Dedicated to the memory of Mr Régis de Courten

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These pages have been prepared by an amateur genealogist and are probably incomplete. Please do not hesitate to contact me for corrections. As it is impossible (and probably useless) to strictly divide the German, French, Italian and Romansh parts of Switzerland, certain bits of information will necessarily overlap the scope of the French-speaking parts of the country. If you wish more information on genealogy in other parts of Switzerland, go directly to: Swiss genealogy on the Internet.

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Switzerland is a federal state divided in 26 political districts called cantons (23 cantons and 3 half-cantons). Although they are a lot smaller, they are akin to the States in the United States or to the Canadian Provinces. Each of them can be defined as a small republic with its own libraries, archives, and above all, its own habits! For this very reason, studying genealogy in Switzerland can be sometimes a puzzling and challenging task for the beginner.

When you are born in Switzerland, you are a citizen of your administrative commune (county) and of your canton well before being a Swiss citizen. This particular right to citizenship will be inherited by your descendants, wherever they are born. For instance, if your family has lived in Geneva for more than five generations, you may still be a citizen of a district in far-away Aargau, where no member of your family has set foot for a hundred years. The family registrar of the district will keep registering your children's births, even if you have never been there. Some families may even have several districts of origin. This "archaic" proceeding can be useful if you are researching about your ancestors and know their district of origin.

Civil state is the job of the communes. Each canton has its own specific civil administration. However, since the 1874 Constitution, basic rules have been set by the Confederation. Since 1928 Switzerland has had a generalized system of family registrars, one for each district.

In some cantons, the archives own copies of the family registrars located the districts under their administration, which generally covers a period beyond 50 years. The parish registrars are administered in much the same way: in some cantons, these registrars are now part of the cantonal archives, while in others (Fribourg, Valais) they have remained in parishes.

Switzerland has four official languages: German (or Schwyzertüütsch), French, Italian and Romansh (an ancient rheto-latin language). Before undertaking any research in Switzerland, you should make sure that you know the canton and district of origin of your family. The Swiss National Library and the Swiss Federal Archives won't be of much help to you, as most of the information has been stored at the cantonal archives and at the State registrars of the districts.

French-speaking Switzerland (or Romandy) is divided into six cantons: Geneva, Vaud, Neuchâtel and Jura (100% of French-speakers), Fribourg/Freiburg and Valais/Wallis (French-speakers with a German-speaking minority). The Bernese Jura is the name of the French-speaking part of German-speaking Bern.

GenèveRepublic and Canton of Geneva

Pop. 383'000, 283 km2 - Protestants 50%, Catholics 50%

Useful links (on Wikipedia): City of Geneva (Wikipedia) ¦ Canton of Geneva (Wikipédia) ¦ Geneva (Official Site)

flècheMost of the archives of the French "Département du Léman" (1794-1815) are now part of the Departmental Archives of Haute-Savoie (in Annecy) and Savoie (in Chambéry), see both on

VaudCanton of Vaud

Pop. 604'000, 3212 km2 - Protestants 70%

Useful links: Vaud (Wikipedia) ¦ Canton de Vaud (Official Site, French only) ¦ Communes vaudoises

NeuchâtelRepublic and Canton of Neuchâtel

Pop. 165'000, 803 km2 - Protestants 60%

Useful links: City of Neuchâtel (Wikipedia) ¦ Canton of Neuchâtel (Wikipedia) ¦ Canton of Neuchâtel (Official Site, French only)

JuraRepublic and Canton of Jura – Bernese Jura

Pop. 67'000, 837 km2 - Catholic majority

Useful links: Canton of Jura (Wikipedia) ¦ (Official Site, French only) ¦ Bernese Jura (Wikipedia) ¦ Canton of Bern Wikipedia) ¦ Canton de Berne (Official Site, French/German)

FribourgState of Fribourg

Pop. 216'000, 1671 km2 - Catholics more than 90%

Useful links: Canton of Fribourg (Wikipedia) ¦ State of Fribourg (Official Site, French/German) ¦ Municipalities of the canton of Fribourg (Wikipedia)

ValaisCanton of Valais

Pop. 254'000, 5225 km2 - Catholics more than 90%

Useful links: Valais (Wikipedia) ¦ Canton du Valais (Official Site, French/German)

© 1996 Jean-Luc Aubert, last update: April 2017