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Swiss citizenship For Members

Swiss citizenship: How do you prove the 'good moral character' requirement?

Helena Bachmann
Helena Bachmann - [email protected]
Swiss citizenship: How do you prove the 'good moral character' requirement?
Disorderly personal life may disqualify you from naturalisation in Schaffhausen. Photo by David Levêque on Unsplash

Foreigners have to jump through lots of hoops to prove that they are worthy of a Swiss passport. Most of the criteria is straight-forward, while others call for some subjective judgements, and differ between cantons.

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The conditions for naturalisation in Switzerland include residency requirements, language proficiency, and cultural integration.

Another condition is having a "good moral character" which is defined on the federal level as “compliance with Swiss law and not posing a risk to Switzerland’s security".

This is simple and reasonable enough, but wait…there is a catch.

Since individual cantons have the right to adjust the federal rules (by making them stricter, not laxer), this basic premise is a bit different from one region to another — though not straying too far from the general guidelines.

These are the rules, according to the National Center of Competence in Research — the Migration Moblility Nexus (NCCR). 

What exactly is 'moral character' required for Swiss citizenship?

A number of cantons, including Zurich, don’t have special requirements in this category, while others do.

For example, in Basel-City, applicants should have "no criminal record; a suspended sentence must have ended at least  six months before application".

Meanwhile, Geneva says that "no serious offence" must have been committed in the past.

This may have been the reason why a French citizen who has lived in the canton for 40 years was denied Swiss citizenship — he had a speeding offence.

Most other cantons’ requirements focus on lack of criminal record or activity, past or present — except for Zug.

That particular canton’s definition of a good moral character and, therefore, condition for naturalisation is… "No personal issues."

It is not specified what ‘issues’ rule out citizenship, but based on this statement, very few people are probably eligible for naturalisation in Zug.

While requirements such as a lack of criminal record or threats against Switzerland are easy to prove (by exclusion of evidence to the contrary), how does a foreign national provide necessary justifications for being issue-free — if in fact, he or she is?

So in Zug, good moral character is a vague and mostly subjective quality.

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‘Absence of social conflict’

Another way to assess a foreigner’s aptitude to become Swiss is by their level of integration.

The State Secretariat for Migration defines integration as “participation in the economic, social and cultural life of society,” although in practice much more is involved in this process (more about this below). 

READ ALSO: What does being 'successfully integrated' in Switzerland mean?

Here, too, cantons offer their own take on what integration means on their turf.

In Basel-City, Lucerne and Jura, it is "good reputation." However, the three cantons provide no details on whether a person’s reputation is to be determined by his employer, nosy neighbours, or the word on the street.

In Fribourg, integration is taken to mean "good behaviour and absence of social conflict".

Schaffhausen is even more vague in its requirement that a candidate for naturalisation should have an "orderly personal life".

It is not clear how the canton checks on that: do officials come to the applicant’s home to see that there are no dishes left in the sink, or does it rely on reports from neighbours?

Basel-Country, on the other hand, requires  "regular contact with Swiss citizens" as proof that one is integrated.‘

Perhaps the most thought-provoking condition is set by Ticino: "Prohibition to force girls, teenagers, and women into genital mutilation."

You can see moral character and integration criteria for your canton here.

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Arbitrary decisions

Whether it comes to moral character or integration, written rules are one thing, and what happens in practice, quite another.

For instance, local naturalisation commissions have been known to bar otherwise eligible foreigners from obtaining citizenship for subjective reasons.

They included people who complained about bells around cow's necks; didn't know what animals lived in their local zoo; and couldn't explain the origin of the cheese dish raclette.

In each of these cases, commissions apparently decided the candidates didn't display moral character that merited naturalisation.

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