I’m a citizen of two countries, but I’ve never had to apply for naturalization. I acquired US citizenship when I was born and Swiss citizenship in 1988 when I married a Swiss. Becoming a Swiss isn’t normally so easy. In fact, even people who were born in Switzerland don’t get citizenship unless at least one of their parents is already a Swiss.

In both the US and the UK, five years of residency is sufficient for applying to become a citizen; in Switzerland, the requirement is ten. Still, would-be citizens of all three countries face some of the same hurdles. The road to citizenship requires them to fill out forms, demonstrate their good character, buy and submit official documents proving they are who they say they are, and pay a substantial fee. In addition, they have to read, write, and speak the local language (in Switzerland, that will be one of four) and know something about the country’s history and government. Plus, in the US, the UK, and Switzerland, applicants are interviewed—an official looks them over in person and make sure they pass muster.

I wonder how many Americans born and raised in the US cannot recognize Abraham Lincoln.

People who want to become citizens of the United States are given a list of one hundred questions they have to know the answers to, such as “What is one important thing Abraham Lincoln did during his presidency?”, “How many US Senators are there?”, “Name one state that borders Mexico,” and “How many constitutional amendments are there?” In their interview, an official will ask them ten of these questions, and they have to answer six correctly. (I confess I didn’t know there were 27 amendments, which shows I should study the hundred questions myself.) As far as local knowledge goes, applicants should be able to name their Senators and their House representative and may be asked their state’s capital. Anyone who submits the proper papers, pays the fee (usually around $800), gets through the interview, and takes an oath of allegiance becomes an American.

I recently learned about becoming a Swiss citizen from a British friend who has worked fulltime in the canton of Bern for over thirty years. (This is important, since people who’ve received social welfare payments sometime during the previous ten years probably can’t get citizenship in the canton of Bern.) My friend’s workplace is in the city of Bern, and she’s lived in the same nearby village for twenty years. Her German is excellent, and she’s interested in Swiss politics and follows the news. I’d assume she’d be a be a shoo-in—possibly after a review of basic Swiss history.

If you apply to become a Swiss, you probably ought to know who Huldrych Zwingli is—an important Swiss Protestant reformer who was a contemporary of Martin Luther’s.

I’d forgotten that, in Switzerland, you have to become a citizen of your local community (the Gemeinde) first. Next there’s your canton. Only after you’ve been accepted at the local and regional levels are you permitted to become a citizen of the nation. Each Gemeinde (there are 2,148) and each canton (26 of them) has its own rules about naturalization, like how long you have to have lived there to apply and what you have to know and do to show that (in the words of the federal government) you are “successfully integrated” into your community.

Here you find all the Swiss cantons and the dates when they joined the Confederation.

The canton of Bern, for example, requires a 90-minute written multiple-choice test about the history, geography, culture, and government of both Switzerland and Bern; 60% of the answers must be correct. It includes questions about typical Bernese food, the average cost of health insurance, and what sea Bern’s largest river flows into. (Since that river, the Aare, flows into the Rhine, and only the Rhine flows into the North Sea—after all, Switzerland is landlocked—this strikes me as a rather tricky question.)

This is a Berner Platte, a classic local dish, obviously not for vegetarians.

Bern’s test only covers the canton, not my friend’s village and the surrounding municipality. So what does she have to know about them? Possibly quite a lot, it turns out. Luckily, she was forewarned by a fellow Brit who’d passed his interview with his local council by the skin of his teeth. You should know about the town’s main industries in the nineteenth century, he urged her; be familiar with the geography, too—not just of the village but the whole area. Check out statues in the middle of squares and memorize the names and biographies of local worthies.

My friend’s quest for citizenship has been going on since April 2020.  She’s filled out numerous forms, passed both a language test and the canton of Bern’s integration test (the one with the tricky question about the river), and submitted a total of thirteen different original documents proving, among other things, that she isn’t in debt, is gainfully employed, and hasn’t committed any crimes in Switzerland or abroad. She recently had an official interview: forty minutes of conversation with the head and deputy head of her local police force. To her surprise, the two women didn’t ask a single question about the history of the municipality or the canton. Instead, they wanted to know more about where she was born, where her family members live, and where she feels most at home. They asked about her work and what she does in her spare time. It would have been a pleasant chat, if it hadn’t had an underlying purpose. And that was only her first interview.

Adrian von Bubenberg is the Bernese hero who defeated the Duke of Burgundy in 1476 at the Battle of Murten.

After the policewomen have written their report, there will be a second interview, this one with the local committee in charge of granting citizenship. Perhaps that’s where my friend will be expected to know the size of the municipality in square kilometers or its most recent population. In any case, the women who conducted the first interview told her it would require at least another year of local, cantonal, and federal processing for her to become a citizen—assuming she makes it.

So far, it looks like her total cost is going to be around $2,500. Considering that Switzerland is both the richest and most expensive country in the world, should that be considered too high a price? Probably not.

The photo of the Berner Platte is from the Swissmilk website, and the Bubenberg statue is taken from Wicki Commons.

6 thoughts on “Belonging

  1. Kim, very interesting – now in the USA it appears your main challenge is to wade across the Rio Grande to become a citizen. Regards, Chips.


    1. In order to become a citizen of the US, an immigrant has to be a permanent legal resident with a green card for at least five years. As it so happens, legal Mexican residents are among the smallest group of green card holders who seek citizenship. As for the people who manage to get across the Rio Grande or survive crossing the desert, most of them are picked up and deported, either immediately or fairly quickly. Those who do find a way to stay mostly work at illegal jobs and are very unlikely ever to get a green card. You can assume anyone who manages must be pretty damn special.


  2. That does sound very difficult! A person must want to become a citizen very deeply in both Switzerland and the US. I already knew about the US requirements, of course. What is interesting about Mexicans working in the US is that when crossing the border back and forth was easier, we had far fewer problems with illegal immigrants, amazingly. They came for seasonal work in the US and then went back home to their families when the season was over. Now because they know it is harder to get from one country to another, they hide illegally in the US. A very bad unintended consequence for them and for us! And the fruit doesn’t get picked…


    1. That’s very interesting, Natasha, and it makes sense. And while we’re on the subject of immigration (as opposed to citizenship), Germany is so desperately short of people to work in all sorts of jobs from lowly to advanced (and the retirement of baby-boomers means that the situation will worsen drastically in the next few years) that the government is passing law to make it easier for non-Germans to come and live and work in Germany.


  3. I was lucky and had a very easy process in the city of Zurich. I waited 1.5 years for a response after submitting my 4 page citizenship application. Then I was asked to bring revised documents to the city hall as the originals were now out of date. A young man greeted me in a t-shirt and jeans, looked at my papers and said we would go to a meeting room. After about 30 minutes of simple small talk he said we’re done. I asked when I must go in front of the judge for the big interview and he said this was it. I asked when my local neighborhood (gemeinde) would interview and got the same answer. So I became a Swiss being spared a grilling on history and geography and only having basic language skills. I chalk up the ease to paying taxes, having a job and a child living here.


    1. I’m very glad you shared this story, Chris, because most people only tell about their bad Swiss citizenship experiences, and I’m sure there are plenty of good ones like this. Except for your having to wait so long to hear from anyone about your application that your documents had expired. I imagine you had to buy the official versions AGAIN! But that’s nothing personal–just due to the long backup at the application office, I imagine.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: