Foreigners can get Swiss citizenship after 12 years of living in Switzerland, or less in certain situations, or opt for Swiss permanent residency.
Some foreigners find benefits in getting Swiss citizenship or Swiss permanent residency, although foreigners can live in Switzerland long-term with just a Swiss settlement permit. The Swiss passport is reputed as one of Europe’s most difficult passports to obtain but it does provide traveling benefits – the Swiss passport ranks fourth on the passport power index with visa-free access to 155 countries.
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.
This comprehensive guide covers Swiss permanent residence, Swiss citizenship and getting a Swiss passport:
- Who can get a Swiss passport or Swiss permanent residence?
- Differences between Swiss permanent residency and Swiss citizenship
- Dual nationality in Switzerland
- Applications for Swiss permanent residency
- New Swiss citizenship requirements
- How to apply for Swiss citizenship
- Costs of becoming a Swiss citizen
- Contacts for getting Swiss nationality
Swiss citizenship updates 2017
A new Swiss Citizenship Act will come into force in January 2018, which will substantially change the Swiss citizenship requirements, the most notable being that applicants must hold a settlement C permit to qualify. Residents in Switzerland who currently qualify for becoming a Swiss citizen are being advised to review whether their rights to Swiss citizenship will be revoked under the new measures, which are predicted to affect some 650,000 foreigners in Switzerland. Other reforms include unifying certain conditions across the cantons, for example, requirements to show language fluency and not accessing any social welfare benefits in the three years before applying.
In February 2017, the Swiss passed a vote to make it easier for the grandchildren of immigrants to gain nationality, approved by 60.4 percent of voters and a majority of cantons. This will affect previous laws that didn’t automatically grant Swiss nationality to children born on Swiss soil. It was the fifth time this issue was put the ballot box, the first being in 1983.
Who can get a Swiss passport or Swiss permanent residency?
Different conditions apply for citizens who are from a country in the European Union or European Free Trade Association (EFTA) (EU plus Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland). Read 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 (or less for some nationalities) you can apply for a Swiss settlement or permanent residence permit. You can also apply to become naturalized as a Swiss citizen after 12 years, or less in some situations, such as marriage or birth.
Many foreigners who live long-term in Switzerland appear happy to remain on a Swiss permanent residence permit rather than go through the lengthy Swiss naturalization 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. Switzerland, however, ranked third out of 30 developed countries on the Inclusive Development Index (IDI) 2017 – which measures the equality of access to life opportunities – noted for its quality digital and healthcare infrastructure, education and home and financial asset ownership.
Differences: Swiss settlement permit or Swiss citizenship?
A Swiss permanent residence permit (settlement 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.
Swiss citizenship benefits include 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, the main Swiss citizenship benefit is that you don’t lose your Swiss passport or right to residency if you live abroad.
Dual nationality in Switzerland
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 in Switzerland, 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.
Those with dual nationality are also able to enter diplomatic positions as of January 2017, revoking a previous ‘obsolete’ and ‘discriminatory’ ban and rejecting the view that such citizens are less loyal or patriotic.
Applications for Swiss permanent residence
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. The canton may impose other conditions, which vary greatly between cantons; for example, Bern requires that citizen applicants have not accessed any social welfare in the past 10 years, in which case they must pay it back to be approved.
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.
New Swiss citizenship requirements
Changes to the Swiss citizenship process adopted in 2014 are expected to come into force in January 2018, although confusion exists as some cantons have mentioned dates of 2017. These new Swiss citizenship requirements were designed to ease the qualifying process for Swiss nationality, 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 Swiss citizenship requirements 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 before all changes are implemented, as they will no longer qualify for Swiss citizenship thereafter.
Although the new Swiss citizenship requirements will reduce the time from 12 to 10 years, 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 naturalized and obtain a Swiss passport.
How to become a Swiss citizen
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 and can range from one to 10 years or more, although the new laws will introduce a cap of up to five years. You can read about your canton’s requirements for getting Swiss citizenship here. 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 naturalization procedure; see who can apply by marriage or birth. Others must apply via the regular naturalization process, for example, if they fulfill the residency requirements. You can read an overview of the naturalization process, who you need to contact and guidelines for the application.
You may be asked to prove things such as that you pay your Swiss 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).
Swiss citizenship via 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.
Swiss citizenship via marriage or parents
You can apply for a fast-track (known as simplified or facilitated) naturalization 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 naturalization 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 naturalization 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 (Naturalization Section, Quellenweg 6, 3003 Bern-Wabern) or to the Swiss embassy or consulate if you’re abroad. You have to fulfill 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 naturalization.
Swiss citizenship based on residence
After you have lived in Switzerland for 12 years you can apply to become a naturalized 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 naturalization permit. This alone does not entitle you to Swiss citizenship; Swiss citizenship is only acquired by applicants who also satisfy the naturalization 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 naturalization 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.
Costs of becoming a Swiss citizen
The process for becoming a Swiss citizen varies between cantons but it typically lengthy, typically lasting several years. Getting Swiss citizenship can also be a costly process as there are three levels of authorization; thus fees 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 a several hundred francs while others have fees adding up to a few thousand francs. In Geneva, for example, fees go up the more you earn, meaning high-income earners can be hit will a cost of some CHF 4,000 for cantonal fees alone. Even if you get rejected for a Swiss passport, you’ll still have 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 of Swiss citizenship.
Contacts for getting Swiss nationality
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.
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.