Last updated: January 30, 2017
Having a second passport is an important step for anyone looking to plant flags, increase their freedom, and give themselves a “Plan B”. For many casual observers, the process of becoming a dual citizen is one reserved for the wealthy, but this is not true.
While there are a growing number of economic citizenships, these programs start in the mid-five figures and, practically speaking, the low six figures.
A cheaper alternative is to obtain a second residence permit in another country and wait years to be naturalized. This is a good option, but if you want a fast second passport, you will usually have to wait at least a few years.
However, for those lucky enough to have ancestors from a wide number of mostly (European) countries, getting a second passport can be as easy as filling out some forms and waiting. A number of countries offer what’s called “citizenship by descent”, a process which allows you to apply for citizenship based on having family born in that country.
In many countries, such citizenship by descent is limited to one generation: your parents. For example, you can only become British if at least one of your parents is British. The fact that your ancestors came over on the Mayflower won’t cut it.
However, some countries are willing to bestow citizenship to those with family trees that go as far as three or even four generations back, depending on the circumstances. Here are six of the best countries that offer citizenship by descent:
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There are more than fourteen million Irish passports in circulation, despite Ireland’s population of barely four million people. Thanks to friendly government policies, getting an Irish passport by descent is a relatively straightforward process. If at least one of your grandparents was born in Ireland, you are entitled to Irish citizenship no matter where you or your parents were born. You must simply register yourself in the Foreign Birth Register and then apply. You can also ensure eligibility for your future children whose great-grandparent was born in Ireland by registering their birth in the Register when they are born.
While Ireland has had its problems, it’s a beautiful country with amazingly friendly people. You can live in Ireland up to 280 days per two years before becoming tax resident. You also have certain rights to live and work in EU or EEA member countries. You can learn more about obtaining Irish citizenship by descent here.
Claiming your Italian citizenship is a relatively bureaucratic process, but eligibility is fairly broad. For the most part, you can claim Italian citizenship by descent if your grandparent was an Italian citizen and neither your parent (their child) nor you expressly gave up your rights to such citizenship. You can even make a claim based on a grandparent’s birth in Italy, provided no one along the line was naturalized elsewhere in a way to abandon their Italian citizenship. It can get a little tricky based on when you were born and even based on your sex, but a lot of foreigners are actually entitled to an Italian passport.
Whether Italy is a safe haven is a different story. Strikes there are frequent and the country is broke. Getting an Italian passport for sentimental reasons, or just as a back-up is one thing. Living there is another. It’s fine for now, but if the place turns into the next Greece, you might want to be careful moving too many of your eggs to Italy’s basket.
While not exactly a citizenship by descent program based on nationality, Israel allows Jews and those who convert to Judaism to enter the country under the Law of Return. Once there, you can rather easily obtain Israeli citizenship. The Law of Return also allows for the spouse of a Jew or the child or grandchild of a Jew to return. The law was made to be broad in response to government oppression of Jews in other countries, such as Poland, where Jews often had non-Jew family members living with them.
Getting an Israeli passport does come with certain civic obligations. For one, all Israeli citizens are required to serve in the military, including women. Also, Israelis are not permitted to visit a number of countries: Lebanon, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Yemen and Iran — even using a foreign passport — given that these countries don’t recognize Israel’s right to exist. The UAE, Bahrain, Algeria, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Bangladesh also don’t allow Israelis to visit with their Israeli passport. If you’re a US citizen looking to reduce geopolitical risk, an Israeli passport likely won’t help you, but you can get one without fulfilling a residency requirement.
Learn more about Israeli second citizenship here.
Polish citizenship by descent laws can be downright confusing. The citizenship law requires uninterrupted lineage between you and one grandparent with Polish citizenship, which was only possible after 1918. If someone got naturalized and gave up their Polish passport along the way, it could likely mean the chain is broken and you may not be eligible. To make things more tricky, there are various Citizenship Acts that set different standards. The results are somewhat interesting, such as the fact that you may be eligible for citizenship but your sibling may not be.
However, Poland is a growing central European country. Poland’s currency was on a roll for a while, but has been battered by the emerging markets plunge. However, as a Polish citizen you also enjoy the benefits of being a citizen in an EU member country with full freedom of movement, although Poles cannot visit the United States without a visa.
Spain’s Law of Historical Memory was passed in 2007 as a way to condemn the Spanish Civil War and the ensuing Franco dictatorship. Part of the law allowed for children and grandchildren of Spanish exiles to apply for Spanish citizenship, regardless of whether or not they or their parents were born in Spain. While the window for the Law of Historical Memory has closed, Spain offers other ways to become naturalized through a period of residence. If you have citizenship by birth in almost any South American country, you can apply after one year of residence. If you’re a Sephardic Jew, you can apply after two years of residence.
Spain also offers a second residency program for those who buy real estate in the European country. The property market has gotten so bad there that squatters now dominate apartment blocks in several cities. Nevertheless, if you’re not of Hispanic descent, or your ancestors weren’t expelled from the country, it’s a way to get residence — not citizenship — in highly unemployed Spain.
Hungary has an interesting history in Europe, and from our perspective parts of it were less than pleasant seeing that the country used to impose taxation based on citizenship the same way the United States does now. While that practice no longer exists, we have some reservations about Hungarian citizenship and future challenges.
That said, Hungary is a full member of the European Union and its passport is one of the best in the world. Ethnic Hungarians can go through a complicated but doable process to claim ancestral citizenship as far back as their great grandparents, or three generations. You have to be able to supply proof from the Hungarian archives in Budapest that shows you are the descendant of an emigrant from the country. Once you can establish the chain (in the Hungarian language, of course), you may apply for a passport.
How to get citizenship by descent
While this article lists the best programs for citizenship by descent, there are other countries that offer citizenship based on your ancestry as well. Among these are Lithuania and other European countries.
A select number of Latin American countries also offer citizenship to grandchildren or great grandchildren of ancestors who were citizens there.
Here’s the catch: because of the cheap price, these governments aren’t tripping over themselves to move with any speed in most cases. While Ireland isn’t particularly challenging, most other citizenship by descent programs can take years and a lot of bureaucratic hoop jumping.
When citizenship in Cyprus is purchased for an investment of two million euros, the government moves quickly. If they didn’t, wealthy people would simply go elsewhere. On the flip side, the Italian embassy in your country has little incentive to shake a tail feather to help you reclaim your citizenship when you pay a $25 filing fee.
For example, a friend of mine has spent almost three years finalizing the process of Italian citizenship for himself and his children. While his great grandparents came from Italy, the process of tracking down the right documents, sending them to the right place, and waiting for appointments that are unclear caused a long delay in his process.
If your goal in obtaining ancestral citizenship is for fun, or to feel closer to your great aunt from County Donegal, then the slow and uncertain process of citizenship by descent may be for you.
However, if you are looking for a second passport as a means for internationalization, or to renounce your current citizenship, or for any other business or economic reason, I would urge you to consider the other ways to obtain citizenship. The time you waste jumping through hoops and being delayed might be more expensive in the end than just buying a passport or waiting through a short naturalization period in a country like Peru.
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