I have an Italian ancestor, am I eligible for Italian citizenship by descent?
Thousands of people worldwide ask themselves this question, and wonder whether they can claim Italian citizenship. IMI, the investment migration industry’s newspaper of reference, reports that as of today more than 80 million people all over the world have Italian ancestry. It’s not surprising: we’re all familiar with the many celebrities, including actors, actresses, and famed directors, of Italian descent.
How is citizenship decided by Italian law?
“Citizenship” is the legal status of individuals who belong to the Italian state legal system and for this reason are holders of various active and passive legal situations (rights and obligations), vis-à-vis the state itself. It is regulated by Law No. 91 of Feb. 5, 1992, which lists as criteria: birth, extension, benefit of law and naturalization (Art. 1-9).
a. Art. 22 Italian Constitution
“No one may be deprived, for political reasons, of legal capacity, citizenship, or name”
b. Article 1 Civil unions and cohabitation law
- This law establishes same-sex civil union as a specific social formation in accordance with Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution and lays down the regulation of de facto cohabitation.
- Two persons of same-sex age constitute a civil union by declaration before the registrar and in the presence of two witnesses
- The registrar shall register same-sex civil union acts in the civil status archive.
- The following are preventative causes for the establishment of a civil union between persons of the same sex
(a)the existence, for one of the parties, of a marriage bond or a civil union between persons of the same sex;
(b) the disqualification of one of the parties due to insanity; if the petition for disqualification is only initiated, the prosecutor may request that the establishment of the civil union be suspended; in such case, the proceedings may not take place until the judgment ruling on the petition has become final;
(c) the existence between the parties of the relationships referred to in Article 87, first paragraph, of the Civil Code; an uncle and nephew and aunt and niece may also not enter into a civil union between persons of the same sex; the provisions of the same Article 87 shall apply;
c. Article 34 Reform of the Italian system of private international law
- Legitimation by subsequent marriage shall be governed by the national law of the child at the time it occurs or by the national law of one of the parents at the same time.
- In other cases, legitimation shall be governed by the law of the state of which the parent in whose regard the child is legitimated is a citizen at the time of the application. For legitimation intended to take effect after the death of the legitimating parent, his or her nationality at the time of death shall be taken into account].
d. Article 30a Reform of the Italian system of private international law
- The common national law of the contracting parties shall apply to cohabitation contracts. Contractors of different nationalities shall be governed by the law of the place where the cohabitation is predominantly located.
- The national, European and international rules governing the case of multiple citizenship shall not be affected.
Italian legal advice to obtain your citizenship
ILF Italian attorneys are quite specialized in assisting foreign clients in starting a trial to obtain the Italian passport.
Why do you need to appoint a lawyer to be assisted?
- Collecting the necessary documents;
- Translating legal papers and legalizing;
- Submitting the summon to be recognized as Italian citizen by the competent Court (i.e. the Court placed in the town where the ancestor was born)
- Applying the Consulate to request the passport
Historical overview: the Italian diaspora
But why are there so many people of Italian descent widely spread around the world? The reason is the Italian diaspora, i.e. the extensive voluntary emigration of Italians from their home country. It started around 1880 when due to poverty and harsh living conditions thousands of Italians left their homes, looking for a better life elsewhere. For the following 100 years, albeit not always at a constant pace, the diaspora continued. The Americas, especially Argentina, Brazil, and the United States, and European countries such as France, Germany, and Switzerland were among the emigrants’ preferred destinations.
What happened to the Italians who emigrated
Many men travelled alone, and others with their wives and children. Once they had found a job, they settled and became citizens of the country where they had built their homes. Needless to say, their grandchildren, if not their children, became 100% American, Argentinian, Brazilian, Swiss, etc., and the next generations followed suit. Especially in the earlier years of the diaspora, emigrants had a hard time making ends meet and integrating, and it was very hard to keep in touch with relatives living across the ocean. Thousands lost track of their original families; they concentrated on their daily lot, striving to become part of the society they lived in.
How many Americans are of Italian descent ?
As reported by the Italian Embassy in Washington, the current head count of Americans of Italian descent comes up to 17.3 million, but the United States’ leading Italian-American organizations, the Order of Sons of Italy in America (OSIA) and the National Italian American Foundation (NIAF), state that there are at least 25 million. Today, many of those who know that their families are of Italian descent want to try and prove it, to claim citizenship by descent.
Dual citizenship – what does the law say? Do I need to renounce my current citizenship?
Today, gaining Italian citizenship doesn’t imply renouncing one’s current citizenship. This is because Italian law, and most countries’ national laws, including those in force in the United States, allow dual (and even multiple) citizenship. See a full list of the countries that allow dual citizenship here. The current law governing citizenship in Italy, law n.91 issued in 1992, explicitly allows individuals to retain Italian citizenship while already holding foreign citizenship or after having acquired or reacquired it. In particular, standing legislation grants Italians who have emigrated abroad and voluntarily acquired the citizenship of the state in which they reside the right to retain Italian citizenship.
So, the key question actually is: who is entitled to Italian citizenship?
Jus soli and jus sanguinis
As per the Encyclopedia Britannica’s definition of citizenship, there are two principal systems that are used to determine a person’s citizenship.
Jus soli, Latin for “right by soil” – citizenship is acquired by birth within the state’s territory, regardless of one’s parents’ citizenship.
Jus sanguinis, Latin for “right of blood” – wherever one is born, she/he is a citizen of the state if her/his parent is a citizen of that state at the time of her/his birth.
Italian citizenship is based on jus sanguinis
The Italian law governing citizenship is based on the principle of jus sanguinis, hence linked to the concept of “filiation”: a child born to an Italian mother or father is automatically Italian regardless of her/his place of birth. Hence, ancestry is what gives one a right to Italian citizenship.
The basic requirements: “avo dante causa” and an unbroken lineage
Italian law provides that the principle of ancestry is true no matter how many generations you have to go back to find an “avo dante causa”, i.e. an Italian-born ancestor. But there are limits to who can effectively claim Italian citizenship by descent. A key limit is a broken bloodline: a descendant of an Italian-born ancestor has a right to claim Italian citizenship, provided his/her ancestor did not break the lineage via naturalization or by voluntarily renouncing Italian citizenship.
The importance of dates: March 17, 1861
Other important limits and conditions stem from the history of Italy as a united, sovereign country, and from the former laws, those that once governed the rights and duties of Italian citizens. As regards the history of Italy, there’s a faraway date that makes all the difference when it comes to applying for Italian citizenship by descent: March 17, 1861. This is the date of the proclamation of the Kingdom of Italy, the formal act that sanctioned the birth of the unified Italian state. Before this date, Italy as a country didn’t exist, so no person who died before this date could ever have been an Italian citizen.
If you want to claim Italian citizenship by descent, the first thing you’ll have to prove is that your Italian-born ancestor died after March 17, 1861.
Foreign-born children with Italian ancestry: how law n.555, 1912 changed their destiny
Up until 1912, Italian citizenship was exclusive: if you emigrated and naturalized as a citizen of another country, you would lose your Italian citizenship, and your children would lose it with you. This changed substantially on June 13th, 1912 when law n.555 came into force. Designed to safeguard the bond between the children of emigrants and their ancestry, this law maintained that the foreign-born child of an Italian citizen who had emigrated, become a citizen of the new country, and even voluntarily renounced Italian citizenship, still had a right to Italian citizenship by descent. The laws that followed, up to the latest and most important one issued in 1992, reconfirmed and upgraded this principle.
The naturalization “knot”
The Cambridge Dictionary defines naturalization as “the act of making someone a legal citizen of a country that they were not born in”. Up until 1912, when the above-mentioned law n. 555 was issued, Italian citizens who immigrated to the US and obtained American citizenship would automatically lose their Italian one. Pursuant to the laws that governed Italian citizenship prior to 1912, their children, whether born before or after they immigrated and/or naturalized, were American, not Italian. Alas, these former laws still influence eligibility today: if your Italian-born ancestor naturalized before 1912 you are not eligible for Italian citizenship by descent.
Paternal bloodline vs. maternal bloodline
January 1st, 1948, the day when the Italian Republican Constitution came into force, is another key date when it comes to Italian citizenship by descent. This is because up until this date, women did not have equal civil rights in Italy. Before 1948, citizenship transmission was valid only via the paternal bloodline, i.e. only one’s father could pass on the citizenship (with exceptions for unmarried women, who were, however, discriminated in many other ways).
Your Italian ancestor was a woman, are you eligible for Italian citizenship?
Albeit not enforced after 1948, and notwithstanding two sentences issued by the Italian Constitutional Court (n.87, 1975 and n.30, 1983) and one issued by the Italian Supreme Court of Cassation (n.4466, 2009) which declares that gender equality also applies from the outset, the discriminating provision described above still largely influences eligibility for Italian citizenship by descent. If you can prove your Italian ancestry by female bloodline and your Italian-born ancestor’s child was born after January 1st, 1948, you are entitled to Italian citizenship by descent. To claim it, you can follow the standard process, i.e. apply to the Italian consulate or embassy in the country where you live by providing the required paperwork. But if your female Italian-born ancestor’s child was born before January 1st, 1948, you cannot apply via the consulate: you might be eligible, but you will have to file a case before the court of Rome.
Eligibility depends on many factors
The bottom line is that many situations can affect eligibility for Italian citizenship by descent, and, needless to say, laws, especially the fine print, can be hard to understand and interpret. Moreover, there’s a lot of research one needs to carry out and a lot of paperwork to get together.
Applying for Italian citizenship by descent
To claim Italian citizenship by descent based on paternal lineage, or on maternal lineage if her descendant was born after January 1st, 1948 you need to apply to the Italian consulate or embassy in your home country. If you live in Italy, you will instead apply to your local municipality (known here as the Comune).
The application is based on proof of ancestry, hence regardless of how many generations you have to go back you will be required to prove the following:
- Descent from an Italian ancestor
- That your Italian-born ancestor died after March 17, 1861, and maintained Italian citizenship until the birth of his/her child.
- That nobody along the bloodline ever renounced Italian citizenship by interrupting the chain of transmission.
To acknowledge the above, the Italian government needs proof, in the form of certificates and legal documents.
The certificates and records you will need
- The birth, marriage, and death records of your Italian-born ancestor and all the generations between her/him and yourself, i.e. of everyone along the bloodline.
- Certificates issued by the Italian diplomatic and consular authorities in charge (these are needed to prove that nobody along the bloodline renounced Italian citizenship by naturalization or voluntary renunciation).
- Your ancestor’s naturalization (or non-naturalization) documents, as issued by the foreign authority in charge.
Any document not issued in Italy will have to be translated into Italian and apostilled.
Keep in mind that these are general provisions and may be subject to change: to be sure you’re getting the right paperwork together and following the right process, we strongly recommend that you contact an Italy-based law firm.
If you want to claim Italian citizenship by descent by maternal lineage, and your Italian-born ancestor’s child was born before January 1st, 1948, you will have to file what is commonly called a “1948 case” before Italian courts. To do so, you will have to get all vital records (birth, marriage, and death certificates) and naturalization or non-naturalization certificates, finally, you will necessarily need a lawyer.
Researching your Italian heritage
The first thing you need to do if you want to claim Italian citizenship by descent is to get the vital records of your lineage together. This can be easy or hard depending on how far back you need to go: if it was your grandfather or even your great-grandfather, chances are you already have the information and can obtain the documents pretty easily. But if you have to go back 4 or 5 generations, it will probably be more difficult. The best place to start your research is at home: ask your parents, aunts and uncles, and any other living relative to share what they know about your ancestor who immigrated.
How to find your Italian-born ancestor
To successfully trace your Italian lineage, and “reconstruct” the bloodline via vital records, the first thing you need to find out is where and when your Italian ancestor was born, got married, and died. Once you know the municipality (comune, in Italian) where your ancestor was born, or lived, you’re on the right track: the documents you are looking for are very probably kept in the comune’s Ufficio Anagrafe and/or Ufficio dello Stato Civile.
The Anagrafe and Stato Civile
The Anagrafe is the town registry: all the town’s residents are registered here, and it holds records of if and when they move, change residence, or emigrate. The modern Anagrafe was established in 1864, based on the data collected with the first national census in 1861, but keeping population registers updated wasn’t mandatory until 1871. Thus, there may be data missing from the Anagrafe files. The Ufficio dello Stato Civile holds all the records of the births, deaths, and marriages that occurred in the municipality.
If you don’t find enough information in these two offices, you should check the archives of the local parish churches: these generally hold archives registering christenings, marriages, and deaths.
Useful online sources
Up to some 10 years ago, the only option you had to research your Italian heritage was to do some inquiring from your home country, and then travel to Italy to browse the Anagrafe, Stato Civile, and parish church archives. Today, many records are available online. The most useful websites to start your ancestry research are Portale Antenati (“antenati” is the Italian term for ancestors) and FamilySearch.
Finding immigration and naturalization records
The second important thing you’ll need to do is find proof of when your ancestor actually emigrated and if and when he/she naturalized. In case of immigration to the US, you can refer to the National Archives and USCIS (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services).
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Our Italian attorneys all fluent in English are available to give you a preliminary first consultation and let you know if you are eligible to obtain the Italian passport.
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The contents of this page should not be taken as an authoritative statement of Italian law and practice. Neither the author nor the publisher are responsible for the results of actions taken on the basis of information contained in this summary, nor for any errors or omissions. This text is not intended to render legal, accounting or tax advice. Readers are encouraged to seek professional advice concerning specific matters before making any decision.