Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Expats and Children

When I was eight or nine years old my step-father was in the military and was about to be stationed in Germany. My mother asked my sister and myself if we wanted to go and both of us immediately said "no" because we'd miss our friends. Of course, we honestly had no idea what we were being asked and frankly, I think my mother simply asked so that she could have an excuse to tell her husband she wasn't going to Germany with him. Whatever the reason, he went to live in Weisbaden¹, Germany and we stayed. Today I regret saying "no", but I certainly didn't back then.

Children won't necessarily
see Paris as "exotic".
Photo by Kika Sso
If you're going to take children to another country, you will have a brand new set of problems to face. I've previously written about the issue of homesickness and how powerful it can be, but it can be even more powerful for children. You'll have to remember that your reasons for moving to a foreign won't necessarily be appreciated by your child. Yes, you may think that it's a "character building" opportunity, but your eight-year old who only speaks English may not have a have a lot of playmates if the local language is Tswana.

You'll also face the problem of education. Many large cities offer international schools for your child's education. My wife and I are considering the International School in Amsterdam for our child, but it's not cheap. Fortunately, we have at least three years before we have to worry about this. Depending on your nationality and circumstances, you may have other options. There is also a new French School in Amsterdam. It's subsidized by the French government and teaches in English and French and introduces children to the Dutch language and culture. Due to the assistance from the French government, it is far less expensive (€8718/year for older children versus about €21,000/year), but still out of the price range for many. So keep this in mind: if your child doesn't fluently speak the native language of your target country, education is going to be a problem.

There is another curious problem that few have to deal with. I'm an American, my wife is French, and our daughter will soon be born here in Amsterdam. What nationality will she be? We're lucky in that we already know that our child will be able to claim US and French citizenship and if we stay in the Netherlands long enough, Dutch as well. However, not everyone is so lucky. There are more and more people living abroad and finding that their children are stateless or claim citizenship in a country which is not the parent's country. What's going on?

Traditionally, there are two routes for citizenship for newborns:  jus soli (right of the soil) and jus sanguinus (right of blood). The former states that you can claim citizenship where you are born. The later allows you to claim citizenship via ancestry (typically your parents). However, politicians are finding that fear of immigration is often a source of cheap votes as it's difficult for immigrants to have a political voice. In the US, for example, you may not have heard of the term anchor baby, but many anti-immigration activists have. The 14th Amendment of the US Constitution guarantees that any child born in the USA is automatically a citizen (jus soli), but not surprisingly some politicians are trying to take this away via HR 1868, the "Birthright Citizenship Act", which would deny citizenship to children unless one of their parents is:
  • a citizen or national of the United States;
  • an alien lawfully admitted for permanent residence in the United States whose residence is in the United States; or
  • an alien performing active service in the armed forces (as defined in section 101 of title 10, United States Code).
Unfortunately, as with most naïve anti-immigration bills, it ignores the modern complexity of the international world and it makes no exception for children whose parents may be stateless or may legitimately be in the US claiming asylum.

To make matters worse, many countries are trying to limit jus sanguinus. By limiting or eliminating both traditional routes for claiming citizenship, more and more people are finding giving birth abroad to be a legal minefield. If you live abroad and are expecting a child, contact your nearest embassy to ensure that you understand the legal implications of the birth.

For my wife and myself, we have a different and somewhat curious issue: what if our child chooses not to take our nationality? This isn't as far-fetched as it sounds. Remember the British gentleman, born and raised in the UK, who was surprised to discover that he owes many thousands of dollars in US income taxes? Our child may well turn 18 and realize that he or she is facing a lifetime of income tax to the US government if US citizenship is accepted. Naturally the French and the Dutch don't tax their overseas citizens.²  I would like my child to be able to take advantage of an extra citizenship, but why would they want to?

Being an expatriate and a parent is a much harder choice than simply being an expatriate and it could have serious legal impacts if your child is born overseas. Before taking this step, make sure you understand all of the implications involved. You get to make this decision. Your children don't.

1. Unbeknownst to us, he was stationed about 15 kilometers (9 miles) from where my real father lives, a man I was not to meet for another 22 years.
2. Only the US and the dictatorships of Eritrea and North Korea try to collect income tax from their expats.


  1. How could someone not old enough to work legally have a lifetimesworth of income tax owed at age 18?

    And, of course, how would he earn 90k+ us dollars per year between legal age of work and 18? : )

  2. @Stomme poes: heh :) The concern is not *having* a lifetime of income tax to a country he/she has never lived in, but *facing* a lifetime of said tax.

  3. If it's up to some Dutch politicians, if your child has dual nationality, and later performs some petty crime, Dutch nationality will be stripped from him/her, and turned into a persona non grata.

    It also used to be that if a person had dual nationality (one from jus soli, one from jus sanguinus), Dutch government made you choose which to keep on your 18th birthday. Luckely, that has been reversed, but I know people who lost their US citizenship that way.


  4. @Abigail: that's awful that people should be put in that position. I've already decided that no matter how long I stay in the Netherlands, I'm not keen to get citizenship as they'll force me to renounce my US citizenship. As I should get French citizenship in a few years, I won't have to worry about this. It's frustrating watching countries fight so hard to keep foreigners at bay.

  5. Just to throw a rock in the middle of the lake...

    Why SHOULD people have more than one citizenship?

    Sure, citienship in some countries awards you some benefits, but... then you should also be prepared to pay for them, right?
    (Frankly, what is the benefit of having an USA citizenship when living abroad?)

    The pros and cons of dual citizenship may make for a decent article...

  6. The main benefit of having citizenship is having a "home" country and the "protection" of that country when abroad.

    I am now a British citizen of Chinese ethnic origin married to an American. In theory, my family and I have the right to live/work in the country of the past (Europe), the country of the present (America) and the country of the future (China). The red-tape would be quite a challenge though.

  7. This is really the only reason we aren't picking up and joining you guys! Much as I'd love to live abroad, I've seen how hard it can be having a young child in unfamiliar countries. Of course, they will eventually adjust, but we feel the opportunities afforded to our daughter here outweigh the advantages of adventure (at least for now). But it's something I think about often.

  8. (It's "jus sanguinis", not "jus sanguinus".)

    Canada is one of the countries with the most severe limitations on the jus sanguinis (and conversely a very broad interpretation of the jus soli). Children born outside Canada of Canadian parents themselves born outside Canada do not acquire Canadian citizenship. If the country of birth does not recognize the jus soli, these children could very well end up stateless, as your link shows.

  9. @Strongrrl: oh, what a shame! I know both my wife and myself would be delighted if you two were on this side of the pond, but I suppose our selfishness is a rotten motivation for you :)