Cantons of Switzerland

Swiss cantons
Schweizer Kantone (German)
Cantons suisses (French)
Cantoni Svizzeri (Italian)
Chantun svizra (Romansh)

Also known as:

  • Stand
  • État
  • Stato
Category Federated state
Location Swiss Confederation
Found in Country
Created 16th century
Number 26 cantons (as of 1979)
Populations 15,778 (Canton of Appenzell Innerrhoden) – 1,421,895 (Canton of Zürich)
Areas 36 km2 (14 sq mi) (Canton of Basel-Stadt) – 7,105.5 km2 (2,743.43 sq mi) (Canton of Graubünden)
Government List of cantonal executives of Switzerland
Subdivisions Districts and communes

The 26 cantons of Switzerland (German: Kanton, French: canton, Italian: cantone, Romansh: chantun) are the member states of the Swiss Confederation. The nucleus of the Swiss Confederacy in the form of the first three confederate allies used to be referred to as the Waldstätte. Two further major steps in the development of the Swiss cantonal system are referred to by the terms Acht Alten Orte ("confederation of eight";[1] during 13531481) and Dreizehn Alten Orte ("Thirteen-Canton Confederation",[1] during 15131798); they were important intermediate periods of the Ancient Swiss Confederacy.

Each canton (or in earlier times: Statt ("site/settlement"), or Städte und Länder ("towns and countries/countrysides"), or Ort (lit.: place, referring to "souvereign territory", "community"), or Stand ("estate") from 13th to around 1800) was a fully sovereign state[2] with its own border controls, army, and currency from the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) until the establishment of the Swiss federal state in 1848; with a brief period of centralized government during the Helvetic Republic (1798–1803). With the Napoleonic period of the Helvetic Republic the term canton/cantone/Kanton was fully established. From 1833, there were 25 cantons, which became 26 after the secession of the canton of Jura from Bern in 1979.[3]

Terminology and its historical development

The term canton, now also used as English term for administrative subdivisions of other countries, originates in French usage in the late 15th century, from a word for "edge, corner" (recorded in Fribourg in 1475). After 1490, canton was increasingly used in French and Italian documents to refer to the members of the Swiss Confederacy.

English use of canton in reference to the Swiss Confederacy (as opposed to the heraldic sense) dates to the early 17th century.

In German Switzerland, the term Ort (plural: Orte; lit.: place; referring to "souvereign territory", "community") was in use from the early 15th century as a generic term uniting the towns and rural allies previously named separately as Städte ("towns") and Länder ("countries; countrysides"), or even just Stett/Statt (plural: Stätte, "site/settlement") prior and during the early constitution of the Ancient Swiss Confederacy.[2][4]

It was increasingly replaced by Stand (plural: Stände, "estate") after 1550.[2]

The French term canton was not adopted into German usage prior to 1648, and after that only in occasional use. The prominent usage of Ort and Stand only gradually disappeared in German-speaking Switzerland with the Helvetic Republic. Only with the Act of Mediation of 1803 did German Kanton become an official designation, retained in the Swiss Constitution of 1848.[2]

The term Stand remains in synonymous usage (in French état) and is reflected in the name of the upper chamber of the Swiss Parliament, the Council of States (German: Ständerat, French: Conseil des États, Italian: Consiglio degli Stati, Romansh: Cussegl dals Stadis).


Some cantonal constitutions provide for a longer formal name of the state. Most of Romandy's cantons (Geneva, Jura, Neuchâtel, Valais[5] and Vaud[6]) and Ticino[7] call themselves république/Repubblica ("republics") officially, at least within their constitutions. For example, the canton of Geneva refers to itself formally as the République et canton de Genève ("Republic and canton of Geneva").


The "Thirteen-Canton Confederation" of the Old Swiss Confederacy (1513–1798)

In the 16th century, the Old Swiss Confederacy was composed of 13 sovereign confederate allies (German: Dreizehn Alten Orte), and there were two different kinds: five rural states Uri, Schwyz (which became eponymous of the confederacy), Unterwalden, Glarus, Appenzell and eight urban states Zürich, Bern, Luzern, Zug, Basel, Fribourg, Solothurn, Schaffhausen.

Though they were technically part of the Holy Roman Empire, they had become de facto independent when the Swiss defeated Emperor Maximillian in 1499 in Dornach.[8]

In the early modern period, the individual confederate allies came to be seen as republics; while the six traditional allies had a tradition of direct democracy in the form of the Landsgemeinde, the urban states operated via representation in city councils, de facto oligarchic systems dominated by families of the patriciate.[9]

The old system was abandoned with the formation of the Helvetic Republic following the French invasion of Switzerland in 1798. The cantons of the Helvetic Republic had merely the status of an administrative subdivision with no sovereignty. The Helvetic Republic collapsed within five years, and cantonal sovereignty was restored with the Act of Mediation of 1803. The status of Switzerland as a federation of states was restored, at the time including 19 cantons (the six accessions to the early modern Thirteen Cantons being composed of former associates and subject territories: St. Gallen, Grisons, Aargau, Thurgau, Ticino, Vaud). Three additional western cantons, Valais, Neuchâtel and Geneva, acceded in 1815.

The process of "Restoration", completed by 1830, returned most of the former feudal rights to the cantonal patriciates, leading to rebellions among the rural population. The Liberal Radical Party embodied these democratic forces calling for a new federal constitution. This tension, paired with religious issues ("Jesuit question") escalated into armed conflict in the 1840s, with the brief Sonderbund War. The victory of the radical party resulted in the formation of Switzerland as a federal state in 1848. The cantons retained far-reaching sovereignty, but were no longer allowed to maintain individual standing armies or international relations. As the revolutions of 1848 in Western Europe had failed elsewhere, Switzerland during the later 19th century (and with the exception of the French Third Republic, until the end of World War I) found itself as an isolated democratic republic, surrounded by the restored monarchies of France, Italy, Austria-Hungary and Germany.


The 22 cantonal coats of arms (all but Jura, with the half-cantons represented jointly) in stained glass set in the dome of the Federal Palace of Switzerland (c.1900)

Each canton has its own constitution, legislature, government and courts.[10] Most of the cantons' legislatures are unicameral parliaments, their size varying between 58 and 200 seats. A few legislatures are general assemblies known as Landsgemeinden. The cantonal governments consist of either five or seven members, depending on the canton.[11] For the names of the institutions, see List of legislative and executive councils of the Cantons of Switzerland.

The Swiss Federal Constitution declares the cantons to be sovereign to the extent that their sovereignty is not limited by federal law.[10] The cantons also retain all powers and competencies not delegated to the Confederation by the Constitution. Most significantly, the cantons are responsible for healthcare, welfare, law enforcement and public education; they also retain the power of taxation. The cantonal constitutions determine the degree of autonomy accorded to the municipalities, which varies but almost always includes the power to levy taxes and pass municipal laws. The areas of the cantons vary from 37 km2 to 7,105 km2; the populations vary from 15,471 to 1,244,400.

Direct democracy

As on the federal level, all cantons provide for some forms of direct democracy. Citizens may demand a popular vote to amend the cantonal constitution or laws, or to veto laws or spending bills passed by the parliament. General popular assemblies (Landsgemeinde) are now limited to the cantons of Appenzell Innerrhoden and Glarus. In all other cantons democratic rights are exercised by secret ballot.


The cantons are listed in their order of precedence given in the federal constitution.[Note 1] This reflects the historical order of precedence of the Eight Cantons in the 15th century, followed by the remaining cantons in the order of their historical accession to the confederacy.[12]

Coat of
Code Canton Since Capital Population[Note 2] Area (km2) Density
(per km2)[Note 3]
No. munic. Official languages
ZH Zürich 1351 Zürich 1,463,459 1,729 701 168 German
BE Bern 1353 Bern 1,017,483 5,959 158 352 German, French
LU Luzern 1332 Lucerne 398,762 1,493 233 83 German
UR Uri 1291[13] Altdorf 35,973 1,077 33 20 German
SZ Schwyz 1291[13] Schwyz 154,093 908 143 30 German
OW Obwalden 1291[13] or 1315 (as part of Unterwalden) Sarnen 37,076 491 66 7 German
NW Nidwalden 1291[13] (as Unterwalden) Stans 42,420 276 138 11 German
GL Glarus 1352 Glarus 40,028 685 51 3 German
ZG Zug 1352 Zug 122,134 239 416 11 German
FR Fribourg 1481 Fribourg 307,461 1,671 141 150 French, German
SO Solothurn 1481 Solothurn 266,418 790 308 109 German
BS Basel-Stadt 1501 (as Basel until 1833) Basel 197,762 37 5,072 3 German
BL Basel-Landschaft 1501/1833[14] Liestal 285,094 518 502 86 German
SH Schaffhausen 1501 Schaffhausen 79,836 298 246 26 German
AR Appenzell Ausserrhoden 1513 [15] Herisau[Note 4] 54,543 243 220 20 German
AI Appenzell Innerrhoden 1513[15] Appenzell 15,974 173 87 6 German
SG St. Gallen 1803[16] St. Gallen 499,065 2,026 222 77 German
GR Graubünden 1803[17] Chur 196,610 7,105 26 114 German, Romansh, Italian
AG Aargau 1803 Aarau 653,675 1,404 388 213 German
TG Thurgau 1803[18] Frauenfeld[Note 5] 267,429 991 229 80 German
TI Ticino 1803[19] Bellinzona 351,946 2,812 110 130 Italian
VD Vaud 1803[20] Lausanne 773,407 3,212 188 318 French
VS Valais 1815[21] Sion 335,696 5,224 53 134 French, German
NE Neuchâtel 1815/1857[22] Neuchâtel 178,107 803 206 36 French
GE Geneva 1815 Geneva 484,736 282 1,442 45 French
JU Jura 1979[23] Delémont 72,782 839 82 57 French
CH Switzerland Bern 8,327,126 41,285 174 2,289 German, French, Italian, Romansh

The two-letter abbreviations for Swiss cantons are widely used, e.g., on car license plates. They are also used in the ISO 3166-2 codes of Switzerland with the prefix "CH-" (Confœderatio HelveticaHelvetian ConfederationHelvetia having been the ancient Roman name of the region). CH-SZ, for example, is used for the canton of Schwyz.


Six of the 26 cantons are traditionally, but no longer officially, called "half-cantons" (German: Halbkanton, French: demi-canton, Italian: semicantone, Romansh: mez-chantun), reflecting a history of mutual association or partition.

The half-cantons are identified in the first article of the Swiss Federal Constitution of 1999 by being joined to their other "half" with the conjunction "and":

The People and the Cantons of Zürich, Bern, Lucerne, Uri, Schwyz, Obwalden and Nidwalden, Glarus, Zug, Fribourg, Solothurn, Basel-Stadt and Basel-Landschaft, Schaffhausen, Appenzell Ausserrhoden and Appenzell Innerrhoden, St. Gallen, Graubünden, Aargau, Thurgau, Ticino, Vaud, Valais, Neuchâtel, Geneva, and Jura form the Swiss Confederation.
Article 1 of the Federal Constitution of the Swiss Confederation (underlining not in original)[24]

The 1999 constitutional revision retained this distinction, on the request of the six cantonal governments, as a way to mark the historic association of the half-cantons to each other.[25] In contrast, the first article of the 1848 and 1874 constitutions constituted the Confederation as the union of "twenty-two sovereign cantons",[26] referring to the half-cantons as "Unterwalden (ob und nid dem Wald [‘above and beneath the woods’])", "Basel (Stadt und Landschaft [‘city and country’])" and "Appenzell (beider Rhoden [‘both Rhoden’])".[27] While the older constitutions referred to these states as "half-cantons", a term that remains in popular use, the 1999 revision and official terminology since then use the appellation "cantons with half of a cantonal vote".[28]

With their mutual association a purely historical matter, the half-cantons are since 1848 equal to the other cantons in all but two respects:[29]

Caricature of the division of Basel, 1833

The reasons for the association between the three pairs of half-cantons are varied:

In the 20th century, some Jurassic separatists suggested a new canton of Jura to be divided into half-cantons of North Jura and South Jura.[34] Instead, North Jura became the (full) canton of Jura while South Jura remains in the canton of Bern as the region of Bernese Jura.

Names in national languages

The name of each canton in its own official language is shown in bold.

Abbr Common English Other English forms German French Italian Romansh
AG Aargau Argovia  Aargau  Argovie Argovia Argovia
AI Appenzell Innerrhoden Appenzell Inner-Rhodes  Appenzell Innerrhoden  Appenzell Rhodes-Intérieures Appenzello Interno Appenzell dadens
AR Appenzell Ausserrhoden Appenzell Outer-Rhodes  Appenzell Ausserrhoden  Appenzell Rhodes-Extérieures Appenzello Esterno Appenzell dador
BS Basel-Stadt Basle-City  Basel-Stadt  Bâle-Ville Basilea-Città Basilea-Citad
BL Basel-Landschaft Basle-Country  Basel-Landschaft  Bâle-Campagne Basilea-Campagna Basilea-Champagna
BE Bern Berne  Bern  Berne Berna Berna
FR Fribourg Friburg  Freiburg  Fribourg Friborgo Friburg
GE Geneva -  Genf  Genève Ginevra Genevra
GL Glarus Glaris  Glarus  Glaris Glarona Glaruna
GR Graubünden Grisons  Graubünden  Grisons Grigioni Grischun
JU Jura -  Jura  Jura Giura Giura
LU Lucerne -  Luzern  Lucerne Lucerna Lucerna
NE Neuchâtel -  Neuenburg  Neuchâtel Neuchâtel Neuchâtel
NW Nidwalden Nidwald  Nidwalden  Nidwald Nidvaldo Sutsilvania
OW Obwalden Obwald  Obwalden  Obwald Obvaldo Sursilvania
SH Schaffhausen Schaffhouse  Schaffhausen  Schaffhouse Sciaffusa Schaffusa
SZ Schwyz -  Schwyz  Schwyz (or Schwytz) Svitto Sviz
SO Solothurn Soleure  Solothurn  Soleure Soletta Soloturn
SG St. Gallen St. Gall  St. Gallen  Saint-Gall San Gallo Son Gagl
TG Thurgau Thurgovia  Thurgau  Thurgovie Turgovia Turgovia
TI Ticino Tessin  Tessin  Tessin Ticino Tessin
UR Uri -  Uri  Uri Uri Uri
VS Valais Wallis  Wallis  Valais Vallese Vallais
VD Vaud -  Waadt  Vaud Vaud Vad
ZG Zug -  Zug  Zoug Zugo Zug
ZH Zürich Zurich  Zürich  Zürich Zurigo Turitg

Admission of new cantons

The enlargement of Switzerland by way of the admission of new cantons ended in 1815. After a failed attempt of Vorarlberg to join Switzerland in 1919, the idea of resuming Swiss enlargement was revived in 2010 by a parliamentary motion that would allow the accession of regions bordering on Switzerland.

See also

Notes and references


  1. This is the order generally used in Swiss official documents. At the head of the list are the three city cantons that were considered preeminent in the Old Swiss Confederacy; the other cantons are listed in order of accession to the Confederation. This traditional order of precedence among the cantons has no practical relevance in the modern federal state, in which the cantons are equal to one another, although it still determines formal precedence among the cantons' officials (see Swiss order of precedence).
  2. as of 5 April 2009
  3. Per km2, based on 2000 population
  4. Seat of government and parliament is Herisau, the seat of the judicial authorities is Trogen
  5. Seat of parliament half-yearly alternates between Frauenfeld and Weinfelden


  1. 1 2 "Chronology". Bern, Switzerland: The Swiss Federal Administration. Retrieved 2016-10-09.
  2. 1 2 3 4 Andreas Kley: Kantone in German, French and Italian in the online Historical Dictionary of Switzerland, 2016-04-13.
  3. François Schifferdecker, François Kohler: Jura (canton) in German, French and Italian in the online Historical Dictionary of Switzerland, 2015-07-20.
  4. Josef Wiget: Waldstätte in German, French and Italian in the online Historical Dictionary of Switzerland, 2014-12-27.
  5. Constitution du Canton du Valais: "Le Valais est une république démocratique, souveraine […] incorporée comme Canton à la Confédération suisse."
  6. Constitution du canton de Vaud: "Le Canton de Vaud est une république démocratique [… qui] est l'un des États de la Confédération suisse."
  7. "Costituzione della Repubblica e Cantone del Ticino, del 4 luglio 1830" (in Italian). Swiss Federal Coucil. Le canton du Tessin est une république démocratique [… qui] est membre de la Confédération suisse et sa souveraineté n'est limitée que par la constitution fédérale."
  8. "Switzerland". Encyclopædia Britannica. 26. 1911. p. 251. Retrieved 11 November 2008.
  9. Zug was the exception in this, in being an urban state and still holding a Landsgemeinde. Jackson Spielvogel, Western Civilization: Volume I: To 1715, (Cengage 2008), p. 386
  10. 1 2 Cantons, In the Federal State since 1848 in German, French and Italian in the online Historical Dictionary of Switzerland.
  11. Swiss Government website with links to each cantonal government, accessed 11 November 2008
  12. "Regional Portraits: Cantons". Neuchâtel, Switzerland: Swiss Federal Statistical Office. 2011. Retrieved 2015-12-21.
  13. 1 2 3 4 founding forest-canton, foundation date traditionally given as either 1307, 1304 or 1291 (see Foundation of the Old Swiss Confederacy).
  14. part of Basel until 1833/1999
  15. 1 2 part of Appenzell until 1597/1999
  16. Act of Mediation, formed out of the Canton of Säntis and the northern half of the Canton of Linth.
  17. Act of Mediation; formerly the Canton of Raetia, comprising the earlier Three Leagues.
  18. coterminous with the canton of Thurgau of the Helvetic Republic (1798), formerly a condominium.
  19. combining the former cantons of Bellinzona and Lugano; see Ennetbirgische Vogteien.
  20. Act of Mediation, formerly Canton of Léman.
  21. Restoration, formerly the Simplon département
  22. claimed by Frederick William III of Prussia until the Neuchâtel Crisis of 18561857.
  23. seceded from Berne
  24. Federal Constitution of the Swiss Confederation of 18 April 1999, SR/RS 101 (E·D·F·I), art. 1 (E·D·F·I)
  25. Felix Hafner / Rainer J. Schweizer in Ehrenzeller, Art. 1 N 2; Häfelin, N 966.
  26. Twenty-three after the creation of the Canton of Jura in 1978.
  27. Bundesverfassung der Schweizerischen Eidgenossenschaft vom 29. Mai 1874, Bundesverfassung der Schweizerischen Eidgenossenschaft vom 12. September 1848 (German); author's translation.
  28. Felix Hafner / Rainer J. Schweizer in Ehrenzeller, Art. 1 N 10; Häfelin, N 963
  29. Häfelin, N 963, 967
  30. Häfelin, N 950
  31. Pacte fédéral du 1er Archived 30 August 2009 at the Wayback Machine. août 1291] sur "vallée inférieure d'Unterwald" signifie Nidwald.
  32. Pacte fédéral du 1er août 1291 sur Cliotexte
  33. Réforme catholique, Contre-Réforme et scission Article du dictionnaire historique de la Suisse
  34. Bassand, Michel (1975). "The Jura Problem". Journal of Peace Research. Sage Publications. 12 (2: Peace Research in Switzerland): 139–150: 142. doi:10.1177/002234337501200206. JSTOR 423158. (subscription required (help)).


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