John Roska: It's legal for Americans to have dual citizenship

John Roska: It's legal for Americans to have dual citizenship

Q: Is dual citizenship legal? Can I become a citizen of another country without losing my U.S. citizenship? And don't people have to renounce their citizenship when they become U.S. citizens?

A: Dual nationality is legal. People who become U.S. citizens don't automatically forfeit their previous citizenship. And U.S. citizens can keep their citizenship when becoming citizens of another country.

Controlling citizenship is one way a sovereign country controls its territory. Each country, therefore, gets to say who's a citizen.

So, only the U.S. can say who's a U.S. citizen. And, whether they're a U.S. citizen is the only thing we can say about their citizenship. We can't say someone's not a citizen somewhere else. If some other country wants to claim you as a citizen, it can, and Uncle Sam can't stop that.

But he doesn't have to like it. Officially, the State Departments says: "The U.S. Government recognizes that dual nationality exists but does not encourage it as a matter of policy because of the problems it may cause."

That may sound stern, but Uncle Sam is actually pretty tolerant. You can do lots of "expatriating acts" — things that federal law says can cause you to lose U.S. citizenship — as long as you don't have "the intention of relinquishing United States nationality."

First on the list of those "expatriating acts" is "obtaining naturalization in a foreign state," followed by swearing allegiance to a foreign state, and serving in another country's armed forces.

But acts alone aren't enough. You have to really want to turn your back on America, and give up your U.S. citizenship. Which the State Department does all it can to prevent. The department officially and very generously presumes that U.S. citizens performing expatriating acts "intend to retain United States citizenship."

You basically have to renounce your U.S. citizenship. But if you do, despite the State Department trying to stop you, it can't be undone.

So, U.S. citizens can become citizens of another country, and swear allegiance to them in the process, without losing their U.S. citizenship. Unless you really intend to forfeit your U.S. citizenship, doing those "expatriating acts" doesn't appear to be very risky (at least to your U.S. citizenship).

It's true that federal law says that everyone becoming a U.S. citizen must "renounce and abjure absolutely and entirely all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty of whom or which the applicant was before a subject or citizen." That's why the oath at a naturalization ceremony starts off with nearly that exact language.

But taking that oath, and becoming a U.S. citizen, doesn't revoke that new U.S. citizen's old citizenship. Only that person's home country can do that. (Chinese law, for example, automatically revokes the Chinese citizenship of anyone who naturalizes and resides abroad.)

Similarly, U.S. citizens — naturalized or natural-born — don't automatically lose their citizenship by taking a similar oath to gain foreign citizenship. At least with oaths of foreign allegiance, the State Department presumes you didn't really mean it.

John Roska is a lawyer with Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation. You can send your questions to The Law Q&A, 302 N. First St., Champaign, IL 61820. Questions may be edited for space.

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SwissTechie wrote on March 24, 2013 at 11:03 pm

It is not true that the "State Department does all it can to prevent" renunciations.  I renounced US citizenship because US policy caused American citizens to be denied local checking accounts due to US policy.  The State Department did absolutely nothing to prevent such bad policy from having a heavily negative impact on Americans living abroad.  As such, the State Department deserves a big F for failure in caring about Americans living overseas.

In most situations these days, renouncing does not mean that one "turn their back on America".  Rather, such simply means that one continues living a normal life without being troubled by bad US policy outside of US jurisdiction.

It is also not necessarily true that renunciations cannot be "undone".  It has been "undone" in the past and such is logical since since the US government can do much more to respect its citizens (or former citizens) living abroad.