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Want To Move Abroad? Tracing Your Family History Can Help

  • Written by Dave

I’ve regularly spoken with people who say “I would love to move abroad”, but they’ve done absolutely nothing to make this happen. While there’s a big difference between talking and doing, it’s an easy transition to make. For every would-be expat who isn’t sure how how to move abroad, there are several steps I recommend them to get started:

  1. Get your passport.
  2. Read Why you’ll say “no” to moving abroad.
  3. Read the Start Here post to figure out your next moves.

Now I have to add a fourth item to that list: research your family tree.

I haven’t focused on this topic as much as I should have and there’s a rich trove of both information and misinformation to be found there. For example, while living in the US, I often heard the canard that “I can move to England if I want because my mother’s father was born in England.”

Well, no. Amongst other things, the UK ancestry visa only applies to commonwealth citizens and while that’s great if you’re from South Africa or Australia, but you’re out of luck if you’re a US citizen (even then, this visa — first introduced in 1972 — has been considered for elimination due to the constant British desire to reshuffle their immigration laws in an apparent attempt to ensure that would-be immigrants can never figure out how to enter the country).

That being said, there are still plenty of ancestral opportunities, some going back far further than you would think. For example, in my post No, Bill Clinton can’t run for the French presidency, I mention, almost as an aside:

[Are] you of Italian descent? If had an Italian ancestor since 1861 (more or less), you might be able to claim Italian citizenship so long as no one along your chain of ancestors renounced their Italian citizenship.

Do you know your ancestors going back a century and a half? Or how about over 500 years? Sephardic Jews are now eligible for Spanish citizenship, an attempt made by the Spanish government to apologizing for expelling them in 1492 (though in practice, many Sephardic Jews are still waiting for the law to go into effect). Portugal has passed a similar law.

Most other options for moving abroad via ancestry are for a more limited time period, such as getting a Greek passport by having at least one Greek grandparent. Of course, if you’re a male aged 19 to 45 years old, you’ll have to deal with mandatory military service in Greece.

I pointed this out to one person and they immediately said “why would I want to move to Greece with their unemployment levels?” You could ask a similar question for Spain, Portugal, or many other countries, but you have to remember that they’re part of the European Economic Area and a passport in one country gives you access to all of them. Don’t be foolish and discount a free passport just because you’re not interested in the target country.

So my advice: research your family tree and if you find an ancestor from another country, start researching that country’s immigration laws. You may be in for a pleasant surprise.

Many people are aware of ancestry.com, but there are many other online resources for tracing your family tree. The Mormon Church also offers a free service for tracing your family history.

Dave Lister

The world's most sought-after consultant on international tax planning, investment immigration, and global citizenship. Dave has personally lived this lifestyle for over a decade, and now works with entrepreneurs and investors who want to live free.

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