Cantons of Switzerland

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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 lieus (or cantons) during 1353–1481, and thirteen lieus during 1513–1798. Each lieu/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]


The term canton, now also used as English term for administrative subdivisions of other countries, originates after 1490 as specific to Switzerland. It is derived from the French word canton, from a term meaning "edge, corner", but used to refer to political territories.[1]

Historically, the cantons were referred to in German as Statt (plural: Stätte),[Note 1] or later Ort (plural Orte; English: Lieu, meaning "settlement" or "location", pronouncing the then very dominant power and importance of settlements over the country-side and/or forested area), but the word canton(e) has also been in use since the 16th century, mainly in the Latin languages spoken regions.[1] The cantons are traditionally also referred to as Stand (plural Stände, "estate"), état, stato or stadi ("state"). This is still reflected in the name of the upper chamber of the Swiss Parliament, the Council of States (Ständerat, Conseil des États).


Some cantonal constitutions provide for a longer formal name of the state. Most of Romandy's cantons (Geneva, Jura, Neuchâtel, Valais[3] and Vaud[4]) and Ticino[5] call themselves "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 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 lieus – Uri, Schwyz (which became eponymous of the confederacy), Unterwalden, Glarus, Appenzell – and eight urban lieus – 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.[6] In the early modern period, the individual lieus came to be seen as republics; while the six traditional lieus had a tradition of direct democracy in the form of the Landsgemeinde, the urban lieus operated via representation in city councils, de facto oligarchic systems dominated by families of the patriciate.[7]

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 Lieus 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 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.[8] 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.[9] 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.[8] 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[edit]

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 2] 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.[10]

Coat of
Code Canton Since Capital Population[Note 3] Area (km²) Density
(per km²)[Note 4]
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[11] Altdorf 36,008 1,077 33 20 German
Coat of arms of Schwyz SZ Schwyz 1291[11] Schwyz 152,759 908 143 30 German
Coat of arms of Obwalden OW Obwalden 1291[11] or 1315 (as part of Unterwalden) Sarnen 36,834 491 66 7 German
Coat of arms of Nidwalden NW Nidwalden 1291[11] (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[12] 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 [13] Herisau[Note 5] 54,064 243 220 20 German
Coat of arms of Appenzell Innerrhoden AI Appenzell Innerrhoden 1513[13] Appenzell 15,854 173 87 6 German
Coat of arms of St. Gallen SG St. Gallen 1803[14] St. Gallen 495,824 2,026 222 85 German
Coat of arms of Graubünden GR Graubünden 1803[15] 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[16] Frauenfeld[Note 6] 263,733 991 229 80 German
Coat of arms of Ticino TI Ticino 1803[17] Bellinzona 350,363 2,812 110 157 Italian
Coat of arms of Vaud VD Vaud 1803[18] Lausanne 761,446 3,212 188 339 French
Coat of arms of Valais VS Valais 1815[19] Sion 331,763 5,224 53 143 French, German
Coat of arms of Neuchâtel NE Neuchâtel 1815/1857[20] 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[21] 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 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)[22]

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.[23] In contrast, the first article of the 1848 and 1874 constitutions constituted the Confederation as the union of "twenty-two sovereign cantons",[24] 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’])".[25] 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".[26]

With their mutual association a purely historical matter, the half-cantons are since 1848 equal to the other cantons in all but two respects:[27]

  • 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.[28]
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.[32] 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[edit]

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

Admission of new cantons[edit]

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[edit]

Notes and references[edit]


  1. ^ Today still prominent in the German name of Lake Lucerne: Vierwaldstättersee, the lake of the four forested Stätte
  2. ^ 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).
  3. ^ as of 5 April 2009
  4. ^ Per km², based on 2000 population
  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. ^ a b c 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. ^ Constitution du Canton du Valais: "Le Valais est une république démocratique, souveraine […] incorporée comme Canton à la Confédération suisse."
  4. ^ Constitution du canton de Vaud: "Le Canton de Vaud est une république démocratique [… qui] est l'un des États de la Confédération suisse."
  5. ^ Constitution de la République et Canton du Tessin: "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."
  6. ^ "Switzerland". Encyclopædia Britannica 26. 1911. p. 251. Retrieved 11 November 2008. 
  7. ^ The canton of Zug was the exception in this, in being an urban lieu and still holding a Landsgemeinde. Jackson Spielvogel, Western Civilization: Volume I: To 1715, (Cengage 2008), p. 386[clarification needed]
  8. ^ a b Cantons, In the Federal State since 1848 in German, French and Italian in the online Historical Dictionary of Switzerland.
  9. ^ Swiss Government website with links to each cantonal government, accessed 11 November 2008
  10. ^ "Regional Portraits: Cantons". Neuchâtel, Switzerland: Swiss Federal Statistical Office. 2011. Retrieved 2015-12-21. 
  11. ^ a b c d founding forest-canton, foundation date traditionally given as either 1307, 1304 or 1291 (see Foundation of the Old Swiss Confederacy).
  12. ^ part of Basel until 1833/1999
  13. ^ a b part of Appenzell until 1597/1999
  14. ^ Act of Mediation, formed out of the Canton of Säntis and the northern half of the Canton of Linth.
  15. ^ Act of Mediation; formerly the Canton of Raetia, comprising the earlier Three Leagues.
  16. ^ coterminous with the canton of Thurgau of the Helvetic Republic (1798), formerly a condominium.
  17. ^ combining the former cantons of Bellinzona and Lugano; see Ennetbirgische Vogteien.
  18. ^ Act of Mediation, formerly Canton of Léman.
  19. ^ Restoration, formerly the Simplon département
  20. ^ claimed by Frederick William III of Prussia until the Neuchâtel Crisis of 1856–1857.
  21. ^ seceded from Berne
  22. ^ Federal Constitution of the Swiss Confederation of 18 April 1999, SR/RS 101 (E·D·F·I), art. 1 (E·D·F·I)
  23. ^ Felix Hafner / Rainer J. Schweizer in Ehrenzeller, Art. 1 N 2; Häfelin, N 966.
  24. ^ Twenty-three after the creation of the Canton of Jura in 1978.
  25. ^ Bundesverfassung der Schweizerischen Eidgenossenschaft vom 29. Mai 1874, Bundesverfassung der Schweizerischen Eidgenossenschaft vom 12. September 1848 (German); author's translation.
  26. ^ Felix Hafner / Rainer J. Schweizer in Ehrenzeller, Art. 1 N 10; Häfelin, N 963
  27. ^ Häfelin, N 963, 967
  28. ^ Häfelin, N 950
  29. ^ Pacte fédéral du 1er août 1291] sur "vallée inférieure d'Unterwald" signifie Nidwald.
  30. ^ Pacte fédéral du 1er août 1291 sur Cliotexte
  31. ^ Réforme catholique, Contre-Réforme et scission Article du dictionnaire historique de la Suisse
  32. ^ 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. Retrieved 18 July 2015. (subscription required (help)). 


  • Bernhard Ehrenzeller, Philipp Mastronardi, Rainer J. Schweizer, Klaus A. Vallender (eds.) (2002). Die schweizerische Bundesverfassung, Kommentar (in German). ISBN 3-905455-70-6. . Cited as Ehrenzeller.
  • Häfelin, Ulrich; Haller, Walter; Keller, Helen (2008). Schweizerisches Bundesstaatsrecht (in German) (7th ed.). Zürich: Schulthess. ISBN 978-3-7255-5472-0.  Cited as Häfelin.

External links[edit]

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