A person with dual citizenship is a citizen of two countries at the same time. Dual citizenship, sometimes called dual nationality, happens automatically in some situations, such as when a child is born in the United States to foreign parents. Unless the parents are foreign diplomats, the child generally becomes a citizen of the United States as well as of the parents’ home nation. Similarly, if a child of U.S. citizens is born overseas, he or she may automatically become a citizen of both the United States and the country of birth, depending on that country’s laws.
Dual citizenship can also be achieved through specialized legal processes, such as when a foreign national marries a U.S. citizen. In this case, dual citizenship is not automatic but is possible if the foreign national has been a permanent resident (a green card holder) for at least three years, has been living in marital union with a U.S. citizen spouse during that time, and meets other eligibility requirements.
While the United States allows dual citizenship without necessarily promoting it, not all countries do (see a list here). In the above example, the foreign national’s home country may allow dual citizenship, or it may cancel the person’s citizenship when he or she becomes naturalized as a U.S. citizen. Dual citizenship is complex. Read on for the benefits and obligations of being a citizen of two countries.
The Advantages of Dual Citizenship
Benefits and privileges: Dual citizens can receive the benefits and privileges offered by each country. For example, they have access to two social service systems, can vote in either country and may be able to run for office in either country, depending on the law. They are also allowed to work in either country without needing a work permit or visa and can attend school in either country at the citizen tuition rate.
Two passports: As a dual citizen, you are allowed to carry passports from both countries. For example, if you are a U.S. citizen and also a citizen of New Zealand, you can travel more easily between the two countries. Having a citizen's passport eliminates the need for long-stay visas and questioning about the purpose of your trip. It also guarantees right of entry to both countries, which can be especially important if you have family to visit, are a student or do business in either country.
Property ownership: Another benefit of dual citizenship is the ability to own property in either country. Some countries restrict land ownership to citizens only, and as a legal citizen of two countries, you would be able to purchase property in either—or both—countries. If you travel frequently between the two countries, this might be especially useful since property ownership might offer a more economical way to live in two places. (For related reading, see Planning for Retirement Abroad.)
Cultural education: As a dual citizen you'll reap the benefits of being immersed in the culture of two countries. Some government officials are also fond of dual citizenship and see it as a way to promote the country's image as a prime destination for tourists. Perhaps the best upside is self-satisfaction of learning about the history of both countries, a new language and way of life.
The Drawbacks of Dual Citizenship
Dual obligations: As a dual citizen, you are bound by the laws of both countries. For example, if you are a citizen of the United States and a country with mandatory military service, you can lose your U.S. citizenship under certain circumstances, such as if you serve as an officer in a foreign military that is engaged in a war against the United States. In general, U.S. policy recognizes that dual citizens might be legally obligated to fulfill military obligations abroad, and many can do so without jeopardizing their U.S. citizen status, but it is important to research each situation carefully.
Double taxation: The United States imposes taxes on its citizens for income earned anywhere in the world. If you are a dual citizen living abroad, you might owe taxes both to the United States and to the country where the income was earned. Income tax treaties are in effect, however, between the United States and many other countries that reduce or eliminate a U.S. citizen’s tax liability in the United States. A treaty between the United States and New Zealand, for example, overrides the income tax laws of each country to avoid double taxation. Even so, dual citizens may be required to file U.S. tax returns. Because tax laws are complicated and can change from year to year, be sure to consult with a qualified tax accountant. (For some cheerier tax news, see Do You Get U.S. Tax Deductions on Real Estate Abroad?)
Security clearance: Depending on your career path, dual citizenship can be a disadvantage. If you are seeking a position with the U.S government or access to classified information, having dual citizenship can prevent you from gaining the security clearance you need to work in these fields. Those born into dual citizenship may encounter fewer problems than those who actively sought it out.
Complicated process: Sometimes dual citizenship happens automatically, as is the case when a child is born in the United States to foreign parents. Other times, however, the process can take many years and can be extremely expensive. To become a U.S. citizen, you must live in the United States as a permanent resident continuously for five years (or three years if you are married to and living with the same U.S. citizen), and you must pay $1,225 to apply for permanent residency and then another $725 to file an application for citizenship, as of 2017. That does not include the cost of an immigration lawyer, a professional who can be helpful in achieving citizenship.
The Bottom Line
Dual citizens enjoy certain benefits, such as the ability to live and work freely in two countries, own property in both, and travel between the countries with relative ease. There are drawbacks, however, including the potential for double taxation, the long and expensive process for obtaining dual citizenship, and the fact that you become bound by the laws of two nations. Because dual citizenship is complex and the rules and laws regarding citizenship vary from one country to the next, be sure to consult with qualified experts, including tax accountants and experienced citizenship lawyers. (For related reading, see: How to Pass the U.S. Citizenship Test and 5 Hardest Countries for Getting Citizenship.)