What does it Mean to be a Citizen?

Governments are given the power in each country to decide who becomes a citizen. A person becomes a legal citizen when they are added to the national registry (or list) of citizens. A passport or birth certificate can be proof of citizenship, but many people worldwide do not own either and are still entitled to the protection their government provides.


Citizenship is important for three main reasons:

  1. Citizenship allows you to work and live legally in a country, and – in some countries – to pass on these rights to your children.
  2. Citizens are entitled to the protection and benefits provided by their government. These benefits are different in every country – for example, in countries like Mauritius and Botswana, the government offers basic healthcare to citizens for free. In other countries, citizens may not be protected by the police force or may even face discrimination from their government.
  3. Citizenship provides a pathway to travel to other countries legally. The vast majority of countries require you to show your passport before you can travel, and a larger proportion of countries deny access to stateless individuals (people with no citizenship) because they believe that they will not eventually leave and return to their home country.


The process of becoming a citizen changes from country to country. The most common methods of becoming a citizen are:

  • Being born in the country: Only four African nations provide citizenship at birth to anyone born within its borders: Chad, Lesotho, Mozambique and Tanzania. A further fifteen countries provide citizenship to all children born in their territory after they reach adulthood and have lived in the country for a long period of time.
  • Being born to parents of a certain nationality: Forty-nine African countries provide citizenship without considering place of birth, ethnicity, or any other factors if one parent is a national of that country. Other countries consider whether a child was born to married parents, whether the father was a citizen specifically and whether the parents were born overseas.
  • Applying for citizenship after having lived in the country for a period of time: The required residency time in African countries ranges from five years, in fifteen countries, to thirty-five years in the Central African Republic. A country may require that the applicant speaks the local language, or belongs to a certain ethnic group, or invests a large amount of money into the community.
  • Gaining citizenship after marriage, from your spouse: Twenty-seven African countries allow a spouse to pass citizenship to their new partner after a legal marriage. Many African countries place restrictions on a woman’s right to pass on their citizenship, and these couples often require the permission of the local government or a longer residency period to apply for citizenship.



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