A Swiss county (canton) is the equivalent of a state in the United States or a county in the United Kingdom. The canton is given a large amount of power in politics and administration. Your canton is usually the first port of call for expats after your local council (Gemeinde). If you are planning to live in Switzerland, it is important that you know the history, culture, traditions, and function of your canton.
History of Swiss cantons
The reason why cantons have such a large amount of power in Switzerland is because of how the Swiss Confederation was first established. The Old Swiss Confederacy, the precursor to modern Switzerland, was a collection of cantons that fought together to deter common enemies. The first cantons, or Waldstätten, of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden banded together in 1291 in order to establish their independence, this moment is now celebrated on Swiss national day.
As more cantons joined, their rights as independent territories remained. Despite being part of Switzerland, the cantons were free to make their own alliances, conquests, and separate tax policy. One of the most famous examples of how much power the cantons had was during the Italian Wars of 1515, where each canton's forces could vote on whether they wished to continue fighting or leave.
After the adoption of a new constitution after the Sonderbund War in 1848, Switzerland began to centralise and take power away from the cantons. Although much of the power of the cantons has been given to the Swiss government, its legacy has meant that a large number of functions remain. It is still common for Swiss people to identify themselves by their cantons when within Switzerland.
Purpose of a canton in Switzerland
There are many different things that a canton does that are important to expats, many of which are necessary to know if you plan to live in Switzerland full-time. These are:
- Run the Cantonal Migration Office when receiving a Swiss residence permit.
- Controls social security in Switzerland.
- Manages national service.
- Operates part of the Swiss system of taxation.
- Runs unemployment offices when you are looking for a job.
- Controls all matters related to vehicles.
Cantons in Switzerland
Here is a list of some of the most popular cantons for expats in Switzerland.
The most populous canton for locals and expats, Canton Zurich is a prime destination for newcomers to Switzerland. Through a complex history of Romans, rectors, reformation, and republic, the canton has now become a hub for business and banking. The canton has many of the largest cities in Switzerland within its borders, with each having its own atmosphere and culture.
One of the cantons that has had the most varied history is Canton Bern. The canton has been at the centre of Swiss culture since its admission to the old Swiss confederacy, and since then it has conquered, ruled, and assimilated its neighbours, forming the modern canton we see today. Alongside a fascinating history, the canton is also home to some astounding Swiss lakes and historical sites. For more on the history, landscape, and people, you can check out our guide to the Canton of Bern.
The largest French-speaking canton in the country, Canton Vaud is a new canton with new ideas. After its independence from Bern in 1803, the canton has become a haven for art and music, attracting famous faces from around the world to its many picturesque cities. Now a popular destination for expats, the canton has cemented itself as a good place for business and leisure.
Other Swiss cantons
There are many other cantons in Switzerland that are excellent for expats. These are:
- Aargau (AG)
- Appenzell Ausserrhoden (AU)
- Appenzell Innerrhoden (AI)
- Basel Land (BL)
- Basel Stadt (BS)
- Freiburg / Fribourg (FR)
- Geneva (GE)
- Glarus (GL)
- Graubunden (GR)
- Jura (JU)
- Lucerne (LU)
- Neuchatel (NE)
- Nidwalden (NW))
- Obwalden (OW)
- Schaffhausen (SH)
- Schwyz (SZ)
- Solothurn (SO)
- St. Gallen(SG)
- Thurgau (TG)
- Ticino (TI)
- Uri (UR)
- Valais / Wallis (VS)
- Zug (ZG)