Security clearance: problems with dual citizenship
Updated: Nov 25, 2021
Can people with dual citizenship qualify for a top secret security clearance for working in the U.S. Federal Government? The answer is unequivocally YES. That’s important, because without this type of clearance you can’t become a Foreign Service Officer (FSO) or get any other federal government job that requires access to classified information.
There are lots of diplomats and civil servants that have dual citizenship for all sorts of reasons, like having a foreign or immigrant parent or having obtained American citizenship through marriage or long-term residency abroad.
Still, the myth that dual citizenship is a problem is alive and well. When you look online you’ll find plenty of people who claim to work for a federal agency (often security or law enforcement types) saying you have to give up your foreign passport, or suggesting that chances of getting a clearance are lower for dual citizens.
These people are either ignorant or fail to express themselves clearly. So unless they give you good reason to believe otherwise, I wouldn’t trust their credentials anyway.
However, it can’t be denied that dual citizenship raises a number of concerns that have to be addressed when applying for a secret, or top secret, security clearance for federal government jobs.
That doesn't mean having dual citizenship is bad—nobody ever admonished me for having a Dutch passport. But the security background investigators working on my case did have additional questions about my life and activities abroad.
The biggest question is: where does your loyalty ultimately lie? In order to make sure it’s with the U.S., investigators want to know where you’ve lived (have you ever even lived in the U.S.?) and how strong your ties to the other country are (Did you serve in the military there? Do you own a significant amount of property there?). These are serious considerations, but don’t worry too much about having lived abroad, even if it was for 10+ years, or if all of your relatives live overseas. Those are not disqualifying factors (not for me anyway).
If you have a foreign passport there are records of you in that other country and the investigators responsible for your case will definitely want to look into them.
That process of checking your police records and contacts abroad adds (sometimes lots of) time to the background investigation, but it’s no different from having traveled or studied abroad. If you’ve been abroad for any reason investigators also look into (police) records in those countries, making sure you’re not secretly a criminal or other type of problem maker.
If you hold a second citizenship it’s possible you will never get posted in that country as a government respresentive, even if you speak that language fluently. That’s because your security clearance might get restricted for that specific country due to foreign influence (say, friends and family who are likely to beg you for visas or other favors).
Even if you’re not outright excluded from serving in a country you hold the nationality, you might still have problems getting posted there because the host government may refuse giving you diplomatic immunity because they see you as one of their own citizens.
There are countries the U.S. doesn’t get along with and there are countries that just don’t keep records very well—in both cases that might create a problem for you. However, this is mostly speculation on my part because I haven’t heard about many cases like that. I only know someone who applied for a top secret clearance who, after a drawn out process, didn’t get it. This person came from Venezuela. My understanding is he wasn’t rejected just because he grew up in Venezuela though. There must have been something they found, like connections between his relatives and the regime, or simply gave up because they couldn’t get information. Or maybe this person did something bad—I just don’t know.
Give up second citizenship?
I recently saw written guidance from the federal government stating explicitly that dual nationality is not a ground for denial of any security clearance, and applicants should never be asked to give up their citizenship. Still, I’ve heard from several people directly that background investigators asked them if they’d be willing to renounce.
So which is it? In my opinion the guidance is clear and saying “I’d rather keep my second nationality” doesn’t disqualify you. You’re not supposed to use your second citizenship to obtain benefits like healthcare or education, but it’s okay to say that you wish to use your citizenship to obtain benefits from it after you retire, or because you’d like to pass it on your nationality to your kids.
Renounce second citizenship before applying?
I’ve seen people asking on online forums if they should quickly renounce their second citizenship before applying for a federal job. That doesn’t make sense. You don’t even know if you’ll get the job and whether you renounce or not, your (potential) ties to that country in terms of family connections and/or property would still exist anyway. So don't do it.
Countries that won't let you renounce citizenship
There are certain countries that refuse to let you renounce citizenship, like Iran and Morocco (two examples I happen to be familiar with). There are other countries (like Vietnam) that demand you clear up any blood ties to their country no matter how distant, even if you don't have citizenship there, before they will recognize you as a U.S. diplomat.
Ultimately each case is going to be a little bit different. But in general, again, dual nationality is not a problem for the kind of security clearance you need to serve in the U.S. Foreign Service.
Hopefully I’ve cleared up some of the main questions and misconceptions around dual citizenship and the ability to become a FSO. There may still be something that’s unclear or simply makes you nervous—trust me, I was nervous too when I went through the process. But if you have a (relatively) clean background, you’re honest, and you have legitimate ties to the US and an interest in serving, there’s no point in focusing on the negative.
Want to know more about a career with the State Department? Check out careers.state.gov or check it out on social media @DOSCareers