What's the difference between "citizenship" and "nationality"?

Webster says on "nationality":

the fact or status of being a member or citizen of a particular nation

and on "citizenship":

the fact or status of being a citizen of a particular place

It looks like nationality is more related to your ethnicity, while citizenship is more related to a place of living. Which means that citizenship should be more "flexible" than nationality (as it's much easier to change your place of living rather than your ethnicity).

That's how I thought until I came across a Wiki article today on Steven Seagal stating that he has three nationalities:

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So, now it looks to be like I was wrong. But then I really don't see the difference now. Are they synonyms?

3 Answers 3


The term "nationality" has several different meanings depending on the context. I am assuming we are talking about the legal concepts of "nationality" and "citizenship".

In the legal context, "nationality" means an internationally-recognized relationship between a country and a person that, among other things, allows the person to hold the passport of that country. "Citizenship" is defined internally within each country to mean a status that (supposedly) allows the person full political rights in the country.

A citizen of a country is always a national of a country, but not the other way around. Although in many countries, all nationals are citizens, in some countries, there exist non-citizen nationals. Here are a few examples:

  • People born in American Samoa are automatically US nationals at birth, but (unless they have a US citizen parent) are not US citizens at birth. As non-citizen US nationals, they hold US passports, and can live and work in the US without restriction, but they cannot vote. Other US territories were previously in a similar situation until Congress extended citizenship to them; but Congress has not extended it to American Samoa.
  • There are currently 6 classes of British nationals. In addition to British citizen, there are also: British Overseas Territories citizen, British Overseas citizen, British subject, British National (Overseas), and British protected person. They all hold British passports but have different rights; some of the latter statuses do not have right of abode in the UK.
  • In many Latin American countries, for example Mexico, nationality (nacionalidad) is acquired at birth, but citizenship (ciudadanía) is limited to those who have turned 18 or 21. So children would be non-citizen nationals of the country.

When talking about foreigners, generally it is only nationality that one cares about, because whether you are a citizen or a non-citizen national of a country is really not relevant to another country. All they care about is that you travel on the first country's passport, and are afforded the consular protection of that first country. However, domestically within a country, one often talks about citizenship, because some of the domestic rights and obligations of citizenship, e.g. voting rights, taxation, right of abode, etc., may be different for non-citizen nationals.

Unfortunately, due to the fact that many countries don't have non-citizen nationals, and even in the countries that have them, they are rare or the status is not well known, most people confuse the terms "nationality" and "citizenship", or exclusively use the term "citizenship" even when what they mean is "nationality".


Nationality and citizenship are the same.

Citizenship does not mean where a person lives. Many people may have citizenship on one country while living in another, they are call "expatriate".

Many may have multiple citizenships, the number is determined by each country. For example, a child born in the UK to US parents will have both UK and US citizenship (carry both passports).

Is your confusion that Seagal has all three citizenships?

Steven Seagal was granted Serbian citizenship on 11 January 2016, following several visits to the country, and has been asked to train Aikido to the Serbian Special Forces.[54] Seagal was granted Russian citizenship on 3 November 2016, according to government spokesman Dmitry Peskov "He was asking quite insistently and over a lengthy period to be granted citizenship".

Seagal's ancestry appears to be Dutch, English, German (mother) and Russian, Mongolian (father).

  • If they are the same, can we say, for example, "he was granted Serbian nationality"?
    – brilliant
    Nov 3, 2016 at 13:39
  • Yes, that can be said, here for conditions of being granted nationality. Usually it is said, "He was granted Serbian citizenship", "He is a Serbian national", but that may be more an AmE perspective.
    – Peter
    Nov 3, 2016 at 13:46
  • 1
    The word is expatriate, not "ex-patriot"!
    – stangdon
    Nov 3, 2016 at 14:28
  • 1
    You did not sufficiently address "nationality" in your answer. You say it is the same as citizenship, but you did not provide any references against the different definitions given by the OP.
    – user3169
    Nov 3, 2016 at 20:07

Though citizenship and nationality are interchangeably used in everyday conversation, I have uncovered some debate regarding the meanings of each concept: http://www.differencebetween.net/miscellaneous/difference-between-nationality-and-citizenship/

In the case of the above resource, they appear to argue that "nationality" is the unchangeable nation of your birth, much how "ethnicity" is the unchangeable people group you were born into. In contrast, they offer that "citizenship" is the actual legal status granted by a nation-state.

Someone who lives in Japan, a very homogeneous nation, may say that their nationality, ethnicity, and citizenship is Japanese. In contrast, you may have someone of Kurdish ethnicity and Iraqi nationality who moves to America and obtains U.S. citizenship. If he maintains his Iraqi citizenship, he will have both Iraqi and U.S. citizenship, but he will always have simply Iraqi nationality by virtue of his birthplace.

I make no claims about the "correctness" of this definition, but this variance in definitions appears to create some confusion in places such as Wikipedia, where, for instance, the page for CNN reporter Kyung Lah (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kyung_Lah) lists her nationality as "South Korean" even though the cited reference makes no claims as to whether she maintains South Korean citizenship. The citation only refers to her birthplace being in South Korea, meaning that the editors are using the above definition of nationality.

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