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Do all cantons have the same language rules for Swiss citizenship?

Helena Bachmann
Helena Bachmann - [email protected]
Do all cantons have the same language rules for Swiss citizenship?
That's what you need to do to become a citizen. Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Back in January 2019 the government introduced new rules for language proficiency required to obtain Swiss citizenship. But are they uniform throughout the country?


On that date, the revised Federal Act on Foreign Nationals and Integration (FNIA) set out proficiency levels required not only for naturalisation, but also for obtaining (and maintaining) work permits.

Each of the levels was set by the State Secretariat for Migration (SEM) and based on the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR), a definition of different oral and written language levels created by the Council of Europe.

This is what SEM’s requirements look like, with the requirement for spoken proficiency higher than for written one.


SEM chart

And this is what different levels mean:

  • A1 A2 : Beginners
  • B1 B2 : Intermediate
  • C1 C2 : Advanced

In Switzerland, where there are four national languages, the proficiency levels apply only to the  official language of the canton where the foreigner lives: German, French, Italian, and Romansh.


Yes, you read it right.

Since 2021, Romansh speakers are allowed to take the citizenship exam in this 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.” 

But since Romansh is not part of CERF, its proficiency will be judged by native speakers.

However, if you happen to live in Graubünden and are not fluent in one of the above dialects, then you can do so in German — the other official language of the canton.


What about the bilingual cantons and cities?

A number of Swiss cantons have two official languages. These are Bern (German and French), Fribourg (German and French), Valais (French and German) and Graubünden (German, Romansh and Italian).

There are also two bilingual German and French cities: Biel/Bienne and Fribourg.

A Swiss Federal Supreme Court case from 2022 held that a person is required to demonstrate language proficiency in the administrative language of the municipality in which they apply, even if they are a native speaker of a different Swiss language. 

READ ALSO: What language tests for permits and citizenship does Switzerland impose?

Do all Swiss cantons adhere to the federal rules?

SEM’s levels are a minimum requirement, with individual cantons free to introduce stricter criteria.

(The same applies to all federal laws : cantons can enact tougher regulations than the national ones, but can’t introducer laxer ones).


Which cantons have stricter language criteria in regards to citizenship?

Three Swiss-German cantons do: Schwyz, Nidwalden, and Thurgau all require B1 written level and B2 spoken. 

None of these three cantons recognises the lower, A2 level for written skills that are set by SEM.

The harsher requirements concern only citizenship, not work permits.

Additionally, two other cantons announced that they want to toughen their language criteria as well.

Aargau, where naturalisation requirements are already stricter than elsewhere in Switzerland, now wants to have harsher rules for the language— it wants to raise it to a B2 level as well.

In Zug too, the cantonal government has responded favourably to a motion from the populist Swiss People’s Party calling for a better language proficiency to obtain Swiss citizenship: B2 for spoken and B1 for written German.

READ ALSO: Swiss canton Zug pushes for tougher language rules for naturalisation

What about cantons with a high proportion of foreign nationals?

Zurich, Geneva, Vaud and Basel-City have no plans to modify the current (federal) rules that are in place there.


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