Immigration, the process of moving from one country to another, has been part of mankind's journey since the dawn of human civilization—in fact, immigration was technically practiced before any of the countries that make up today's United Nations even existed. Every country in the world, from the largest to the smallest has an immigration policy. In some countries, immigration is easy. In other countries, the process is much more difficult and demanding.
For example, immigration and U.S. citizenship have been hot topics in the United States since the 2016 presidential election. Becoming a citizen of the United States is a lengthy process and requires the applicant to meet a battery of specific and challenging criteria (such as living in the U.S. for a certain number of years), and complete several demanding tasks such as attending an interview, passing tests of the English language and American civics, and pledging allegiance to the United States. While some think that the United States is the most challenging country to gain citizenship in, several other countries are just as challenging—and some are notably more difficult.
While some countries have open immigration controls, many countries have closed borders to limit and restrict who enters the country and gains citizenship. In some countries, becoming a citizen is as easy as living there for a few years. Having an ancestor or relative who was a citizen can help determine one's eligibility in other countries. In countries where it is more difficult to become a citizen, you often need to be of a specific religion to be granted citizenship.
Methods of becoming a citizen of another country:
- Blood Relations — The simplest of methods. In many countries, if an individual's parents or grandparents are citizens, that individual is also a citizen. If not, they will likely still have an easier path to citizenship than people whose parents and grandparents are not citizens. As this method requires a certain family tree, it is often unavailable to most would-be immigrants.
- Birth Nation — In many countries, children born in that country are automatically granted citizenship. In some countries, citizenship is granted even if the parents are not citizens. This guideline has spawned the trend of "birth tourism," in which an expecting mother or couple will travel to another country specifically to give birth there so their child will obtain citizenship. This method is obviously also unavailable to most potential immigrants.
- Marriage — In most countries, the foreign-born spouse of a citizen is offered a faster path to citizenship. For instance, Spain allows spouses to apply for citizenship after a single year of marriage. This method is available to potential immigrants, though it also requires a significant personal commitment.
- Naturalization — Arguably the most flexible—though time-consuming—method of obtaining citizenship. Naturalization is open to anyone able to live gainfully employed in a country for a certain number of years (often as few as five or as many as 30) and prove their personal devotion to the country. This is typically done via language and history/culture exams, interviews with immigration officials, and/or various demonstrations that one has integrated into their host country's society. Some countries also charge a naturalization fee.
- Exceptional Ability — Many countries, even those that are typically unwelcoming to immigrants, will warmly receive those who can bring specific world-class talents along with them. For example, if one has achieved a degree of as an athlete, researcher, or entertainer in one's home country. Also, workers with technical expertise are currently in demand in most countries around the globe, so they would very likely be granted permission to immigrate.
- Military Service — In some countries, foreign-born residents are permitted to serve in the military and are granted fast-tracked citizenship upon completion of certain service-related milestones.
- Business Investment — Would-be immigrants with sufficient funds can often earn their citizenship (or at least an "investment visa") by investing heavily in businesses based in their host country.
Top 14 Hardest Countries to Immigrate To:
- Vatican City
- United Arab Emirates
- Saudi Arabia
- South Korea
- United States
Vatican City is the smallest sovereign state in the world. The population is made up of about 800 residents, 450 of whom are also citizens. According to the U.S. Library of Congress, there are four ways to become a citizen of Vatican City—and they're all strict. The first three methods are to be either a Catholic Cardinal living in Rome or Vatican City, a diplomat of the Holy See, or a person whose profession requires them to live in Vatican City. People fitting into this third category include certain church officials and members of the Swiss Guard, which provides security to Vatican City.
The final way to attain citizenship is to apply directly to the church administration. However, only those who've been granted special permission to live in Vatican City and the spouses and children of current residents are eligible for this method. What's more, once a person moves away from Vatican City—for example, when a Swiss Guard's tour of duty is completed—the person loses their Vatican City citizenship.
Becoming a naturalized citizen is very difficult in China, to the point that according to China's 2020 census, only 941 people out of more than a billion were naturalized citizens. The Nationality Law of the People's Republic of China enables foreign-born individuals to become naturalized citizens if they have relatives who are Chinese citizens, if they live permanently in China, or if they have some other "legitimate reason" to become a Chinese citizen. The CIA describes China's naturalization process as "theoretically possible," but adds "in practical terms it is extremely difficult." Long-term residency is a prerequisite for citizenship but the required number of years is not specified by law.
In addition to renouncing citizenship in other countries, people seeking to become Japanese citizens must live in the country for five years and endure a meticulous review and interview process that may take years to complete. What's more, since the implementation of the Nikkei law of 2009, Japan will actually pay unemployed Latin American immigrants to return to their home country.
In Qatar, if an individual's father is not a citizen, then neither is that individual. A mother's nationality does not automatically qualify someone for citizenship. Those looking to apply for citizenship must have lived legally in Qatar for at least 25 years without leaving the country for more than two consecutive months. Qatar naturalizes no more than approximately 50 foreign-born people per year and grants permanent residency to a mere 100 expatriates every year. Naturalized citizens are not classified under the law the same way as Qatar's citizens and may not enjoy the same generous benefits.
For a foreign-born resident of Liechtenstein to become a citizen, they must live in the country for at least 30 years. If a person is under 20 years old, each year counts as two years, and if one is married to a citizen of Liechtenstein, the period is shortened to five years. In a community-focused touch, the residents of one's municipality can vote to grant citizenship to a person after just 10 years of residence. Once an individual is eligible for citizenship, the Civil Registry Office of Liechtenstein requires them to renounce their citizenship of any other country or countries.
United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia
According to the UAE's Federal Law, foreign-born residents can apply for citizenship after legally residing in the country for 30 years. However, if an individual is an Arab citizen from Oman, Qatar, or Bahrain, the period is three years, and people of Arabian descent born in other countries may apply after seven years. Children with two Emirate parents may apply with no wait, but the children of an Emirate female and a foreign male are not automatically awarded citizenship. However, they may apply once they have reached the age of 18.
In Kuwait, a foreign-born individual looking to become a citizen must live in the country for at least 20 years. The period is reduced to 15 years if the person is either a citizen of another Arab country or the foreign-born wife of a Kuwaiti man. Additionally, the applicant must speak Arabic fluently and be Muslim either by birth or conversion. Those who have converted must have been practicing the faith for at least five years. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia offers only one route to citizenship: Marry a Saudi national. Even after this, a person (particularly a non-Muslim) may be denied citizenship.
Foreign-born residents in Switzerland who wish to become citizens must have a C permit, which allows a person to live and work in Switzerland. The permit requires five years of continuous residence in Switzerland for E.U. nationals, citizens of the U.S. or Canada, and people from European Free Trade Association EFTA countries. Foreign-born individuals from any other country must also live in Switzerland for at least 10 years before being eligible for citizenship. Simple as that sounds, such a long stay can be difficult to accomplish—in order to be eligible to remain in the country for that length of time, one must be a wealthy investor, the skilled employee of a Swiss company, or the spouse of a Swiss national. What's more, prospective citizens must also prove they have become part of Swiss society and are not a security risk.
Bhutan and South Korea
Bhutan regulates and monitors all travel into the country very closely. It's one of the world's most isolated nations and didn't open its borders to tourism until 1974. Its citizenship laws are similarly strict. The Bhutan Citizenship Act states that for a person to be granted citizenship at birth, both parents must be Bhutanese citizens. Those with only one Bhutanese parent must apply for naturalization citizenship after 15 years of living in the country. Foreign-born individuals with no Bhutanese parents can apply after 20 years of living in Bhutan (15 for government workers). Requirements to become a naturalized citizen include taking an oath of allegiance to the king, the country, and the Bhutanese people. If a person is caught speaking against the king or country, citizenship can be taken away. South Korea is a bit less strict, but there's a catch: In addition to living five years in the country and (usually) renouncing any other citizenships, applicants must learn to speak, read, and write Korean, and males aged 18-35 must perform 18 months military service.
Austria and Germany
Austria is happy to welcome immigrants so long as they have in-demand work skills. The catch is that only 11 professions are currently considered in-demand. If one's job falls outside one of the 11 chosen professions, that person must be at the very top of their profession to be granted citizenship. They'll also need to agree to learn German and participate in Austrian culture, live there for 10 years, and renounce citizenship in any other country. To become a permanent resident of Germany, one must demonstrate an ability to speak German and also show knowledge of the German political system and society. Proof of employment and accommodation is also required. The prospective citizen must also have lived in the country for at least 8 years (7 for those who test well) and renounce other citizenships.
Although the U.S. has historically been considered one of the easiest countries to immigrate to—after all, except for those who have Native American ancestry, every U.S. citizen is either descended from immigrants or is an immigrant themselves—attaining U.S. citizenship has become a greater challenge over the past two decades. First, one must obtain the "green card" required to become a permanent resident of the United States, a process that is becoming increasingly difficult.
The easiest method of obtaining a green card is to be sponsored by an immediate family member (a parent, child, or sibling) who is a U.S. citizen. Another method is to get an offer for an approved job—provided one can prove that the job is not being taken from an American citizen—and get sponsored by the employer. There is also a very limited "diversity lottery" that awards 50,000 green cards per year to residents of certain countries (refugees and asylum seekers may also apply via a different system). Finally, those who have an "extraordinary ability" or a substantial amount of money to invest in a U.S. business are also eligible to apply. Once a green card is obtained, a potential citizen must live in the U.S. for five years, pass an exam that tests their knowledge of the English language and American history, and finally swear an oath of loyalty to the U.S. Constitution. However, applicants are not required to renounce their citizenship of their former home country.