The negative value of US citizenship

By Felix Salmon
August 26, 2013

Kirk Semple has a big piece today on a longstanding phenomenon: the millions of people who live in America, who are eligible to become citizens, and yet who never do so. The numbers: there are roughly 8.8 million green card holders who are eligible to naturalize; about 750,000 people naturalized in 2012. Overall, if you’re still in America and you received a green card more than 20 years ago, there’s roughly a 60% chance that you became a citizen somewhere along the way.

This being a NYT story, there’s lots of talk about national identity: the lead anecdote is about a man who worries that he would “feel a little less Italian” if he became a citizen. And there are many people who become citizens, or who don’t, on purely patriotic grounds. But there are lots of other forces at play here, many of which Semple ignores entirely, or barely touches on.

Firstly there’s the fact that in many cases becoming a US citizen is a trade-off: while you acquire certain rights in the US (foremost among them the right to vote), you also lose certain rights — and sometimes your very citizenship — in your country of origin. For instance, consider a landowner with a green card who owns land in both her native country and the US. Often, the minute she becomes a US citizen, she can no longer own land back “home”.

More generally, if your home country requires that you give up your native citizenship when you become an American, then the choice can be a very tough one.

But beyond, that there are numerous much more practical considerations at play. Semple touches on one, which is the sheer cost, both financial and psychic, of going through the naturalization process. Another is jury duty. Being a non-citizen is like having a permanent “get out of jail free” card whenever you get a jury summons; many US citizens would value such a thing very highly.

And then there’s travel. It’s much easier to travel the world on a US passport than it is on a passport from, say, Syria, or Bangladesh — but, that said, there are countries which really don’t like admitting Americans, and if you already have a passport from Canada, or the EU, then you’re going to find it just as easy to travel as you would if you had one from the US. Especially given that green card holders are eligible for line-jumping programs like Pre✓ and Global Entry.

The weirdest omission from Semple’s piece, however, is the whole issue of taxes. A green card holder can leave the US at any time, give up her green card, and thenceforth never have to pay a cent in US taxes, or even file a US tax return, ever again. Again, this is an option which would be valued extremely highly by many Americans. By becoming a US citizen you essentially give up that option, as the likes of Eduardo Saverin have learned to their cost. If there’s even a small probability that you might want to move or retire to a low-tax jurisdiction, then it makes financial sense to keep the green card but not become a citizen.

Finally, it’s worth noting a statistical symmetry: the proportion of green card holders who eventually become US citizens is pretty much the same as the proportion of US citizens who vote. Voting is the top reason to become a citizen — and it’s something which roughly 40% of American citizens don’t bother to do. The NYT comments section is full of angry people who are deeply offended at the idea that people might be living in the US and not becoming citizens at the earliest opportunity. But really, if you have the same attitude towards voting as 40% of the US population, why bother? After all, if you take the option value of remaining a green card holder into account, becoming a US citizen probably has negative value, overall.


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Green card holders who give up their green cards are subject to the same US exit taxes as US citizens who renounce their citizenship (like Saverin), if they have held the green card for a sufficient amount of time (roughly 8 years).

Posted by LZed | Report as abusive

One other advantage of not being a citizen is that the rest of the world doesn’t group you in with the flat earth, anti-science, anti-government, creationists that want to hold the nation’s (and the world’s) economy hostage to their simplistic 18th century views of how a nation should be run.

Posted by KenG_CA | Report as abusive

Another disadvantage of becoming a US citizen is the difficulty you will then have in setting up any bank accounts or making any investments in local tax efficient schemes if you are posted just about anywhere outside of the US. This is due to the horrendous controls the SEC indirectly exerts over US citizens living outside of their home country. US expats get a really raw deal and I feel great sympathy for them as the US is perhaps the only country that insists on controlling its citizens so thoroughly even though they may not have set foot in the country for 20 years or so.

Posted by FifthDecade | Report as abusive

Why would anyone become an American citizen. It doesn’t even stop the NSA reading your mail anymore.

Posted by seanmatthews | Report as abusive

i’ve been a citizen for over 65 years and i’m not proud of it..

Posted by rjs0 | Report as abusive

What Felix is really getting at here, but doesn’t come right out and say, is that to many people living and working here, The United States is a market, not a country. Many people are here to take advantage of the marketplace, and make money for a while before returning home or leaving for some other locale.

The comment above by FifthDecade touches on this without saying so, as well.

Posted by Strych09 | Report as abusive

As an American living overseas, I should point out that many of these arguments apply in the opposite direction as well and indicate not the cost of American citizenship but changing citizenship. In my case, I would have to give up my US citizenship to become a Japanese citizen. While this means I could escape some annoying financial filing (although I owe nothing) and vote locally, I have the former down and no delusions about the impact of a single vote on an election. On the other hand, I’m worried about my ability to, say, return to the US for an extended period or retain US assets, not to mention the potential for “patriots” to at some point punish those who relinquish. People who question permanent residents likely consider the question of citizenship an abstract one disentangled from its real-world consequences; for us, it’s a legal process with an extremely real impact on where you and your family can live, work, travel, vote, own property, etc.

Ultimately, if the devil you know — the often minor annoyances of maintaining residency under a visa — is bearable, then why bear the emotional cost or unforeseen legal, travel or work risks by giving up your original citizenship? The consequences are so practical that, by the time they’re all considered, which nation-state someone feels more allegiance toward is for many an afterthought.

Posted by Ama-kudari | Report as abusive

In addition to the exit taxes, I believe there are inheritance tax issues for PRs. Others may know more.

Posted by Woodwell | Report as abusive

Laughable premise. The US has been by far the #1 destination for immigrants in absolute numbers over each of the last 3 decades.

We’re going to finish building our $100,000,000,000 boarder control system while letting anyone who wants to come fly over it and stay as long as they please. And come they will… as the economy picks up so to will undocumented workers and non-workers. See you at population 400,000,000.

Posted by y2kurtus | Report as abusive

y2kurtus still lives in the 80′s.

Posted by KyleDexter | Report as abusive

@y2kurtus I didn’t know that boarding houses had such huge problems that it required a large government expenditure to control them… Do you have a link?

Posted by ckm5 | Report as abusive

How often do you see headlines of “U.S. says” and then wonder “What the heck? That is not what the PEOPLE of the U.S. say”? We are known by our government, and too often the government, in its stupidity and cupidity, goes directly AGAINST the wishes of the people. But we are tarnished by the brush of our government’s decisions and judged accordingly.

Posted by AZreb | Report as abusive

Of course, a greencard can always be revoked, for example if you are convicted of anything, spend too much time outside the us, or just piss off an immigration officer. Tax wise, its not really any different if you are a long term green card holder, although it is theoretically possible to file as a US nonresident if you have a greencard, but live in a country with the right tax treaty (although each time you enter the US will be a gamble at immigration and they can force you to “voluntarily” give up your greencard on the spot)

Posted by santcugat | Report as abusive

The US is a great place to be a citizen IF you live IN the USA. However, IF you believe that someday you may wish to live outside the USA as either a dual citizen of that other country or a long term resident, then the US passport is TOXIC. The US citizenship based tax structure and FATCA laws will ensure that you are not only shunned by non US banks for accounts, mortgages etc, but also that you will pay through the nose for international accountants, face draconian US tax law penalties over your head and report every financial move you make to the US government. IF you are successful, plan to stay living outside the USA, and want to get out from the enormous and unfair burden of having to deal with two tax regimes (the country you actually live in and the country you don’t (i.e. USA)) getting rid of that wonderful US citizenship is not only difficult but also potentially very expensive. The US has an ‘exit tax’ for citizens wishing to get out from under its citizenship based tax system (as did Nazi Germany in 1939). US citizenship is wonderful IF you live in the US, but is expensive and very very burdensome if you live overseas and very difficult to get rid of – it’s kind of like the ‘Roach Motel’ you can get in, but you can’t (easily) get out financially in one piece if you want to live elsewhere.

Posted by SteveKlaus | Report as abusive

In the case of the Cuban-born residents of the US, it is completely the opposite. In the very moment you ask to leave Cuba in order to live abroad, you lose all you Cuban citizenship “rights” (if there are so) and you have to give inn all your properties in the Island as well: your house, your car (if you are privileged to have them) and everything you can’t (or you are allowed to) put in your suitcase. If you’re Cuban-born resident of the US or any other country, you can’t get back to live in Cuba, and you need to ask for a visa if you want to visit you family still in the Island. But even if you get the US citizenship or any, you can’t use any other passport to visit Cuba but the Cuban passport, which probably is the most expensive of the world. When you are a Cuban-born resident of the US and become an US citizen, suddenly, you become someone and something. That is because, if you are not a US citizen you are simply nothing. No one is going to help you if you have any trouble abroad. If you have any legal or health or any kind of trouble outside of Cuba, Cuban embassies won’t help you, they will ignore completely you and if there is some political or economic gain for the Cuban government, they will help the opposite side to doom you.

Posted by octavioguerra | Report as abusive

Hi friends,

I did apply for green card. I saw that on the site I have made ​​some friends directly using an intermediary firm did. I apply the company named in the company. Personally, I was satisfied with the services and expert came to me quite insightful. Like me out of such a company would have a couple of questions to those who apply.

1) Is more advantageous for you?
2) we make contact with these firms know the situation we’re in view. Normally it is not good when you have nothing?
3) When you register through this company again raises my chances?

Thank you.

I link the site to register:

Posted by Cucu3108 | Report as abusive

Hey guys,

First of all one cannot look at getting a citizenship for selfish/personal reasons. Many who get naturalized citizenship every year get it for personal satisfaction of being an American and the ability to participate in making this country a better place by participating in jury duty and voting. For people complaining about paying taxes after leaving this country, I can give you my personal reasons on why I feel its fair to do so. First of all, I moved into this country when I was in elementary school and got free education paid for by tax payers till graduating high school. I also got subsidized tuition for college and medical school, where I saved around 20-30 thousand dollars a year because I was an in-state resident. I also got the benefits of living in a country with good roads, electricity and water due to taxpayers money that I would not get in my home country. If I do decide to go back to my home country once I retire, I would not once hesitate to keep my US citizenship or hesitate to pay taxes, because it is immoral to do otherwise. Besides you also get the benefit of social security and medicare, and the opportunity to come to this country to visit anytime I want as a citizen. Paying some money to the betterment of this country in terms of taxes is a small price to pay for benefits and opportunities I have gotten which eventually will give me the ability to have enough money to retire anywhere around the world.

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