A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

How do I go about renouncing my U.S. citizenship?

June 27, 1997

Dear Cecil:

I'm thinking of renouncing my U.S. citizenship as a political protest. Where do I go to do this? What are the legal ramifications?

Cecil replies:

You're going to protest by renouncing your citizenship? I'm disappointed. Whatever happened to going to the U.S. embassy and setting yourself on fire?

But OK, I understand, it's the 90s.  [Well, it was when I wrote this. —C.A.]   And you probably read in the papers about this guy Terry Nichols, Timothy McVeigh's co-defendant in the Oklahoma City bombing, who supposedly renounced his citizenship in 1992. You're thinking, "Wow, hanging around with future mass murderers while working as a farmhand and selling army surplus. What a cool lifestyle!"

Whatever butters your bagel, pal. But you have to do it right. You probably have the idea that renouncing U.S. citizenship consists of going down to the town square, post office (the "all services" window, maybe?), or other public place and announcing, "The U.S. sucks. I quit."

Wrongo, Benedict Arnold-breath. The process is actually pretty complicated, and for good reason. Renouncing your citizenship is irrevocable, the political equivalent of a sex-change operation. While the powers that be are willing to make the big slice if that's what you really want, they don't want you waking up next morning and going, "Oh, @#$%!!"

Here's the procedure:

(1) Leave the country. There is no procedure for renouncing your citizenship while still physically present in the U.S. The government has the idea that if you're mad enough to renounce your citizenship you probably don't want to keep living here (although most militia types seem to want to stick around, presumably to keep their disgust fresh). Also, frankly, most of the 800 or so people who renounce their U.S. citizenship each year aren't protesters but rather are cases of "dual citizenship" who haven't lived in the U.S. for a long time. What typically happens is that someone is born in the U.S. to non-U.S. parents, who later return to their native land. Such a person is automatically a U.S. citizen but has a claim to his parents' nationality also. While dual citizenship is usually not illegal — the U.S. "tolerates" it — it can complicate your life, notably in connection with taxes. So many people choose one or the other on reaching adulthood.

(2) Apply for citizenship somewhere else. Strictly speaking this is optional, in the sense that it's optional to put on the parachute before you jump out of the plane. But if you're a stateless person living abroad and you get in a jam with the local authorities, or you want to get a passport to travel to yet another country (or back to this one), you're up fecal matter creek.

(3) Go to a U.S. embassy or consulate and tell them you want to renounce your citizenship. Often they'll try to talk you out of it, tell you to come back after you've slept it off, etc. Persist. Eventually they'll have you sign an oath of renunciation, an affidavit affirming the oath, and a "statement of understanding," which basically asks you if you're sure you know what you're doing. You also have to supply certain tax-related info and turn in your passport. The consular officer overseeing the proceedings must sign an attestation saying that in his opinion you're not off your nut. The papers will then be forwarded to the U.S. state department, which in the fullness of time will issue you a Certificate of Loss of Nationality. You're officially un-American. Lotsa luck.

One of many things to consider before you take this rash step is the kind of company you'll be keeping. Setting aside cases of dual nationality, emigration, etc., people who renounce their citizenship typically are war criminals (who do it under the baleful eye of a judge to avoid the expense of a deportation hearing), the aforementioned militia members, and billionaire fat cats who do it to avoid U.S. taxes (although the feds are tightening up on this — that's why they ask renunciants for tax info). My guess is you're not going to want to get together with these guys in some kind of support group.

One last data point you might find interesting. In 1991 a survey asked two thousand U.S. citizens, "What are you willing to do for $10 million?" Twenty-five percent of this very classy group said they'd abandon their families; 23 percent said they'd become a prostitute for a week. Only 16 percent said they'd renounce their U.S. citizenship.

Unamerican activities

Dear Cecil:

I couldn't believe you wrote that the U.S. "tolerates" dual citizenship, and that people born in the U.S. to foreign parents are merely encouraged to choose their citizenship. The U.S. emphatically does not recognize dual citizenship, and those with foreign-born parents are allowed dual citizenship only until adulthood, when they are required to choose. I learned this in eighth grade civics class, but I seem to be the only person that remembers it.

I had an aquaintance who had trouble managing her dual U.S.-Israeli citizenship. As I remember it, she was trying to use her dual citizenship status to avoid serving time in the Israeli army. Unfortunately, the U.S. wouldn't back her up since we don't recognize dual citizenship. She had to either serve in the Israeli army (which meant, I'm pretty sure, renouncing her U.S. citizenship since the U.S. doesn't allow citizens to serve in foreign armed forces) or give up her Israeli citizenship.

Cecil replies:

Janet and my assistant little Ed exchanged a few notes about this. We tried to explain that the U.S. tolerates dual citizenship but doesn't officially recognize it. Janet found this policy unacceptably ambiguous and blamed us for allowing it to persist. You've probably met people like this.

Anyway, we went back and confirmed the following:

(1) Cecil was of course right. Persons with dual citizenship are encouraged but not required to choose one over the other on reaching adulthood. Troubled by this, Janet? Deal with it.

(2) Serving in another country's armed forces is not, in itself, illegal. You can't aid the enemy, of course, but what with the fall of communism and all, "enemies" is such an outmoded concept. Also, you can't serve as a commissioned or noncommissioned officer.

(3) If you're a dual citizen of the U.S. and Israel and you get an Israeli draft notice, your choices are either to serve or to renounce your Israeli citizenship. U.S. policy in the event an Israeli/American attempts to weasel out of her obligations is to explain the above and go, "poor baby."

Another thing. I said you had to leave the country to renounce your citizenship, which is true. However, maybe you can get back in. Here's the story from Jose Diaz of Puerto Rico:

"A number of our more radical separatists have initiated a movement to renounce U.S. citizenship. So far there's no stampede, but we have learned you can renounce citizenship formally and stay within the system, as in the case of [separatist leader] Juan Mari Bras. How? Simple.

"(1) Travel to a country with which the U.S. has liberal entry/exit policies, i.e., where all that is needed to enter/exit is a birth certificate.

"(2) Renounce citizenship in the U.S. embassy there.

"(3) Do not indicate what citizenship you'll be acquiring.

"(4) Get back to U.S. soil with your birth certificate.

"(5) Wait for the state department to issue your certificate of loss of nationality without noticing you did not truly emigrate anywhere.

"(6) Have a local court rule that you have an underlying `natural' nationality that entitles you to live on U.S. soil without being a citizen.

"This is obviously the tricky part. Essentially what the local court said was, Puerto Ricans became U.S. citizens in 1917, but U.S. rule over Puerto Rico started in 1899 so for 18 years the Puerto Rican people existed as non-citizen U.S. 'subjects' or 'nationals.' This 'colonial nationality,' as it were, was never formally repealed when U.S. citizenship was extended to us; therefore Mr. Mari Bras, in renouncing his citizenship, reverts to the condition of a non-citizen living under U.S. rule.

"This theory would only be useful to people such as Puerto Rican nationalists or members of Native American tribes recognized by the U.S. as 'sovereign nations,' who can claim some 'natural' nationality apart from the U.S. citizenship."

If only it were that simple, Jose. I have another note here citing various legal authorities (e.g., ex parte Knowles, 1855) to show that you can be (1) a citizen of a state without being (2) a citizen of the United States. As you may suspect, this is a prelude to the claim that (3) you can renounce your U.S. citizenship, stay in the U.S., and legally avoid federal income tax. I'm not about to investigate this because I figure anybody trying to prove you don't have to pay income tax is, ipso facto, wack. But if things get a little rocky during your next IRS audit and it's either this or jail, be my guest.

[Note from Little Ed: I was just reading somewhere, but can't remember where — damn, I'm starting to sound like the Teeming Millions — that the U.S. state department has issued new rules intended to forestall any further renounce-your-country-but-have-it-too stunts such as Mr. Mari Bras's.  Somebody remind me.]

The Teeming Millions remind us

Dear Cecil:

This is Jose Diaz, quoted in the column. At the end of the current version you wonder where you read about a determination contrary to Mari Brás's strategy. First, the State Department reversed itself regarding Mari Bras in 3 June 1998. This site, http://www.puertorico-herald.org/issues/vol2n10/maribras.shtml (run by a pro-U.S. Puerto Rican organization, site is still up, page now defunct), has quoted a series of articles that came out in the San Juan Star, a local English-language paper, on that subject. Among the quotes:

The State Department cited Mari Brás' own behavior after renouncing his U.S. citizenship in its reversal. The letter, signed by Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary Katherine Peterson, noted that when Mari Brás took his Oath of Renunciation in 1994, he acknowledged that he would become an alien with respect to laws and procedures regarding entry and control of aliens. Mari Brás' subsequent decision to continue living in Puerto Rico without registering as an alien showed he continued to exercise the privileges of U.S. citizenship, which is inconsistent with renunciation, the Department declared.

Then there was the case of Alberto Lozada-Colón, who actually sued the State Department to make his renunciation stick, and was shot down in federal court on 28 April 1998. The appeals court and ultimately the U.S. Supreme Court refused to take the case. (Stateside, it was reported mostly in Hispanic and "alternative-progressive" media.) As a result, here's the current State Department word on the issue: http://travel.state.gov/law/citizenship/citizenship_776.html. Specifically: C. Requirement — renounce all rights and privileges.

In the recent case of Colón v. U.S. Department of State, 2 F.Supp.2d 43 (1998), plaintiff was a United States citizen and resident of Puerto Rico, who executed an oath of renunciation before a consular officer at the U.S. Embassy in Santo Domingo. The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia rejected Colon's petition for a writ of mandamus directing the Secretary of State to approve a Certificate of Loss of Nationality in the case because the plaintiff wanted to retain one of the primary benefits of U.S. citizenship while claiming he was not a U.S. citizen. The Court described the plaintiff as a person, "claiming to renounce all rights and privileges of United States citizenship, [while] Plaintiff wants to continue to exercise one of the fundamental rights of citizenship, namely to travel freely throughout the world and when he wants to, return and reside in the United States." See also Jose Fufi Santori v. United States of America, 1994 U.S. App. LEXIS 16299 (1994) for a similar case.

A person who wants to renounce U.S. citizenship cannot decide to retain some of the privileges of citizenship, as this would be logically inconsistent with the concept of citizenship. Thus, such a person can be said to lack a full understanding of renouncing citizenship and/or lack the necessary intent to renounce citizenship, and the Department of State will not approve a loss of citizenship in such instances.

Of course, these cats insist that PR is not the U.S.

On top of this, there is this bit of info, www.globalassignment.com/4-22-99/renouncing.htm,[Link now defunct] which claims that laws passed in the 90s require that the names of any (real) renouncers be put in the Federal Register, and that the IRS hold any emigré worth more than a half mil to be ipso facto a tax evader. Dunno about that. I mean, I love America and all, and believe in chasing after tax cheats, but should people really be summarily pilloried and punished for daring to leave their birth country for a place that gives them a better deal?

Cecil replies:

I've checked around a bit and it appears the claims about listing in the Federal Register, assumptions about tax evasion, and so on are as described. See http://actionamerica.org/taxecon/taxpats.shtml.

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