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Why Swiss naturalisation is ‘easier for highly qualified people’

Professional people have an easier path to naturalisation in Switzerland, while experience and country of origin are also important factors. Here's what you need to know.

People walk through the streets of the Swiss capital of Bern
If you want to become Swiss, a good education or set of qualifications is the key factor. Photo by Prateek Mahesh on Unsplash

In principle, foreigners who have lived in Switzerland for at least 10 years, have a permanent residence C permit, speak a national language of the region in which they live, and are socially integrated, can obtain Swiss citizenship.

But in reality, the process is often more subjective and less straight forward.

OPINION: Why it’s almost impossible for foreigners to become fully integrated Swiss citizens

‘Easier for highly qualified people’

What is clear is that your country of origin and your level of education are the major factors underpinning naturalisation in Switzerland. 

“Naturalisation procedure has become easier for highly qualified people, while the hurdles are now higher than they used to be for the less educated”, Walter Leimgruber, president of the Federal Migration Commission said in an interview with SRF public broadcaster.

Another factor that plays a role is the country of origin. Official statistics for 2020, for instance, show that roughly 30 percent of those who have been naturalised that year come from European nations, while only six percent are from Africa, Asia and the Americas. 

Image: Federal Statistical Office

Germany versus Sri Lanka

As an example, SRF cites the canton of Lucerne, where almost twice as many Germans received Swiss citizenship in 2020 than in 2019, while the number of naturalised people from Sri Lanka fell by three quarters.

“Anyone who comes from Africa, Arab countries, or Sri Lanka often has no chance”, according to Felix Kuhn, head of Lucerne’s naturalisation commission.

The effects of this selection process could be problematic in the long term, Leimgruber said.

“This leads to a two-class society. Certain immigrants have found that citizenship remains unattainable and they feel unwelcome. As a result, they become resigned and indifferent” and don’t even try to integrate into Swiss society.

Leimgruber is calling for the naturalisation criteria to become less strict, especially in regards to language exams, as “these tests disadvantage uneducated people”.

READ MORE: How to apply for Swiss citizenship: An essential guide

Facts behind the statistics

However, the SRF report doesn’t go into details about why fewer candidates from outside Europe become naturalised.

That’s because the number of immigrants from third-nations, including from Asian and African countries mentioned in the report, is considerably lower than from EU / EFTA states.

The latter enjoy easier access to Switzerland due to the Free Movement of Persons agreement the country has with the European Union.

Third-country nationals, on the other hand, don’t have these privileges.

Another factor, experience, has also been shown as crucial, particularly in management roles. 

According to an official government site, “only qualified non-EU/EFTA nationals, for example managers, specialists or university graduates with several years of professional experience, may work in Switzerland”. 

For Non-EU/EFTA nationals, however, including people from the UK and US “the number of permits issued is limited”.

And as unskilled and uneducated people from third countries have a much more difficult path to a permanent work / residency permit, their chances of obtaining Swiss citizenship are lower as well.

READ MORE: Nine things you need to know about work permits in Switzerland

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Swiss lawmakers refuse to ease citizenship rules for third-generation immigrants

A parliamentary commission rejects the push for simpler naturalisation rules for Swiss-born grandsons and granddaughters of immigrants.

Swiss lawmakers refuse to ease citizenship rules for third-generation immigrants

Unlike many other countries, being born in Switzerland doesn’t automatically mean the person is Swiss.

If their parents were born abroad and still hold foreign passports, a person will not obtain Swiss citizenship at birth. They are referred to as second or third-generation foreigners.

Even though they were born in Switzerland and have lived their entire lives here, they have the same nationality as their parents and will continue to be considered as foreigners – until and unless they become naturalised.

But this process is quite complex, as “the obstacles to be overcome are so high that the legal requirements are impossible to meet,” according to a report by the State Secretariat for Migration (SEM).

There have been some motions in the parliament filed by the Social Democratic and Green MPs in favour of at-birth citizenship for the second generation, but so far nothing has come out of these attempts.

And though in 2017 voters approved facilitated naturalisation for the third generation, hurdles still remain, as no progress has been made to date on this issue.

In fact, this week the Political Institutions Commission of the Council of States recommended that the parliament turn down any motions aimed at lowering the obstacles to naturalisation for this group of people.

The reason, according to the Commission, is that facilitated naturalisation for the third generation was introduced only four years ago and “we must now wait for more information on the evolution of the situation before starting a new revision of the law.”

More decisions on this issue will be made during the spring session of the parliament, which will take place from February 27th until March 17th.

In the meantime, access to Swiss nationality for this population group remains “unreasonably bureaucratic,” as in many cases proof required for this process to be successful is difficult to obtain, SEM’s report found.

This article details the criteria that third-generation foreigners must meet in order to obtain Swiss citizenship:

EXPLAINED: Why so few third-generation Swiss are actually ‘Swiss’?

As a result of these strict conditions, which in many cases are impossible to meet, most third-generation foreign nationals don’t even bother to apply for naturalisation: out 25,000 people in this group, only about 800 seek citizenship each year. 

READ MORE: Third generation fast-track naturalisation in Switzerland: What you need to know