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EXPLAINED: Why Swiss passports show ancestry rather than birthplace

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

A Swiss passport. Photo by Claudio Schwarz | @purzlbaum on Unsplash

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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For members


Switzerland refuses to make it easier to become Swiss

Switzerland's Federal Council rejected a motion by some MPs to make the process of obtaining Swiss citizenship easier for certain foreigners.

Switzerland refuses to make it easier to become Swiss

In view of the low naturalisation rate in Switzerland, MP Katja Christ from the Green Liberal party has filed a motion asking to revise the minimum length of stay required to obtain Swiss citizenship from 10 to seven years.

Christ also pointed out that the naturalisation process itself, especially on the municipal level, should be revamped.

That is because such a procedure sometimes involves discriminatory decisions by the communal assembly, which are based on the candidate’s origin rather than his or her eligibility for citizenship, she said.

The government responded that any denial of naturalisation believed by the candidate to be unjustified can be appealed.

Another MP, Corina Gredig, also asked to lower the minimum length of stay required by the cantons for naturalisation from the current five to three years, arguing that many people move from one canton before the five-year term.

READ MORE: Which Swiss cantons have the strictest citizenship requirements?

However, on Thursday the Federal Council rejected the motions, saying that a revised legislation on foreigners went into effect in 2019, so fairly recently, and the issues brought up in the two recent motions were already addressed at that time.

During the debates leading up to the new legislation, the parliament refused to reduce the minimum length of stay in Switzerland to eight years and in cantons  three years, authorities said.

The law lays out criteria not only for naturalisation, but also for integration in general, as well as for conditions to receive work permits in Switzerland, which include the need to provide certificates from government-accredited institutions to prove language proficiency.

READ MORE: Work permits: Switzerland introduces new rules for language proficiency certificates

The refusal to lighten up naturalisation requirements comes amid ongoing discussions in Switzerland about how to make this process easier for third-generation foreigners who are eligible to become Swiss.

Unlike many other countries, 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 at birth. 

Even though they were born in Switzerland and 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.

However, this process is more complex than it seems, as it is unreasonably bureaucratic, requiring proof that is often difficult to obtain.

EXPLAINED: Why so few third-generation Swiss are actually ‘Swiss’?

As a result of these strict conditions, very few third-generation foreigners become Swiss: out of about 25,000 people in this category, only 1,847 received their Swiss passports at the end of 2020 — the last year for which official statistics are available.

“There should be political will to implement change, which is not the case”, Rosita Fibbi, migration sociologist at the Swiss Forum for the Study of Migration and Population at the University of Neuchâtel, told The Local in an interview on May 4th.

“No significant steps to make the process truly easier have been introduced to date”; she added.

The latest Federal Council decision  not to act on the recent motions means no relief is in sight on the naturalisation front.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: Why so many foreigners in Switzerland skip naturalisation?