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Dual citizenship: What it is and ways to get it

A stack of international passports all issued to the same person might seem unusual, but it’s really just where the future of travel is headed, according to one expert.

With much of the world currently shut off to Americans because of the country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, having a second passport is now especially considered an asset.

“It's like a wake-up call for a lot of Americans,” Armand Arton, founder of Passport Index, told Cashay.

Amid fears that the U.S. passport might take years to rebound and certain countries will continue to be off-limits, Arton added, Americans don’t want to be “restricted and limited to a single citizenship” that doesn't allow travel for business or pleasure.

That’s where dual citizenship comes in.

A customs officer checks the travel documents and passports of passengers at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang. (REUTERS/Edgar Su)
A customs officer checks the travel documents and passports of passengers at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang. (REUTERS/Edgar Su)

How do I acquire a second citizenship?

There are four primary ways to obtain dual citizenship.

  • Lineage. Citizenship by descent is a popular route because it’s generally the lowest-cost option and path of least resistance for claiming dual citizenship.

    For instance, an American applying for citizenship through Ireland can claim descent from their Irish-born grandparents, even if their parents aren’t Irish citizens and were born in the United States.

    Similarly, Jewish-Americans, their Gentile spouses, and Americans who convert to Judaism can obtain Israeli citizenship.

    Different countries have different thresholds for what constitutes grounds for citizenship through ancestry.

    This is generally a tedious process that requires documentation like birth and marriage certificates, many of which were inscribed pre-digitalization and only exist in-country within halls of records.

    Prior to the pandemic, it wasn't uncommon for Americans to travel to their ancestral lands for fact-finding missions in obtaining dual citizenship. But in the age of the coronavirus, it’s paradoxical because Americans are largely banned from the majority of the world’s countries and cannot travel.

Someone holding passports from multiple countries. (Getty Images)
Someone holding passports from multiple countries. (Getty Images)
  • Residency. This option requires years of commitment, as the majority of your time in the United States is strictly limited. Second citizenship through naturalization can be achieved if you live in a given country for a certain period of time as a permanent resident.

    Armenia and Macedonia grant citizenship through naturalization to permanent, tax-paying residents as quickly as two years. Countries like Japan have stricter policies and require five years of continuous residency, financial stability, and renouncement of citizenship to all other countries.

  • Property ownership or investment. If money is no object and you’re in need of a quick turnaround, you can essentially buy your citizenship with a significant cash injection in the form of a property purchase, donation, or investment like government bonds in a given country.

    These opportunities are namely in Caribbean countries like Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, and St. Lucia, and cash outlays start around $100,000 per each individual seeking citizenship.

    For European countries like Bulgaria, Cyrus, and Montenegro, the barrier of entry to citizenship is in the high six-figures, and in places like Malta, it crests the $1 million mark.

  • Marry a foreign national. Marrying for love is already ideal, but marrying for love and getting dual citizenship out of it is just icing on the wedding cake.

    Foreign spouses often qualify for citizenship through naturalization, but sometimes there are associated requirements like fluency in the national language and proof of residency.

A worker gets more passport books as she works to reduce the passport backlog at the New Orleans Passport Agency in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
A worker gets more passport books as she works to reduce the passport backlog at the New Orleans Passport Agency in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

How long does it take?

It depends on the country you’re seeking citizenship from, but no option yields an instant solution. A best-case scenario for citizenship approval is three to six months, Arton said.

And coronavirus changed travel forever, similar to the way September 11th changed security at airports.

“The passport itself will change,” Arton said.

While current passports in circulation rely on biometrics, mainly for security reasons, Arton is predicting that the next wave of passports will include medical information like health status and vaccination records, which “will be much needed in order for a country to let you in or not let you in.”

Some countries like Ireland and Italy are notoriously backlogged with applications and so processing can take years.

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The pros and cons

One of the perks to dual citizenship is breezing through passport control, especially when traveling with a passport of a member country of the European Union (EU).

Multiple citizenships grant someone the same rights as other citizens of the country. That means you can stay as long as you want, seek employment, buy property, and open a bank account free from the bureaucratic red tape associated when non-nationals try to go about the same activities.

But it’s not all queue jumping and tax loopholes — dual citizenship is both an asset and a liability.

As a citizen of any country, you’re held to the same standards as your fellow citizens, meaning you may be conscripted for military service, be called to serve on juries, and even be expected to vote. And depending on the country, you may be required to spend a certain amount of time there to keep your citizenship status in good standing.

Theoretically, traveling on more than one passport does cast a wider net of possibilities because it should increase the number of visa permissions for a greater number of countries.

However, not all passports are created equally: Different passports open different doors, and some permit you to stay in certain countries for longer and help you skirt expensive fees and visas.

Before you embark on what might be a costly and lengthy process, determine your goal for acquiring a second citizenship and then begin your research.

This Aug. 5, 2008, file photo, shows the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services building Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York, File)
This Aug. 5, 2008, file photo, shows the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services building Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York, File)

Which one do you show?

It’s tricky. It’s advised to carry all passports in your name with you while traveling internationally, but present them only when asked.

For multinationals, it’s cut and dry when it comes to traveling through their home turf. For example, if you’re an American citizen who also holds a second citizenship with the Netherlands, use the U.S. passport when traveling through the U.S. and draw on the Dutch passport when traveling through the Netherlands.

But when traveling outside the countries that you hold passports to, that’s when things get complicated. One innocent slip-up can cause a chain reaction of alarm bells and unwanted attention from border control officers.

For example, if you’re an American who also holds Costa Rican citizenship and you’re traveling to Russia with both your U.S. and Costa Rican passports, the frugal-minded traveler will flash the Costa Rican passport upon entry to Russia because — unlike Americans — Costa Ricans aren’t required to purchase a visa.

A UK Border Agency worker poses with a passport at Gatwick Airport near London. (REUTERS/Luke MacGregor)
A UK Border Agency worker poses with a passport at Gatwick Airport near London. (REUTERS/Luke MacGregor)

But frugality should be weighed against practicality. As far as Russia’s concerned, you’re there as a Costa Rican and that means you’ve essentially forfeited the rights and privileges that come with being an American citizen in Russia.

Before you go, research the diplomatic relationships between your destination and home countries to decide which passport is safest for you to travel under.

When carrying more than one passport, you’re tasked with remembering the passport you’re under in a given country and using the same passport upon exit. Any inconsistency in your identity or citizenship is likely to set off red flags.

One way to avoid the specter of suspicion is to keep your travel documents for any given trip consistent with a single passport. From the moment you book your ticket, to declaring citizenship on your immigration card, to flashing your passport at security, passport control, and customs — your identity should correspond to the passport you plan to use to enter and exit your destination.

Stephanie is a reporter for Yahoo Money and Cashay, a new personal finance website. She can be reached at stephanie.asymkos@yahoofinance.com. Follow her on Twitter @SJAsymkos.

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