A guide to Swiss citizenship and permanent residence
After 10 years of living in Switzerland, or less in certain situations, foreigners can apply for either Swiss citizenship or permanent residency.
Although foreigners can live in Switzerland long-term with just a Swiss settlement permit, some may find benefits in obtaining Swiss citizenship or Swiss permanent residency. The Swiss passport is reputed as one of Europe’s most difficult passports to obtain but it does provide travelling benefits – the Swiss passport ranks second on the passport power index.
Different requirements apply depending on your nationality; processes are easier for European nationals while third-national citizens can apply for citizenship after a certain number of years of living continuously in Switzerland, depending on their circumstances. Foreigners typically qualify for Swiss citizenship after 12 years of residence or for permanent residence after 10 years, although there are shorter paths to becoming Swiss for those married to Swiss nationals, second generation child residents and certain people born in Switzerland.
Find out if you can apply for either Swiss citizenship or permanent residence, which option offers you the best benefits, and what you need for your Swiss citizenship application.
Who can get Swiss citizenship or permanent residence?
Different conditions apply for citizens who are from a country in the European Union or European Free trade Association (EFTA) (EU countries plus Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland). Find the requirements in our guide for EU/EFTA nationals moving to Switzerland.
If you are a non-EU/EFTA citizen, after you have lived in Switzerland for 10 years (less for some nationalities) you can apply for a Swiss settlement or permanent residence permit. You can also apply to become naturalised as a Swiss citizen after 12 years, or less in some situations such as marriage or birth (see below).
Many foreigners who live long-term in Switzerland appear happy to remain with Swiss permanent residence permits rather than go through the lengthy naturalisation process. A Federal Commission on Migration study published in 2012 found that while around 900,000 people in Switzerland were eligible for citizenship, only around 36,000 people – just 2 percent of foreigners in Switzerland – had become Swiss citizens the year before.
If you take on Swiss nationality you can keep your nationality of birth (and so have dual nationality) as long as your country of origin also accepts it.
Because of the ability to keep dual nationality, British citizens who qualify might consider taking up Swiss citizenship following the UK's vote to exit the EU. Several cantons reported significant increases in citizenship applications in 2016.
Should you choose Swiss settlement permit or Swiss citizenship?
A settlement permit (permit C) allows you to live in Switzerland under the same conditions and enjoy most of the same benefits as Swiss nationals. These include:
- open access to employment, conditions of employment and working conditions.
- being able to set up your own company.
- the right to education, recognition of qualifications, grants.
- being able to buy real estate without restriction.
- being able to live anywhere in Switzerland.
- access to welfare benefits and social assistance.
Acquiring Swiss citizenship will give you all of the above plus the right to vote and to stand for public office but you will be subject to the same legal obligations as other Swiss citizens. For example, Swiss men aged 18 to 34 have to undertake military service. However, unlike Swiss residence permits, which lapse when you leave the country, you won't lose your Swiss citizenship or passport if you live abroad.
Applying for a Swiss settlement or permanent permit
After 10 continuous years in Switzerland you can apply for a permanent residence or settlement permit C. American and Canadian citizens can apply after five years. You can leave Switzerland within this period for short amounts of time without it affecting your ‘continuous residence’ – should you want to apply for Swiss citizenship later – but you should contact the migration office in your own canton for specific details on this time period. You have to prove integration into Swiss society and may have to take a language proficiency course or examination in the official language of the canton in which you live.
You apply for a settlement permit through your local cantonal authorities. You can find the contact details for your specific canton immigration office, or click here to find the addresses of federal, cantonal and communal authorities and online access via their websites.
Latest updates to Swiss citizenship 2016–2017
Changes to the Swiss citizenship process were adopted in 2014 and are expected to come into force in 2017. These reforms were designed to ease the qualifying process for Swiss citizenship, although they will negatively affect foreigners who have not held a settlement permit C during their years of Swiss residence.
Some of the most notable changes to qualifying for Swiss citizenship will include:
- Residents can apply after 10 years, instead of 12 years.
- Only residents holding a Swiss permanent residence (permit C) will qualify, which is granted after five or 10 years of residency depending on nationality. This will have considerable consequences on foreign residents who have lived in Switzerland on temporary permits (eg. B, L, F, Ci permits), as their years of residence will no longer count towards citizenship once the new law comes into effect.
- Years spent in Switzerland between the birthdays of eight and 18 years will count as double toward the residency requirment.
- The years spent in Switzerland with a temporary right to remain – for example, refugees or asylum seekers – count towards citizenship as half the years.
- Cantonal residency requirements need to be between two and five years, where candidates must be resident in that particular canton for a set period before applying.
- If foreign couples apply jointly they may both be required to fulfil the residence requirement.
Due to these new laws, residents who do not hold a Permit C but meet the current conditions of citizenship (12 years of residence) are being advised to consider applying now, as they will no longer qualify for Swiss citizenship once the reforms are implemented.
Although Switzerland will reduce the time requirement for citizenship from 12 to 10 years in 2017, the country will still have among the highest residency time requirements for citizenship among European nations. Around 30,000 to 40,000 people per year are naturalised in Switzerland.
Applying for Swiss citizenship
You can acquire Swiss nationality through:
- being married to a Swiss citizen
- being the child – by birth or adoption – of a Swiss citizen
- after you have lived in Switzerland for 12 years, including three of the last five.
Years spent in Switzerland between the ages of 10 and 20 currently count as double towards the residency requirement. Some cantons may also specify other conditions, for example, that the applicant has lived in the canton for a minimum period without interruption; this is currently unrestricted across the cantons (but will be uniformed under the new laws) and can range from one to 10 years or more. You will also typically need to show you have learned one of Switzerland's language.
Under certain conditions, the foreign spouse or child of a Swiss citizen may qualify for the simplified naturalisation procedure; see who can apply by marriage or birth. Others must apply via the regular naturalisation process, for example, if they fulfil the residency requirements. You can read an overview of the naturalisation process, who you need to contact and guidelines for the application.
You may be asked to prove things such as that you pay your taxes, you're prepared to do military service, you haven't broken any laws, you speak French German or Italian, you're attached to and professionally and socially integrated in Switzerland, you're of good character or that you're not supported by the state (such as in Geneva).
Through birth or parents
Unlike many countries, a baby born on Swiss soil does not automatically have the right to Swiss citizenship. The child will be Swiss if he or she is:
- the offspring of married parents, one of whom is Swiss.
- born to an unmarried Swiss father, if the paternity is acknowledged before the age of 22.
- a foreign child under 22 years old who was not included in the naturalisation of a parent and has lived in Switzerland for five years, including one year immediately prior to the application.
- a child of a parent who lost their Swiss citizenship but can show close ties to Switzerland; read more on renaturalisation.
Through marriage or parents
You can apply for a fast-track (known as simplified or facilitated) naturalisation if you have been married to a Swiss citizen for three years and lived in Switzerland for a total of five years, provided your partner has lived in Switzerland for one year. You cannot apply for naturalisation on the basis of your relationship if you are the registered partner of a Swiss citizen – you must be married.
In some cases you can apply for naturalisation if you live abroad but can prove you have close links with Switzerland and have been married to a Swiss citizen for six years.
It is the Confederation who makes the decision about the application so applications must be submitted to the FOM (Naturalisation Section, Quellenweg 6, 3003 Bern-Wabern) or to the Swiss embassy or consulate if you’re abroad. You have to fulfil certain requirements including integration into Swiss society, compliance with Swiss law and posing no danger to Swiss security (for example, not having a criminal record). You don’t have to meet any additional requirements from the canton or communes but they do reserve the right to appeal.
If an applicant's citizenship is rejected, applicants have the right to appeal. The application process can take an average of one and a half years. Read about costs and requirements for simplified Swiss naturalisation.
After living in Switzerland for 12 years
After you have lived in Switzerland for 12 years you can apply to become a naturalised Swiss citizen, although any years spent in Switzerland between the ages of 10 and 20 count as double. If you want to apply as a couple, only one of you has to meet the 12-year requirement while the other has to have lived in Switzerland for five years.
You have to apply for citizenship at three levels: Confederation, canton and commune. After submitting your application, the authorities will invite you to an interview where the details of the procedure will be outlined. The requirements at federal level are the same for everyone: you need to be culturally and socially integrated into Swiss society and familiar with Swiss customs and traditions, comply with Swiss law and not be a threat to Swiss security. The FOM makes its decision based on reports from your canton and commune.
If the FOM approves your application, you’ll be granted a federal naturalisation permit. This alone does not entitle you to Swiss citizenship; Swiss citizenship is only acquired by applicants who also satisfy the naturalisation requirements for the canton and commune where you live.
The residence requirements and procedures between cantons vary considerably, for example, you may be required to live in the canton for a certain amount of years (see canton residence requirements), or one commune may ask you to take a written or verbal naturalisation examination while another may make the decision by a communal assembly (see citizenship requirements per canton).
The duration of the process and the administration fees also vary, with prices between cantons ranging anywhere from CHF 1,000–5,000. Additional costs may also be incurred to obtain criminal record certificates, debut registry certificates, etc. The whole process can take up to three years and during this time moving to another commune can greatly complicate your application and is not typically allowed.
Rejected citizenship applicants typically have no right to appeal.
In the first instance, you should contact the cantonal naturalisation service in your own canton for specific information and application forms. See an example of the processes in Geneva, Zurich Vaud and Basel.
For more information
Federal Office for Migration: FOM is the Swiss government’s official site for information on all aspects of immigration to Switzerland.
Quellenweg 6, CH-3003 Bern-Wabern | +41 58 465 11 11 | Monday to Friday: 9–11am and 2–4pm.
Cantonal authorities: Each canton has its own cantonal immigration and labour market authorities that issue permits and provide detailed information on the application procedures. Find the contact details of your Swiss canton or click here for the addresses of federal, cantonal and communal authorities.
The information given here is for guidance only and you should seek specific advice from the Federal Office for Migration (FOM) or the Swiss embassy or consulate in your home country.
Need advice? Post your question on Expatica's free Ask the Expert service to see if we can help.
Comment here on the article, or if you have a suggestion to improve this article, please click here.