‘Naturalisation’ refers to the acquisition by individuals of a state’s nationality (or citizenship) through a personal connection to the state established during that person’s life. It is to be distinguished from the acquisition of nationality through a connection to a state at the moment of birth, typically by being born on its territory, or by having an existing national parent. Today, the most common basis for naturalisation is a period of residence in the state, though other possibilities exist, such as military service and marriage to a state’s national.

The use of the term ‘naturalisation’ reflects the historic view that those whose connection to a sovereign dated from birth were ‘natural-born’ subjects. Lacking such a connection by birth, other persons whose association with the sovereign or territory was recognised were being ‘naturalised’. That usage is illustrated by the English Act of Parliament of 1677 ‘for the Naturalizing of Children of his Majestyes English Subjects borne in Forreigne Countryes’ during the 1641-1666 period of civil war and interregnum. Under that Act, if both parents had been born in England, a child would ‘for ever be esteemed and taken to all Intents and Purposes to be and to have beene the Kings Naturall born Subject[ ]’.

The naturalisation policies of today’s European states may be characterised as moderately liberal. Naturalisation is likely to be available in principle to those who meet the requirement of several years’ legal residence, with a large majority of states setting minimum periods of residence of between five and ten years (Wallace Goodman, 2010). There has also been increased acceptance of multiple nationality arising out of naturalisation over recent decades (Faist, 2007). For example, in Germany, which has historically discouraged dual nationality, a legislative reform in 1999 introduced exceptions, particularly for those for whom it is impossible or difficult to divest themselves of another nationality.

The recent trend in Europe has nevertheless been for the introduction of new requirements for naturalisation (Wallace Goodman, 2010). Most states now require applicants to show familiarity with the state’s language(s) or culture, and to satisfy requirements of good character. In a majority of European states, it is also necessary to show that the person is economically active or self-sufficient. The contemporary trend in naturalisation policy is therefore for states to seek to be selective on cultural, social and economic grounds, rather than restricting access to naturalisation across the board.

The desire to select can lead to questionable ideas concerning naturalisation policy. A good example is the proposal announced by the British government in The Path to Citizenship in 2008 to require a longer period of residence prior to the naturalisation of those who could not demonstrate ‘active citizenship’ through charitable or similar activity. While legislation on this point was adopted (in the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009), it has never been implemented, because of the sheer impracticality – for both migrants and voluntary bodies – of a scheme to prove the requisite ‘activity’.

The Path to Citizenship also proposed that those who were eligible for permanent residence in the UK ought to be encouraged to naturalise, as acquisition of British citizenship was ‘the completion of a newcomer’s journey’, and likely to aid their social integration. To that end, a shorter qualifying period was contemplated for naturalisation than for permanent residence. But that proposal has not been acted upon either, presumably because of its inherent unattractiveness to government. As states retain greater freedom of action in relation to the residence and protection of permanent residents than of naturalised citizens, it is somewhat difficult to see why they would make it easier to become the latter than the former.

These two proposals within The Path to Citizenship were based on the assumption that migrants could be asked to take specific concrete steps (voluntary activity, naturalisation at the earliest juncture) to prove that they truly belonged in Britain. Long-term migrants will, however, have their own calculations to make and lives to live. The evidence from around Europe is that migrants from less developed countries are far more likely to naturalise than those from highly-developed counties (see Dronkers and Vink, 2012). The implication is that those who actually naturalise are likely to be motivated primarily by practical considerations, such as the acquisition of a privileged passport, security of residence, and the transmission of nationality to children. Their preferences concerning naturalisation will also typically be influenced by ties to – and identification with – their state of origin, as well as in relation to their state of residence.

Looking to the future, we may ask how naturalisation policy should be arranged in a world in which the migrant experience involves everyday forms of transnationalism. It would seem preferable that politicians dispense with the view that naturalisation can be an instrument for moulding society. Even the claim that ready access to naturalisation is necessary to promote social and economic integration may now be outdated. The perspective which appears most appropriate to contemporary conditions is one which treats naturalisation as an optional means for an individual to protect their rights to reside in a state, and to claim its protection, and nothing more than that.


Dronkers, J. and Vink, M. (2012) ‘Explaining Access to Citizenship in Europe: How Citizenship Policies Affect Naturalization Rates’, European Union Politics 13(3): 390-412.

Faist, T. (2007) ‘The Fixed and Porous Boundaries of Dual Citizenship’, in T. Faist (ed.) Dual Citizenship in Europe: From Nationhood to Societal Integration, Farnham: Ashgate.

Wallace Goodman, S. (2010) Naturalisation Policies in Europe: Exploring Patterns of Inclusion and Exclusion, EUDO Citizenship Observatory.

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