Too poor: Swiss-born woman who lost citizenship through marriage must leave country

A Belgian citizen receiving welfare benefits in Switzerland must leave the Alpine country despite having been born there to Swiss parents, a top Swiss court has ruled.

Too poor: Swiss-born woman who lost citizenship through marriage must leave country
The Swiss Federal Administrative Court [CC BY-SA 3.0]

The woman was born in the 1950s. When she was ten, her Swiss parents divorced and her mother married a Belgian man. She and her mother then moved to Belgium.

Under the rules of the time, the mother lost her Swiss citizenship because she did not expressly inform Swiss authorities that she wanted to keep it. Dual nationality, now commonplace in Switzerland, was not made legal in the country until 1992.

READ ALSO: Women refused Swiss citizenship for saying 'ahh' over 200 times in interview

The daughter then also lost her Swiss citizenship in the same manner after she married a Belgian.

When she was 49, the daughter moved back to Switzerland with her own daughter. She based herself in canton Vaud. However, as a single mother, she struggled to find work.


Reader poll: Should this woman and her daughter be allowed to stay in Switzerland?



256,000 francs in welfare benefits

By the end of 2016, she had received welfare payments totalling 265,000 Swiss francs (€242,000), according to the Swiss Federal Administrative Court.

Local authorities then decided, on the basis of her financial situation, not to renew the woman’s residence permit, which had been obtained under EU freedom of movement of rules.These rules allow EU citizens to live in Switzerland as long as they can financially support themselves.

Local authorities also decided not to renew the permit of the daughter, who was by that time an adult.

Cantonal authorities in Vaud then attempted to secure a special ‘hardship’ permit for the two women but this was rejected by the State Secretariat for Migration (SEM) in Bern.

No financial stability

The SEM stated the woman had never been financially stable in Switzerland and argued that because she had spent most of her life in Belgium, it would not be difficult for her to return there.

The migration agency also noted that while the woman's daughter had spent most of her life in Switzerland, she had not yet obtained any formal qualifications and was not financially independent.

The woman launched a legal appealed but the Federal Administrative Court has now ruled she and her daughter must leave the country.

Original citizenship 'immaterial'

The court said that the fact that the woman was originally Swiss was immaterial.

Judges recognized that both the woman and her daughter had a strong connection with Switzerland but argued that they had failed to show they were “economically integrated” – a key piece of criteria in terms of any decision to allow them to stay in the country.

The court also said the fact that the mother had now obtained part-time work and that the daughter could now be in line for a financial support for her studies had no bearing on the case.

The ruling can be appealed.

READ ALSO: An essential guide to Swiss work permits

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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?