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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

The 26 cantons of Switzerland (German: Kanton, French: canton, Italian: cantone, Romansh: chantun) are the member states of the Swiss Confederation. There were eight cantons during 1353–1481, and thirteen cantons during 1513–1798. Each canton was a fully sovereign state[1] with its own border controls, army, and currency from the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) until the establishment of the Swiss federal state in 1848. From 1833, there were 25 cantons, which became 26 after the secession of the Canton of Jura from Bern in 1979.[2]


  • Terminology 1
  • History 2
    • Number 2.1
  • Constitution 3
  • Direct democracy 4
  • List 5
  • Half-cantons 6
  • Names in national languages 7
  • Admission of new cantons 8
  • See also 9
  • Notes and references 10
    • Notes 10.1
    • References 10.2
  • Bibliography 11
  • External links 12


The term canton, now also used as a French or English term for administrative subdivisions of other countries, originates in the 15th century as specific to Switzerland. It is derived from the Lombard word cantone, from a term meaning "edge, corner", but used to refer to mountain valleys as political territories.

Historically, the cantons were referred to in German as Stätte or later Ort (plural Orte, meaning "settlement" or "location"), but the word Kanton has also been in use since the 16th century. The cantons are traditionally also referred to as Stand (plural Stände, "estate"), état, stato or stadi ("state"). This is reflected in the name of the upper chamber of the Swiss Parliament, the Council of States (Ständerat, Conseil des Etats).

Some cantonal constitutions provide for a longer formal name of the state. For example, the canton of Geneva refers to itself as the République et canton de Genève ("Republic and canton of Geneva").


The 13 cantons of the Old Swiss Confederacy (1513-1798).

In the 16th century, the Old Swiss Confederacy was composed of 13 sovereign cantons, and there were two different kinds: five rural (or "forest") cantons – Uri, Schwyz (which became eponymous of the confederacy), Unterwalden, Glarus, Appenzell – and eight urban or city-cantons – 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.[3] In the early modern period, the individual cantons came to be seen as republics; while the six forest cantons had a tradition of direct democracy in the form of the Landsgemeinde, the urban cantons operated via representation in city councils, de facto oligarchic systems dominated by families of the patriciate.[4]

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, Neuchatel 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 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.


Today the number of cantons is usually counted as 26, but sometimes as 23. This is because six cantons (Obwalden and Nidwalden, Appenzell Innerrhoden and Appenzell Ausserrhoden, Basel-Stadt and Basel-Landschaft) are known for historical reasons as half-cantons. Since the major revision of the Federal Constitution in 1999 they are occasionally called cantons with split cantonal vote.[5] This distinction is relevant only to the composition of the Council of States and the required majorities in popular referendums on constitutional amendments, but has no influence on the cantons' internal autonomy. Thus it is correct to speak of 26 cantons, but also to speak of 23 "estates". This is also the historical reason why there are "only" 46 (2x23) members in the Council of States, or why there are "only" 22 coats of arms in the dome of the Federal Palace of Switzerland (built 1894-1902 before the creation of the Canton of Jura in 1978).[6][7][8][9]


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 (ca. 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. 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.

Coat of
Abbr Canton Since Capital Population Area (km²) Density
(per km²)
No. munic. Official languages
Coat of arms of Zürich ZH Zürich 1351 Zürich 1,443,436 1,729 701 171 German
Coat of arms of Bern BE Bern 1353 Bern 1,009,418 5,959 158 383 German, French
Coat of arms of Luzern LU Luzern 1332 Luzern 394,604 1,493 233 87 German
Coat of arms of Uri UR Uri 1291[12] Altdorf 36,008 1,077 33 20 German
Coat of arms of Schwyz SZ Schwyz 1291[12] Schwyz 152,759 908 143 30 German
Coat of arms of Obwalden OW Obwalden 1291[12] or 1315 (as part of Unterwalden) Sarnen 36,834 491 66 7 German
Coat of arms of Nidwalden NW Nidwalden 1291[12] (as Unterwalden) Stans 42,080 276 138 11 German
Coat of arms of Glarus GL Glarus 1352 Glarus 39,794 685 51 3 German
Coat of arms of Zug ZG Zug 1352 Zug 120,089 239 416 11 German
Coat of arms of Fribourg FR Fribourg 1481 Fribourg 303,377 1,671 141 167 French, German
Coat of arms of Solothurn SO Solothurn 1481 Solothurn 263,719 790 308 122 German
Coat of arms of Basel-City BS Basel-Stadt 1501 (as Basel until 1833) Basel 196,850 37 5,072 3 German
Coat of arms of Basel-Country BL Basel-Landschaft 1501/1833[13] Liestal 283,421 518 502 86 German
Coat of arms of Schaffhausen SH Schaffhausen 1501 Schaffhausen 79,417 298 246 27 German
Coat of arms of Appenzell Ausserrhoden AR Appenzell Ausserrhoden 1513 [14] Herisau 54,064 243 220 20 German
Coat of arms of Appenzell Innerrhoden AI Appenzell Innerrhoden 1513[14] Appenzell 15,854 173 87 6 German
Coat of arms of St. Gallen SG St. Gallen 1803[15] St. Gallen 495,824 2,026 222 85 German
Coat of arms of Graubünden GR Graubünden 1803[16] Chur 195,886 7,105 26 180 German, Romansh, Italian
Coat of arms of Aargau AG Aargau 1803 Aarau 645,277 1,404 388 220 German
Coat of arms of Thurgau TG Thurgau 1803[17] Frauenfeld 263,733 991 229 80 German
Coat of arms of Ticino TI Ticino 1803[18] Bellinzona 350,363 2,812 110 157 Italian
Coat of arms of Vaud VD Vaud 1803[19] Lausanne 761,446 3,212 188 339 French
Coat of arms of Valais VS Valais 1815[20] Sion 331,763 5,224 53 143 French, German
Coat of arms of Neuchâtel NE Neuchâtel 1815/1857[21] Neuchâtel 177,327 803 206 53 French
Coat of arms of Geneva GE Geneva 1815 Geneva 482,545 282 1,442 45 French
Coat of arms of Jura JU Jura 1979[22] Delémont 72,410 839 82 64 French
Coat of arms of Switzerland CH Switzerland Bern 8,237,666 41,285 174 2,596 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 Helvetica—Helvetian Confederation—Helvetia 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 Zurich, 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)[23]

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.[24] In contrast, the first article of the 1848 and 1874 constitutions constituted the Confederation as the union of "twenty-two sovereign cantons",[25] referring to the half-cantons as "Unterwalden (above and beneath the woods)", "Basel (city and country)" and "Appenzell (both Rhoden)".[26] 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 split cantonal vote.".[27]

With their mutual association a purely historical matter, the half-cantons are since 1848 equal to the other cantons in all but two respects:[28]

  • They elect only one member of the Council of States instead of two (Cst. art. 150 par. 2).
  • In popular referendums about constitutional amendments, which require for adoption a national popular majority as well as the assent of a majority of the cantons (Ständemehr / majorité des cantons), the result of the half-cantons' popular vote counts only one half of that of the other cantons (Cst. arts. 140, 142). This means that for purposes of a constitutional referendum, at least 12 out of a total of 23 cantonal popular votes must support the amendment.[29]
Caricature of the division of Basel, 1833

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

  • Unterwalden never consisted of a single unified jurisdiction. Originally, Obwalden, Nidwalden, and the Abbey of Engelberg formed distinct communities. The collective term Unterwalden remains in use, however, for the area that partook in the creation of the original Swiss confederation in 1291 with Uri and Schwyz. The Federal Charter of 1291 called for representatives from each of the three "areas".[30][31]
  • The canton of Basel was divided in 1833 after the Basel countryside (now the canton of Basel-Landschaft) declared its independence from the city of Basel (now the canton of Basel-Stadt), following a period of protest and armed conflict about the under-representation of the more populous countryside in the canton's political system.

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.[33] 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     Argovie Argovia Argovia
AI Appenzell Innerrhoden Appenzell Inner-Rhodes     Appenzell Rhodes-Intérieures Appenzello Interno Appenzell dadens
AR Appenzell Ausserrhoden Appenzell Outer-Rhodes     Appenzell Rhodes-Extérieures Appenzello Esterno Appenzell dador
BS Basel-Stadt Basle-City     Bâle-Ville Basilea-Città Basilea-Citad
BL Basel-Landschaft Basle-Country     Bâle-Campagne Basilea-Campagna Basilea-Champagna
BE Bern Berne     Berne Berna Berna
FR Fribourg Friburg     Fribourg Friborgo Friburg
GE Geneva -     Genève Ginevra Genevra
GL Glarus Glaris     Glaris Glarona Glaruna
GR Graubünden Grisons     Grisons Grigioni Grischun
JU Jura -     Jura Giura Giura
LU Lucerne -     Lucerne Lucerna Lucerna
NE Neuchâtel -     Neuchâtel Neuchâtel Neuchâtel
NW Nidwalden Nidwald     Nidwald Nidvaldo Sutsilvania
OW Obwalden Obwald     Obwald Obvaldo Sursilvania
SH Schaffhausen Schaffhouse     Schaffhouse Sciaffusa Schaffusa
SZ Schwyz -     Schwyz (or Schwytz) Svitto Sviz
SO Solothurn Soleure     Soleure Soletta Soloturn
SG St. Gallen St. Gall     Saint-Gall San Gallo Son Gagl
TG Thurgau Thurgovia     Thurgovie Turgovia Turgovia
TI Ticino Tessin     Tessin Ticino Tessin
UR Uri -     Uri Uri Uri
VS Valais Wallis     Valais Vallese Vallais
VD Vaud -     Vaud Vaud Vad
ZG Zug -     Zoug Zugo Zug
ZH Zurich -     Zurich 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. ^ As of 31 December 2007, Bundesamt für Statistik (Federal Department of Statistics) (2008). "Amtliches Gemeindeverzeichnis der Schweiz". Archived from the original (Microsoft Excel) on 11 June 2008. Retrieved 11 November 2008. 
  5. ^ Seat of government and parliament is Herisau, the seat of the judicial authorities is Trogen
  6. ^ Seat of parliament half-yearly alternates between Frauenfeld and Weinfelden


  1. ^ Cantons, In the Old Confederation until 1798 in German, French and Italian in the online Historical Dictionary of Switzerland.
  2. ^ Jura (Canton) in German, French and Italian in the online Historical Dictionary of Switzerland.
  3. ^ "Switzerland". Encyclopædia Britannica 26. 1911. p. 251. Retrieved 11 November 2008. 
  4. ^ The canton of Zug was the exception in this, in being an urban canton and still holding a Landsgemeinde. Jackson Spielvogel, Western Civilization: Volume I: To 1715, (Cengage 2008), p. 386
  5. ^ Matt Qvortrup, ed. (6 May 2014). Referendums Around the World: The Continued Growth of Direct Democracy. UK: Palgrave Macmillan. p. 71.  
  6. ^ "Volksabstimmung vom 30. November 2014". (official website) (in German). Berne, Switzerland: Federal Assembly – Swiss Parliament. 30 November 2014. Retrieved 7 December 2014. Stände: 
  7. ^ Markus Schneider (30 November 2014). "Ständemehr: Nein, nein, nein, nein, nein, elfeinhalb kleine Nein". (in German) (05/2002). Basel, Switzerland: Die Weltwoche. Retrieved 7 December 2014. Weil es um einen Staatsvertrag geht, braucht es zusätzlich die Mehrheit der Stände. 
  8. ^ """Beide Initiativen gescheitert: "Zeichen für Zufriedenheit des Volkes. (in German). Zurich, Switzerland: Neue Zürcher Zeitung, NZZ. 28 September 2014. Retrieved 7 December 2014. 19 Stände sagten Nein, 4 sagten Ja 
  9. ^ "Abstimmungen: Drei Initiativen scheitern, eine wird überraschend angenommen". (in German). Berne, Switzerland: Berner Zeitung, BZ. 30 November 2008. Retrieved 7 December 2014. Die Mehrheit der Stände und das Volk hat das Volksbegehren, welches das Kiffen legalisieren wollte, abgelehnt. 
  10. ^ a b 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. ^ a b c d founding forest-canton, foundation date traditionally given as either 1307, 1304 or 1291 (see Foundation of the Old Swiss Confederacy).
  13. ^ part of Basel until 1833/1999
  14. ^ a b part of Appenzell until 1597/1999
  15. ^ Act of Mediation, formed out of the Canton of Säntis and the northern half of the Canton of Linth.
  16. ^ Act of Mediation; formerly the Canton of Raetia, comprising the earlier Three Leagues.
  17. ^ coterminous with the canton of Thurgau of the Helvetic Republic (1798), formerly a condominium.
  18. ^ combining the former cantons of Bellinzona and Lugano; see Ennetbirgische Vogteien.
  19. ^ Act of Mediation, formerly Canton of Léman.
  20. ^ Restoration, formerly the Simplon département
  21. ^ claimed by Frederick William III of Prussia until the Neuchâtel Crisis of 1856–1857.
  22. ^ seceded from Berne
  23. ^ Federal Constitution of the Swiss Confederation of 18 April 1999, SR/RS 101 (E·D·F·I), art. 1 (E·D·F·I)
  24. ^ Felix Hafner / Rainer J. Schweizer in Ehrenzeller, Art. 1 N 2; Häfelin, N 966.
  25. ^ Twenty-three after the creation of the Canton of Jura in 1978.
  26. ^ Bundesverfassung der Schweizerischen Eidgenossenschaft vom 29. Mai 1874, Bundesverfassung der Schweizerischen Eidgenossenschaft vom 12. September 1848 (German); author's translation.
  27. ^ Felix Hafner / Rainer J. Schweizer in Ehrenzeller, Art. 1 N 10; Häfelin, N 963
  28. ^ Häfelin, N 963, 967
  29. ^ Häfelin, N 950
  30. ^ Pacte fédéral du 1er août 1291] sur "vallée inférieure d'Unterwald" signifie Nidwald.
  31. ^ Pacte fédéral du 1er août 1291 sur Cliotexte
  32. ^ Réforme catholique, Contre-Réforme et scission Article du dictionnaire historique de la Suisse
  33. ^ Bassand, Michel (1975). "The Jura Problem". Journal of Peace Research (Sage Publications) 12 (2: Peace Research in Switzerland): 139–150: 142. Retrieved 18 July 2015. (subscription required (help)). 


  • Bernhard Ehrenzeller, Philipp Mastronardi, Rainer J. Schweizer, Klaus A. Vallender (eds.) (2002). Die schweizerische Bundesverfassung, Kommentar (in Deutsch). . Ehrenzeller. Cited as  
  • Häfelin, Ulrich; Haller, Walter; Keller, Helen (2008). Schweizerisches Bundesstaatsrecht (in German) (7th ed.). Zürich: Schulthess. . Häfelin Cited as  

External links

  • – The cantons of Switzerland
  • GeoPuzzle – Assemble cantons on a Swiss map
  • Badac – Database on Swiss cantons and cities (French/German)
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