There was a time when few foreigners were able to obtain a Swiss passport; but now Switzerland has caught up with most other European countries.
Last year just under 45,000 foreign residents, or 2.8 per cent of the total foreign population, were naturalised, according to a study released by the Federal Statistics Office. That is up from about one per cent 20 years ago, and is around the current European average.
The leader in Europe is Sweden, with 5.8 per cent, followed by Britain, France, Belgium, Norway and the Netherlands.
Switzerland beats these countries for the number of naturalisations per head of population, which stands at 0.6 per hundred – twice as many as in Sweden and Belgium.
However, the rise is not because procedures have been simplified, but because foreigners are now allowed to settle in Switzerland, whereas in the past, fewer were able to accumulate sufficient years to give them the right to apply for a passport, Etienne Piguet, professor of human geography at Neuchâtel University explained to swissinfo.ch.
The number of naturalisations is the logical consequence of the arrival of people who want to remain in Switzerland, Piguet explained. The country has more immigrants than anywhere else in Europe.
The Statistics Office study adds that the simplified citizenship procedure introduced in 1992 – reducing the minimum stay required of foreign spouses and children - and the lowering of fees for naturalisation in 2006, had both encouraged more applications.
Of the 1.7 million foreigners with resident permits in Switzerland in 2009, slightly more than a million were from neighbouring countries of the European Union, most of whom have no interest in acquiring citizenship.
"One of our surveys showed that nationals of EU states either do not stay so long in Switzerland, or that they are not interested in getting a Swiss passport because their EU one gives them the right to move around freely," Piguet said.
Most Europeans are very well qualified, and could make a useful contribution to the Swiss economy, but few of them consider living in Switzerland in the long term, he added.
"The question of citizenship is of minor importance to managers who work here for a few years in a multinational company."
"Immigration is more a social than an economic issue,” he said, pointing to the case of refugees, many of whom have been stripped of their citizenship and cannot return to their country of origin.
"They want to live here with their children and be integrated. That is why this group is the one most wanting to acquire Swiss citizenship."
Migrants who are allowed to remain for some time in Switzerland put down roots and this gives them the desire to stay, he said.
"The question of citizenship has to do with a person’s prospects. You need to have the desire to stay in Switzerland with your children and make your living here.”
The Statistics Office study shows that the highest rate of naturalisation is among young people aged between 13 and 19, who were either born in Switzerland, or arrived shortly after birth. They want to become citizens “because they grew up and went to school here, and therefore feel themselves closely connected with Switzerland”, it points out.
Wherever their parents came from, the proportion of naturalisations is highest among people born in Switzerland, the study found. But there are considerable differences depending on the country of origin. People whose origins lie outside the European Union or the European Free Trade Area (Efta), whether born in Switzerland or not, account for the greater proportion.
But there are still hurdles which make it difficult for foreigners to obtain a Swiss passport.
The most obvious one is the condition that – unless they are married to a Swiss - a would-be citizen must have lived in Switzerland for 12 years before they can apply, whereas in other countries they can do so much sooner.
A second unusual aspect in Switzerland is that three political levels – commune, canton and federation – are involved in the granting of citizenship. Would-be citizens have to apply to the commune where they live in the first instance, and communes and cantons are fairly free to set their own requirements.
"It’s true that in the past few years many communes and cantons have simplified their naturalisation procedures,“ Piguet admitted. But there are still huge differences.
"In certain communes naturalisation is very simple, and in others it is very tough.”
Renat Künzi and Julia Slater, swissinfo.ch
In 2009, 44,948 people were granted Swiss nationality, 357 fewer than in 2008.
Of these, more than three quarters came from Europe, especially countries of the former Yugoslavia. Of EU countries, the greatest numbers were originally from Italy, Germany and Portugal.
Since August 2007 Germans no longer lose their nationality if they take Swiss citizenship.
Naturalisations of Germans increased by about 40 per cent between 2008 and 2009, from 3056 to 4272.
Switzerland has permitted dual nationality since 1992.
The Statistics Office report estimates that just over half the resident foreign population fulfils the federal criteria for acquiring citizenship.