Dateline: Doha, Qatar
As you know, having a second passport is an essential step towards truly internationalizing your life. Whether your reasons for getting that second passport are economic or otherwise, the process can either be as simple as filling in some forms, or it can be an arduous, grueling slog with bureaucracy.
In general, the difference depends on the country where you are applying for citizenship and how you qualify. As opposed to getting a passport through residency or an economic citizenship program, qualifying for citizenship by descent requires an entirely different approach.
I have a couple of friends who qualify for Italian citizenship and, in their cases, it is pretty easy to prove their ancestry. I’ve helped one of these friends, through the process, but today I want to tell you about the other friend who engaged the help of a lawyer. I do so with my friend’s permission and with the hope that his experience will illustrate some of the pitfalls you can avoid by doing things right from the very beginning.
First of all, the lawyer my friend hired doesn’t necessarily specialize in residency applications. Apparently the Italy-based lawyer had gone through a second residency for himself (though not for Italy) and fancied himself useful with ancestral citizenship applications. With those qualifications, he offered his services for a couple of grand to help my friend through the process.
Now, my friend didn’t know much about what he was doing or how to go about it. He just wanted to get the residency for himself and his kids and perhaps move to Italy at some point with his family and live in the European Union for a while.
Anyway, back to the story. So, the process started about 21 months ago and after listening to this lawyer explain the process, my friend paid him. He figured that a couple of grand with some extras for translation was a really cheap way to get what he wanted.
At first, things moved really slowly as the lawyer was a bit too timid to take control. He would beat around the bush when it came to asking for more money and my friend had to keep on top of him.
About a year went by and the lawyer came back to my friend to give him the good news: they were on the ‘home stretch’. He’d been able to verify my friend’s Italian ancestry through his grandmother’s name and had acquired the relevant documents, but still needed more.
He asked my friend to get some additional information and then, tentatively, asked him for some more money. My friend was able to get what the lawyer needed and then sent him off to do his ‘magic behind the scenes’; certifying the documents and lining up the application.
About a month ago, my friend got the call he’d been waiting almost two years for; the lawyer explained that he needed to make an appointment to go to the Italian embassy and make his application in person.
So, my friend hit the consulate’s website to make an appointment. The first thing he noticed was how complicated the site is. My friend is in no way technically illiterate, but trying to set-up the appointment was a serious test in his skills. Nevertheless, he got an appointment for 9am a couple weeks ago. My friend lives about an hour outside of Los Angeles so the day of his appointment he got up at 6am, dressed smart and arrived on time for his appointment.
When he arrived, he was met with such inefficiency it would make your toes curl — a two -star operation at best. Nobody knew he was coming and it turned out that he didn’t even have the right documents after all. After a couple of hours, he was eventually informed that the appointment he made was for a passport application, not citizenship, and he needed to rebook.
The biggest problem with that was that the next available citizenship appointment isn’t until next year, September 2017. The whole thing was a disaster and a monumental waste of his time.
When I heard about this from my friend, I wasn’t surprised. It’s an embassy, right? If a country like Italy doesn’t do such a great job of running its own internal affairs, then how much good are they going to be at running a consulate in another country?
The Waiting Game
The first thing my friend did after the fiasco at the consulate was to call his lawyer. Unsurprisingly, the lawyer danced around the subject before admitting that, yes, he should have booked an appointment last year. Rightly so, my friend is furious. Why didn’t the lawyer tell him that? He could have made the appointment last year but now he’s got to wait. On top of that, the documents he had weren’t in order anyway. Now my friend has to try and figure out what he needs to do because his lawyer is unclear.
Meanwhile, in the time it’s taken for my friend to get this far, I’ve managed to get two other passports and I’m on my way to a third; one of which (economic citizenship) did require quite a bit of work.
Why has it taken my friend so long?
First of all, with ancestral citizenship, it can take a while to prove your eligibility — particularly when you are doing it outside of the country you are applying. On average, it can take around 18 months if you are remotely applying for Italian citizenship by descent. Having said that, it really depends on what country you are applying from and the state of their consulate.
I have another friend who tried to do exactly the same thing, but the embassy was an even bigger mess; nothing was digitized and everything had to be found in dusty books.
In my experience, you need to spend some time in the country working with local lawyers to get the process done much faster. Spend a few months living there and the acceptance can be much quicker.
Qualifying is key
At the end of the day, my friend will get his Italian citizenship. He’s just taking the long way around. The issue here wasn’t about the money — a couple of grand shouldn’t hold you back — rather it was the time that he’s wasted so far.
In reality, that’s the big gamble with pursuing citizenship by descent: the time it takes you to determine whether or not you actually qualify. Qualifying is the most important and time-consuming part, and you won’t know if you qualify until after you’ve paid and spent the time. Once the records have been found its just form filling and getting into the right appointment with the right information.
If truth be told, most people don’t qualify. My friend could have wasted a year and a couple of grand for nothing, but he got lucky and actually qualified. If you’re going to get ancestral citizenship, you have to be prepared to chase these things down because an overly cautious approach about your chances can stop you from achieving that second passport.
If you qualify, getting citizenship by descent is easy and it’s cheap. At the end of his journey, my friend will have an EU citizenship. While that might be attractive at the moment it could change in a few years’ time when Italy and the EU start imposing more tax obligations. If that’s the case, a second passport from the EU may not be the best way to go. In fact, my friend might want to consider EU residency in the long term. Still, if he does get Italian citizenship, he or his kids could renounce their American citizenship if they want to in the future.
Take time for bureaucracy
Here’s one last not to remove the obstacles to your second citizenship or residency, wherever it may be. Everyone talks about Panama’s second residency program as if it’s the easiest way to get permanent residency. But it’s not that easy. Sure, if you’re American, it’s easy to qualify, but just as with my friend, bureaucracy can get in the way.
The challenge with Panama is that you have to go down there to deal with the bureaucracy. Other places have inordinate amounts hurdles to get over. In fact, Ireland is really the only country that doesn’t involve such a bureaucratic maze. It’s an easy process and getting citizenship in Ireland is worth doing for anyone who qualifies. I’d still recommend hiring someone to do the work for you as it’s far quicker and easier. After all, your time is valuable.
If my friend had opted to let someone who knew what they were doing prepare his application then he would have his Italian citizenship by now. Fortunately for him, time is not an issue and whether he gets his citizenship in 18 months or 36 months, he will still get it and he is prepared for the wait. All he’s lost in the process is some of his time.
The third passport approach
Ultimately, everything depends on your motivation for going through the process of getting a second passport. How you go about it is all about why you’re going about it.
If you simply want to reconnect with Uncle Giuseppe’s side of the family, then the process might not really matter to you. Just remember that your time is still precious. If, however, you are doing it because you intend on renouncing US citizenship then time may be of the essence and there are definitely easier ways to do get that second residency than by opting for citizenship by descent in places like Italy.
Remember that the key factor is eligibility and then being able to prove that eligibility. There are plenty of options to choose from, from Israel’s ‘Law of Return’ to Lithuania, but most of them can be a maze of forms, bureaucracy and evidence finding. If you’re not up for the challenge, there are definitely easier ways to get a second passport. In my eyes, the best approach is to look at citizenship by descent as a third passport.