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ZURICH

EXPLAINED: How Zurich has simplified the Swiss citizenship process

Voters in the Swiss canton of Zurich on May 15th approved a proposal to simplify naturalisation requirements for the canton's 350,000 foreigners. Here's what you need to know.

A red Swiss passport up close
A Swiss biometric passport. (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)

On May 15th, voters in the Swiss canton of Zurich overwhelmingly approved a proposal to simplify the canton’s naturalisation process for foreigners. 

Several questions were on the ballot, including reduced fees for younger people who pursue Swiss citizenship, longer waiting times for those convicted of criminal offences and a shift towards online naturalisation. A summary of the results can be seen here

For foreigners living in Zurich and wanting to acquire the famous red passport, perhaps the most important question on the ballot was making the requirements uniform on a cantonal basis, rather than allowing them to differ from municipality to municipality, as is the current case. 

Here’s what you need to know. Please note that while Zurich voters approved the changes, as at May 16th they have not been formally implemented. 

‘Uniform basic requirements’ for citizenship

While anyone who is successfully naturalised will get the same famous red passport no matter where they do so, the actual process differs dramatically depending on where you do it. 

The primary naturalisation process takes place at a communal level, which means there can be different requirements from municipality to municipality. 

With 26 cantons, four official languages and century after century of tradition, these traditions and cultural quirks have had plenty of time to ferment and develop. 

As The Local has covered several times before, this includes a knowledge test about specifics in the local commune which often leads to absurd consequences, while in some places local villagers and neighbours will have a say on whether a person should receive citizenship. 

People have been knocked back for a range of reasons, including not liking hiking, not knowing enough about local zoo animals, not knowing enough about cheese and just not being deserving enough.  

READ MORE: The ten most surprising questions on Switzerland’s citizenship exam

Recognising the difficulties, the Swiss government in 2018 revised the Civil Rights Act, which included uniform basic requirements for citizenship. 

The cantons however retain a degree of flexibility when it comes to implementing the rules, which is why they were put to a vote on May 15th. 

Basic knowledge test

Each naturalisation process includes a basic knowledge test. 

The tests are carried out at a municipal level and vary from place to place, prompting Swiss national broadcaster SRF to report in 2017 that Switzerland “has as many naturalisation procedures as there are municipalities”. 

Zurich, Switzerland’s most populous canton, has 162 municipalities. While it might be a slight exaggeration to say there are 162 unique tests, the questions can vary greatly. 

The May 15th vote standardised the process by establishing a basic knowledge test for the entire canton. 

The test includes 350 questions about Swiss history, tradition, politics and culture, with a focus on Zurich. 

Anyone taking the test will be given 50 questions at random and must answer at least 30 correctly to pass. 

What other requirements were up for a vote on May 15th?

In addition to the above, there are three other changes forecast as part of the new rules. 

People under 18 will face tighter rules for naturalisation if they are found guilty of a crime. 

Referendum: Zurich to vote on lower voting age

According to the new law, juveniles will not be able to apply for naturalisation for two years after a minor crime (i.e. shoplifting, simple bodily harm, property damage) or for five years for major crimes (i.e. robbery, murder, rape). 

The changes will also lay the groundwork for naturalisation processes to take place online. A handful of cantons including Bern and Vaud already do this, but no such online system is established in Zurich. 

Finally, the law will also reduce the cost for younger people to apply for citizenship. 

More information is available here. 

What did the parties say before the vote?

Although polling was minimal, the changes have won widespread support among Swiss political parties. 

All of the major Swiss political parties support the change, with only the right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP) opposed. 

Writing in the Swiss press, the SVP’s Diego Bonato suggested multicultural Zurich should have tighter naturalisation rules than the rest of the country rather than the other way around to ensure proper integration. 

“The higher the multicultural proportion of the population, the more closely you have to pay attention to naturalisation” 

While the SVP is Switzerland’s largest and most popular political party, it has comparatively lower influence in Zurich. 

The Social Democrats, who hold the mayorship in the city, are in favour of the proposal and hit back at suggestions it did not promote integration. 

“The new citizenship law is shaped by the idea that early and rapid naturalisation promotes integration. However, citizenship should be the the end of successful integration, not the beginning.”

“Foreigners who wish to remain in our country permanently and become part of Swiss society must society, must (still) undergo an integration process lasting several years.”

Who was able to vote?

Much like Switzerland’s men taking until the 1970s to decide whether women should get the vote, it is perhaps a paradox that foreigners’ fates will be put to a vote without their input. 

Only Swiss citizens have the right to vote in the most cases, although there are limited voting rights in some cases at a municipal level in some parts of the country. 

Efforts to provide similar rights in Zurich have continued to stall. 

Around one quarter of Zurich’s population do not have the right to vote, although it can be as high as 50 percent in some municipalities. 

Approximately 1.5 million people live in Zurich. 

More information about voting in Zurich, including details about the upcoming referendum votes, can be found here. 

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SWISS CITIZENSHIP

Switzerland revokes citizenship for ‘unfair and deceptive behaviour’

A woman who gained a Swiss passport through marriage has had her citizenship revoked after she divorced - just one of the reasons that Swiss nationality can be removed from foreigners.

Switzerland revokes citizenship for ‘unfair and deceptive behaviour’

Married in 2010 to a Swiss man 15 years her senior, a Moroccan woman became naturalised through the facilitated process in 2015, but separated from her husband just months later.

As soon as the couple divorced in 2017, the woman remarried in Lebanon, raising suspicions among Swiss authorities about the ulterior motives behind her marriage in Switzerland.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: Why ‘simplified’ Swiss naturalisation is actually not that simple

According to media reports on Monday, “after inquiring into the circumstances of the couple’s breakup” and concluding that the woman married expressly to get a Swiss passport,  the State Secretariat for Migration (SEM) revoked her naturalisation.

She appealed the decision, first to an administrative court, and then to Switzerland’s highest judicial authority, the Federal Court. Both have upheld SEM’s decision.

“The SEM may cancel the facilitated naturalisation obtained by false statements or by the concealment of essential facts”, the federal judge ruled, adding that the woman obtained her citizenship through “disloyal and deceptive behaviour”.

While this may seem like a rare occurrence, in fact it is not.

On average, SEM revokes close to 50 naturalisations each year following a divorce.

But there are also other circumstances when the government can strip someone of Swiss citizenship.

As The Local reported earlier in 2022, “dual nationals can have their Swiss citizenship revoked if their conduct is seriously detrimental to Switzerland’s interests or reputation”.

One example of when such a drastic and irrevocable step can be taken is in the case of people convicted of war crimes, terrorism, or treason.

Between 1940 and 1947, 80 Swiss nationals were deprived of their citizenship because they collaborated with the Nazis.

More recently, in 2019, a Turkish-Swiss dual national lost his Swiss citizenship after being convicted by the Federal Criminal Court for being a member of Islamic State (ISIS).

The last such case, in 2020, involves a woman who was born and raised in Geneva but also has a French passport in addition to a Swiss one. She took her two young daughters to live in the ISIS enclave in Syria without the knowledge of their respective fathers.

In both these cases, authorities revoked their citizenship, banning them from returning to Switzerland and possibly posing a security threat within the country.

Whatever the reason for withdrawing the citizenship, it can only be done if the person has a second nationality. Otherwise, Switzerland would create stateless people, an act prohibited by international law.

And while in certain cases the citizenship can be reinstated, you can’t get it back if your naturalisation has been nullified or if your citizenship has been revoked, for reasons cited above.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: Can Swiss citizenship be revoked – and can you get it back?
 

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