Swiss citizenship For Members

Why do Swiss passports show ancestry rather than birthplace?

Helena Bachmann
Helena Bachmann - [email protected]
Why do Swiss passports show ancestry rather than birthplace?
A Swiss passport will be necessary to visit the UK from October. Photo by Claudio Schwarz | @purzlbaum on Unsplash

Swiss passports and identity cards never indicate where a person was born, but the commune their ancestors came from. Why is this?


If you have lived in Switzerland for a while, you have probably noticed some uniquely Swiss particularities.

For instance, a person’s place of birth is not as important, at least for administrative purposes, as where his or her ancestral roots lie — that is, where their forebearers came from.

Since about the middle of the 18th century, the place of origin — Heimatort in German, lieu d’origine in French, and luogo di attinenza in Italian — has been transmitted from father to children and from husband to wife.

Since 2011, however, women have been able to keep their own (that is, their father’s) place of origin on official documents rather than automatically take on their husband’s.


How did this system originate?

This may seem like a complicated way to identify people, but in fact it shows that even in the 1700s,  Swiss people were pragmatic and had good organisational skills.

The villages and communes had an obligation to keep a register of their citizens, recording all births, marriages, deaths, and departures — a system that had paved the way to the civil registry offices of today.

The municipalities also had to help finance the social benefits of their citizens, even if they no longer lived in the original community. In 2012, however, the parliament removed this obligation.

Why is only the place or origin indicated on official documents, and not the birthplace, as is the case elsewhere in the world?

A simple answer may be that the Swiss like to do things their own (often unusual) way.

But actually, this idea made the rounds of the Federal Assembly in 2001, when the parliament debated replacing the “place of origin” system in favour of place of birth.

That change never took place, however, because, as one MP pointed out, people can be born somewhere randomly or accidentally, while a system based on ancestry is a true indicator of a person’s origin.

The idea ties in closely to the German word 'Heimat', which literally translates to 'home' but actually refers to a person's 'homeland', tying in elements of origin, identity, language, culture and experience. 

The 'place of origin' designation in Swiss passports therefore reflects the importance in which the notion of Heimat is held. 

A Swiss Heimat-Schein (homeland certificate). Image: Wikicommons/

A Swiss Heimat-Schein (homeland certificate). Image: Wikicommons

What happens when a foreigner becomes naturalised?

The place of origin designation only applies to Switzerland, i.e. foreigners will not be able to place their non-Swiss origin on their passport. 

But where foreigners do not have a place or origin in Switzerland, the area is not left blank. 

Instead, if a foreign national marries a Swiss, then he or she automatically “inherits” the spouse’s origin.

In other cases, foreigners will be “adopted” by the community in which they live and where they receive their citizenship.

READ MORE: Naturalisation through marriage: How your partner can obtain Swiss citizenship

Can you change your place of origin?

Yes, if you want to become a citizen of a community where you live rather than some remote village you’ve never set your foot in, you can switch.

But prepare to be patient.

The process may vary from one canton and municipality to another, but generally speaking it involves filling out various forms, proving you have no criminal record or debts, and explaining why you want to take the irrevocable step of renouncing your former ancestral origin for your new community.


This antiquated, patriarchal system does create some unusual situations

Most Swiss were born and have resided in places other than the ones they originate from. Sometimes, they live in different linguistic regions and don't even speak the same language as their forefathers.

In fact, they often don’t have any links at all to a town listed in their identity documents as their place of origin, and have never even been there.

And it is even more peculiar for foreigners who marry a Swiss and suddenly find themselves belonging to a town a village they have never heard of.

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


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