The Swiss community living abroad – the so-called “Fifth Switzerland” – is evermore growing. Over the past twenty years, the population of Swiss citizens living outside Switzerland has indeed increased without interruption and now stands at around 760,000.

The Swiss community abroad would thus form the fourth largest canton in terms of population, after the cantons of Zurich (approx. 1.5 million inhabitants), Berne (around 1 million) and Vaud (ca. 790,000), but still far ahead of the canton of Aargau with its 680,000 inhabitants.

In other words, about 10.6% of all Swiss – i.e. one in ten – live outside the Confederation’s borders. This is a remarkable figure, as a comparison particularly with our neighboring countries demonstrates: for example, the community of Germans living abroad represents only about 4.1% of the total of Germany’s population. In the case of France, it is 4.5%, for Austria 6.6%, and for Italy 6.8%. Unfortunately, no reliable data are available for Liechtenstein.


A Historically Grown Diaspora

Why is the Swiss diaspora so large, though? The reasons are to be found in history: until the 20th century, the Switzerland was in fact one of the poorest countries in Europe. Faced with dismal misery, many Swiss people saw no alternative but to seek a better life abroad, especially in neighboring countries and overseas (above all in the USA, Argentina and Canada). Another historical reason, closely related to said prevalence of poverty, is probably the large number of Swiss mercenaries abroad. For a long time, Swiss warriors were appreciated all over the world as particularly tough fighters.

Furthermore, the Swiss have always been a nation of traders: the domestic market quickly became too small, especially with industrialization, so that numerous trade missions set off abroad in search of new markets.

Apart from these historical factors, Swiss citizenship law is another central reason: when Swiss couples become parents, their children also receive the Swiss passport – even if they are born abroad; the same applies if only one parent possesses Swiss citizenship. As a result, the Swiss community abroad grows steadily. In addition, since 1992 dual citizenship has been possible without restrictions under Swiss law, although the other state’s legislation remains decisive. The effect on the size of the Swiss community living abroad depends thus on how quickly one may become a Swiss citizen in the new home country, and whether one has to forfeit one’s Swiss citizenship. 75% of all Swiss abroad own at least two passports.

Perhaps, though, we Swiss have simply always been a people of restless dreamers. Small Switzerland, with its every present mountain walls and its densely populated cities may quickly appear to be too cramped, so that many people prefer to go settle in foreign lands. Ultimately, the reasons are probably as varied as the individuals behind each of these emigration stories are.


Asia Becoming Increasingly Popular as an Emigration Destination

Whatever may be the reasons, one thing is certain: Fifth Switzerland has grown in a remarkably constant manner over the last twenty years:

Seeing this graph, one might think that in 2007, a record year, a particularly high number of Swiss people abandoned the Confederation. According to the FSO, however, this spike appeared presumably due to Swiss citizens who had already been living abroad for some time, but who officially registered just in 2007. This is probably related to the imminent final expiry of the old Model 85 passports. Apart from this anomaly, the Swiss community abroad steadily grew with an annual rate of 1.2% to 2.3%. In 2018, it grew by 1.1%.

A look at the growth rates on a continental level further reveals some interesting facts: last year, the number of Swiss citizens living abroad grew most significantly in Europe at 1.5%, closely followed by Asia (+1.1%) and Oceania (0.9%). The growth of the Swiss community in North America, on the other hand, has somewhat slowed down – in particular because of the difficult situation in Mexico.

As for Latin America and Africa, their growth rates have plummeted to -0.5% respectively. In the case of Latin America, this development is mainly due to the economic hardship and violence in Venezuela, Nicaragua and Brazil, which prompted many Swiss citizens to move to Switzerland or another country. Various African countries such as Ghana, Morocco and Tunisia are also seeing an exodus of Swiss citizens.

Considering the annual growth rates per continent over the last 20 years, 2007 – once again – stands out as a statistical anomaly (see explanation above). Apart from that, growth rates of the Swiss community in Asia is also striking: after a brief slump at the end of the last millennium – presumably due to the financial and economic crisis of 1997-1998 in East Asia – the Swiss population living in Asia has morphed into the fastest growing one. In contrast, the demographic evolution in Europe, Oceania and America has remained relatively stable; nonetheless, the financial crisis of 2008 had a clear impact on the Swiss community in America: after 2008, growth contracted for years until in 2011, at +0.3%, it reached its lowest level since 2002. The situation in Africa has proven even less stable: growth rates have been heavily fluctuating, spiking in some years (for example in 2012), and turning negative in others (as happened in 2016).

How can these developments be explained? Which countries are particularly trendy? Which countries are the Swiss abroad turning their backs on? These and other questions are addressed in the following parts of our article series “Fifth Switzerland.”