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Nationality is a relationship between a person and their state of origin, culture, association, affiliation and/or loyalty. Nationality affords the state jurisdiction over the person, and affords the person the protection of the state.

Traditionally under international law and conflict of laws principles, it is the right of each state to determine who its nationals are. Today the law of nationality is increasingly coming under more international regulation by various conventions on statelessness, as well as some multilateral treaties such as the European Convention on Nationality.

Generally, nationality is established at birth by a child's place of birth ( jus soli) and/or bloodline ( jus sanguinis). Nationality may also be acquired later in life through naturalization. Corporations, ships, and other legal persons also have a nationality, generally in the state under whose laws the legal person was formed.

The legal sense of nationality, particularly in the English speaking world, may often mean citizenship, although they do not mean the same thing everywhere in the world; for instance, in the UK, citizenship is a branch of nationality which in turn ramifies to include other subcategories (see British nationality law). Citizens have rights to participate in the political life of the state of which they are a citizen, such as by voting or standing for election. Nationals need not immediately have these rights; they may often acquire them in due time.

Nationality can also mean membership in a cultural/historical group related to political or national identity, even if it currently lacks a formal state. This meaning is said by some authorities to cover many groups, including Kurds, Basques, Catalans, English, Welsh, Scots, Palestinians, Tamils, Quebecers and many others.


Where a country has only one legal system, the law will match the common perception, but where the country is divided into separate states, different rules apply. In the common law, upon birth, every person acquires a domicile. This is the relationship between a person and a specific legal system. Hence, one might have an Australian nationality and a domicile in New South Wales, or an American nationality and a domicile in Arizona. The residents of a country generally possess the right of abode in the territory of the country whose legal documents they hold. This, however, is dependent upon the constitution of the named land, and there are exceptions, particularly among more economically stable nations (e.g., British Nationality Law).

The person remains subject to the state's jurisdiction (the lex domicilii in Conflict of Laws) for the purposes of defining status and capacity wherever he or she might travel outside the state's territory; in exchange, the individual is entitled to the state's protection, and to other rights as well. This is an aspect of the public policy of parens patriae and derives from the social contract. In the civil law systems of continental Europe, either the law of nationality (known as the lex patriae) or the law of the place of habitual residence is preferred to domicile as the test of a person's status and capacity.

Some countries do not permit dual nationality while others only allow a very limited form of dual citizenship (e.g. Indian nationality law, South African nationality law, Republic of China nationality law). A person who is not a national of any state is declared a stateless person.

In the United States, the term "national" usually means someone who has U.S. nationality, but not United States citizenship, by virtue of living in a U.S. territory. Though it applied to other U.S. territories in the past, today only residents of American Samoa and Swains Island are considered U.S. "nationals"; Congress has granted full citizenship to residents of the remaining territories. U.S. "nationals" have the same rights to enter, live, and work in the United States as citizens; voting rights are the only major difference. Legally, however (and in the broader sense), U.S. citizens are also U.S. nationals; United States passports do not distinguish between citizens and non-citizen nationals.

Alternative usage

In several non-English speaking areas of the world, the cognate word for nationality in local language may be understood as a synonym of ethnicity, as nation can be defined as a grouping based on cultural self-determination rather than on relations with a state. For example, many people would say they are Kurds, i.e., of Kurdish nationality, even though no such Kurdistan state exists (the postulated homeland is divided among five countries). In the context of former Soviet Union and former Yugoslavia, nationality is often used as translation of the Russian and Serbo-Croatian terms (национальность/ natsionalnost, народност/narodnost) used for ethnic groups and local affiliations within those (former) states. Similarly, the term " nationalities of China" refers to cultural groups in China. Spain is one Nation, made out by nationalities, which are not nations, or can be considered smaller nations within the Spanish Nation.

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