The 26 cantons of Switzerland (German: Kanton, French: canton, Italian: cantone, Romansh: chantun) are the member states of the federal state of Switzerland.

There were eight cantons during 1353â€"1481, and thirteen cantons during 1513â€"1798. Each canton was a fully sovereign state 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 the formation of the modern confederacy in 1815, there were 25 cantons, which became 26 after the secession of the Canton of Jura from Bern in 1979.


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").


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 â€" Uri, Schwyz (which became eponymous of the confederacy), Unterwalden, Glarus, Appenzell â€" and eight urban or city-cantons â€" 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 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.

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 26, but sometimes also 23. This is due to the fact that 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 total revision of the Federal Constitution of 1999 they are occasionally called now cantons with split cantonal vote. This distinction is relevant only in the composition of the Council of States and the required majorities in popular referendums about constitutional amendments, but has no influence on the internal autonomy, which is why 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).


Each canton has its own constitution, legislature, government and courts. Most of the cantons' legislature 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. 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 their sovereignty is not limited by federal law. 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 sizes 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.[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.

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-" (ConfÅ"deratio Helveticaâ€"Helvetian Confederationâ€"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.

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. In contrast, 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 (above and beneath the woods)", "Basel (city and country)" and "Appenzell (both Rhoden)". 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.".

With their mutual association a purely 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).
  • 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.

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".
  • The canton of Appenzell divided itself into an "inner" and "outer" half ("Rhoden") as a consequence of the Reformation in Switzerland in 1597: Appenzell Innerrhoden (Catholic) and Appenzell Ausserrhoden (Protestant).
  • 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.

Names in national languages

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

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

  • List of legislative and executive councils of the Cantons of Switzerland
  • Data codes for Switzerland#Cantons
  • List of cantons of Switzerland by elevation
  • Flags of Swiss cantons
  • Cantonal bank, a commercial bank (at least partially) owned by the canton
  • Municipalities of Switzerland

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



  • 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

  • Swissworld.org â€" The cantons of Switzerland
  • GeoPuzzle â€" Assemble cantons on a Swiss map
  • Badac â€" Database on Swiss cantons and cities (French/German)

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