Expats who want to make Switzerland their home may need to provide proof that they can speak a language of Switzerland. As of recently, every county (canton) has standardised the process, making it easier to acquire language certification. Although English is taught from an early age in the Swiss school system and is thus widely spoken, when living in Switzerland it is important to have at least some knowledge of the language of your canton, especially if you are looking for a job.
When do I need a Swiss language certification?
Swiss language certifications are needed in multiple circumstances. In order to apply for a long-term residence permit, you must provide proof that you can speak German, French, Italian or Romansh to a basic standard. In addition, to qualify for citizenship in Switzerland, you must provide proof that you can meet a basic standard of written and spoken language in the language of your canton.
You also may need to prove that you can speak a Swiss language if you are applying to study in Switzerland or are looking for work. Some international companies also require applicants to be proficient, especially if the work is specified to be in a Swiss language in a work contract.
Levels of proficiency in a Swiss language
For every language in Switzerland, the level of competence in speaking and writing is divided into three categories through the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR Levels). These are determined by a specific level of competence achieved through a German language school, French language school, or Italian language school. Each level is divided into two subcategories, designed to show how well your understanding is applied to real-world environments and conversations.
Level A (Basic understanding)
Level A in each language is the most basic level of understanding. When beginning at this level, it is assumed that you have little to no understanding of the language you wish to learn. Once you have achieved a grade of A2, it is assumed that you can understand basic sentences and expressions relating to work or family. It is also assumed that you can communicate in basic terms with some grammatical errors. This is the level of understanding you must provide when applying for a B- or L-permit, although proof through a certificate is not usually required.
Level B (Independent understanding)
Independent understanding is the medium level of understanding a language. When you achieve the B2 standard, it is assumed that you can interact in your chosen language with a degree of fluency, without having to pause or “slow down” interactions with other people. Speakers at this level are expected to be detailed in their speech, and able to produce opinions on a wide range of subjects.
It is recommended that each family member in an expat family achieve this level in the language of their canton if they plan to live in Switzerland long-term. With this level, you are able to apply for a C- or Settlement residence permit. This is also the level where you are permitted to start applying for Swiss citizenship, although it is highly recommended to pursue a level C proficiency before applying.
Level C (Language proficient, mother tongue)
Level C is the level where students master the language that they are learning. Speakers proficient to level C2 can understand all conversations within earshot and are able to read, write and speak to the level of a mother tongue speaker. This is typically the language proficiency required to pursue higher education.
Where can I get a language certification for Switzerland?
As of 2021, the Swiss government now only accepts language certificates from a selection of regulated and approved providers. These are both state and privately run and can provide education as well as certification. Students who are enrolled in a language school that is not officially approved can still apply for certification with one of these members, but you may have to submit to an oral or written assessment.
State Secretariat for Migration
If you have already passed a course from a language school, you can apply for certification at your canton’s State Secretariat for Migration. There, you will be able to take a so-called “Fide test”. This test involves a 40-minute oral exam and an hour-long written test and can be taken in German, French or Italian up to the B1 standard for speaking and writing. You can take a Fide test at any of the approved test locations. Once you have passed, you will receive your certificate in 4 weeks by post.
Goethe-Institut is an organisation designed to promote the German language and German forms of learning to the world through cultural exchange and language schools. Partly funded by the German government, it offers classes, tests and official certifications for the German language. Although they are not based in Switzerland, the Swiss authorities will accept certification from any of the 159 Goethe-Instituts. Classes range from A1-C2 proficiency.
France Education international
Similar to the Goethe-Insitut, France Education international is an organisation that is tasked with promoting the French language across the world, providing language courses in French, English and Arabic. The courses are available in 12 locations across Switzerland and can provide certification in French for expats through the DELF or TCF system of assessment.
University of Perugia (CVCL)
The University of Perugia is the only other provider of Italian language certification other than the Secretariat for Migration. The university offers comprehensive courses for the Italian language, extending into full degree qualifications. The Certification of Italian as a Foreign Language is available from A1-C2 and is fully recognised by the Swiss authorities when applying for residence permits or citizenship.
Other language certificate providers
Alongside the larger providers, there are several other organisations that are recognised as official certifiers, including:
German language certifiers in Switzerland
- AFU: A2-C1
- Bildungszentrum Interlaken A2-C1
- Gemeindeamt Zurich: B1 and A2 certification
- Social Development Gmbh: A1-B2
- Telc Gmbh: A1-C1
- TestDaF Institute: B2-C1
French language certifiers in Switzerland
- CCIP: A1-C2
- Genevan collective for adult learning: A2-B1
How much does a Swiss language certificate cost?
The Swiss language certification varies depending on whether the certificate is incorporated into a full language course. Many language schools provide competitive packages that often include the full cost of the certificate. If you do not need a language course and simply need the certificate for administrative purposes, the guide price cited by the Secretariat of Migration is set at 250 to 400 Swiss francs.