Someone’s nationality is their legal relationship to a particular country, in which a person is either born, or because his or her parents are citizens of that country. It is the country that has jurisdiction over that person, the country that is legally responsible for protecting him or her for as long as he or she remains under its jurisdiction. The rights that are afforded to a person, and the responsibilities that are attached to those rights, vary depending on the country in which the person is born. To explore this concept, consider the following nationality definition.

Definition of Nationality


  1. The status of someone’s belonging to a particular nation, either because he was born there or because he underwent naturalization.
  2. Belonging to a certain country, sharing the same history, traditions, and language, of a people who live together in a particular country.


Unknown   Originally referred to having an allegiance to a sovereign monarch

What is Nationality

Someone’s nationality is their character as defined by the country to which they belong. Nationality establishes a person’s political status, particularly in to which country that person gives his allegiance. A person obtains his nationality either by being born into his country or by naturalization, which is the process he would need to undergo in order to become a citizen.

What is Citizenship

By definition, citizenship is the legal recognition of a person’s belonging to a particular country, according to the country’s custom or law. A person can hold citizenship in more than one country – this is called “dual nationality,” or he can be considered “stateless” if he does not hold citizenship in any particular country. The term “nationality” is often used interchangeably with “citizenship” in the English language, particularly when dealing with international law, though in some countries the two terms can have entirely different meanings.

Policies and Criteria for Citizenship

Citizenship in a particular country is automatically granted to a person who is born within that country. However, there are other policies and regulations that determine whether someone not born in a country may be granted citizenship. These vary by country, but some of the more common regulations and policies include:

  • Parent Citizens – If one or both a person’s parents are citizens of a particular country, that person may be able to obtain citizenship within that country.
  • Marriage to a Citizen – If someone is married to a citizen of another country, he may be entitled to a faster naturalization process. However, as is to be expected, many countries have regulations designed to sniff out sham marriages, in which a citizen agrees to marry a non-citizen in exchange for money, without ever intending to live together as a couple.
  • Naturalization – Most countries grant citizenship to those who enter legally, and have been granted permission to stay; or to those who have been granted political asylum. In many countries, this requires passing a test showing that they: a) have a working knowledge of the language and way of life of the country; b) have no criminal record; c) have a good moral character; and d) pledge allegiance to their new country and its ruler, and renounce their prior citizenship. (Those countries that allow dual citizenship will not require such a formal renunciation.)

Dual Nationality

Dual nationality can also be called “multiple citizenship,” and both terms are used to describe a person who is a citizen of multiple countries simultaneously, and is bound by the laws of each of those countries. While the common belief is that a person can “hold” multiple citizenships, the reality is that each nation to which the person claims citizenship, can individually refer to that person as its citizen. What this means is that, if someone has dual nationality in both the United States and Australia, the United States can claim him as a citizen of the United States, while at the same time, Australia can claim that he is a citizen of Australia.

Some countries do not allow citizens to “hold” dual nationality, or dual citizenship. Some of these countries can actually force people to go through the naturalization process to make them renounce their remaining citizenships, though some countries do not even allow renunciation.

Another way a country may deal with the issue of dual nationality is to take away citizenship from a citizen who has voluntarily chosen to obtain citizenship in another country. Some countries allow dual citizenship, but limit the number of countries in which its citizens can hold citizenship; this is an example of nationality being restricted.

Those countries that do allow dual nationality may refuse to acknowledge any of the activities that the person would like to pursue that are directly related to the country’s affairs, such as entering military service, or registering to vote.

Example of Nationality Becoming a Hindrance

Should Lisa, who holds dual nationality and citizenship in North Country and East Country, desire to vote in East Country’s election, she may not be permitted to do so, as she is a citizen of another country. In this example of nationality complexity, should Lisa be permitted to vote in East Country, and she exercises that right, she may unwittingly relinquish her North Country nationality.

An example of nationality becoming a hindrance to someone who wants to actively participate in one of his countries’ activities is if a United States citizen who was also a citizen of, say, the U.K. wanted to vote in the U.K.’s elections, the U.K. might not permit the person to do such a thing, seeing as he is a citizen of another country.

If the person is permitted to vote in the U.K., however, he may be unwittingly relinquishing his nationality to the United States by showing his allegiance to another country. On a related note, some countries do not allow those who hold dual citizenship to serve in their militaries, become police officers, or seek positions in public office.

National Identity

A person’s national identity is his or her sense of belonging to one country in particular. The person can feel a national identity without being a legal citizen of that country. A positive sense of national identity is expressed as patriotism, which is when someone holds a deep pride and positive emotions for his country. To express patriotism in the extreme is referred to as “chauvinism,” which means the person is extremely loyal to his country, and firmly believes that his country is superior to all others.

National identity is not a feeling that someone is born with, but a feeling that develops as a result of his social environment. Elements in the person’s everyday life, such as the media he enjoys (television, music, etc.), the food he eats, the language he speaks, and the blood ties he values all have an effect on his national identity. This identifies the country to which he feels the strongest allegiance.


Ethnicity refers to a belonging to a social or cultural group of people with similar cultural traits, such as a common language, or similar social and cultural experiences. Ethnicity is usually an inherited status, as opposed to other social groups that unite citizens, such as their income ranges, ages, and hobbies.

For example:

Martha was born and raised in the U.S., but her parents are citizens of Mexico. Having grown up with the traditions of her Hispanic parents, other relatives, and friends, Martha identifies with her Mexican heritage. Martha’s ethnicity is Hispanic, or more specifically, Mexican.

An ethnic group is normally defined by a shared language, religion, history, heritage, cuisine, art, or even physical appearance, or other shared traits. Because some of these things can change in a person’s life, such as a person converting to a different religion, or learning a new language, it is possible to leave one ethnic group and join another.

Ethnicity may also be referred to as a “nation,” or a “people,” and is used to describe a group consisting of members with similar traits. In the English language, however, referring to someone or something “ethnic” is usually suggesting an exotic characteristic. An “ethnic restaurant,” for instance, is a good illustration of the use of the term in this way.

Immigration and Nationality Act

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 put an end to the National Origins Formula, which had been instituted in 1921 by the Emergency Quota Act. The purpose of the Emergency Quota Act (“EQA”) was to serve as temporary legislation reducing the number of immigrants who were allowed to enter the United States. However, the EQA ended up being more influential than intended, as it added two additional features to American immigration law:

  1. Numerical limits on immigration
  2. A quota system to establish and enforce those limits

The National Origins Formula, which was created by the Emergency Quota Act, restricted immigration based on how many immigrants from any given country were already present in the U.S. population. The goal of the Formula was to reduce the number of unskilled immigrants who would be granted citizenship, and reduce the likelihood that distribution of any given ethnicity cause the population to become unbalanced. The Immigration and Nationality Act did away with this quota system entirely.

While the Immigration and Nationality Act maintained the per-country limits, it also established preference visa categories, meaning that immigrants with desired skill sets, or with existing family relationships with citizens or legal U.S. residents, were given preferential treatment. The number of visas that could be issued was limited to 170,000 per year, though only a certain number of people from each country were allowed to enter. However, immediate relatives of U.S. citizens who were seeking U.S. citizenship, as well as those who were deemed “special immigrants” had no restrictions whatsoever.

Nationality Example in Statelessness

An example of nationality coming into question before the Supreme Court – which concerned a citizen unexpectedly being left stateless – can be found in the case of Immigration and Naturalization Service v. Chadha. Here, Jagdish Rai Chadha, who was born to Indian parents in The British Empire’s colony located in Kenya, held a British passport and used it to visit Ohio as a foreign exchange student.

After Kenya declared its independence from Britain in 1963, Chadha was no longer recognized as a citizen of Kenya, since his parents were Indian. Neither was he recognized as being a citizen of either the United Kingdom or India, since he was born in Kenya. Chadha effectively became stateless when his non-immigrant student visa expired, because none of these three countries would accept him as a citizen.

The INS started deportation proceedings against Chadha, which he tried to have suspended. The Immigration judge granted his request, recognizing that Chadha met the requirements for remaining in the U.S., as described in the Immigration and Nationality Act, Section 244(c)(2). These included residency in the country, character, and hardship. The suspension was reported to Congress, but the House of Representatives vetoed the suspension, and the deportation proceedings resumed.

Chadha’s case went to the federal Court of Appeals, which found in favor of Chadha, ruling that the veto and deportation proceedings were unconstitutional, and directed the Attorney General to suspend them. The U.S. Supreme Court then considered whether or not the appellate court had authority to overturn a congressional veto, and whether or not Congress has the authority to grant itself veto power in these matters. Ultimately, the Supreme Court ruled that the House of Representatives’ veto was “constitutionally invalid, unenforceable, and not binding.”

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Jurisdiction – The legal authority to hear legal cases and make judgments; the geographical region of authority to enforce justice.
  • Naturalization – The process by which a foreign citizen is granted United States citizenship, after he or she is determined to have fully met the requirements established in the Immigration and Nationality Act.
  • Political Asylum – The protection that a nation grants to someone who leaves his or her country as a political refugee.

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