Are new language tests putting people off applying for Swiss citizenship?

A new rule requiring foreigners to complete a formal test to demonstrate their skills in one of Switzerland's four national languages may be putting a dent in the number of people applying for citizenship in the country.

Are new language tests putting people off applying for Swiss citizenship?
File photo: Depositphotos

That’s the tentative verdict of an analysis carried out by the Tages Anzeiger newspaper to examine why the number of Swiss citizenship applications dropped so dramatically in the first six months of this year.

The number of people applying for facilitated (or simplified) naturalization – a process usually open to the foreign spouses and children of Swiss citizens – was a third lower from January to June compared to the previous two years.

Read also: How to apply for Swiss citizenship in 2018

At the same time, the number of people applying for ordinary (or regular) naturalization was seriously down in the French-speaking cantons of Geneva and Vaud.

New citizenship rules

This year, Switzerland introduced a raft of new rules, many of which make it even tougher for foreigners living in the country to obtain to citizenship.

Under the new rules, applicants for Swiss citizenship must show A2 level (elementary) writing ability and B1 level (intermediate) spoken skills under the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages.

Read also: Big drop registered in number of foreigners receiving Swiss citizenship

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.

In the German-speaking cantons of Basel, Bern and Zurich, where tougher language requirements have already been in force for a number of years, the number of citizenship applications remained steady in the first six months of this year.

But in French-speaking cantons like Vaud and Geneva where the new language tests replace less demanding linguistic requirements, citizenship application numbers are down.

Exams “scare people off”

There is further evidence the new tests may be putting people off: when Zurich introduced new language requirements in 2015, citizenship applications fell by 16.5 percent with authorities saying at the time the drop was due to the tests.

While Nathalie Riem from Geneva’s migration department said it was too early to say why numbers were down, she said the higher language requirements “could be a reason”.

And language teacher Luca Cirigliano said that while many people were fully capable of passing the tests, exams “scare people off”.

In recent years, cities including Basel and Zurich, and cantons such as Geneva and Vaud, have called on foreigners to apply for citizenship, partly in anticipation of a toughening up of rules.

Numbers continued to rise up to end of 2017 in the German-speaking cities but have only dropped off in the two cantons in the French-speaking part of the country since then.

Read also: Brit denied citizenship after 'failing raclette question'

For members


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?