Effective 1 January 2019 the revised Swiss Federal Act on Foreign Nationals and Integration (FNIA) was enacted. One of the most remarkable changes is the new language requirement for work and residence permits.
In a nutshell, the new law provides for a certain level of integration in Switzerland as a prerequisite for obtaining and retaining a Swiss permit
To measure the level of integration, authorities may ask for evidence including but not limited to proof of official Swiss language skills.
Non-Swiss-nationals applying for a C-permit have been subject to language requirements already in the past (with only a few exceptions). The concrete requirements, however, used to be subject to cantonal authority practice. Thus, local differences applied (e.g. regarding the required language level).
The revised law provides for:
- harmonized (minimum) language requirements throughout Switzerland for C-permit applications
- language requirements for (some) B-permit applicants
Basically all non-Swiss-nationals* may be affected by the new law.
As for the new language requirements, in particular the following persons may be affected:
- Dependents with non-EU-nationality aged at least 18 years applying for a B-permit or an extension of a B-permit
- All non-Swiss-nationals applying for a C-permit (unless a treaty provides for an unreserved right to a C-permit) or an extension of a C-permit
What are the new requirements for C-permit applicants?
Regular application (after 10 years of uninterrupted residency in Switzerland):
Applicants need to at least meet an oral language level of A2 and a written language level of A1 in the official language of their Swiss place of residence.
Early application (after 5 years of uninterrupted residency in Switzerland):
Applicants need to at least meet an oral language level of B1 and a written language level of A1 in the official language of their Swiss place of residence.
What are the new requirements for B-permit applicants?
As per the revised law, dependents with non-EU nationality aged 18 or over who apply for a B-permit must be able to demonstrate either:
- their speaking and writing skills in the language spoken in the region of Switzerland in which they live or intend to relocate to upon presentation of a language certificate (Level: at least A1); or
- that they are at least enrolled on a language course which will lead to acquisition of the above-mentioned language skills.
Caution: These new requirements apply to both:
- first time B-permit applications; and
- B-permit extension applications.
The new law does not stipulate how quickly the required language skills must be acquired and so far the authorities have not established a consistent practice throughout all Swiss cantons. In particular, it is not clear at present whether individuals who already hold a valid permit may be required to file (i.e., obtain in some cases) a language certificate before expiry of their permit.
Thus, it is likely that for the time being regional/cantonal differences will apply. It is expected that the upcoming months will provide more clarity and consistency. For the time being, applicants and holders of B-permits are, however, advised to obtain certification of their language skills as soon as possible.
Risks and sanctions
In case of non-compliance with the new law, individuals may be required to conclude an “integration agreement” setting standards for the level of integration they are expected to reach and the measures to be taken in order to reach this level.
C-permit holders who do not meet the required language skills and/or fail to comply with an integration agreement may be relegated to a temporary residence status (B-permit).
B-permit-holders not complying with an integration agreement may lose their right to stay in Switzerland.
Foreigners with a Swiss national language as their mother tongue will be considered to have adequate knowledge of a Swiss national language. The same applies for foreigners who have completed three years of compulsory schooling in a Swiss national language.
Until 31 December 2019, the language test to demonstrate the required language level may in theory be obtained from institutions that are not officially accredited. However, as cantonal differences may exist in practice, it is advisable to check with the competent authorities before completing a language course and test.
As of 1 January 2020 the language certificate must be obtained from one of the following accredited institutions. See the list here.
* Exceptions only apply where unrestricted residence rights are explicitly provided for in an international treaty.
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