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Becoming a Swiss Citizen: General Requirements and Ordinary Process
| Mihaela Dumitru

Becoming a Swiss Citizen: General Requirements and Ordinary Process

Why Switzerland?

There is no place like Switzerland – the distinctness of Swiss culture owes not only to the courage of William Tell, the world-famous Matterhorn, its cheeses and chocolates – but also to an exquisite variety of amusing dialects and puzzling expressions.

Switzerland boasts of various institutions, habits and interesting customs: its unbelievably complicated electoral procedures, its referenda and initiatives, its specialised economy with its banks and watches, its complicated federalism with cantons and communes and central government, its three official and four national languages, its neutral status, its astonishing wealth per head, its huge proportion of foreign workers, its efficient public services and its religious divisions.  

If your aim to become a citizen of Switzerland, there are some important details to consider from an immigration perspective. In this blog, I will outline the steps to undertake in case you qualify for regular naturalisation.

Regular Naturalisation

The Swiss passport has the reputation of one of Europe’s most difficult passports to obtain, but it does provide travelling benefits – the Swiss passport ranks fourth on the passport power index with visa-free access to 155 countries.

If you take on Swiss nationality you can keep your current nationality/nationalities (and so have dual or more nationalities) as long as your country of origin also accepts it.

Because of the ability to keep other nationalities in addition to the Swiss nationality, British citizens who do qualify are considering taking up Swiss citizenship following the UK’s vote to exit the EU.

General Requirements

Foreigners with no direct blood ties to Switzerland through either birth or marriage must live in the country for at least 10 years before they can apply for citizenship. Years spent in the country between ages eight and 18 count double, but in this case the actual stay in Switzerland must be at least six years.

The following stays are counted towards the duration requirement:

  • stays with permits B or C;
  • stays with a so-called “carte de legitimation” issued by the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA) or with a Ci permit;
  • stays with F permit; however, only half of this length of stay is credited.
 
Cantonal legislation sets its own requirements regarding the length of stay in a particular Canton and commune. Usually, the regulations stipulate a minimum stay of between two and five years in the municipality and canton.
 
Another aspect to consider is the knowledge of a national language. A minimum spoken level of B1 and written level of A2 will be required. People on welfare and anyone with a criminal offence are theoretically excluded.
 
Apart from integration being verified via the knowledge of a national language, general integration in the Swiss way of life, familiarisation with Swiss customs and traditions, conformance with the Swiss rule of law, and no endangering of Switzerland's internal or external security are aspects that authorities do consider when reviewing a request for naturalisation.
 
Only if all of the above-mentioned requirements are fulfilled, the State Secretariat for Migration (SEM) will then grant a “green light” to an applicant’s request to begin the naturalisation process but that does not mean citizenship is certain. Rather, cantons and municipalities have their own requirements that must be met, in addition to the general requirements discussed above.
 
Overview of the ordinary naturalisation process
 
Swiss citizenship contains basically three different levels of citizenship: communal, cantonal and federal. Due to this, there are communal, cantonal as well as federal authorities involved in the process.

The process at cantonal level is crucial and therefore described briefly hereafter. A number of points must be taken into account to ensure that the ordinary naturalisation procedure at cantonal level runs smoothly, such as:

  • The application for ordinary naturalisation must be submitted to the cantonal or communal authority designated in the cantonal Civil Rights Act (Art. 13 para. 1 BüG). Cantonal law determines the course of the procedure and the controls to be carried out by the competent authority (Art. 15 para. 1 BüG).
  • The competent authority registers the application, checks the personal details and conducts surveys and interviews to determine the applicant's suitability for naturalisation.
  • The application for ordinary naturalisation is only submitted to the SEM if the canton and commune are in favour of naturalisation (Art. 13 para. 2 BüG). 
 
Applicants must hold a valid permanent residence permit at the time of application, during the naturalisation procedure, when the federal naturalisation permit is granted and when a decision is taken on ordinary naturalisation. 
 
  • Before submitting the application for ordinary naturalisation. Only certain stays with a residence title in accordance with Article 33 BüG can be credited towards the period of residence in Switzerland before the application is filed.
  • At the time of submission of the application for ordinary naturalisation. As soon as the minimum length of stay in Switzerland has been reached according to Article 9 or 10 BüG, the applicant must hold a permanent residence permit (C permit) in order to submit an application for ordinary naturalisation.
  • During the naturalisation procedure and during ordinary naturalisation. The person wishing to naturalise must retain his or her permanent residence permit during the ordinary naturalisation procedure. This must continue until the granting of the federal naturalisation permit and the decision on the ordinary naturalisation by the competent canton.
 
The granting of the federal naturalisation permit requires that the person making the application:
  • is successfully integrated (fulfillment of debt collection and bankruptcy obligations as well as tax liability);
  • is familiar with Swiss living conditions; and
  • is not a threat to the internal or external security of Switzerland.
 
If all formal and material requirements are met, SEM grants the Swiss Confederation's naturalisation permit and sends it to the cantonal authority for a decision on naturalisation.

The competent cantonal authority takes the naturalisation decision within one year of the granting of the federal citizenship permit. After the expiry of this period, the federal naturalisation permit loses its validity.

The naturalisation procedure consists of three stages:

  • Federation
  • Canton
  • Commune
 
The federal naturalisation permit is therefore only the "green light" for the acquisition of Swiss citizenship by the Federation. The communes and cantons, on the other hand, have their own additional residence and aptitude requirements, which an applicant must fulfill. Swiss citizenship can only be acquired by those who have been granted the citizenship of the municipality and canton after the federal naturalisation permit has been granted. As a rule, there is no legally protected right to naturalisation in the municipality or canton.
 
The process for becoming a Swiss citizen varies between cantons but it is typically lengthy and usually takes several years. Securing Swiss citizenship can also be a costly process, as there are three levels of authorisation; therefore fees need to be paid at the federal, cantonal and commune levels. Federal fees are minimal but cantonal and communal fees for becoming a Swiss citizen vary greatly, with some charging several hundred francs, while others have fees adding up to a few thousand francs.
 
In Geneva, for example, the fee is based on income, meaning high-income earners can be hit with a cost of some CHF 4,000 for cantonal fees alone. Even if a person gets rejected for a Swiss passport, he or she still has to pay the fees.
 
Getting Swiss citizenship in western Switzerland is reportedly more generous than elsewhere, and Zurich, Geneva, and Bern are cities that typically produce more applications seeking Swiss citizenship.
 
Through this blog, we will keep you updated on the other ways to become a Swiss citizen, and other topics related to immigration in Switzerland. Should you have any questions or enquiries related to the topic discussed above please feel free to contact me at mihaela.dumitru@fragomen.com or the Fragomen Swiss Immigration team.