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What is dual nationality?


  • A dual national is a person who has citizenship in two countries at the same time.
  • One can become a dual citizen by birth or naturalization.
  • Dual citizens share the same rights and obligations of US citizens.

What is dual nationality?

Have you ever wanted to be in two places at the same time? Well, that might be impossible, but what if I told you that you could be a citizen of two countries at the same time? Dual nationality means that a person is a national of two countries at the same time. A national is defined as “a person owing permanent allegiance to a state.” Nationals don’t have the same rights as citizens, but they are under the protection of that country. So all US citizens are nationals, but not all nationals are American citizens.start superscript, 1, end superscript
Americans can hold dual citizenship, meaning that they enjoy rights in the United States and in another country. But people did not always accept this status. For years, many fought against dual citizenship, both culturally and legally. Culturally, people opposed dual nationality because they thought dual citizenship would weaken the nation, as dual citizens would have competing or divided loyalties between the United States and another country. This decreased after World War II and landmark Supreme Court cases such as Afroyim v. Rusk. Some of the reasons dual citizenship became more acceptable are:
  • A reduction in military drafts after fewer international conflicts
  • A focus on human rights and gender equality so women could transfer their nationality to their children
  • An international effort to reduce statelessness
  • A rise in international migration and marriage

Acquiring dual nationality or citizenship

So how does someone become a dual citizen? There are several ways a person can obtain dual nationality, including:

Being born in the US to immigrant or foreign parents (unless parents are foreign diplomats)

Remember jus soli, the principle that a person is a citizen if they are born within the borders of that country? Even if a person is born to parents who are not citizens, they can inherit American citizenship if they are born in a state or territory of the United States. The children of foreign diplomats are exempt from this principle and cannot earn American citizenship, even if they are born in the United States.

Being born outside the US to one parent who is a US citizen and another parent who is a citizen of another country

The other principle of citizenship, jus sanguinis, or law of blood, dictates that citizenship is inherited from a parent. So, even if a child is born in another country, if they have a parent that is an American citizen, they can also become an American citizen.

Becoming a naturalized American citizen but maintaining citizenship in another country

When a person becomes a naturalized citizen, they have to swear an oath of allegiance to the United States. Although they promise to “renounce and
allegiance and fidelity” to another country, US immigration law does not require a person to choose one citizenship over another. It is up to foreign governments to decide whether becoming a naturalized citizen of the United States means that a person gives up their previous citizenship. Some countries, like Canada, do not recognize the oath as a renunciation. Other countries, like Germany, do and if a German citizen applies for citizenship in the United States and gets it, their German citizenship is lost.

Being born in another country to American parents

For example, a child born abroad to American parents may be both a US citizen and a citizen of the country of his or her birth. However, this is all dependent on whether the other country allows dual nationality. Some countries make their citizens choose one country to give their loyalty to, like the Republic of Korea, and others, like Cuba, Japan, and Zimbabwe, outright forbid it.

Rights of dual citizens in the US

Dual citizens, either by birth or naturalization, have many of the same personal, economic, and political rights that we covered in a previous lesson, including:
  • working anywhere in the US
  • traveling without restrictions
  • traveling with a United States passport
  • obtaining green cards for their family
  • voting in local, state, and federal elections
  • attending school (without a student visa or paying international student tuition rates)
  • accessing public benefits like Medicare, if necessary
Two passports, one from Nicaragua and one from the United States, side by side.
Dual nationals have citizenship in two or more countries, and they can get passports for any country where they are a citizen. Image credit: LaNicoya-, Wikimedia Commons

Obligations of dual citizens in the US

Dual citizens, either by birth or naturalization, also have many of the same obligations as citizens, including: pay federal income and other taxes for life (even if the income is earned outside of the US); reporting any previous encounters with law enforcement; defend the country if called upon; and serve on a jury.
Even if a dual citizen lives outside of the United States, they must still meet these obligations. Being a dual citizen means that a person has twice the amount of obligations as a person who is only a citizen of one country.

What do you think?

  • What are the benefits of being a dual citizen?
  • What are the drawbacks of being a dual citizen?
  • How have attitudes changed about dual citizenship?

Want to join the conversation?