For many years, U.S. citizenship and an American passport were the gold standard around the world. The pandemic and the recent election changed all that, resulting in a surge in demand for Americans seeking second passports and wanting to buy citizenship—especially in Europe. “Americans want freedom, and many are starting to realize how restrictive U.S. citizenship can be,” says Rogelio Caceres, CEO and founder of Global RCG, a global mobility firm that helps people secure residency, employment and citizenship rights in other countries.
The desire to retire in places like Europe and more flexibility in banking were the main drivers for second passports before the pandemic. Since then, political instability and possible tax hikes have left a lot of wealthy Americans considering the idea of renouncing U.S. citizenship in the hope of never having to pay taxes. But this requires a lot of financial planning. Turns out there’s an easier way. “Americans can save a sizable amount on taxation by retaining their U.S. citizenship and getting a second passport that allows them to relocate abroad,” says Caceres.
But if you’ve ever thought about getting a second passport, you know it’s not easy—or cheap. “Wealthy people worldwide are spending large sums of money to get their hands on EU passports,” says Caceres. “The tiny country of Malta, for example, offers citizenship to investors after a year and a half for the equivalent of a $1 million cash payment. These are paid by rich Chinese, Russians and Americans who can’t claim EU citizenship by ancestry.”
According to Global RCG—which has done a demographic analysis on U.S. ancestry and a deep legal study of nationality laws of European Union countries—it might be easier than you think. “Through our research, we estimated that roughly 40% of all Americans could be eligible for citizenship by ancestry in the EU,” says Caceres. “This is a big deal for Americans, as EU passports are the most valuable on the planet.”
Caceres points out that Americans have a diverse ethnic background due to historic and massive periods of immigration. “The country was built by immigrants from across the globe, of whom the vast majority originated from Europe until World War II,” says Caceres. “When you look at today’s ethnic background of Americans, over 40% of them have European heritage. Interestingly, a sizable portion of that population can claim citizenship by descent from the country of their ancestors.”
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And here’s some more good news: “European citizenship by ancestry is not limited to European descent,” says Caceres. “More than 70 million Latin-Americans can also claim Spanish citizenship by descent due to their historical connection to the country.”
Here, Caceres shares the lowdown on which EU citizenship you might be able to claim, based on your ancestry.
Spain: 75 million Americans
“This number might seem surprising, given the fact that relatively few Spaniards immigrated to the original 13 states,” says Caceres. “The number actually represents the number of Latino Americans, Filipinos and Sephardic Jews that may be eligible to claim Spanish citizenship by ancestry.” According to Caceres, Spain offers a flexible route to citizenship for the nationals of countries that are former Spanish colonies. In the case of Sephardic Jews, the process is different, since Spain reinstated the descendants of those who fled the country due to the Inquisition.
The Spanish citizenship process can take various forms:
• If your parents are Spanish-born citizens, you can claim citizenship instantly.
• If your grandparents are Spanish-born citizens, citizenship can be gained after one year of residence.
• Latino Americans, Brazilians, Filipinos and Sephardic Jews can claim citizenship after two years of residence.
Germany: 43 million Americans
German citizenship by ancestry is restricted and hard to establish, but ultimately possible. “German is the most common European ancestry in America,” says Caceres. “But obtaining German citizenship by descent is typically limited to those with a German father or mother. Having a German grandparent will not qualify you for citizenship by ancestry. That said, that ancestor might have passed down his German citizenship all the way down to your parent. (Until 1979, only a male could pass down his German citizenship to his children.)”
There is another path: Jewish-Americans whose ancestors left Germany during the decades before, during and after the Nazi area might be able to claim citizenship. “This path was created due to the Nazi regime’s revocation of the nationalities of all German Jews in 1938,” says Caceres.
Ireland: 33 million Americans
“Millions of Irish nationals left Ireland during the potato famine and crossed the Atlantic to settle in Boston and New York. Irish citizenship is one of the most accessible and easy to obtain,” says Caceres. “But given that many Americans trace back their first Irish-born ancestor to a hundred years ago, not everyone can claim it.”
There are different ways to claim Irish citizenship and get a second passport:
• You are Irish if you have an Irish parent born in Ireland.
• You have an Irish parent who wasn’t born in Ireland, or you have an Irish-born grandparent.
• You have an Irish-born great-grandparent.
Italy: 17 million Americans
Italian-Americans have had a tremendous impact on American culture. “One may claim Italian ancestry even if their ancestor left Italy 150 years ago,” says Caceres. “If there is a blood connection, it’s possible to claim Italian citizenship.” But for Italian citizenship by descent, Caceres says that two key events determine your eligibility: the date when your first Italian immigrant ancestor was naturalized as a U.S. citizen, and the date of birth of his children.
“You see, in the past, Italians would lose their Italian citizenship if they obtained another one. Meaning if that ancestor became a U.S. citizen, he was no longer Italian, and therefore, his newborn children would not be Italian,” says Caceres. “In the opposite case, if the children were born in the USA before both Italian parents became naturalized U.S. citizens, the children would be born as both Italian and American citizens. After that event, the Italian blood connection cannot be lost.”
Here are the ways to become an Italian citizen by ancestry:
• Your Italian blood connection is not broken and comes from your father.
• Your Italian blood connection is not broken and comes from your mother. You must petition a judge in Italy.
• Your Italian blood connection was broken. You must reside for three years in Italy before applying for citizenship.
Poland: 10 million Americans
“Polish citizenship by ancestry is one of the most accessible in Europe,” says Caceres. “If you have a Polish ancestor who lived in Poland or a territory belonging to Poland in the 20th century, you can claim Polish citizenship.” According to Caceres, the important date to consider is 1920, as the documents required to lodge your application will vary if your ancestor left Poland before or after that date.
You are eligible for Polish citizenship if:
• Your ancestor was born in Poland (or a territory that at the time was a part of Poland) and resided there after 1920.
• Your ancestor left Poland before 1920 (but your ancestors’ residential address can be found in the Polish, Prussian, Russian or Austro-Hungarian registers); and maintained their Polish citizenship until the day of your birth.
Netherlands: 4 million Americans
“Dutch citizenship by ancestry is quite limited, but very doable,” says Caceres. “First, only after 1985 have Dutch women been able to pass down their citizenship to their children. Second, your ancestor lost his Dutch citizenship when he became a naturalized U.S. citizen. So, it means you most likely need to have a male line of Dutch ancestors, and your first ancestor had to have become a naturalized U.S. citizen before fathering the next in line.”
Here’s what you need to know about Dutch citizenship:
• If your last name is of Dutch origin, you might want to look into citizenship.
• Otherwise, you can always apply for Dutch citizenship after three years of residence, which can be done quite easily for Americans due to the Friendly Nation treaty between the two countries.
Norway: 4 million Americans
“It’s surprising that so many Americans have Norwegian ancestry,” says Caceres. “If you can claim Norwegian citizenship, you have good reason to pursue it, as the country’s coffers are not full of IOUs. On the contrary, Norway’s wealth funds make it pretty much the healthiest country in the world in fiscal terms.”
But according to Caceres, getting Norwegian citizenship by ancestry is very unlikely. Here are some of the things you need to know:
• You need to make sure your ancestors were married when they gave birth.
• Your ancestor lost his Norwegian citizenship when he became a naturalized U.S. citizen, so any child born after that date is not Norwegian by birth.
• A child born abroad to a Norwegian parent had to spend at least two years in Norway and request to remain Norwegian before turning 22.
• Given that last fact, it’s doubtful that your first U.S.-born ancestors retained their Norwegian citizenship. That said, if they are still alive, they could petition the Norwegian government to have it reinstated.
Hungary: 4 million Americans
Hungary is another country with very accessible citizenship by ancestry. “You’re more likely to be eligible if that claim comes from a male line; before 1957, Hungarian women married to foreigners lost their Hungarian citizenship,” says Caceres. “Also, if your ancestor left the country before 1929, his foreign-born children were not Hungarian citizens.”
Here’s what you need to know:
• Even if you’re not eligible, you can still apply for the simplified naturalization process if you can communicate in Hungarian.
Greece: 1.5 million Americans
Greece provides citizenship by descent to pretty much anyone with Greek ancestry,” says Caceres. “That said, if your parents were not Greek, you’ll need to apply for simplified naturalization.”
Here’s what you need to know:
• There is no residency requirement, but the bureaucratic process takes two to three years.
Portugal: 1 million Americans
“Portugal has become very popular with Americans looking to relocate to Europe,” says Caceres. “The extent of Portugal citizenship by ancestry is limited to grandparents. Even then, you’ll need to prove a certain connection to the community in the form of language skills or residency in Portugal.”
Czech Republic: 1 million Americans
Since 2019, Czech citizenship by descent has become much more accessible. “Today, most Americans with Czech ancestors should be able to claim Czech citizenship, even if their ancestor lost their citizenship when they became naturalized U.S. citizens,” says Caceres.
Here’s what you need to know:
• If your ancestor was born in what is now Slovakia, they can instead apply for Slovak citizenship by descent. The Slovak government is ratifying the law, which should be proclaimed in 2022.
The Steps to Applying for Citizenship by Ancestry
The complexity of the case depends on the country and how far back you need to go in your ancestry tree. Here are the difficulties, according to Caceres:
• Mapping your ancestry. “You heard from your parents that you have X and Y ancestry? If so, you need names and dates,” says Caceres.
• Figuring out your eligibility and navigating the citizenship law. “Do I qualify for citizenship by birth, by option or by simplified procedure,” says Caceres.
• Retrieving the documents. :You are going to be asked to produce a load of documents—birth certificates, marriage certificates, death certificates, divorce certificates, U.S. naturalization documents—sometime for every generation,” says Caceres. “It might not be that complicated if it’s for yourself, but for an ancestor who lived a century ago in a place you’re unsure of, it can be next to impossible without professional help.”
• You’ll need to legalize documents. “Apostille, notarize? What are those? Well, every official document, such as a birth certificate, must be authenticated before being handed to the authorities. Otherwise, they might be inadmissible. Some might even need to be translated,” says Caceres.
• Filling in the forms. “When you apply for any government services, there will be forms to fill out. It can be hard to understand them and to fill them out correctly, and it becomes trickier when they’re in a foreign language,” says Caceres. “Mistakes can lead to a lot of back and forth and prolong the process to years.”
• Closed consulates. “Due to Covid, some consulates have closed or reduced their services. The process might take additional years because of that. There might be legal ways around this,” says Caceres.