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SWISS CITIZENSHIP

Longtime US expat gives up citizenship quest

American expat Irving Dunn, a former professor at Switzerland’s top university, says he has abandoned his bid to become a Swiss citizen after living in the country for 43 years.

Longtime US expat gives up citizenship quest
Irving Dunn: throwing in the towel. Photo: SRF

Dunn, 76, told the Schweiz am Sonntag newspaper he was giving up making a second bid to apply for citizenship after learning he would have to pay a further 3,100 francs ($3,100) to regional authorities on top of 3,600 francs he already paid for an earlier application that was rejected.

The retired chemical engineering teacher and researcher at Zurich’s federal Institute of technology (ETH) has lived in Einsiedeln in the canton of Schwyz for 39 years and speaks fluent German.

But local officials in the autumn turned down his application to become a naturalized citizen, maintaining that he was not sufficiently integrated, despite having raised three children in the village with his English teacher German wife.

In October, Dunn told The Local he was hoping for a second chance with the authorities who rejected his application on the grounds that he did not know the local area well enough and didn’t have friends in Einsiedeln.

But he said he expected to get more of a break on the application fees than the 500-franc reduction offered by district officials.

“I think some local politicians do not consider it desirable that I become a citizen of Einsiedeln,” Dunn is quoted as saying by Schweiz am Sonntag.

He said he felt unfairly treated but he told the Sunday newspaper: “I will make no new application”.

In his first application, among the many questions he was asked, Dunn had to name the number of lakes in the canton of Schwyz, the largest employer in Einsiedeln and the name of holidays held only in Einsiedeln.

Dunn’s case has drawn nationwide media attention and has underscored the difficulties many longtime expat residents in Switzerland have in becoming citizens.

The process varies from canton to canton, but involves approvals at federal, cantonal and municipal levels.

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SWISS CITIZENSHIP

EXPLAINED: Everything you need to know about Swiss language tests for residency

The language standards for permanent residency is different than that for citizenship. Here's what you need to know.

EXPLAINED: Everything you need to know about Swiss language tests for residency

Whether granting permanent residency or citizenship, whether you are ‘successfully integrated’ is the major question for Swiss authorities. 

Being successfully integrated means that they “should participate in the economic, social and cultural life of society”, according to the State Secretariat for Migration.

Reader question: What does being ‘successfully integrated’ in Switzerland mean?

Speaking a Swiss language is crucial. While you will not need to speak a Swiss language when you arrive, you will need to demonstrate a certain degree of language proficiency in order to stay long term. 

However, the level of language proficiency differs depending on the type of residency permission you want: residency permit, permanent residency or Swiss citizenship. 

This is outlined in the following table.

Image: Swiss State Secretariat for Migration

Image: Swiss State Secretariat for Migration

What does proficiency in a Swiss language mean?

Proficiency in a Swiss language refers to any of the major Swiss languages: Italian, German, French and Romansh. While Romansh is also a Swiss language, it is not spoken elsewhere and is only spoken by a handful of people in the canton of Graubünden. 

There are certain exceptions to these requirements for citizens of countries where these languages are spoken, as has been outlined here

English, while widely spoken in Switzerland, is not an official language of Switzerland and English proficiency will not grant you Swiss citizenship. 

Moving to Switzerland, it may appear you have three world languages to choose from, although by and large this is not the case. 

As the tests are done at a communal level, the language in the commune in question is the one you need to speak

Therefore, if you have flawless French and live in the German-speaking canton of Schwyz, you need to improve your German in order to make sure you pass the test. 

While some Swiss cantons are bilingual, this is comparatively rare at a municipal level. 

A Swiss Federal Supreme Court case from 2022 held that a person is required to demonstrate language proficiency in the administrative language of the municipality in which they apply, even if they are a native speaker of a different Swiss language. 

What Swiss language standards are required for a residency permit?

Fortunately for new arrivals, you do not need to show Swiss language proficiency. 

Generally speaking, those on short-term residency permits – such as B Permits and L Permits – are not required to show proficiency in a national language. 

There are some exceptions – for instance people on family reunification permits – however by and large people who have just arrived in Switzerland for work do not need to demonstrate language proficiency. 

What Swiss language standards are required for permanent residency?

While ‘permanent residency’ might sound like ‘residency permit’, it grants a far greater set of rights for the holder – and with it a more extensive array of responsibilities. 

EXPLAINED: What’s the difference between permanent residence and Swiss citizenship?

One of these obligations is Swiss language proficiency. 

For ordinary permanent residency – which is granted after an uninterrupted stay of five years or ten years in total – you need to demonstrate A2 level of a spoken Swiss language and A1 written. 

Citizens of Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Liechtenstein, Netherlands, Portugal and Spain are exempt from these language requirements. 

For fast-tracked permanent residency, the language level is a little higher. 

You must demonstrate A1 written but B1 spoken. 

There are also exceptions for people who can demonstrate they have a Swiss language as their mother tongue, or that they have attended compulsory schooling for a minimum of three years in a Swiss language. 

Demonstrating language proficiency must be done through an accredited test centre. The accreditation process is handled at a cantonal level. More information is available here

What Swiss language standard is required for citizenship?

The standard is slightly higher for citizenship than for permanent residency. 

Candidates must demonstrate A2 level writing ability and B1 spoken skills. This is the level set out in the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages.

These rules, which came into effect on January 1st, 2019, set up a uniform minimum level of language proficiency required on a federal basis. 

Previously, there was no consistency in language testing, with many cantons in the French-language region making a judgment based on the candidate’s oral skills.

Cantons are free to set a higher bar if they wish, as Thurgau has done by requiring citizenship candidates to have B1-level written German and B2 (upper intermediate) spoken German. The rules are also stricter in St Gallen and Schwyz. 

More information is available at the following link. 

Naturalisation: How well must I speak a Swiss language for citizenship?

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