By Right of Blood: Does the Citizenship of your European Ancestor Entitle You to Dual Citizenship?

Photo by The New York Public Library on Unsplash

In the growing buzz about the opportunity for U.S. citizens to get dual citizenship through a process called “ancestral descendancy,” otherwise known as citizenship by descent, it’s worth paying attention to the details; that’s where the devils are. It is true that some countries offer this path to citizenship, but availability and terms vary widely among countries, and the process can be long and complicated, with unanticipated pitfalls along the way. Plus, if this is a path you’re committed to exploring, you should understand what dual citizenship really means for you.

Citizenship is essentially a contract between you and a country. That contract sets forth each party’s rights and obligations in your relationship. The concept of citizenship first developed in the towns and city-states of ancient Greece, and it mostly arose as a way for governing bodies to collect taxes and require military service (and, not surprisingly, to maintain power by excluding large categories of people — like women, slaves, and poor people — from citizenship and its concomitant voting privileges). Citizenship is a geopolitical, social, and philosophical construct and, therefore, it can change with the prevailing winds.

Unlike the United States, which uses the rule of jus soli or “the law of the soil” (otherwise known as birthright citizenship), the vast majority of the world’s countries follow the rule of jus sanguinis, or the “right of blood.” Under jus sanguinis, children at birth automatically become citizens of a country if either or both of their parents are citizens, regardless of the place of birth (there are exceptions). And beyond automatic citizenship at birth, jus sanguinis also can operate to entitle an adult to acquire citizenship simply because an ancestor was a citizen, even if that ancestor has long since passed. It’s through this concept of citizenship by ancestral descendancy that thousands of U.S. working families and retirees have been able to gain dual citizenship simply by documenting the trail of their heritage back to an ancestor-citizen. In addition, some countries permit citizenship by descent for descendants of people who were part of a group who fled or were forcibly ousted from a country because of persecution or a diaspora.

That said, every country that follows jus sanguinis has different rules on citizenship by descent, and citizenship laws themselves are not only enormously complex but they also can shift with a suddenness that few can predict. Moreover, just because a record trail of descendancy may be established, sometimes that’s not enough; there may be breaks in the chain, both factual and legal. For example, your ancestor may have voluntarily renounced their home-country citizenship or failed to register with certain administrative agencies or been required to give up their home-country citizenship by operation of law. (That’s what happened when I tried to get Italian dual citizenship through my grandfather and I learned that he had to give up his Italian citizenship after emigrating to the U.S. in order to enlist in the U.S. Army at the end of World War I.) You should be mindful of the uncertainty of the process and manage your expectations accordingly.

Indeed, there are few categorical rules you can rely on when seeking dual citizenship through ancestral descendancy; every person’s story is different. You’ll want to do your own research and you may very well want to get professional help. The first and best place to start is with the particular country’s embassy or consular office. After that, a number of consulting companies help U.S. citizens gain dual citizenship, and, of course, you can find many “dual citizenship” immigration lawyers through personal referral, LinkedIn, or your state or city bar association’s referral service. Another professional you may need is a genealogist. The Association of Professional Genealogists is an international organization that is dedicated to ensuring integrity and ethical standards in the genealogical profession and it’s a great place to find a genealogist to track down difficult-to-find records.

It’s also important to understand that while having dual citizenship carries many benefits, it also has certain burdens and risks. And not every country permits dual citizenship. The U.S. does not explicitly permit dual citizenship, but it doesn’t prohibit it either unless you’re a member of the military or a government official with a high-ranking security clearance (there may be other exceptions). Dual citizenship is a badge of great weight; it means you owe allegiance to both the U.S. and the foreign country. You are subject to the laws of both countries, which means if you get sued or criminally charged in your second country, you will likely not be entitled to U.S. consular assistance or protection. You may be required to vote in your second country. You will likely be faced with double taxation. And you may be prohibited from working in government or political jobs or risk losing your U.S. citizenship. And then there’s this: dual citizenship means one thing in times of peace, but quite another in a time of war.

You’re also required to follow the rules of each country when traveling internationally. The U.S. requires dual citizens to use their U.S. passport when entering and leaving the U.S.; your second country may require you to use that country’s passport when entering and leaving that country.

What follows is a description of the rules of citizenship by ancestral descendancy for the 27 European Union member countries. (More information about dual citizenship in non-E.U. countries, along with country-specific rules on dual citizenship are forthcoming in Parts 2 and 3 of this article). Obtaining citizenship in an E.U.-member country generally allows you to live and work in any other E.U.-member country. What effect Brexit will have on that privilege remains to be seen; as with everything Brexit-related, stay tuned.

(Disclaimer: Most of the information below was sourced directly from the websites of each country’s embassy in the U.S. Some information was obtained from the country-specific official government websites or directly from the laws themselves, to the extent they are accessible on the internet. Some of the information may have changed or may be interpreted differently than how I interpreted it. All that means that you should use the following information as a starting point, not as definitive guidance on your individual situation.)

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The Parent Connection

The majority of E.U.-member countries that offer citizenship by descent require you to have a parent who was a citizen of that nation. These countries include Austria, Belgium, Croatia, Republic of Cyprus, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Netherlands, Slovakia, Spain, and Sweden. There may be some exceptions, as detailed below, for descendants of people who left the country because of a diaspora or persecution.

Citizenship by Descent Because of Diaspora or Persecution

Austria

As recently as September 19, 2019, the Austrian government amended its citizenship laws to permit all descendants of victims of Nazi persecution in Austria to claim Austrian citizenship, while keeping their present nationality. (Dual citizenship is otherwise prohibited in Austria.) Along with this change, Austria broadened the definition of a victim of Nazi persecution to include anyone who was subject to persecution by associations of the NSDAP (National Socialist German Workers’ Party) or other authorities of the so-called “Third Reich” or had reason to fear such persecution. And the date by which the ancestor left Austria has been extended from May 9, 1945, to May 15, 1955. Also included are descendants of persons who were citizens of successor states of the former Austro-Hungarian monarchy or stateless at the time, but had their residence in Austria, and left by May 15, 1955.

Germany

Also recently, on August 30, 2019, the German government eased the rules regarding German citizenship for descendants of victims of National Socialist persecution. The group of people eligible for German citizenship through this pathway now include descendants of former German citizens who between January 30, 1933, and April 1, 1953, were deprived of their citizenship on political, racial, or religious grounds. But descendants need to be able to answer this question with “yes”: “Had the primary claimant of the naturalization claim not been deprived of his/her German citizenship, would his/her descendants have acquired citizenship by birth according to the applicable German law of citizenship?”

Latvia

Descendants of exiles who were forced to leave Latvia between June 17, 1940, and May 4, 1990, due to foreign occupation may claim citizenship by descent.

Lithuania

Descendants of persons who were citizens of Lithuania before June 15, 1940, and were forcibly expelled from Lithuania by decisions of institutions or courts of occupation regimes in the period from June 15, 1940, to March 11, 1990, may reclaim citizenship by descent if the expulsion was for reasons of resistance to occupation regimes, political or social reasons, or reasons of origin.

Portugal

Descendants of Sephardic Jews who were expelled from Portugal and Spain in the fifteenth century may be eligible for Portugese citizenship. Descendancy may be proven through a number of different sources, including: (1) an authorized Jewish community certificate proving Sephardic Jewish lineage of Portuguese origin through surname, family language, genealogy, and family memory; or (2) documents such as records of synagogues and Jewish cemeteries, as well as residence permits, property deeds, wills and other documents proving the family relations of the applicant.

Poland

Polish citizens who emigrated to Israel between 1958 and 1984, and who normally became Israeli citizens on arrival (based on the Israeli “Law of Return” for those of Jewish descent), lost Polish citizenship automatically. If you are a descendant of someone who falls in that category, you may be eligible for Polish citizenship.

The Grandparent Connection

The following E.U.-member countries permit citizenship by descent if you have a grandparent who was a native-born citizen: Ireland, Hungary, Malta, Portugal, Romania, and Slovenia. In Finland, you can obtain a residence permit — but not citizenship — if at least one of your parents or grandparents is or has been a native Finnish citizen.

There may be a significant number of limitations or conditions on this pathway, depending on the particular country, so be sure to contact the country’s embassy in the U.S. before toasting to your new E.U. citizenship.

“Any Ancestor”

The following countries apparently do not limit citizenship by descent to parents or grand-parents, but instead extend citizenship to descendants of any ancestor who was a native citizen of that country. Again, because the rules are not always clear and some come with significant conditions, make sure to check with the country’s embassy first. These countries include Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Italy, Greece, Latvia (must pass a language exam), Lithuania, Luxembourg (deadline has passed to begin the process), and Romania. Your ancestor must have never lost or renounced their citizenship.

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As for me, after being foiled in my quest to reclaim Italian citizenship, I recently became a dual U.S.-Luxembourg citizen. That path was open to me because of a short, doomed marriage in 1919 between my French great-grandmother and Robert, her Luxembourgian husband. Robert died on their honeymoon, when my meme was already pregnant with my grandmother. With the help of an exceptional genealogist and the Luxembourg American Cultural Society in Wisconsin, my two-year journey down the path of citizenship by right of blood was successful. Not only am I looking forward to reclaiming my European roots sometime in the near future, but the family history that I was able to uncover along the way was worth the dual citizenship journey itself, regardless of the outcome.

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Writer on careers, educational travel, working well, and the law.

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Amy Montemarano

Amy Montemarano

Writer on careers, educational travel, working well, and the law.

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