Obtaining citizenship has always proved to be more difficult for foreigners in Switzerland than in other European countries.
The long path to becoming Swiss is fraught with administrative and political difficulties - at state, cantonal and community level.
Foreigners account for just over 20 per cent of the population. But according to government statistics for 2000, only 2.1 per cent of them have become Swiss – making it one of the lowest rates in Europe.
One of the reasons for this is that regular naturalisation has to be approved at three different levels in Switzerland – state, canton and local community. In most other countries, citizenship is only a matter for the state.
At a national level, there are a series of conditions a foreign person must fulfil to acquire a Swiss passport.
The main requirement is to have resided in the country for 12 years. For some foreigners this requirement is shorter, and the years spent in Switzerland between the ages of 12 and 20 count double.
Other conditions include having adapted to the Swiss “lifestyle” - staying out of trouble with the law and not threatening the country’s security.
But cantons and communities can set their own – often greatly varying – criteria for areas such as length of residency, financial means and a naturalisation tax.
One of the greatest differences can be seen in residency requirements. Canton Fribourg requires applicants to be resident in the canton for three years. But in canton Nidwalden, a foreigner must have lived in the canton for 12 years and in the local community for three years.
Normally, local assemblies or panels can assess whether a candidate is suitable. But controversial attempts to have residents decide whether someone should be naturalised have been scuppered by the Federal Court, which last year deemed such votes unconstitutional.
The court’s decision came after voters in Emmen in canton Lucerne turned down most of the candidates from the Balkans while accepting other foreigners.
Local authorities do retain a certain degree of independence though. There is no obligation to grant citizenship, unlike in Germany where a foreigner can claim a passport after having lived for eight years in the country.
The rules are less strict for so-called facilitated naturalisation, which is aimed at foreign spouses of Swiss nationals and foreign children with one Swiss parent.
Foreigners may apply for citizenship after three years of marriage, provided they have lived in the country for a total of five years.
If they are resident abroad, they can also apply after being married to a Swiss for at least six years.
Length of residency is one of the most restrictive criteria for regular naturalisation.
According to the government’s citizenship working group, Switzerland’s residency requirement is longer than in every other European country, where it ranges from three to ten years.
In Italy and Austria, the length of residency is cut to four years for nationals from the European Union or the European Economic Area, of which Switzerland is not a member.
Many European nations also give citizenship to children born in the country, but whose parents are foreigners. In some countries, the parents must have been resident for a certain period, ranging from three years in Ireland to eight in Germany.
In France, such children are granted citizenship automatically and unconditionally, and in the Netherlands second-generation foreign residents also automatically naturalised.
Procedures are, however, under review in some countries, and the requirements for citizenship are becoming tougher to fulfil.
Ireland, where citizenship was once granted to all children born there, has changed its laws following a national vote in June. In the ballot, 80 per cent of voters demanded a tightening of the country’s citizenship legislation.
Naturalisation is now only granted if one of the parents is Irish or if both parents have resided in Ireland for at least three years.
swissinfo with agencies
The federal authorities approved 26,760 naturalisations in 2003, and rejected 407.
In all, over 37,000 people acquired Swiss citizenship last year.
Nearly 10,000 naturalisations followed the facilitated procedure.
Around 29,000 new citizens held European nationality before becoming Swiss.
Ordinary naturalisation requirements:
12 years' residence in Switzerland.
Integration into the Swiss way of life.
Familiarity with local habits, customs and traditions.
Compliance with the law.
Present no danger to internal or external security.