You don’t need another citizenship to renounce your U.S. citizenship (see here for details about becoming stateless). But it’s definitely going to make your life a whole lot easier.
So how do you get another citizenship?
When we first wrote up all the expatriation information, and then eventually created this site, it was intended as a resource for those Americans living outside the U.S. who wanted more information about expatriation. They’ve been living abroad for a while, have their lives, families, assets abroad. And they already have a second citizenship, often several, and are now just contemplating whether to give up their U.S. citizenship.
But almost immediately we started receiving questions from Americans living within the U.S. who were researching expatriation. These individuals are starting from scratch: they live in the U.S., work in the U.S., have all their assets in the U.S., and only have U.S. citizenship. We’ve been quite surprised, actually, at how many Americans have written to ask us how to start on the path to expatriation. And the most common question they’ve all asked is: how do I get citizenship of another country?
This isn’t the focus of the site, and we want to be very clear: we think it’s ridiculous to leave the U.S. and renounce your only citizenship solely because of taxes.
The first priority is to build a life that’s satisfying for you, and then to lower your taxes, not the other way around.
But after so many questions about second citizenship, we decided to add a section with our suggestions. We’ve seen quite a few Americans going through the hoops of the citizenship process in several different countries, so we have some experience and some insight. None of our ideas are new or original, but we’ve seen that there’s an incredible amount of bogus information about this on the internet, so we hope some realistic advice might help you avoid wasting time and money pursuing ridiculous options.
The most important advice we can give you:
The only citizenship worth obtaining is one which is completely, 100% legal… and which will remain legal if subjected to scrutiny.
It’s pretty simple. Citizenship in a country, and the passport you get, is worthless if it’s not granted to you in strict legal compliance with the laws and constitution of that country.
Dozens of ways to get illegitimate passports…. and they all end in bad situations
Consider some cases of what can go wrong:
- A silly situation
It occurs often that a too-clever lawyer tries to squeeze you through a hole in the immigration law where you don’t fit, and when the facts come to light, you lose. We personally know someone who spent somewhere around U.S. $20,000 so that he would be adopted by a citizen of a European country and could thereby apply for citizenship… although he was in his 40s at the time. His nationality application was actually approved by the bureaucracy, but when he applied for a passport, officials noticed the farce and his citizenship was immediately canceled.
- A bad situation
You get citizenship through some “grey zone” which involves de facto bribes to a government official. If that official loses his position, or the entire government changes, it’s not uncommon that the new people in charge will take a close look at what their predecessors did and take away your citizenship… or blackmail you for additional bribes. There are official reports of this having happened in the Dominican Republic and Panama, and we’ve heard stories of similar situations in several other countries.
- A nightmare situation
The citizenship and passport you get are not even legitimate to begin with: stolen, fraudulent, not officially recorded, etc. When you try to cross a border somewhere, you’ll be arrested for using false travel documents and thrown in jail for years. Driven by the vast numbers of immigrants who desire official documents, stolen or fraudulent passports has become a big business: just in the last few years, there have been media reports of stolen or fraudulent passports from South Africa, France, Belgium, and the UK.
So how do you know if a citizenship you’re pursuing is legitimate?
There are no shortcuts to citizenship, and there’s nothing hidden about the legal means to acquire it. If it’s legitimate, information should be publicly available.
Make sure that there are actual laws and statutes in that country explicitly describing the path to citizenship which you’re pursuing.
And whatever you do, don’t pay bribes. Although there are legitimate citizenship programs where you pay money to support the country in some way (through a development fund or even through individual projects), we recommend that you pass on any plan which requires you to make direct payments to any individual.
Legitimate paths to citizenship: legal, open, and information publicly available
So with the warning out of the way, what legitimate ways are there for an American living in the U.S. to obtain another citizenship?
Type “second citizenship” into Google and you’ll get a lot of hits (millions, actually). Dozens of paid ads. Hundreds of books you can buy. Thousands of consultants who will help you.
We’ll tell you now that most of this is completely useless.
For almost every American reading this, the possible paths to citizenship in a foreign country are straight-forward:
Note that it’s perfectly legal according to U.S. law for an American citizen to obtain the nationality of another country.
We describe each path to citizenship below.
Most countries grant citizenship based on family connections to that country. If one of your parents was born abroad, you might be able to claim citizenship, even if your parent gave up his/her citizenship to acquire U.S. nationality. And in some cases, a grandparent or even great-grandparent who was born in a country will qualify you for citizenship.
This is by far the easiest, cheapest, and fastest route to citizenship. You rarely will have to work with a lawyer; in most cases, consular staff of that country will be able to help you from start to finish. Also, for many of the countries, you don’t need to reside in the country either before or after your application.
If you meet the family relation requirements of the country, you’ll just need to gather your documents to prove your linkage and apply (birth certificates and wedding certificates are the main documents required, and immigration documents, religious records, etc, might potentially be needed to bolster your case). Processing times vary depending on the country and your particular family situation: we’ve seen cases where a passport is granted within weeks, and other cases where it took 2 years. But in our experience, citizenship by descent is in general the most straight-forward and cheapest method, and often the only method for many countries.
Research your family history. America is a land of immigrants, and you might be surprised what possibilities you have buried somewhere in your family tree. Check out any country where you have a connection to see on what terms it offers citizenship by descent; it’s worth a call to the country’s embassy even if you’re not sure. We’ve listed below some countries we know of that offer potential opportunities bassed on extended family relations:
Ireland is a common possibility for many Americans. If your grandparent was born in Ireland, you can register your birth to claim citizenship, and then apply for a passport; the whole process might take up to a year, depending where you live in the U.S. (each Irish consulate has different processing time and requirements).
Greece also offers citizenship based on extended family connections. If you can prove that your parents or grandparents were natural-born Greek citizens, then you can claim Greek nationality. It can take one to two years to process. Just a word of caution here: for a while, there was at least one very active Greek lawyer we know of who provided a citizenship expedition service which included “obtaining” documents showing that your grandparents were born in Greece. Don’t do it.
Another possibility for many Americans is Israel. If you can prove that you, either of your parents, or any of your four grandparents is/was Jewish, then you may claim Israeli citizenship. There is an interview requirement, but the process is very quick, and you will be able to immediately live in Israel and have Israeli nationality. Note that the government will not issue you a full passport until after 365 days of actual residence in the country unless you renounce your previous citizenship (i.e., U.S.). Note also that men under the age of 30 and women under 20 may have to serve in the Army.
Other countries which offer slightly more strict citizenship opportunities based on extended family connections include: Croatia, Germany, Greece, Serbia, Slovakia, Spain.
And many, many countries offer citizenship if your mother or father was a natural-born citizen of their country.
Residency / Naturalization
The standard path of an immigrant to citizenship is through naturalization after long-term residency. Many countries offer citizenship after four to ten years of legal permanent residency. Generally, in addition to the residency requirement, you have to show a clean police record and some form of “integration” into the country, which usually means proficiency in the language, steady work, some form of community ties such as social network, children in the school system, etc.
Obtaining the right to permanent residency can be difficult, depending on the country and your own education and employment situation. Many countries grant most work visas only to workers with specialized, hard-to-find skills, and even in those cases the visa is often not a permanent residency which will lead to naturalization.
On the other hand, some countries looking to draw talented people have formalized programs in place to encourage immigration of qualified applicants. You qualify for residency based on evaluative criteria set by the country; typical criteria include education, profession (certain professions are desired by certain countries), age, potentially on your ability to start a company/invest, etc. The residency leads fairly quicly to eventual citizenship. For example, citizenship can be obtained in several English-speaking countries after residency: Australia (4 years), Canada (3 years), and New Zealand (5 years). Note that you have to actually live there during those periods; extended absences are not allowed if you wish to claim citizenship.
Essentially every country grants citizenship to those deemed to have made extraordinary “contributions” to the country. The question is what is a sufficient contribution… and who decides.
Athletes, entertainers, and valuable scientists regularly obtain citizenship of different countries (just look at how many athletes change countries for each Olympics).
Key business leaders also can receive passports based on the contribution they bring. Very few countries in the world won’t somehow find a way to grant you citizenship if you’re offering to start a new company which will employ 3,000 people.
We even know two mid-level managers at a U.S. car company who were given citizenship of an EU country simply because they were brought in to run a very small, already-existing subsidiary in that country for a short period.
But if you don’t plan on opening a massive factory in some country, or you aren’t able to bring home a few gold medals in the next Olympics, and you don’t get lucky by being in the right job at the right time, what options do you have?
Two decades ago, there were quite a few countries with clearly defined citizenship-by-investment programs, including developed countries such as Ireland and New Zealand. You invest a certain amount in the country – typically in some type of government fund, bonds, or even certain quasi-governmental agencies – and then receive nationality immediately or after a relatively short period of time.
However, almost all these programs have closed over the last 15 years due to both domestic and international pressure.
The path to citizenship through economic contributions used to be more widespread but is now quite limited.
Two countries which are still well-known to have established citizenship programs are the Caribbean nations of St. Kitts & Nevis and Dominica, while in Europe, Austria offers citizenship by investment on an ad-hoc basis. We describe these 3 programs below.
St. Kitts & Nevis
Under St. Kitts & Nevis’s program, you either buy a government-approved (read: overpriced) piece of real-estate (typically, a condo in certain approved projects) for at least U.S. $350,000, or you donate U.S. $200,000 to a public foundation which supports displaced sugar workers and promotes alternatives to the sugar industry. In both cases, you will have to work with a government-approved lawyer; legal and miscellaneous fees will add at least $20,000 if you donate money to the sugar foundation, and significantly more if you decide to buy the real estate. The passport supposedly allows visa-free travel to 130 countries, including all the European Union countries (although it’s important to note that there has recently been initial discussion in the E.U. to rescind visa-free travel for St. Kitts & Nevis citizens specifically because of the citizenship program). Travel to the U.S. requires a visa. As a citizen of St. Kitts & Nevis, you have no tax obligations at all.
Under Dominica’s program, you “contribute” to the country $75,000 to obtain citizenship for a single individual, $100,000 for a family. You have to use a government-approved lawyer; figure at least $10,000 in fees. The passport offers visa-free travel to many developing countries; however, unlike the St. Kitts passport, you will need a visa to travel to the European Union. Travel to the U.S. also requires a visa. As a non-resident citizen, you have no tax obligations on any income not from the country.
Austria offers a less formalized citizenship program.
Despite what many internet sites claim, the “citizenship program” is very ad-hoc and has no specific requirements. The full government must simply decide that you have made a such a significant contribution to the country that it merits granting citizenship in appreciation of, and to further the country’s ties with, you.
As far as we understand, there have been a handful of such citizenships granted annually for the last several years. The contribution can be in any form; some examples we know of are starting a business, investing in a start-up venture, refurbishing a dilapidated historical site, building a community center, founding a scientific research institute.
It’s vital to get tacit approval for citizenship from the correct government officials before actually starting your contribution. The whole process needs to be handled by a lawyer who is well-connected to whatever political party is in power when you apply, as they will be the ones who deem your contribution worthy. International lawyers who advertise their services on the internet for 250,000 euros or more can help you, but are not the only option; you can often find lawyers in the local states who are well-connected to the politicians from their area and will charge you significantly less.
The monetary amount of your “contribution” is not as important as the perceived value to the community (and the political connections your lawyer is able to use to “sell” you and your application to the local politicians). Many websites we’ve seen exaggerate the amount required for the contribution, but it’s still a significant investment: based on people we know who’ve gone through the process, you should figure at least 300,000 euros if it’s a charitable project (i.e., donation that you never get back), and 2-3 million euros if it’s a for-profit equity investment.
Note that the normal requirements for naturalization to Austria are waived: you don’t need to speak German, you don’t need to reside in the country, and you don’t need to give up any other citizenships.
Marriage / residency
People typically mention marriage as an instant path to citizenship, but however well it might have worked in the past, it’s no longer true.
There are very few countries where you will still be granted citizenship immediately upon marriage.
In most countries now, marriage to a citizen will give you the right to live and work in the country, but you won’t be granted citizenship until after several years of marriage AND residency. Each country is different, but the requirement is typically five to ten years after marriage of cohabitation and residency in the country before you will be naturalized (plus another year or two while your application is processed).
Ironically, it’s actually easier and quicker to become a citizen via marriage in the U.S. than in most other developed countries.
Finally, it seems pretty obvious, but based on some of the email questions we’ve received, we have to be explicit: don’t marry just to get citizenship in another country.
If you’re planning to enter into a real marriage and live with that person in the country, then by all means, take advantage of whatever citizenship opportunity there is. But don’t fake a marriage. The moral problems of a sham marriage are clear. And the practical complications are huge: five to ten years is a very long time to have to maintain the appearance of a fake marriage. There are legal paths to citizenship which are better and simpler.