Research in Switzerland

Research in Switzerland

The information required for research on one’s ancestors in Switzerland differs from what is usually required in other countries. In Switzerland civil status data (birth, marriage, death) is not only registered at the place where the event occurs but also at each Swiss citizen’s place of origin.

If you do not know the exact place of origin of your ancestors you can begin your research with the registry office responsible for the registration of their birth, marriage or death so as to determine their place(s) of origin.

The religion of your ancestors can also play an important role. Up to 1876, religious communities were in fact competent for the registration of civil status events.

Place of origin

The place of origin also known as “rights of citizenship” corresponds in Switzerland to the municipality from which a Swiss citizen obtains his or her citizenship rights. It is mentioned in the civil status documents (e.g. birth, marriage and death certificates) as well as in identity documents (such as the passport  or identity card) of Swiss citizens – unlike in some countries which mention the place of birth.

Questions regarding the existence of Swiss ancestors should be addressed to the registry office competent for your place of origin or the place of origin of your ancestors if this is known. When the requests go back as far as the 1870s the research can be pursued in the relevant cantonal archives.

In the Old Swiss Confederacy the place of origin was the place where one’s ancestors lived or acquired their rights and obligations including their rights of citizenship. The place of origin is thus of particular significance because, since 1876 or in any case as a general rule since 1800, it has been necessary to register civil status data there regardless of where the event in question took place. Only events which have been reported to the place of origin, however, are recorded there. No cantonal or national registers of emigrants existed prior to the year 1900. It is for this reason that the competent location (place of origin) needs to be found.

Church records (parish registers)

The recording of civil status data in the records of reformed churches began in the 16th century in two thirds of the parishes. Roman Catholic priests did not begin to keep such records until 50 years later.

The old church records can today be found in the archives of the parish or municipality concerned. Some old registers have been recorded on microfilm. As with civil status registers, state archives also have reference lists and can inform interested parties about church records that are available on microfilm.