Parviz Malakouti, Esq.
“Semi-Citizenships”: A Plan B for Your Mobility Portfolio (Part 1)
Updated: Apr 19
By Parviz Malakouti-Fitzgerald, Esq.
Perhaps there are few new things under the sun in the world of international travel, but there are some tools of global citizenship that are still little known, even among the jet-set crowd.
With covid-19 having turned countless employees into remote workers and remote workers into digital nomads, millions of Americans are starting to pull up anchor and wonder where they should spend this newfound geographic freedom and which visas, residencies or citizenships they need in order to get there.
Most international travelers easily grasp the concepts of citizenship, permanent residence, and even the rise of the newfangled independent-means (nomad) visas but relatively few are aware of the existence of what this author calls “semi-citizenships” (“SC”s) and the critical role SCs can play in their mobility-asset portfolio.
As a practical matter, semi-citizenships are typically based on an applicant’s near or distant heritage connection to the country (As a result, not everyone will qualify for a semi-citizenship).
They have hybrid qualities of both a residency and a citizenship but most stop short of granting the holder two hallmarks of full citizenship:
1) a shiny new passport book; and
2) the right to vote in the country’s federal elections.
The Benefits of Semi-Citizenships
However, the common benefits of SCs typically include:
The right to settle and work in the country indefinitely;
A substantially shortened time frame for naturalization in the country;
Some social service benefits within the country, such as socialized healthcare access, reduced university fees, waiver of immigration application fees, or waiver of public transportation fees.
If you don’t qualify for an outright citizenship by descent or you can’t afford a second citizenship by investment, obtaining the benefits of a semi-citizenship are nothing to sneeze at. Having this sort of access can be attractive for the digital nomad, online entrepreneur, recent retiree and those looking for increased global mobility.
Some SC applications even include minor children of applicants.
Semi-citizenships are often characterized as “a recognition of nationality” (i.e. Slovakia, Poland) or an “ethnic origin” certificate (i.e. Lithuania, India) but at their core, their common nexus is that they usually have some, but not all of the essential elements of a citizenship. SCs are generally only available to descendants of citizens of the country (i.e. Slovakia) or citizens of the country’s predecessor (i.e. Czechoslovakia).
Oftentimes, they’re described as denoting the recipient’s nationality but not citizenship (a nod to the distinction between nations and nation-states). Some of these semi-citizenships were developed in a bid to give a status to their nationals living abroad without conferring citizenship due to legal restrictions on dual citizenship within the granting state (i.e. Ukraine, Slovakia, India) or in a state in which a large percentage of the granting state’s diaspora live.
As recent events in Ukraine have illustrated, sometimes having the ability to immediately settle in another country - any other country - can even be a matter of life and death.
Jus Culturae’s Unique Role in Semi-Citizenships
Notably, some SCs (such as Poland’s Pole Card) come with a “jus culturae” element of some sort requiring a level of familiarity with the language and/or culture of the country.
If you didn’t grow up with the country’s culture, don’t fret. This requirement, where it exists, is typically satisfied by demonstrating a bit of cultural competence in an interview of the applicant or by documenting participation in a local cultural organization or some sort of recognition of the individual in the diasporic community.
Therefore, these semi-citizenships are most attractive to individuals willing to put a bit of sweat equity into growing their mobility toolbox by taking some time to connect with their heritage. Naturally, finer issues of eligibility for any particular applicant may exist and should be investigated with a qualified professional.
Here is an incomprehensive list of seven semi-citizenships that may be hiding from your mobility asset portfolio, along with a description of their basic eligibility requirements and benefits to the holder.
They are Poland, Lithuania, Slovakia, Ukraine, Armenia, India and Ethiopia.
Between them, an estimated millions of Americans alone qualify for at least one of the semi-citizenships mentioned below. In this author’s experience as an immigration attorney, only a tiny fraction of eligible individuals are aware of the fact.
#1 - Pole Card (Karta Polaka)
Descendants of a Polish national parent, grandparent or two great-grandparents who can demonstrate basic knowledge of the Polish language as well as cultures and traditions.
Provides the right of residency and work authorization in Poland.
Shortens residency period to only one year for naturalization eligibility in Poland (an EU member state).
Fee waiver for visa application and naturalization application.
#2 - Certificate of Lithuanian Descent
Persons who believe themselves to be a Lithuanian and declare the same in writing and whose parents and/or grandparents or at least one of them was of Lithuanian origin.
Right of residence permit in Lithuania (which includes right of settlement and work authorization).
Serves as proof of Lithuanian origin for the purposes of applying for descent-based citizenship in Lithuania (an EU member state).
#3 - Slovak Living Abroad (“SLA”) Certificate
Descendants of ethnic Slovaks who can prove their ancestry and familiarity with Slovak culture and language. There is no generational limit of eligibility.
The cultural and language “awareness” requirement is typically met by obtaining a letter from a “local” Slovak cultural organization attesting to the applicant’s cultural familiarity.
The automatic right of residence in Slovakia (although a residency application must still be submitted), with a number of the typically invasive documentary requirements (proof of income, lodging, etc.) waived.
A shortened three year residence time period to naturalization.
Free access to a number of Slovak social services.
Note: The right of residency provided by an SLA could give the applicant Slovak residency required to qualify for citizenship by descent in Slovakia’s brand new citizenship by descent program.
#4 - Status of the Foreign Ukrainian
Persons having Ukrainian ethnic origin or originating from Ukraine.
The right to a free multi-entry visa to visit Ukraine.
A facilitated immigration path for Ukrainian permanent residence.
Possible state subsidy for higher education in Ukrainian institutions of higher educatio
#5 - Armenian Special Passport
Other distinguished individuals who have provided significant services to the Armenian state and nation and/or are engaged in economic and cultural activities in Armenia.
The right to travel freely to and from Armenia without a visa, to live, work, study, and operate a business.
The right to own agricultural and other land directly in his/her own name, without the need to establish a legal entity.
#6 - Overseas Citizen of India (OCI)
A foreign national who was a citizen of India at the time of, or at any time after 26th January 26th, 1950.
A foreign national who was eligible to become a citizen of India on January 26th 1950.
A foreign national who belonged to a territory that became part of India after August 15th, 1947.
A foreign national who is a child or a grandchild or a great grandchild of any of the citizens mentioned above.
The right to visa-free travel to India for a period of 15 years from the date of issue of the OCI card.
Exemption from “Foreigner Registration” requirements if their stay does not exceed 180 days.
The right to own real property (except agricultural property) in India without fulfilling residency requirement of 183+ days per year.
#7 - Ethiopian Origin ID Card (Yellow Card)
Individuals of Ethiopian origin.
Spouses of Ethiopian origin ID holders.
Right of visa free entry to Ethiopia.
The right to obtain a residency permit and work permit.
Right to own real property in Ethiopia.
How to Find Out if You Qualify
Exploring eligibility is a matter of a) discovering your own ethnic and national heritage and b) screening potential countries for eligibility. To get started, this author recommends the following steps:
Find out where your parents, grandparents and great-grandparents a) were born, b) what ethnicity they were and c) what nationality they held.
Once you’ve targeted a country or countries, search the country’s embassy’s website for information on the certificate, card, status, or ID card you may qualify for.
Contact an immigration professional for a consultation with an expert to discuss whether you qualify, and whether obtaining official documentation is likely to be a problem.
As with many matters related to immigration and citizenship benefits, sometimes obtaining the benefit is easier said than done but all progress starts with a first step.
Parviz Malakouti-Fitzgerald is an LA-based immigration attorney and adjunct Professor of immigration law. Parviz is an expert consultant on matters of human freedom of mobility, and global citizenship.