Abandonment or Renunciation of Your U.S. Citizenship

Updated by Ilona Bray, J.D., University of Washington Law School

Maybe, after being disappointed in a big election or disagreeing with the U.S. government's policy on some foreign relations issue, you've heard someone say, "I am going to give up my American citizenship and leave the country!" Maybe you've said it yourself. Few people actually follow through on such statements, however, especially if they are naturalized citizens.

If you are a naturalized citizen, you no doubt worked hard to attain this status, and wouldn't want to give it up without serious consideration and a weighing of the options. Wishing to return to and live in a home country that doesn't allow dual citizenship, for example, is a valid reason to consider this step. Wishing to avoid U.S. taxes may not be a good reason, especially given that you might have to pay an "exit tax" and will be be permanently barred from returning to the U.S., no matter in what status.

If you do ultimately decide you want to renounce your U.S. citizenship, it is possible to do so; although it's not as easy as simply moving, or announcing to the world that you're "giving it up." There are steps that, if done by you intentionally, will cancel your U.S. citizenship.

There are also actions you might take that will result in naturalized U.S. citizenship being taken away from you, with or without your consent. To clarify a common misconception, however, living outside the U.S. for too long is not among these acts. The concept of "abandonment" of one's status in the U.S. applies only to green card holders (lawful permanent residents) not to U.S. citizens, naturalized or otherwise.

Voluntary Acts to Renounce U.S. Citizenship

U.S. immigration law is very specific about what it takes to abandon or give up U.S. citizenship. (See § 349 of the Immigration and Nationality Act or I.N.A.) You have to perform or do any one of several listed things, and you have to do it (or them) voluntarily and with the intention of giving up your U.S. citizenship. In other words, it's nearly impossible to lose your U.S. citizenship accidentally.

If you do one of the acts specified in the law, it will be presumed that you did so voluntarily. That is, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and the U.S. Department of State (DOS), which are in charge of immigration and citizenship issues, will assume that you meant to give up your U.S. citizenship. Your citizenship will be lost if you:

  • formally renounce your citizenship before a U.S. diplomatic or consular officer in a foreign state
  • during a time when the U.S. is at war, formally renounce your citizenship while you are still in the U.S., or one of its territories, by putting your renunciation in writing and sending it to the U.S. Attorney General
  • become a naturalized citizen in another country or take an oath or affirmation or other formal declaration of allegiance to that country after you turn 18 years old (though despite this section of the law, in either of these cases, the DOS may give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you meant to retain your U.S. citizenship)
  • take a job with a foreign government and either become a national of that country or swear an oath, affirmation, or declaration of allegiance to it, after you turn 18 (though if it's a non-policy level job, the DOS may presume that you didn't mean to give up your U.S. citizenship)
  • serve in the armed forces of a foreign country, if it is engaged in hostilities against the U.S. or you serve at an officer rank, or
  • commit an act of treason against the United States, or attempt by force to overthrow, or bear arms against, its government, or perform any of various similar acts.

How to Formally Renounce U.S. Citizenship

Renunciation is the surest way to give up your U.S. citizenship. The standard procedure is to go before a U.S. consular or diplomatic officer in a foreign country, usually at the U.S. embassy or consulate in the country where you want to live. (You can't renounce your U.S. citizenship while you are in the U.S. or one its territories, such as Puerto Rico, except in the wartime situation described above.)

At the consulate or embassy, you will sign an oath of renunciation on Form DS-4080. It's fairly straightforward; you should not be challenged or questioned about your choice. The oath of renunciation will then be forwarded to the U.S. State Department, along with a certificate of your loss of nationality.

Make sure, before taking this step, that you have already confirmed that you have citizenship and a passport in a country other than the United States.

In most cases, once someone has renounced U.S. citizenship, it is impossible to reverse that act, or to become a U.S. citizen ever again. There's one important exception, however. If you renounced your U.S. citizenship before your 18th birthday, you may have your citizenship reinstated if you inform the State Department of your desire and you do so within six months after turning 18 years old.

Questions for Your Attorney

You may need to consult with both an immigration attorney and a tax attorney if you are considering voluntarily renouncing your U.S. citizenship, for help with both the decision and the procedures to follow. Here are some good questions to raise with your attorneys, if they're applicable to your situation.

  • My father is a naturalized citizen, and I was born in the United States. He intends to renounce his U.S. citizenship. If he does, will I lose my citizenship?
  • Before I immigrated to the U.S. and became a naturalized citizen, I was an officer in my native country's armed forces. That government has asked me to work as a translator in its embassy in Washington, DC. Can I take the job without jeopardizing my citizenship?
  • I'm paying high U.S. income taxes, despite that fact that I do not currently live in the United States. Is there a way to reduce this burden without renouncing my U.S. citizenship?
  • I've been offered a job with a foreign government that's too good to pass up, but I do not want to lose my status in the United States. How do I prove to the U.S. that it's not a policy-level job, and obtain confirmation that I will not lose my U.S. citizenship?
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