Actually It’s Citizenship, Not Passport
Updated: Nov 4
By Parviz Malakouti-Fitzgerald, Esq.
What does it actually mean to have two passports?
“He has two passports.”
“We can get you a second passport.”
"I have two passports.”
We’ve all heard these phrases, and 98% of people nod in agreement as if all are in mutual understanding of what’s being said.
They’re talking about dual citizenship, right?
I am not so sure about that. You shouldn’t be sure either.
Does the person mean he’s an American single citizen who’s applied for a second passport book with the U.S. Department of State? It may be handy if you travel a lot, but that’s two American passports, with still only one citizenship.
A person can hold two valid U.S. passports simultaneously
Or maybe you're referring to your current valid U.S. passport you can travel with and your expired U.S. passport, which is still valid as a form of ID domestically with TSA, and many other U.S. government agencies.
You still only have one citizenship.
Perhaps it means you're a refugee with a passport from your country of citizenship, such as Russia, and a refugee travel document (i.e. "Geneva passport") from another country, such as the U.S.
In this case, you are still not a dual citizen.
An old United States INS Refugee Travel Document (i.e. Geneva Passport)
Possibly, you have a "British Overseas Citizen" passport as the citizen of a former British colony.And you have a passport from that country of citizenship. Despite the terminology of "BOC", this person is a citizen of only one country, as they don't have the right of abode in the UK.
This passport of a British Overseas Citizen ("BOC") looks the same as the passport of a "full" British Citizen from the outside
Or per chance you're a Canadian citizen of Armenian ancestry with an "Armenian special passport" and your Canadian passport as a Canadian citizen. Once again, that means you have two passports, but still only one citizenship.
The holder of this Armenian special passport is not a citizen of Armenia
Maybe we need to look more closely at just what exactly “passport” and “citizenship” are.
Two Passports, One Citizenship
In all of the scenarios above, the "dual passport holder" is still only a citizen of only one country. This can be true because a country's mere issuance of a passport to an individual does not necessarily mean the individual has citizenship of that country.
There are many more such real life scenarios. You can satiate your curiosity by seeing this European Union list of dozens of alternative travel documents issued by countries to non-citizens.
The truth is that a passport is just a form of identification and a travel document.
Also, some passports issued only to citizens are strong (even the strongest) evidence of citizenship, but a passport is not citizenship itself. Citizenship is a legal relationship between a person and a nation state that invokes many rights and obligations.
As demonstrated above, not all passports and travel documents are issued by a country only to its citizens! Therefore, knowing that someone has a passport from country X does not necessarily mean the person is a citizen of country X.
Citizenship is much deeper, multi-layered and nuanced than a passport.
British Certificate of Naturalization
You can lose the passport and still be a citizen of that very country. Alternatively, you can lose the citizenship of the country and still have its passport.
So, of course, two passports certainly does not necessarily mean two citizenships.
Passport Problems vs. Citizenship Problems
Because a passport is not a citizenship, it obviously follows that the very nature of passport problems differs from citizenship problems.
Here are common passport problems:
- It's lost
- It's stolen
- Your home government won't or can't issue one
- Your home government rescinded it
- It's damaged
- It's missing a visa stamp
- It's got an undesirable visa stamp
You can see more passport problems in my mobility concepts article 9 Passport Attack Vectors.
I had a Venezuelan client in the United States who couldn’t renew her Venezuelan passport. She was and is entitled to all the rights of Venezuelan citizenship, but she couldn’t get a valid travel document. That’s a passport problem.
Here are a list of citizenship problems:
- Poor visa-free travel (yes, this is a CITIZENSHIP issue)
- Limited geographic area of residence rights
- Travel restrictions (i.e. Russia, Iran)
- Economic sanctions imposed on its holders (i.e. Iran)
- Immigration restrictions imposed on its holders (i.e.. U.S. visa bulletin & India)
- Mandatory military service (i.e. Singapore, Iran, Israel)
- Mandatory tax reporting (i.e. U.S.)
By reading the list, one gets a feel of the difference between the two. It’s apparent that passport problems are documentary in nature, whereas citizenship problems are much more expansive, deep and complex in nature.
Do not take this to mean that only citizenship is important, and that passport isn’t. The two are both important due to the modern nation state system. But they are different in theory and in practice.
Why the Difference Matters
Understanding the difference between citizenship and passport matters because if you don't observe the difference mentally and conversationally, you won't have clarity on your:
- ability to pass a given country's border control
- ability to have visa-free entry
- right stay in a country (including duration)
- right to consular assistance
- ability to pass mobility rights to your children
- other benefits of citizenship
Being confused on those points is a good way to eventually get yourself wrecked.
That’s because sooner or later, you’ll inevitably make a costly misstep when you mistakenly think you need a passport, when in fact you need a citizenship or vice versa, and you’ll be hazy on the difference.
And yes, I’ve seen this happen with clients of mine, and I’m sure I’ll see it again. For your own sake, understand that a passport is not citizenship.