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Swiss citizenship For Members

Five surprising Swiss citizenship rules you should know about

Helena Bachmann
Helena Bachmann - [email protected]
Five surprising Swiss citizenship rules you should know about
If you hoping to become Swiss, learn which animals live in your local zoo. Image by Jacques GAIMARD from Pixabay

Much has been said and written — including in The Local — about Switzerland’s tough naturalisation rules. But some are so unusual, you may not have even heard of them.

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If you are a foreign national living in Switzerland and hope to get naturalised one day, you have probably done your homework about all the citizenship laws  — ranging from residency and language requirements to integration rules.

In case you haven’t, this guide will help you:

But even if you are well versed in all the rules and regulations, you  may still be surprised to learn about some of the ‘wackiest’ ones Switzerland has on the books.

For instance:

‘I think therefore I am’

No, this doesn’t have anything to do with Descartes’ famous quote.

Rather, it pertains to those foreigners who genuinely believe they are Swiss, even though they aren’t.

How is this possible?

According to State Secretariat for Migration (SEM), “if you have believed for at least five years in good faith that you are a Swiss citizen, and during this period the cantonal or communal authorities have in fact treated you as a Swiss citizen, you can apply for simplified naturalisation”.

The key phrase here is “in good faith.” In other words, you would only qualify for simplified naturalisation if you did not set out to intentionally deceive the authorities.

"You must genuinely have been completely unaware that you are not in fact a Swiss citizen," SEM points out.

While this situation is probably not very common, it must happen from time to time, because the State Secretariat for Migration (SEM) lists this scenario on its website under the heading “People erroneously treated as Swiss citizens.”

READ ALSO: How 'feeling' Swiss can get you citizenship faster 

Feeling genuinely Swiss may get you citizenship. Photo by Anne-Christine POUJOULAT / AFP

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You don’t necessarily need to speak German, French or Italian to be naturalised
 
Yes, really.

This is a common belief, as the rules clearly state that to become a Swiss citizen “knowledge of a national language" is essential.

Most people  take this to mean proficiency in German, French, or Italian — depending on the linguistic region where they live.

But let’s not forget that Romansh is an official language of Switzerland as well, even though only about 60,000 people in canton Graubünden still speak it. 
 
Since 2021, Romansh speakers are allowed to take the citizenship exam in their native language. As SEM explains on its website, “people who live in Romansh-speaking municipalities in Graubünden will now be able to produce a language certificate in Romansh… exams can be taken in Sursilvan, Sutsilvan, Surmiran, Puter and Vallader – the five Romansh languages – as well as Rumantsch Grischun.” 

SEM doesn’t specify whether it is sufficient for citizenship purposes to know only Romansh and not the canton’s other official language, German, or even Italian, which is spoken in some parts of the canton.

It is difficult to imagine, given that Romansh is only spoken in some mountain communities, how a Romansh-only speaker would communicate in other parts of the canton or, indeed elsewhere in Switzerland, but law is law.

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If you are stateless, you are eligible for Swiss nationality quicker than many other foreigners

Being ‘stateless’ means you don’t have any nationality.

This can happen, for instance, if children are born in a country that does not allow their parents to pass on nationality through family ties.

In Switzerland, there are only 757 stateless persons (2022 statistics) – certainly far fewer than over 2.1 million other foreign nationals.

A child under the age of 18 who is proven to be stateless can apply for simplified naturalisation if he or she can prove at least five years’ residence in Switzerland, including one year immediately prior to submitting the application.
 
Most foreigners must live in Switzerland for at least 10 years before applying for citizenship.

Communities decide whether you are worthy of Swiss citizenship

A specificity of Switzerland’s naturalisation system is that it is decided on three levels: federal, cantonal, and communal.

The most important decisions are taken at the community level, where, depending on the town or village, naturalisation commissions are sometimes composed of ordinary citizens.

While this is in line with Switzerland’s system of participatory, grass-roots political system, it can sometimes lead to subjective and arbitrary decisions based less on law than on personal views.

There is plenty of evidence of otherwise qualified applicants, who meet all the criteria for obtaining citizenship, being denied by local naturalisation commissions.

These examples include not knowing which animals live in the same enclosure in a local zoo; complaining about the noise of cow or church bells; not knowing the origin of Swiss cheese dish raclette; calling an Alphorn a Schwizerhorn, and being caught speeding.

If you think this is a Schwizerhorn, you are not qualified to become Swiss. Photo by Robin MILLARD / AFP

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Strange questions on citizenship exams

This leads us to another particularity of a Swiss naturalisation system — the questions candidates must answer.

While questions about Switzerland’s history, geography and political system are legitimate on a citizenship test, many others are not.

They include instances when a candidate was asked what he knew about a landslide that hit the local region in 1806; another applicant was asked what pubs and restaurants are in his town; and yet another was asked where he liked to go on holiday.

Why is the vacation question relevant at all?

Because, as a member of the naturalisation commission explained at the time, if someone feels integrated in Switzerland, they will not keep vacationing in their home country

READ ALSO: The 10 most surprising questions on Switzerland's citizenship exam

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