Cantons of Switzerland (Redirected from Cantonal)

Swiss cantons
Schweizer Kantone (German) Cantons suisses (French)
Cantoni Svizzeri (Italian) Chantuns svizras (Romansh)
  • Also known as:
  • Stände, États, Stati
CategoryFederated state
Found inCountry
  • 13th century
Number26 cantons (as of 1979)
Populations16,003 (Appenzell Innerrhoden) – 1,487,969 (Canton of Zürich)
Areas37 km2 (14 sq mi) – 7,105 km2 (2,743 sq mi)

The 26 cantons of Switzerland (German: Kanton; French: canton [kɑ̃tɔ̃]; Italian: cantone; Sursilvan and Surmiran: cantun; Vallader and Puter: Chantun; Sutsilvan: cantùn; Rumantsch Grischun: 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 important periods in the development of the Old Swiss Confederacy are summarized by the terms Acht Orte ('Eight Cantons'; from 1353–1481) and Dreizehn Orte ('Thirteen Cantons', from 1513–1798).

Each canton of the Old Swiss Confederacy, formerly also Ort ('lieu/locality', from before 1450), or Stand ('estate', from c. 1550), was a fully sovereign state with its own border controls, army, and currency from at least the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) until the establishment of the Swiss federal state in 1848, with a brief period of centralised government during the Helvetic Republic (1798–1803). The term Kanton has been widely used since the 19th century.

The number of cantons was increased to 19 with the Act of Mediation (1803), with the recognition of former subject territories as full cantons. The Federal Treaty of 1815 increased the number to 22 due to the accession of former associates of the Old Swiss Confederacy. The canton of Jura acceded as the 23rd canton with its secession from Bern in 1979. The official number of cantons was increased to 26 in the federal constitution of 1999, which designated former half-cantons as cantons.

The areas of the cantons vary from 37 km2 (15 sq. mi.) (canton of Basel-Stadt) to 7,105 km2 (2743 sq. mi.) (canton of the Grisons); the populations (as of 2018) range from 16,000 (canton of Appenzell Innerrhoden) to 1.5 million (canton of Zürich).


The term canton, now also used as the English term for administrative subdivisions of other countries, originates in French usage in the late 15th century (recorded in Fribourg in 1467), from a word for "edge, corner", at the time the literal translation of Early Modern High German ort. 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 the Old Swiss Confederacy, the term Ort (plural: Orte) was in use from the early 15th century as a generic term for the member cantons. The founding cantons specifically were also known as Waldstätte 'forest settlements' (singular: Waldstatt). The formulaic Stette und Waldstette for the members of the early confederacy is recorded in the mid-14th century, used interchangeably with Stett und Lender ('cities and lands', 'city cantons and rural cantons') until the late 15th century. Ort was increasingly replaced by Stand (plural: Stände) 'estate' about 1550, a term taken to imply liberty and sovereignty. Abolished in the Helvetic Republic, the term 'Stand' was revived in 1815 and remains in use today.

The French term canton adopted into German after 1648, and then only in occasional use until the early 19th century: prominent usage of Ort and Stand gradually disappeared in German-speaking Switzerland from the time of 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.

The term Stand (French: état, Italian: stato) remains in synonymous usage 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).

In the modern era, since Neuchâtel ceased to be a principality in 1848, all Swiss cantons can be considered to have a republican form of government. Some cantons formally describe themselves as republics in their constitutions. This applies to the Romance-speaking cantons in particular: Geneva (formally République et canton de Genève, 'Republic and canton of Geneva'), Jura, Neuchâtel, Valais, Vaud and Ticino.


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 (the Thirteen Cantons; German: Die Dreizehn Alten Orte), and there were two different kinds: five rural states (German: Länder) – Uri, Schwyz (which became eponymous of the confederacy), Unterwalden, Glarus, Appenzell – and eight urban states (German: Städte) – 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 Maximilian I in 1499 in Dornach.

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.

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 Radicals 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 Liberal-Radicals 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.

Constitutions and powers

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)

The Swiss Federal Constitution declares the cantons to be sovereign to the extent that their sovereignty is not limited by federal law. Areas specifically reserved to the Confederation are the armed forces, currency, the postal service, telecommunications, immigration into and emigration from the country, granting asylum, conducting foreign relations with sovereign states, civil and criminal law, weights and measures, and customs duties.

Each canton has its own constitution, legislature, executive, police and courts. Similar to the Confederation, a directorial system of government is followed by the cantons.

The cantonal legislatures are unicameral parliaments, with their size varying between 58 and 200 seats. A few legislatures also involve or did involve general popular assemblies known as Landsgemeinden; the use of this form of legislature has declined: at present, it exists only in the cantons of Appenzell Innerrhoden and Glarus. The cantonal executives consist of either five or seven members, depending on the canton. For the names of the institutions, see the list of cantonal executives and list of cantonal legislatures.

The cantons retain all powers and competencies not delegated to the Confederation by the federal constitution or law: most significantly the cantons are responsible for healthcare, welfare, law enforcement, public education, and retain the power of taxation. Each canton defines its official language(s). Cantons may conclude treaties not only with other cantons but also with foreign states (respectively Articles 48 and 56 of the Federal Constitution).

The cantonal constitutions determine the internal organisation of the canton, including the degree of autonomy accorded to the municipalities, which varies but almost always includes the power to levy taxes and pass municipal laws; some municipalities have their own police forces.

As at the federal level, all cantons provide for some form 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. Other than in the instances of general popular assemblies in Appenzell Innerrhoden and Glarus, democratic rights are exercised by secret ballot. The right of foreigners to vote varies by canton, as does whether Swiss citizens living abroad (and registered to vote in a canton) can take part in cantonal voting.

Swiss citizens are citizens of a particular municipality (the place of origin) and the canton in which that municipality is part. Cantons, therefore, have a role in and set requirements for the granting of citizenship (naturalisation), though the process is typically undertaken at a municipal level and is subject to federal law.

Switzerland has only one federal public holiday (1 August); public holidays otherwise vary from canton to canton.


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.

Code Name in official language(s) Name in English As a Swiss canton since Capital GDP (2020)
in million CHF
GDP per
capita (2020)
in CHF
Area (km2) Density
(per km2)
No. munic. (2018) Official languages
1 Coat of arms of Zürich


ZH Zürich Zurich 1351 Zurich 149,004 96,359 1,553,423 1,729 898 166 German
2 Coat of arms of Bern


BE Bern; Berne Berne / Bern 1353 Berne / Bern 80,209 77,027 1,043,132 5,960 175 347 German, French
3 Coat of arms of Luzern


LU Luzern Lucerne 1332 Lucerne 28,176 67,936 416,347 1,494 279 83 German
4 Coat of arms of Uri


UR Uri Uri 1291
Altdorf 1,985 54,006 36,819 1,077 34 20 German
5 Coat of arms of Schwyz


SZ Schwyz Schwyz 1291
Schwyz 9,876 61,223 162,157 908 179 30 German
6 Coat of arms of Obwalden


OW Obwalden Obwald / Obwalden 1291
or 1315 (as part of Unterwalden)
Sarnen 2,564 67,453 38,108 491 78 7 German
7 Coat of arms of Nidwalden


NW Nidwalden Nidwald / Nidwalden 1291
(as Unterwalden)
Stans 2,867 66,209 43,520 276 158 11 German
8 Coat of arms of Glarus


GL Glarus Glarus 1352 Glaris / Glarus 2,763 67,849 40,851 685 60 3 German
9 Coat of arms of Zug


ZG Zug Zoug / Zug 1352 Zoug / Zug 20,029 156,210 128,794 239 539 11 German
10 Coat of arms of Fribourg


FR Fribourg; Freiburg Friburg / Fribourg 1481 Friburg / Fribourg 19,180 59,263 325,496 1,671 195 136 French, German
11 Coat of arms of Solothurn


SO Solothurn Soleure / Solothurn 1481 Soleure / Solothurn 18,029 65,237 277,462 790 351 109 German
12 Coat of arms of Basel-City


BS Basel-Stadt Basle-City / Basel-City / Basel-Stadt 1501 (as Basel until 1833/1999) Basle / Basel 37,168 189,354 201,156 37 5,444 3 German
13 Coat of arms of Basel-Country


BL Basel-Landschaft Basle-Country / Basel-Country / Basel-Landschaft 1501 (as Basel until 1833/1999) Liestal 20,567 70,866 292,955 518 566 86 German
14 Coat of arms of Schaffhausen


SH Schaffhausen Schaffhouse / Schaffhausen 1501 Schaffhouse / Schaffhausen 7,244 87,569 83,107 298 278 26 German
15 Coat of arms of Appenzell Ausserrhoden


AR Appenzell Ausserrhoden Appenzell Outer-Rhodes / Appenzell Ausserrhoden 1513 (as Appenzell until 1597/1999) Herisau 3,190 57,601 55,309 243 228 20 German
16 Coat of arms of Appenzell Innerrhoden


AI Appenzell Innerrhoden Appenzell Inner-Rhodes / Appenzell Innerrhoden 1513 (as Appenzell until 1597/1999) Appenzell 1,043 64,358 16,293 172 94 6 German
17 Coat of arms of St. Gallen


SG St. Gallen St. Gall / St. Gallen 1803
St. Gall / St. Gallen 38,041 74,210 514,504 2,031 253 77 German
18 Coat of arms of Graubünden


GR Graubünden; Grischun; Grigioni Grisons / Graubünden 1803
Chur 14,519 72,754 200,096 7,105 28 108 German, Romansh, Italian
19 Coat of arms of Aargau


AG Aargau Argovia / Aargau 1803
Aarau 43,590 63,177 694,072 1,404 494 212 German
20 Coat of arms of Thurgau


TG Thurgau Thurgovia / Thurgau 1803
Frauenfeld 17,208 61,190 282,909 992 285 80 German
21 Coat of arms of Ticino


TI Ticino Ticino / Tessin 1803
Bellinzona 29,311 83,450 350,986 2,812 125 115 Italian
22 Coat of arms of Vaud


VD Vaud Vaud 1803
Lausanne 56,898 70,250 814,762 3,212 254 309 French
23 Coat of arms of Valais


VS Valais; Wallis Wallis / Valais 1815
Sion 19,194 55,313 348,503 5,224 67 126 French, German
24 Coat of arms of Neuchâtel


NE Neuchâtel Neuchâtel 1815/1857
Neuchâtel 15,343 87,080 175,894 802 219 31 French
25 Coat of arms of Geneva


GE Genève Geneva 1815
Geneva 51,976 102,876 506,343 282 1,792 45 French
26 Coat of arms of Jura


JU Jura Jura 1979
Delémont 4,687 63,643 73,709 839 88 55 French
- Coat of arms of Switzerland CH Schweizerische Eidgenossenschaft; Confédération suisse; Confederazione Svizzera; Confederaziun svizra Swiss Confederation 1815/1848
(Berne / Bern) 694,662 80,418 8,670,300 41,291 210 2,222 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). In two instances (Basel and Appenzell) this was a consequence of a historic division, whilst in the case of Unterwalden a historic mutual association, resulted in three pairs of half-cantons. The other 20 cantons were, and in some instances still are—though only in a context where it is needed to distinguish them from any half-cantons—typically termed "full" cantons in English.

The first article of the 1848 and 1874 constitutions constituted the Confederation as the union of "twenty-two sovereign cantons", 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’])". The 1874 constitution was amended to list 23 cantons with the accession of the Canton of Jura in 1978.

The historic half-cantons, and their pairings, are still recognizable 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

The 1999 constitutional revision retained the traditional distinction, on the request of the six cantonal governments, as a way to mark the historic association of the half-cantons to each other. 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".

The 12, 1 and 2 francs coins as minted since 1874 represent the number of cantons by 22 stars surrounding the figure of Helvetia on the obverse. The design of the coins was altered to show 23 stars, including Jura, beginning with the 1983 batch. The design has remained unchanged since, and does not reflect the official number of "26 cantons" introduced in 1999.

Caricature of the division of Basel, 1833

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

With their original circumstances of partition now a historical matter, the half-cantons are since 1848 equal to the other cantons in all but two respects:

  • They elect only one member of the Council of States instead of two (Cst. art. 150 par. 2). This means there are a total of 46 seats in the council.
  • 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.

Between 1831 and 1833 the canton of Schwyz was divided into half-cantons: (Inner) Schwyz and the break-away Outer Schwyz; in this instance, the half-cantons were forced by the Confederation to settle their disputes and reunite.

In the 20th century, some Jura separatists suggested a new canton of Jura to be divided into half-cantons of North Jura and South Jura. 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 English 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[citation needed] Freiburg  Fribourg Friburgo Friburg
GE Genève; Geneva Genf  Genève Ginevra Genevra
GL Glarus; Glaris[citation needed] 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[citation needed] Nidwalden  Nidwald Nidvaldo Sutsilvania
OW Obwalden; Obwald[citation needed] 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; Zoug Zug  Zoug Zugo Zug
ZH Zürich; Zurich Zürich  Zurich Zurigo Turitg

Admission of new cantons

The enlargement of Switzerland by way of the admission of new cantons ended in 1815. The latest formal attempt considered by Switzerland was in 1919 from Vorarlberg but subsequently rejected. A few representatives submitted in 2010 a parliamentary motion to consider enlargement although it was widely seen as anti-EU rhetoric rather than a serious proposal. The motion was eventually dropped and not even examined by the parliament.

See also

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