There is clearly a big difference between visiting a new country as a tourist for a few days and living and working there for years at a time. Many countries, particularly those with which the United States has close relationships (such as Canada), do not require American short-term visitors to obtain special permission to enter or travel internally. For trips that stretch to several weeks or months, and for permanent or semi-permanent moves, formal entry or residence credentials are almost always required.
A visa is a government-issued document that allows the foreign national bearer to remain in the issuing country for a specified period and purpose. Visas cover many different purposes: leisure tourism, cultural exchange, medical travel, media/journalism, studying/research, family reunification, fiance/marriage, entrepreneurship/investment, employment, and many more.
Countries considered to be newly industrialized (such as Brazil), or with which the United States has a cool or arm’s-length relationship (such as Russia), generally require Americans to obtain visas prior to any visit, no matter how short. Countries with which the United States is friendlier (such as Canada or the United Kingdom) typically require visas for Americans who intend to stay for longer than 30 to 90 days, depending on the country.
The type of visa required reflects the bearer’s purpose. For instance, a student studying abroad needs a student visa, while someone seeking employment needs a worker visa (which can take many forms, based on qualifications and industry). A visa’s expiration period typically depends on its purpose. Tourism visas typically expire after a matter of days or weeks, student visas can remain in force for several months, and worker visas can last several years. Depending on the nature of the visa, the bearer may be eligible to apply for renewal as the expiration date approaches.
Permanent Resident Status
Permanent resident status, typically denoted by a special identification card, is given to individuals authorized to live and work indefinitely within the issuing country. To qualify for permanent residency, you generally need to have a clean criminal record; continuous residence (on a temporary visa) for at least a year, though certain immigrant classes (such as investors) can sometimes avoid this requirement; and a demonstrated means of support (a job, business, or supporting family member). You may also need to pass a language or culture exam.
Though permanent resident cards have fixed expiration dates (just as passports do), permanent resident status is not automatically lost at expiration. However, if you leave and re-enter the country as a permanent resident, you may need to obtain special re-entry documents.
Permanent residents are not citizens. They do not receive passports, frequently cannot vote or hold public office, and may be barred from certain public-sector jobs that require high security clearances. However, they can usually take advantage of most or all government social support programs, such as publicly funded healthcare. Permanent resident status can be revoked for a number of reasons, including a serious criminal conviction, failure to pay taxes, or a long-term relocation (often two or more years) outside the country.
Once you’ve been a permanent resident for several years (typically no more than five), you can apply for citizenship (naturalization). Citizenship entitles you to most or all of the benefits and rights given to natural-born citizens, including (in most cases) the ability to vote and hold office. Naturalized citizens also receive passports that allow them to enter and exit the country at will, and enjoy the protection and services of their adopted countries’ local embassies when traveling abroad.
Naturalization requirements vary from country to country, but generally include:
- Passing a language exam
- Passing a test of political, historical, and cultural knowledge
- Holding a valid visa or residency permit (usually a permanent resident document) at the time of application
- Having a clean criminal record
- Taking an oath of citizenship (demonstrating commitment to your adopted country)
- Renouncing prior citizenship(s), unless your adopted country recognizes dual citizenship for naturalized citizenship
Many countries, including most developed countries, recognize dual citizenship (also known as dual nationality) for naturalized citizens. If you obtain citizenship in one of these countries, you don’t necessarily have to renounce your American citizenship, as is generally the case when you obtain citizenship in a country that doesn’t recognize dual citizenship. Notable countries that do not recognize dual citizenship for naturalized citizens include Germany, Austria, The Netherlands, Japan, Norway, and Singapore.
As a dual citizen of the U.S. and another country, you can carry passports from both countries, enjoying all the rights and privileges afforded to single-nationality citizens. Of course, you need to abide by each country’s laws and obligations, including (in certain cases) compulsory military conscription or public service.