Küng, the lawyer from the Swiss canton of Bern who has driven the case through the courts, has a personal interest in its success. 

He was found unfit for service but is still required to pay an annual bill to the Swiss government, which was 1662CHF for the last year he was required to pay it. 

While the 36-year-old no longer has to pay the amount – the obligation only lasts between the ages of 18 and 30 – Küng is bring the case on principle. 

So far, Küng has had little success in the Swiss courts, with his appeal rejected by the cantonal administrative court and later by the Swiss Federal Supreme Court. 

Previous Supreme Court cases, when hearing objections to men-only military service, said that women are less suitable for conscription due to “physiological and biological differences”.

In Küng’s case, the judges avoided this justification, saying instead that the matter was a constitutional issue. 

‘No objective reason why only men have to do military service’

He has now appealed the decision to the European level. 

While men have previously tried and failed when taking their case to the Supreme Court, no Swiss man has ever brought the matter to the European Court of Human Rights. 

Küng told the NZZ that he considered the rule to be unjust and said the Supreme Court’s decision is based on political considerations. 

“I would have expected the Federal Supreme Court to have the courage to clearly state the obvious in my case and not to decide on political grounds,” Küng said. 

“There is no objective reason why only men have to do military service or pay replacement taxes. On average, women may not be as physically productive as men, but that is not a criterion for excluding them from compulsory military service. 

There are quite a few men who cannot keep up with women in terms of stamina. Gender is simply the wrong demarcation criterion for deciding on compulsory service. If so, then one would have to focus on physical performance.”

Is it likely to pass? 

Küng is optimistic that the Strasbourg court will find in his favour, pointing to a successful appeal by a German man who complained about a fire brigade tax, which was only imposed on men. 

“This question has not yet been conclusively answered by the court” Küng said. 

The impact of a decision in his favour could be considerable, with European law technically taking precedence over Swiss law.

It would set Switzerland on a collision course with the bloc, particularly given the popularity of the conscription provision. 

Küng clarified that political outcomes and repercussions don’t concern him. 

“My only concern is for a court to determine that the current regulation is legally wrong.”

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