Citizenship Vs Nationality: What’s The Difference?

When it comes to matters of immigraion, it’s important to understand the definitions of key terms and concepts to help ensure a smooth and painless process.


One thing we’re asked frequently by clients is to explain the difference between citizenship and nationality, so we’ve put this article together to help get to an understanding of these terms.

Citizenship vs Nationality

What Is Citizenship?

The idea of ‘citizenship’ relates to a person’s legal status in a city or a state, and formal relationship between that institution and the citizen. It is a two way relationship: the citizen is granted a set of rights within the city or state (for example the right to participate in the political life of the state, such as by voting or standing for election). In return that citizen has obligations or duties they owe to that institution.

What Is Nationality?

The rights and obligations of nationals vary between territories – they are often complemented by citizenship law, in some contexts to the point where citizenship is synonymous with nationality, so it’s understandable why it can become confusing.


However, nationality differs in a legal sense from citizenship, which is a different kind of relationship between a person and a country. The term ‘national’ can include both citizens and non-citizens.


In most modern countries:


  • all nationals are citizens of the state, and
  • full citizens are always nationals of the state.

So What Is The Difference?


Historically, the most significant difference between a national and a citizen is that the citizen has the right to vote for elected officials, and the right to be elected. This distinction between full citizenship and other relationships like nationality has a long history.


Until the 20th century, it was common for only a certain selection of people who belonged to the state to be considered full citizens. Many people were excluded from citizenship and discriminated against on the basis of factors such as sex, class, ethnicity, etc. However, they held a legal relationship with their government which could be likened to the modern concept of nationality.

‘Nationality’ refers to where you are born, whereas ‘citizenship’ is granted by a government of a country when certain legal obligations or rules are fulfilled.

People often confuse the difference between citizenship vs. nationality when describing:


  1. a) where they were born and
  2. b) their inherited cultural background.

In Summary

Citizenship can be seen as a political status because it indicates which country recognizes you as a citizen. Citizenship is more fluid as you can be a citizen of multiple countries or states at the same time, and you also have the ability to rescind your citizenship to a country.


Nationality is more about the relationship between you and your place of birth; sometimes it is seen as ethnic or racially related. Nationality cannot be changed in the same way as citizenship.

In the United States, people born in the country are granted citizenship but as well as this there is a second category of citizenship: through naturalization. It is possible to be granted citizenship via application and through an interview process.

The Citizenship Interview


The interview includes various questions related to your citizenship eligibility. They cover topics such as:


  • Where you’ve been living or working during your time in the United States
  • Your status as a Legal Permanent Resident
  • Your background, marriage, and history
  • Your relationship with the US and its founding principles
  • Whether or not you will take an oath of allegiance to the country
  • Your ‘moral character’
  • It’s also required that you have a certain level of communication when it comes to speaking English


Difference Between Green Card vs Citizenship

Having a Green Card (officially known as a Permanent Resident Card) grants you the right to live and work permanently in the United States, conferring on you the status of ‘lawful permanent resident’. The procedure to follow to apply for a Green Card can be different depending on your particular circumstances.


(Green card holders can theoretically stay in the US indefinitely, but it’s not as secure a status as US citizenship. This is the main difference between permanent residency with a Green Card, and citizenship.)


Permanent residents remain citizens of another country. So every time a green card holder travels outside the United States, they must carry the passport of the country they are citizens of, as well as their US Green Card which will enable re-entry into the States.

Dual Citizenship vs Dual Allegiance

Dual Citizenship


‘Dual citizenship’ is the status of an individual who holds the nationality of two different countries at the same time.


Dual citizenship can offer many benefits: if, for example, you travel frequently between the US and another country to visit relatives, you don’t need to apply for a visa to enter either country. You would also usually benefit from the rights to work and vote in both countries.

Dual Allegiance


‘Dual nationals’ owe allegiance to both the United States and the foreign country. They are beholden to the laws of both countries, and either country is able to enforce its laws on the individual.


This can be problematic. Claims of other countries upon US dual-nationals can put them in situations where their obligations to one country conflict with the laws of the other. In addition, their dual nationality may make it difficult for the US Government to provide consular support to them when they are in the country of their second nationality.


Naturalization vs Citizenship


You may use a certificate of naturalization, or citizenship certificate to prove that you are a US citizen.

Certificate of Naturalization


A certificate of naturalization is granted to someone who becomes a citizen of America through naturalization. USCIS issues naturalization certificates to foreign nationals who become US citizens through the naturalization process, after the age of 18. (Naturalization is the process by which US citizenship is granted to a lawful permanent resident after meeting the requirements established by Congress.)

Certificate of Citizenship


Acquisition of citizenship is obtained through US citizenship parents either at birth, or after birth, but before the age of 18.

Naturalized vs Derived Citizenship


Derived citizens are those who obtain their citizenship upon their parents’ naturalization, as opposed to those who file for their own naturalization.


Derived citizenship states that if you have at least one parent with US citizenship (naturalized or born), then as a child under 18 years of age, you may also obtain your citizenship through them.



Hopefully this definition of terms helps give an insight into the complexity of the ins and outs of citizenship, nationality and the peripheral terminology and concepts. If there are any further questions, please do contact us. Here at USIMPR we administer various immigration programs, representing individuals and businesses around the United States and the world.

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