Swiss ancestry & genealogy: How to trace your Swiss roots

Swiss ancestry & genealogy: How to trace your Swiss roots

As of 2016, up to 9 million people around the world are either Swiss citizens or have ancestry tracing back to the alpine nation. If you’ve heard tales of long-lost ancestors living in the Swiss mountains or distant cousins plying their trades in Zurich or Bern, read on to find out how to trace your genealogy in Switzerland!

Tracing your Swiss ancestry

Compared to other nations in Europe, tracing your Swiss ancestry can be quite a challenge due to the scattered nature of family records and registers, especially before the 19th century. Most importantly, discovering more about your family in Switzerland has to start with understanding a crucial quirk of local record keeping.

Place of origin: The main challenge of tracing genealogy records in Switzerland 

The biggest challenge for those tracing their genealogy records in Switzerland is the concept of place of origin, also known as native township. Since 1800, records have always been held and updated in the town and canton where families originally acquired their "rights and obligations" - that is, the area where they were first declared Swiss citizens.

This means that if a person’s family has its ancestry in Liestal, Canton Basel-Land, but a direct ancestor happened to move to St. Gallen, many generations later, their civil status (marriage, birth, death, etc) could still be recorded in Liestal, as that is their family's place of origin. 

It often takes many generations before a person’s place of origin is switched. Therefore, before you embark on your Swiss family history, it is crucial that you check which town your ancestors were originally from.

How to find your Swiss roots: 1800 to present

With this in mind, here’s how to find out about your Swiss roots, from 1800 to the present.

Swiss civil status register: 1800 to 1876

From 1800 to 1876, civil status registers in Switzerland were kept by individual cantons, and in some cases individual towns. These recorded the birth certificates, marriages and deaths of those whose place of origin was local to the area.

Therefore, it’s important to start your family history search by seeking out the official archives of both the canton and the local municipality where your ancestors lived, and where their family was originally resident. While some of these records can be found online, many can only be accessed in person.

Civil status register: 1876 to present

Civil status data only started to be recorded nationally in Switzerland in 1876. Rather than by canton or township, the Federal Office of Justice has divided the country into a number of civil status districts in order to keep track of official data. 

As of 2024, births recorded after 1900, marriages after 1930 and deaths after 1960 are held by civil status offices. Upon request in writing, many of these offices will be happy to provide you with as much information as possible via post. Alternatively, they may also give you access to the archives themselves. Civil status recordings before these dates and after 1876 are usually held by the archives in each Swiss canton.

For a full list of civil status districts, check out the official website.

Swiss death records

A good summary of the situation can be found in the example of Swiss death records. If you want to find a record of someone’s death between 1800 and 1876, it’s best to look up the archives of the town, city or canton of their family's place of origin. For cases between 1876 and 1960, death records are kept at the cantonal archives, and between 1960 and today, they are held at the offices of civil status districts.

What about Swiss overseas emigration records?

Before 1900, Swiss cantons and the government were not required to keep overseas emigration records. This led to different cantons recording arrivals and departures in varied levels of detail, meaning that if you want to trace how your Swiss relatives came to your new country of residence, it’s often best to look at the immigration records of the country they went to first.

How to trace your ancestry in Switzerland: Pre-1870

If you thought tracing your ancestry in Switzerland was hard after 1800, the system provides even more of a challenge when looking for records dated before the 19th century. Here’s what you need to know:

Individual cantonal registers

Due to the nature of the Swiss state before 1800, every canton was given a lot of leeway when it came to holding records, leading to a vast diversity of different approaches. The best way to trace your Swiss ancestry before 1800 is to focus on the canton of your ancestor's place of origin.

Some of the most common records you’ll be able to find in the cantonal archives are:

  • Tax records
  • Financial records
  • Health records
  • Building records 
  • Military records

Because each canton handles their archives differently, the level of digitisation varies wildly. For more information about the archives in each canton, check out the official list.

Church records in Switzerland

Churches have been keeping and recording civil status data for hundreds of years, making them some of the oldest and most reliable family records in Switzerland. Protestant and Reformed churches began to keep records of births, deaths and marriages from the 16th century onwards, with Catholic churches following suit soon after.

Beyond cantonal archives, church records are some of the oldest available for Swiss family tree hunters. However, by their nature, they are very specific to each township and may not be available online.

Tips on looking for family in Switzerland

Now that you know where to look, here are some top tips and useful websites for those looking for family in Switzerland.

Register of Swiss surnames

If you are looking for a family member in Switzerland but only have a surname to go on, the Register of Swiss Surnames should be your first port of call. This is a free resource that lists the surnames of families who were of Swiss descent in 1962.

The database will give the specific canton and place of origin where a family’s citizenship was first acquired, and roughly when citizenship rights were first issued. This provides an invaluable source in trying to trace place of origin, which in turn gives you a better idea of where to look next. 

The Swiss Centre

If you are an American with Swiss ancestry who wants to know more about your family, then the Swiss Center of North America is here to help! The non-profit organisation, based in Wisconsin, is dedicated to helping preserve Swiss-American heritage and assisting US residents in discovering their Swiss roots. For more information, check out their official website.

Other helpful tips on Swiss genealogy

Tracing your Swiss genealogy can seem daunting at first, but doing so can give you a great insight into your family and roots. To help you along, here are some general top tips to help you in your journey of discovery:

  • Create a family tree of what you already know, then work from there.
  • Interview as many family members as possible to help build your tree.
  • Try to use variations of names if your original archive search comes up empty.
  • Use age variations to try and find the person you hope to identify.
  • Be sure to email cantonal archives if you have any questions, as they are usually happy to help!

The most important thing is not to lose heart if you find yourself at a dead end. The great thing about tracing your family tree is that even though one strand may lead nowhere, there are hundreds of different paths to take.

Discover your long-lost family in Switzerland

We hope that this article will help you begin your fact-finding journey about your family in Switzerland. If you have any other top tips you’d like to share, let us know in the comments below!

Jan de Boer


Jan de Boer

Editor for Switzerland at IamExpat Media. Jan studied History at the University of York and Broadcast Journalism at the University of Sheffield. Though born in York, Jan has lived most...

Read more



Leave a comment