America Isn’t the ‘Only Country’ With Birthright Citizenship

The president incorrectly claims that America is the “only country” that gives citizenship to all babies born within its borders.

Thousands of people become naturalized citizens at this ceremony in Los Angeles in March.
Thousands of people become naturalized citizens at this ceremony in Los Angeles in March. (Mario Tama / Getty)

“We’re the only country in the world where a person comes in and has a baby, and the baby is essentially a citizen of the United States … with all of those benefits.”

So said Donald Trump this week, in explaining why he may sign an executive order ending the right to citizenship for those born on U.S. soil even if their parents aren’t citizens or permanent residents. It’s part of the president’s broader crackdown on unauthorized immigration.

Birthright citizenship—which is enshrined in the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and therefore likely to require more than a presidential order to revoke—is not, in fact, unique to the United States. But the U.S. is in a small club of nations that offer it. Here’s a rundown of how other countries navigate the tricky relationship between birth and citizenship.

Countries With Birthright Citizenship

More than 30 countries currently offer U.S.-style birthright citizenship that is largely unconditional, save for exceptions like the children of foreign diplomats. Most of these nations are in the Western Hemisphere and range from countries like the United States and Canada to Argentina and Brazil. The others are mainly in Latin America, though the policy crops up everywhere from Lesotho in sub-Saharan African to Pakistan in Asia.

Explanations for the concentration of birthright citizenship in the Americas range from European colonial powers establishing lenient laws to attract immigrants and displace native populations in the New World to Latin American independence movements that embraced a more expansive definition of citizenship as part of their rejection of slavery in the 19th century. (The Fourteenth Amendment, adopted in 1868, likewise conferred citizenship on freed slaves in the United States.)

The practice has at times come under assault in Latin America, where rates of immigration are relatively low; birthright citizenship was retracted in 1978 under Argentina’s dictatorship, for example, only to be restored when democracy returned, in 1983. But it has proved more controversial in Canada and especially in the United States, which attract larger flows of immigrants and in recent decades have grappled with an influx of illegal immigration.

Just as Trump rails against undocumented immigrants having “anchor babies” in the United States that allow them to settle in the country through their citizen children, conservative politicians in Canada have condemned “birth tourism.” The opposition Conservative Party vowed last summer to pursue legislation to eliminate birthright citizenship unless one of the parents of the child born in Canada is a citizen or permanent resident. Opponents of the move claimed that the birthright provision in the country’s 1947 Citizenship Act is central to Canadian conceptions of equality and multiculturalism.

Countries That Used to Have Birthright Citizenship but Don’t Anymore

The U.S. wouldn’t be the first country to revoke jus soli, or the “right to the soil,” as birthright citizenship is commonly known.

France did away with birthright citizenship in 1993, following the passage of the Méhaignerie Law. The law limited citizenship to those born to a French parent, or to a parent also born in France. As a result, those born in France to foreign-born parents must wait until they turn 18 to automatically acquire French citizenship (a process that can begin when they turn 13, if they apply).

Ireland was the last of the European Union countries to abolish birthright citizenship, in 2005. Through a referendum backed by nearly 80 percent of Irish voters, citizenship was limited to those born to at least one Irish parent. The decision was a response to a controversy surrounding birth tourism and the high-profile case of Man Levette Chen, a Chinese national who traveled to Northern Ireland so that her daughter would be born an Irish citizen. Chen sought residency rights in Britain, citing her child’s Irish and EU citizenship. Though the United Kingdom Home Office rejected Chen’s application, the decision was overturned by the European Court of Justice in 2004.

Other countries, including New Zealand and Australia, have also abolished their birthright-citizenship laws in recent years. The latest is the Dominican Republic, whose supreme court ruled to remove the country’s birthright laws in 2013. The decision retroactively stripped tens of thousands of people born to undocumented foreign parents of their citizenship and rendered them “ghost citizens,” according to Amnesty International.

Countries That Factor the Circumstances of Birth Into Citizenship

Many European nations grant citizenship based on jus sanguinis, or “right of blood,” which refers to the nationality of the child’s parents. Individuals born in the U.K. automatically become British citizens if at least one of their parents is a British national or is considered “settled” in the U.K., such as having permanent residency.

Germany boasts similar nationality laws. As of 2000, however, those born in the country to foreign-born parents were also made eligible for citizenship, so long as one of the parents was a lawful resident of the country for at least eight years.

Italy, like the U.K. and Germany, also restricts citizenship by birth to those born to at least one Italian parent. Under Italian law, however, those born in the country to foreign-born parents who meet certain requirements can apply for Italian citizenship within one year of their 18th birthday.

Countries That Couldn’t Care Less Where You Were Born

Plenty of countries—China, Japan, Russia, South Korea—grant citizenship strictly on the basis of whether a baby has at least one parent who is a citizen of the country, as opposed to where the baby is born.

But Gulf countries boast some of the most arduous naturalization processes. In Qatar, where it’s estimated that Qatari nationals make up less than 10 percent of the population, citizenship is inherited solely through the father. According to a new residency law passed last month, foreign-born residents who have lived in Qatar for at least 20 years will be permitted to apply for permanent residency.

Kuwait is similarly restrictive. Like in Qatar, Kuwaiti citizenship is also passed on through the father. According to the country’s Nationality Law of 1959, those seeking citizenship must lawfully reside in Kuwait for at least 20 years (15 years if you are an Arab national). Applicants must speak Arabic and must be Muslim by birth (converts must wait five years before applying).

Citizenship in the United Arab Emirates also passes through the father, though a 2011 royal decree deemed that children born to Emirati women could apply for citizenship when they turn 18. Though Arab citizens from Bahrain, Oman, and Qatar can apply for Emirati citizenship if they have lawfully resided in the country for at least three years, others must reside in the country for at least 30 years.

If you’re looking for the polar opposite of birthright citizenship, however, head to tiny Vatican City, where neither jus soli nor jus sanguinis prevails. Instead, the law of the land is something more like jus papam. You get citizenship if you work for the Holy See or if you get some special dispensation for residents of the city-state or relatives of citizens, and you lose it once you no longer meet these requirements. (There are mere hundreds of Vatican City citizens at any given moment.)

Trump may be wrong to state that the United States is the only country in the world with birthright citizenship. But Vatican City is truly the only place where you are a citizen at the pleasure of the pope.