What Happens if you Renounce Your Citizenship But Don’t Belong to Another Country When You Do It?

Sarah M. asks: What happens if you renounce your citizenship but don’t belong to another country when you do it?

It turns out, renouncing your citizenship to a given nation is generally a fairly simple affair in many nations of the world. It doesn’t even usually cost that much. For example, in the UK- fittingly for a country stereotypical known for its aversion to social conflict- renouncing citizenship can be done by mail and costs a mere  £272.

In the US, it’s a bit more expensive, jumping in price almost 400% in the last decade, up now to $2,350. This price hike was in response to the dramatic rise in people renouncing their citizenship starting around 2010, which we’ll discuss in the Bonus Facts later. But as for the actual process, according to U.S. Department of State, outside of settling potential tax bills, affirming you’re renouncing voluntarily and the like, which is pretty standard with most nations, in a nutshell all one needs to do is “Appear in person before a U.S. consular or diplomatic officer and sign an oath of renunciations.” You’ll then later receive a Certificate of Loss of Nationality, signifying you are no longer a U.S. citizen.

Now, if the person does not already have citizenship with another nation when they attempt to do this, the State Department employee will counsel the person on the many difficulties the individual will soon face if they choose to go through with renouncing their citizenship.

You see, should they do this without being a citizen of another nation, they will become what is known as stateless. While difficulties vary for stateless people depending on the country they currently reside in, in general, many otherwise commonplace things can potentially become very problematic for these people- things like getting a job, getting access to education for their kids or themselves, getting citizenship for their potential future children, ability to get married, get a driver’s license, rent or buy a house, travel across borders, or even just getting a bank account. A bigger problem for some is the loss of certain legal protections they’d otherwise be granted.

On this note, in the United States, the over four million stateless people residing in America can potentially be arrested without having committed any crime and jailed for many months, generally while the the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement tries to find a country to deport them to, if possible.

In fact, before 2001 stateless people, as well as certain immigrants, in the United States could be detained in this way indefinitely. However, this all changed with the case of Zadvydas v. Davis. As a child, Zadvydas immigrated to the U.S. legally with his parents not long after WWII.  He later committed a crime and after serving his sentence, was slated to be deported. The problem was that he was born in a displaced person’s camp in Lithuania in 1948, and neither Lithuania nor Germany would claim him as a citizen when the U.S. tried to deport him.

After three years of being detained in this way with no country willing to take him, the Supreme Court ruled that the government cannot detain immigrants (legal or not) or stateless people indefinitely, even if a deport order has been secured through the courts. A maximum of 6 months for the detained period was then set, unless it appeared removal seemed likely in the process of negotiations with whatever foreign country- then the individual can be detained longer.

Even so, the fact that they can be detained on a whim at all is a very real problem for stateless people, particularly in recent times with efforts ramped up to deport certain non-citizens. As noted by Professor of immigration Law David Baluarte,

Many systems of immigration have the assumption that if they can’t stay here, they have somewhere else to go to. Stateless people end up being uniquely disadvantaged because they can be picked up, scheduled for deportation and then no one knows what to do with them… [U.S. Immigration] authorities spend a lot of time trying to remove these people. It’s like they live on parole, having to live on the whim of immigration policy. When there are problems in their immigration status, a stateless person can do nothing.

This said, it is possible to live a fairly normal life as a stateless person in some countries, even in the United States.  For example, in the U.S. it is still possible to get a work visa if you are stateless, allowing for gainful employment, among other provisions that can be applied for and potentially, though not necessarily, granted.

As another example, in Hong Kong, a stateless person can apply for things like an unconditional stay visa which grants them some basic rights without actually conferring any citizenship status.

A similar example is the case of native Russians living in the “Schengen Area” after the collapse of the Soviet Union. For those unfamiliar, this is a collection of 26 countries in Europe where there’s no passport control between their borders.

What happened here is that when the Soviet Union was broken up, under the laws of the time, native Russians living in certain areas of Europe couldn’t apply for citizenship in those countries and some, for one reason or another, chose not to apply for Russian citizenship or were denied when they did apply. Although technically stateless, these people can nonetheless still travel freely about the Schengen Area, meaning the problems with crossing borders for the stateless in their case is lessened to a degree.

This all brings us to the surprising number of ways one can become stateless involuntarily. To start with, the aforementioned example of a nation breaking up tends to see a relatively large spike in stateless people in the aftermath, generally because for some people none of the new nations will accept them- sometimes for ethnic or religious reasons, and sometimes just because records are lost or destroyed and so nobody has the needed documentation to prove citizenship for a small subset of the population.

For this reason and the difficulty in crossing borders, a rather odd quirk of stateless people is that the majority of them were born and raised in the very place, or sometimes even in the still existing nation, that will not claim them as a citizen.

On this note, it’s worth explicitly mentioning that many nations do not automatically grant citizenship based on birth location, but based on other factors- things like the citizenship of parents, or in some cases only one parent, often the father. This is rather unfortunate for children of parents who are stateless, or in cases of nations where the child was conceived out of wedlock, such as in Saudi Arabia where that child may not be granted citizenship as a result and thus the person is born stateless. In other cases if the father will not claim the child or where the father isn’t known, even if the mother is a citizen, it likewise may not matter and the child may be denied citizenship.

As another example of how a child can be born stateless, in some nations if a baby is born outside of the nation’s boundaries, such as with Cuban citizens, and the nation where the child is born will not grant them citizenship, even if the parents are both Cuban, Cuba will not necessarily grant the child citizenship. Thus, there is potential for the child to end up stateless if application for citizenship is denied. This situation is not unique to Cuba.

As yet another way some people are born stateless, this can occasionally just come down to bad record keeping or failure of the parents or hospital to properly register the baby at or around birth.

Unsurprisingly from the many ways it’s possible for a person to become involuntarily stateless and the many downsides to existing in such a state, this is considered a pretty big world problem today with it known that there are at least around 12 million stateless people world-wide, with the actual figure thought to be significantly higher. In response, the UN Refugee Agency has relatively recently launched a campaign to end statelessness by 2024 and is in the process of working with various nations to try to make this happen.

But coming back to those rare individuals who voluntarily become stateless, this is actually hard to do in most countries, with one of the few exceptions being the aforementioned case of the United States.

So how do other nations get around this problem? As a typical example, British citizens wanting to formally renounce their nationality MUST have either dual nationality or have provisions in place to receive citizenship from another country. This latter point is important because certain countries require you to renounce any former citizenship before you can become a citizen of the new country.

So what happens here if you renounce your citizenship but then get denied into the new country? Helpfully, in the UK, if the person renouncing their citizenship doesn’t receive citizenship from another country within 6 months after they’ve applied to relinquish their nationality, the decision will be quashed and they will remain a British citizen to stop them from becoming stateless. This is more or less how most countries handle this situation.

No such provisions exists in the United States for a person who renounces their citizenship and if the person in question can’t, or simply doesn’t, attain citizenship from another country before the decision to renounce their nationality is finalised, they will be considered stateless and can only hope another nation will later grant them citizenship.

But to sum up, renouncing your citizenship is a mildly costly, though generally surprisingly easy process that results in you losing the benefits and protections of being a citizen of the country you’re relinquishing your citizenship to. It’s a decision that should never be taken lightly and is usually irreversible, but is also essential if you wish to become a citizen of certain foreign countries. However, with the exception of a few countries like the United States, if you choose to renounce to become a citizen of one of those countries that requires this is done before hand and then that country denies your application, your original country will simply cancel your request to rescind your citizenship to keep you from becoming one of the many millions world-wide that have found themselves in the unfortunate state of being stateless, usually involuntarily, with no nation willing to take them in as a citizen.

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Bonus Facts:

  • While you might have initially thought that the sudden rise in Americans renouncing their citizenship around 2010 (going from about 1,000 people per year in 2010 and rising every year since, up to about 6,000 people in 2016) must have had something to do with the current rather polarized political climate, at least initially, it actually had to do with a side-effect of trying to stop certain wealthy individuals from getting out of paying their taxes. Enter The Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act of 2010.Fully explaining the purpose and ramifications of this Act would take quite some time, so we’ll just quote Congressman Charles Rangel who summed it up nicely, “The overall purpose of the law is to detect, deter and discourage offshore tax abuses through increased transparency, enhanced reporting and strong sanctions.”Unfortunately for the little guy, this saw ordinary Americans living in foreign countries being forced to submit a second tax return regardless of where in the world they lived and whether or not they already paid taxes in that country. Previous to this Act, if said citizens living abroad made less than $106,000 per year, they were not subject to the quasi-double taxation. (It should be noted that if one does pay taxes in the foreign nation, tax credits are applied by the IRS, so it’s usually not a full double taxation. It’s also worthy of note that the U.S. is almost the only nation on Earth to have such a citizen based taxation system, rather than it being based on where the person lives.)

    In any event, even if the person in question was willing to be double taxed, because of some of the rules surrounding this Act, it also had a side effect of making many foreign banks unwilling to allow membership or deal with at all American citizens living abroad. Why? In a nutshell, the IRS required all foreign banks to disclose account information, assets, etc. of any person holding American citizenship who dealt with the bank. Failure to do so would result in rather severe penalties for the bank should they wish to deal with any U.S. institution. Thus, rather than deal with the paperwork overhead and potential to make a mistake in case where someone maybe has dual citizenship or the like and the bank didn’t know they had American citizenship, many banks just chose to blanket deny service to anyone who they knew held American citizenship. Naturally, many of these people, some of whom hadn’t lived in the United States for decades, decided to simply renounce their American citizenship to get around the double taxation problem and occasional hassles with getting bank accounts and loans and the like.

  • Perhaps the most famous renouncer of American citizenship because of this tax law change is former Mayor of London and British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. While he was born to British parents, they were in the U.S. at the time of his birth, granting him U.S. citizenship. He’d go on to grow up in Britain, but never bothered to go through the process of renouncing his U.S. citizenship until the change in tax law, around which time he was forced to pay the U.S. some taxes on a house he sold. Peeved at having to pay such taxes to the U.S. for his house in Britain, he promptly paid the taxes and renounced his U.S. citizenship.
  • On this note, before you are allowed to renounce citizenship in the United States, you must first pay all owed taxes. For those who make over $160,000 or so a year or have over $2 million in assets, they also tack on a rather hefty exit tax on your estate.  It’s also noteworthy that renouncing U.S. Citizenship also results in your name being added to a private FBI register and the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
  • Minors are generally not allowed to renounce their citizenship. However, in the U.S. they may be allowed if they can prove they are doing so of their own accord and not because of pressure from their parents or others to do so. In the U.S. and certain other countries, they may also be able to renounce citizenship if it is deemed there is good cause for them to do so. In the U.S., in these cases those under the age of 18 are uniquely the only people able to renounce their renouncing of their citizenship, so long as they do so “within six months after attaining the age of eighteen”.
  • It’s also worth mentioning that if you renounce your U.S. citizenship and are entitled to some form of government retirement program, such as for ex-military personnel, you officially forfeit your right to that. However, if you are entitled to receive social security, you still get that, owing to, of course, having paid into it previously to achieve that entitlement.
  • Children who are born stateless in a former British territory can apply to become a “British protected person” if one or both of their parents were similarly also considered to be British protected person under the eyes of the law or if they simply were always stateless and born in the UK or a territory of the UK. While legally distinct from a British citizen, British protected persons can hold a British passport and are granted a number of basic rights such as the ability to apply for assistance from British consulates in certain foreign countries.
  • There is one advantage to being stateless if you happen to wish to be an Olympian.  Stateless people can compete at the Olympics as an independent athlete of no nation. In these exceptional cases, the athlete will compete under a simple white flag bearing the Olympic logo and will be assisted by the Olympic Committee to make visiting a given foreign country to compete as painless as possible. That said, there is no guarantee they will be able to travel and compete in these cases and then returning to their former residence can also sometimes be a major pain, if not impossible. Though many athletes competing under no nation are technically stateless, they’re usually from newly independent countries that have yet to form an official Olympic committee.
  • Contrary to what is sometimes said, renouncing citizenship does not mean you can no longer ever visit your former nation again. Assuming you are a citizen of another country after renouncing, you can still generally travel back to your former country under the same type of rules and regulations as anyone else from whatever country you’ve attained citizenship from.
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  • As a curiosity, the american citizenship oath states that the person freely and willingly gives up all his/her other citizenships, meaning that upon becoming an american you automatically lose your former citizenship.
    Although just a verbal agreement this oath is valid and recently had a (former) brazilian expelled from Brazil when she was found guilt for the murder of her american husband. She fled the US after the crime hoping to escape the american law in Brazil, but american prosecutors demanded her extradition stating that since she got the american citizenship she was no longer brazilian. Brazil acknowledge the lost citizenship and accepted the request handing her to the american authorities.

    • Absolutgrndzer0

      The American citizenship oath says it, but you don’t actually have to unless, in your example case, the OTHER government accepts it no question. But I know a Welsh-born woman who recently got her U.S Citizenship and now proudly declares herself a dual-citizen. It’s a similar case to the U.S. Flag Code. While the U.S. Flag Code states that it’s illegal to burn an American flag and it is technically legally binding, you can’t actually be prosecuted for it due to the First Amendment Freedom of Speech. So maybe if she were to kill someone then yea, Wales might be like “Uh, yeah sure. You can have her back, we’ll cancel her citizenship.” they don’t have to.

  • You must renounce your citizenship at a US consulate abroad, and the consular officer will strongly advise to not do that if you don’t have another citizenship. Here are the consequences, from a US consular point of view: they are severely understated. See Section D at this link: Renunciation of U.S. Nationality Abroad

  • Michael Moore is that you?

  • Karl, thank you for the article. I have a question that you seem to be able to answer.

    What happens to a citizen of a country A who emigrates from that country A to country B, but never becomes a citizen of country B–in other words, continues to live in alien status, AND in the meantime, country A becomes a different country, now country C?

    Is the person with the passport of country A still a citizen of country A?

    A good example of this would be someone who left Lithuania in 1900, when it was still part of Russia. The person spoke Lithuanian, considered themselves Lithuanian,
    had Lithuanian ancestors, and was born in a central city like Kaunas, that would, in less than 20 years, become a city in the country of Lithuania.

    Would this person return to Lithuania in 1920 (when Lithuania was an independent country) with the Russian passport they had left Lithuania on, 20 years earlier? Would the passport be invalid? Would this person now be considered stateless?

  • I can’t understand why one would chose to become a living nightmare like that for stupid anarchistic reasons – can’t think of anything else – …

  • I am not surprised that anyone would consider renouncing their US citizenship given the level of stupidity in cancel culture and the current state of affairs.