The complete guide to dual citizenship for American citizens

Aug 19, 2020

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A record number of Americans have researched dual citizenship since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. According to Google Trends, there’s been an uptick in Americans looking for dual nationality this summer — possibly to skirt travel restrictions or plan a post-coronavirus move abroad.

That said, dual citizenship is a loaded topic. Many of the benefits and responsibilities that come with a second passport are often overlooked, and the qualification process can be convoluted. To clear the air, I’ll show you the ins and outs of dual citizenship, starting with an overview of the benefits and drawbacks.

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In This Post

The benefits of dual citizenship

Czech and American Passport
(Photo by Andrew Kunesh/The Points Guy)

The benefits of having a second nationality go far beyond travel. I think that having a second passport is the ultimate lifehack as it gives you full rights in another country, including access to healthcare and education (if applicable).

Here’s a quick look at some of the benefits of dual citizenship — just keep in mind these come from my experience being a dual Czech/American citizen, so your experience and list of benefits may differ.

The right to work, live and vote abroad

Since you’re a national of a second country, you’re able to work, live, vote and own property in a second country. Likewise — in most cases — you can open a bank account and make other important arrangements without special permission. This effectively means that you can move to your country of second nationality whenever you’d like and enjoy full rights.

This is an incredible benefit for those lucky enough to have dual citizenship. If you want to move abroad, there’s no need to worry about getting a work visa or seeking permanent residence. These can be extremely time-consuming processes that dual citizens don’t need to worry about if they’re already a citizen of the country that they’d like to immigrate to.

Healthcare, education and other rights if applicable

Likewise, you may be eligible for healthcare and education benefits in your country of second nationality if it’s offered. In the case of many European countries, you’re actually eligible to claim healthcare across the EU as well. For example, an Italian national could visit a hospital in Poland if they fell ill while traveling, and their Italian public healthcare benefits would cover whatever services they receive.

Likewise, you may be able to attend universities in your country of second nationality. In almost all cases, a dual nationality allows you to study in your second country and in many cases you’re also able to attend public universities for free. As for both healthcare and education, make sure to check with your local consulate or embassy to be sure.

Potentially have access to freedom of movement to other countries

Many countries have partnerships with nearby countries to offer freedom of movement for their citizens. This goes a step beyond visa-free access and generally lets citizens live and work in a partnered country. European Union countries are the most obvious example of this — a citizen of one EU country has the full right to live and work in any of the other EU states.

Further, citizens of Australia and New Zealand can work and live in each country without a visa and Irish and British citizens can work and live in each county despite the U.K.’s exit from the EU.

Finally — while Commonwealth citizens don’t have full freedom of movement — they may be entitled to some rights in the U.K. and other Commonwealth member states. In some cases. it’s easier for Commonwealth citizens to immigrate to other Commonwealth member states.

More visa-free access

Passport Visa
(Photo by one photo/Shutterstock.com)

Having a second passport may open you up to more visa-free access as well. You can use a website like Passport Index to see which countries both of your passports offer visa-free access to. This can save you time and money if you can use your second nationality to enter a country that requires Americans to get a visa.

This is especially important during the coronavirus pandemic as you may be allowed into a greater number of countries if you hold a passport of a country that’s currently barring Americans from entry. For example, dual American and EU citizens can enter the EU without issue during the pandemic regardless of their country of residence.

That said, this doesn’t always work. The EU is currently admitting residents of Canada, New Zealand and other countries for tourism. Unfortunately, however, a dual U.S. and Canadian citizen living in the United States would not be allowed entry to the EU since he or she is living in the U.S.

The drawbacks of dual citizenship

Being a dual citizen isn’t all fun and games. You may be subject to taxes and other responsibilities when you take up dual citizenship abroad, so make sure to read the entirety of the other country’s immigration laws before you apply for citizenship. It’s in your best interest to speak with a lawyer too, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the country’s language.

Here’s a quick list of potential downsides to dual citizenship. This isn’t an exhaustive list and some may not apply to your second nationality.

Not all countries allow dual citizenship

Unfortunately, some nations — for example, Japan — don’t recognize dual-citizenship. You could put your nationality at risk if you claim another nationality, so do your research to find if you can claim dual citizenship abroad. Thankfully though, the U.S. does allow dual citizenship, so you shouldn’t face any issues here at home.

Taxation abroad

In some cases, you could be liable to pay taxes in two countries when working and living abroad. For example, U.S. citizens are required to file a tax return when living abroad, but you may be exempt from certain taxes depending on how much time is spent outside of the country. Further, the U.S. has tax treaties with several different countries that prevent double-taxation — you can see the full list on the IRS’ website.

Limited consular help

Generally, you can only claim consular assistance abroad from the country whose passport you used to enter a foreign country. So if you have both an American and Czech passport but used your Czech passport to enter Algeria, you’d have to visit the Czech consulate for assistance. That said, EU citizens can generally visit any EU consulate for assistance when traveling abroad if their home country doesn’t operate a consulate or embassy in said country.

Mandatory military service

Some countries like South Korea, Israel and others require its citizens to complete mandatory military service. Some countries may waive this for newly minted nationals living abroad, but this isn’t always the case. Make sure you understand how mandatory military service affects you before you claim citizenship abroad, especially if you don’t plan on serving in said country’s military.

Barriers to U.S. security clearance

Finally, U.S. citizens with dual citizenship may be ineligible for special security clearance required for some forms of employment. This is required by some government jobs, so make sure that you don’t need this for your dream job before obtaining a second nationality.

Avenues to dual citizenship

There are a handful of ways to acquire dual citizenship, with descent and naturalization being the most common routes for many. Each of these avenues has upsides, downsides and difficulty. For example, claiming citizenship by descent only requires you to have family ties to a country while naturalization usually requires you to live in another country for a set amount of time and learn the local language.

Here’s a quick look at the four most common ways of acquiring dual citizenship.

Citizenship by descent

Citizenship by descent is when you acquire citizenship through family history. For example, I was able to claim citizenship in the Czech Republic as Czech nationality law states that anyone with a Czech parent or grandparent is eligible for citizenship regardless of his or her place of birth. We’ve covered acquiring citizenship by descent extensively, so make sure to read the full guide for more information.

Citizenship by investment

Some countries also give citizenship to those who make significant investments in its economy. For example, you can become a Maltese citizen if you make a nonrefundable donation of €650,000 (~$736,000) donation to a Maltese government fund, purchase at least €150,000 (~$170,000) in three-year government bonds and invest at least €350,000 (~$396,000) in Maltese property. This isn’t cheap, but it’s become a popular way for wealthy people to “buy” EU citizenship over the years.

Other countries offer lower thresholds for citizenship by investment too. For example, some Caribbean countries like Grenada, St. Lucia and others offer citizenship by investment at a lower price. That said, their passports are generally worth less than a Maltese passport and are mostly of use to those looking for a way to gain visa-free access to Europe and access a preferential tax code.

Citizenship by naturalization

You may be eligible for citizenship by naturalization after living in a certain country for long enough. For example, you’re eligible to become a French citizen after living in France legally for at least five years, proving that you understand the French language and are integrated with French customs.

If you’re already living abroad, you may want to look into becoming a citizen by naturalization. You’ll no longer have to worry about renewing visas or not being able to return to your new home once you’ve taken up citizenship where you’re living. That said, check with an immigration lawyer to ensure you meet the requirements and won’t face tax implications.

Citizenship for religious reasons

Some countries offer citizenship to members of certain religions. The most popular example of this is Israel that grants citizenship to all Jewish people under the Law of Return. That said, you have to prove that you either converted to Judaism or have a Jewish grandparent to be eligible.

How to use dual citizenship when traveling abroad

The thought of traveling with two passports may sound like something out of a James Bond movie, but it’s pretty common. That said, it’s hard to know what passport to use when you first become a dual citizen, so make sure to review our step-by-step guide to using two passports when traveling before your next trip abroad.

The general idea, however, is to use the passport you’d like to use to enter the country you’re traveling to on the outbound leg of your trip — for example, if you’re a British citizen and traveling to the U.K., use your British passport to enter. Then, you’ll use your U.K. passport to exit the country and U.S. passport to return home to America.

Some countries require that you enter the country with its passport if you’re a citizen. The U.S. is one of these — by law, all U.S. citizens must enter the country with an American passport no matter how long he or she plans to stay in the country. Even if this isn’t required for your second nationality, you’ll want to enter your second country with its passport if you plan to overstay the limit of a traditional tourist visa.

Having a foreign passport can speed up entry to other countries too. In terms of EU citizens, you can generally enter all countries in the Schengen Area without speaking to a border control agent. Instead, you can scan your passport and face at an automated kiosk to enter immediately without any restriction.

Bottom line

Dual citizenship is an incredibly powerful tool for frequent travelers and those wishing to live abroad, so I highly recommend claiming a second nationality if you’re eligible. That said, make sure you understand the pros and cons of having two (or more) nationalities and speak with a lawyer before you apply. This can save you a huge headache and potential legal trouble later down the line.

Feature photo by Sergey Shik/Shutterstock

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