Fortunately for us, Italy has generous citizenship laws regarding people of Italian descent. This is because historically, Italians have emigrated abroad in large numbers over the last centuries. Favorable citizenship laws encourage people of Italian descent abroad to maintain ties with Italy.
Parents pass on Italian citizenship to their children. Called “jure sanguinis,” this concept means “right of blood” in Latin. Generally, you will qualify for citizenship if you have an Italian ancestor who passed on Italian citizenship to his or her American-born child. This American-born child must also be your ancestor in a direct line.
In order to qualify, you must have at least one Italian-born ancestor who passed on Italian citizenship to his or her child born outside Italy. As long as that first Italian ancestor passed on Italian citizenship to that first child born outside Italy, Italian citizenship passes to each subsequent generation without limit. As a practical example, let’s use the following hypothetical family:
- Mario was born in Italy in 1920.
- He emigrated to the United States in 1940, and had his son John in New York in 1943.
- Mario then became an American citizen in 1947.
Because Mario was an Italian citizen at the time of John’s birth, Mario successfully passed on Italian dual citizenship to John. John and all of his descendants are thus Italian dual citizens, and can legally seek recognition of Italian dual citizenship.
When was your ancestor born?
When determining eligibility it is important to know when your ancestor was born.
Your ancestor must have been alive anywhere in the world after March 17, 1861. Additionally, your ancestor must have not acquired a foreign citizenship before this date.
This date is important. On March 17, 1861 Italy finally became a unified country. Before this date there was no such thing as the country of Italy. Therefore, anyone passing away or becoming a citizen of another country before this date never actually held Italian citizenship. And, if your ancestor never was an Italian citizen then they could not pass on Italian citizenship to their children or to you.
Are there any women in your direct line?
Both men and women can pass down Italian citizenship.
However, before January 1, 1948, women could not pass down Italian citizenship to their children. There were very few exceptions to this rule such as an unknown father.
After January 1, 1948, Italy’s modern constitution finally gave women the right to pass down citizenship to their children.
Therefore, if you have any women in the direct line from your last-Italian born ancestor leading down to you, you must make note. In order to qualify, the women in your line must have had their children on or after January 1, 1948.
There is no restriction against women receiving citizenship. Therefore, even if the women in your line were born before that date, they could receive citizenship from their fathers.
When, if at all, did your ancestor lose Italian citizenship?
Before August 15, 1992, Italians automatically lost citizenship if they became a citizen of another country.
Therefore, if your Italian-born ancestor became an American citizen before August 15, 1992, he or she lost Italian citizenship. After loss of Italian citizenship, only the American citizenship remained.
However, if your ancestor was still an Italian citizen at the time of his child’s birth, then Italian citizenship successfully passed from parent to child. In order to determine if your ancestor successfully passed Italian citizenship down, you must check your ancestor’s naturalization date.
If the date of naturalization occurred after the birth of the child, then you may qualify. Similarly, if your Italian ancestor never naturalized, you may also qualify.
The "1912 rule"
If your ancestor naturalized (i.e. lost Italian citizenship) before July 1, 1912, then he could not pass on Italian dual citizenship to his children, even if those children were born before the date of naturalization.
Therefore, naturalization dates are doubly important. Not only must you make sure your ancestor naturalized after the birth of his child (or never at all), you must make sure your ancestor naturalized after July 1, 1912.
There are a few exceptions to this rule:
- If your ancestor’s child was no longer a minor at the moment of his or her parent’s naturalization, then this does not “break the chain.”
- You may still be able to obtain Italian dual citizenship even if you fall under the 1912 rule, as long as you apply in Italy. All Italian consulates abroad deny “1912 rule” applicants, but this law is often interpreted differently directly in Italy.
To apply for Italian citizenship, you will need to prove eligibility. In order to do this, you must show an “unbroken chain” of Italian citizenship. You do this by gathering relevant birth, marriage, death, and naturalization records from your last Italian-born ancestor to you (for more about obtaining records for Italian dual citizenship, click here).
If you live in the United States, you will apply at your Italian consulate (click here for a list of Italian consulates in the U.S.). If you live in Italy, you will present your documents at the ufficio di stato civile in your town. Each consulate has some discretion as to what documents they require, so it’s wise to find out more from your Italian consulate before gathering your documentation.
General documents you’ll need
In general, your consulate or town hall will require:
- Proof of naturalization (or lack thereof) for your immigrating Italian ancestor.
- All vital records for each generation between you and your Italian ancestor.
This documentation will include the immigrating ancestor’s Italian birth and marriage records (if married in Italy).
The records you use for your citizenship application must be issued by the town hall (municipio) in your ancestor’s town of birth or marriage, but digital record searches are very helpful in finding the details you will need when requesting acceptable records from Italy.
Remember, only certain record formats are acceptable. Usually, consulate’s require “long form” or “extended form” documents, but be sure to check with them for instructions.