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by  David Green

To be a citizen is to be a full member of a nation. Every year thousands of immigrants make the decision to become citizens of New Zealand.

1840–1948: British subjects

From 1840, when New Zealand became a British colony after the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, until 1948, when the British Nationality and New Zealand Citizenship Act was passed, most people living in New Zealand were officially British subjects. Even after the creation of a New Zealand citizenship in 1948, New Zealand citizens also remained British subjects. The description ‘British subject’ did not appear on passports printed from 1974, and New Zealand citizens ceased legally to be British subjects on 1 January 1983.

Citizenship and naturalisation

A country’s citizens possess full legal, social and political rights and obligations within its borders; non-citizens, no matter how long their residence, do not. Nearly all babies born in New Zealand, whatever the nationality of their parents, automatically become New Zealand citizens.

People who have arrived as migrants often want to take the further step of becoming citizens, whether to feel themselves full members of the new society they have chosen, or to enjoy particular privileges or escape specific deprivations. Until 1977 this procedure was called ‘naturalisation’. Since then it has been termed ‘citizenship by grant’.

British subjects, Māori, and aliens

When New Zealand became a British colony in 1840, people living in New Zealand became British subjects. British law came into force, and anyone born within the British Empire gained the same legal rights in New Zealand as they already possessed in Britain (as did their New Zealand-born descendants).

Māori gained ‘all the Rights and Privileges of British Subjects’ under Article Three of the Treaty of Waitangi. When the position of Māori was challenged because of their ‘non-British’ (communal) form of land tenure, their status as British subjects was confirmed by the Native Rights Act 1865. But full enjoyment by Māori of their citizenship rights was to be subverted in many ways over the next century.

In the mid-19th century ‘aliens’ (non-Britons) were free to enter and live in the Queen’s dominions, which included New Zealand, but their property rights were restricted. French and German settlers complained, and from 1844, aliens could become ‘natural born subjects of Her Majesty [Queen Victoria]’ in New Zealand through proclamations by the governor that were later confirmed by ordinances. Once New Zealand became self-governing in 1854, an annual naturalisation act replaced the ordinances. The Treaty of Waitangi had authorised settlement by ‘people of [the Queen’s] tribe’; extending the right to become British subjects to people other than natural-born British subjects was, in a sense, an early breach of the treaty.

Citizenship of women and children

In the late 19th century married women and children had no independent citizenship rights. British women who married alien men automatically acquired their husband’s nationality and lost their status as British subjects. From 1866, alien women married to British subjects (including men who were naturalised British subjects) were deemed to be British subjects themselves. After 1882 children of naturalised fathers or naturalised widows who had accompanied them to New Zealand were automatically naturalised, unless they were Chinese.

In the early 20th century women’s organisations around the world sought independent nationality for women. Under the British Nationality and Status of Aliens (in New Zealand) Act 1923, the wives and children of men whose citizenship was taken away did not automatically lose their own citizenship. Children could now be named on their parents’ naturalisation certificates, and could choose to give up their British nationality when they came of age. From 1935, alien women were no longer automatically naturalised along with their husbands, but had to make their own statutory declaration. British women whose husbands took up another nationality could retain the rights (and after 1946, the legal status) of British citizens.

Discouraging ‘undesirables’

‘Undesirable’ immigrants – including non-white British subjects – were mostly excluded by immigration restrictions introduced from the late 19th century. They were also discouraged from becoming naturalised citizens by a £1 naturalisation fee which was imposed on all applicants by the 1866 Aliens Act.

Chinese immigrants

‘An overdose of Yellow Peril’

In 1920 an Auckland police officer’s report on a Chinese applicant for naturalisation revealed the depth of anti-Chinese prejudice in New Zealand:

‘I respectfully report that all Chinese look alike to me, or nearly so, and unless Mr Young Sing Kow presents himself for identification I would not be able to say whether I knew him, or not. In any case I would not report favourably on such a person, no matter what his qualifications were, as I am of the opinion that we are getting an overdose of Yellow Peril.’ 1

Chinese people had to continue to pay this fee after it was abolished for all other applicants in the 1890s. They were denied naturalisation (or even permanent residence) between 1908 and 1951. Through that period, Chinese residents in New Zealand had to apply periodically for permission to stay. Nevertheless, during the Second World War resident Chinese were conscripted into the armed forces. After Chinese immigrants were allowed to become citizens, only 20 of the first 400 applicants for naturalisation – ‘the most highly assimilated [and educated] types’ – were accepted. Because of suspicion about their allegiance following the Communist victory in China, Chinese people, unlike others seeking citizenship, had for some years to renounce their previous nationality and show that they were ‘closer to the New Zealand way of life than to the Chinese’. 2

    • IA 1, 116/7 pt 1, Archives New Zealand, Wellington › Back
    • Manying Ip, ‘Chinese New Zealanders: old settlers and new immigrants.’ In Immigration and national identity in New Zealand: one people, two peoples, many peoples?, edited by Stuart Greif. Palmerston North: Dunmore, 1995, p. 183. › Back

Towards New Zealand citizenship

The First World War

Naturalisation was halted during the First World War, and in 1917 the Revocation of Naturalization Act was passed. The grounds for revoking the citizenship of those who had been naturalised remained vague for the next 40 years. In practice, few naturalised ‘enemy aliens’ were seen as threatening New Zealand’s ‘peace and good government’. During the First World War all adult aliens had to register with the local police, and do so again whenever they moved. Some 9,000 had registered by 1921.

Naturalisation between the wars

After the war, empire-wide consistency was sought and the naturalisation process became steadily more bureaucratic. From 1923, applications for naturalisation could be made to the minister of internal affairs by aliens of ‘good character’ who had lived in New Zealand for at least three years, had ‘an adequate knowledge of the English language’, and did not suffer from any ‘disability’.

Naturalisation could still be revoked for misrepresentation, and now also if a citizen had ‘shown himself by act or speech to be disaffected or disloyal to His Majesty’. (Disloyalty remained grounds for deprivation of citizenship until 1959.) The definition of British nationality was brought into line with that in the United Kingdom.

From 1928, people who had been naturalised anywhere in the empire automatically became British subjects in New Zealand. Conversely, anyone naturalised in New Zealand enjoyed the rights of British subjects anywhere in the empire. People wanting to be naturalised had to have lived in the empire for five years and in New Zealand for at least one year before they applied.

The Second World War

From the beginning of the Second World War until 1977, resident aliens were again required to register with the police, and to notify changes in their circumstances. About 90 resident ‘enemy aliens’ were interned during the war on Somes Island in Wellington Harbour. Naturalisation was suspended for the duration of the war, except for aliens serving in the armed forces. When it was resumed, the Department of Internal Affairs was inundated with applications from aliens who considered they had proved themselves worthy to become citizens.

New Zealand citizenship

By the end of the Second World War, the prolonged attempt to enforce a common citizenship code across the British Empire was breaking down. Most New Zealanders were reluctant to have separate New Zealand citizenship and wanted to remain only British subjects, but in 1947 a conference of experts agreed that citizenship criteria should be decided separately in each country. All would accept the citizens of other Commonwealth countries as British subjects or Commonwealth citizens (the two expressions were used interchangeably).

The 1948 Citizenship Act

The British Nationality and New Zealand Citizenship Act 1948 (the order of the words showed their relative importance) gave New Zealand citizenship to all current New Zealand residents who had been either born or naturalised as British subjects. Almost all children subsequently born in New Zealand would become New Zealand citizens. New residents who were citizens of the British Commonwealth or Ireland could become New Zealand citizens simply by registering, a regime that particularly benefited resident and arriving Indian people.

‘Good character’ remained necessary for those seeking naturalisation – Communist leanings or affiliation ruled out some applicants in the early 1950s. Only about 10% of British-born immigrants who arrived between 1948 and 1951 chose to register: there was little practical reason for them to do so.

Born a Kiwi, but not a citizen

Until 2006 there was only one exception to the rule that a baby born in New Zealand was automatically registered as a New Zealand citizen. Children born to diplomats who are serving in New Zealand posts enjoy the diplomatic immunities of their parents but are not entitled to New Zealand citizenship. In 2003 claims were made that some women were coming to New Zealand solely to have their babies, so that the babies would have New Zealand citizenship by birth and their parents’ citizenship by descent. In 2005 the Citizenship Act was amended so that any child born after 1 January 2006 is a New Zealand citizen by birth only if at least one parent is a New Zealand citizen or entitled to reside in New Zealand indefinitely.

Towards consistency for all

In 1959 the registration of Commonwealth citizens as New Zealand citizens was tightened: the criteria for registration became basically the same as for naturalisation. It was no coincidence that the registration criteria were tightened at the same time as the list of Commonwealth countries was expanded to include several African and Asian former British colonies.

The Citizenship Act 1977

The Citizenship Act 1977 imposed the same requirements on all people who applied for citizenship by grant regarding length of residence in New Zealand, character, and knowledge of the English language. The distinction between Commonwealth and foreign citizens was replaced by one between New Zealanders and foreigners. ‘Naturalisation’ became ‘citizenship by grant’.

From 1992 immigrants seeking citizenship had to prove their intention to remain ordinarily resident in New Zealand. New immigration policies favoured those with professional skills and assets. This led some to conclude that citizenship could be bought.

Aliens and citizens

The rights of non-citizens

New Zealand’s non-citizens have always had fewer rights than its citizens, especially in wartime. In some respects, however, disadvantages gradually disappeared. The Aliens Acts of 1866 and 1870 permitted the subjects of ‘friendly States’ to hold personal property and real estate under the same conditions as British subjects. Aliens became eligible to vote – but not to stand as candidates – in local body elections in 1926.

The 1948 Aliens Act

New Zealand’s last Aliens Act, passed in 1948 just before the introduction of New Zealand citizenship, stipulated that aliens could not own shares in New Zealand-registered ships, hold parliamentary office, or vote in parliamentary elections. They could be deported if convicted of any offence punishable by more than a year’s imprisonment, or if it was ‘not conducive to the public good’ that they remain in the country. Aliens could not be admitted as barristers or solicitors, or as members of some other professional bodies. Parts of the act remained in force until 1977.

Since 1975 all people ‘ordinarily resident in New Zealand’ have been permitted to vote in general elections, but only citizens can run for office. With permanent residents having essentially the same rights as citizens, some choose to become citizens mainly to simplify their overseas travel arrangements.

Revoking and renouncing citizenship

New Zealand citizenship by grant can be revoked for actions considered contrary to the interests of New Zealand. Adults with dual citizenship may renounce their New Zealand citizenship, but the minister of internal affairs can refuse to register such declarations by New Zealand residents.

The rights and obligations of citizens

New Zealand citizens must register to vote and pay their taxes. In return, they may obtain a New Zealand passport, are not barred from any public service jobs, may own rural land regardless of any restrictions on overseas investment, are eligible for a range of educational scholarships and awards, and are free to represent New Zealand at sport.

Pacific Islanders and New Zealand citizenship

In 1901 the Cook Islands and Niue both became New Zealand territory; their inhabitants were already British subjects. Tokelauans also became British subjects in 1916. From 1920, New Zealand administered Western Samoa under a League of Nations mandate. While Western Samoa was not part of the British Empire, its inhabitants were seen as being under British protection, and New Zealand governments at first assumed that they would eventually choose incorporation with New Zealand.

The 1923 and 1928 British Nationality and Status of Aliens (in New Zealand) Acts allowed for the naturalisation of residents of Western Samoa, who were exempted from the usual English language requirement. Tokelau was formally annexed by New Zealand in 1948, and so Tokelauans along with Cook Islanders and Niueans were New Zealand citizens from 1 January 1949, when the British Nationality and New Zealand Citizenship Act of 1948 came into force.

Western Samoans after independence

Western Samoa achieved independence in 1962. Thereafter, Western Samoans in New Zealand had uncertain citizenship status. During the 1970s many Western Samoans entered New Zealand on temporary work permits, and some stayed after these expired.

In 1982 the Privy Council reinterpreted the 1923 and 1928 acts and ruled that all Western Samoans born between 1924 and 1948 were British subjects. Therefore, in 1949 they and their descendants (more than 100,000 living people) had become New Zealand citizens. New Zealand was reluctant to give citizenship to almost all Western Samoans, as the Privy Council ruling required. The New Zealand and Western Samoan governments negotiated a compromise. The Citizenship (Western Samoa) Act 1982 overturned the Privy Council ruling. But all Western Samoan citizens who were in New Zealand on 14 September 1982, and those subsequently granted permanent residence, became entitled to New Zealand citizenship.

Choosing citizenship

19th-century naturalisation

Acquiring the status – and rights – of British subjects was increasingly prized as the British Empire prospered during the 19th century. Yet the number of ‘alien friends’ (or non-British immigrants) naturalised as British subjects in New Zealand was never large: just 13,000 in total by 1925, an annual average of 170 (excluding the First World War period) and less than 1% of the then population. Most non-British immigrants were apparently content to remain ‘resident aliens’.

Almost two-thirds of the 650 people naturalised between 1855 and 1866 were Germans. The next largest source country was France, with 38. There were 56 from Scandinavian countries. The only non-European was John Tong, a Wellington cabinet-maker naturalised in 1866, who was a native of Canton (now Guangzhou), China.

By the late 19th century the balance had shifted, reflecting more recent migrant influxes. Of the 3,000 people naturalised between 1882 and 1894, nearly two-fifths were Scandinavians and a third Germans. Easily the next largest group was 298 Chinese, for whom naturalisation eased travel between New Zealand and China.

20th-century naturalisation

‘My king is New Zealand’

Arnold and Tamara Green came to New Zealand in 1948 from Poland. Neither had any hesitation about becoming New Zealand citizens. Arnold says: ‘We are still technically Polish citizens – that is the rule of Poland – but they know very well that I am a citizen of New Zealand. A man can only have one king, and my king is New Zealand.’ Tamara agrees: ‘I never had any hesitation about it. When we decided to come to New Zealand, from the first day we were quite determined that this is going to be our home. That we were starting a family, and this is going to be the country of our children.’ 1

Of the 6,000 naturalised in the first two decades of the 20th century, about a third were Scandinavians, a quarter were Austro-Hungarians (most came from a small area of central Dalmatia) and a fifth Germans. The only significant groups of ‘race aliens’ naturalised in this period were 147 Syrians (Lebanese) and 146 Chinese.

Some 3,250 naturalisation certificates were issued between the world wars, roughly half the previous annual rate. About 30% went to Yugoslavs (nearly all Dalmatians), 25% to Scandinavians, and 10% each to Germans and Italians. After 1951, Chinese could again become naturalised.

During the third quarter of the 20th century, about a third of the aliens naturalised were Dutch; the next largest group, at around 10% of annual totals of 1,000 to 1,500, was the Chinese.

  1. Quoted in Megan Hutching, New Zealanders by choice, Wellington: Department of Internal Affairs, 1998, p. 6. › Back

Becoming a citizen

The early naturalisation process 

The Aliens Act 1866 was the first statute to specify details of the naturalisation process. An immigrant’s application was made to the governor. It was signed and ‘verified upon oath’, stated ‘his name age birth-place residence and occupation the length of his residence in the Colony and his desire to settle therein’, and had to be accompanied by the fee of £1 and certification from a magistrate that he was ‘a person of good repute’. Following the governor’s assent, the applicant swore in the presence of a magistrate to ‘be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty [Queen Victoria]’, and then his letters of naturalisation were issued.

Today’s requirements

Today’s prospective citizens must have been legally in the country for the last five years, be able to understand and speak English (skills are assessed at an interview), be of good character, and intend to continue to live in the country or work for a New Zealand organisation overseas. In 2021, application fees were approximately $470 for adults, $235 for children, and $205 for citizens by descent.

Citizenship and national identity

In New Zealand, unlike the United States and (more recently) Australia, the idea that citizenship marks national identity gained little traction. A common culture and ethnicity was seen as more important in binding the nation together than a shared formal citizenship. There has been no New Zealand counterpart to Australia’s campaign in the late 1990s to encourage long-term residents from New Zealand and Britain to take up Australian citizenship. As New Zealand’s secretary for internal affairs observed in 1960:

[There] is no economic and little social pressure on aliens to become New Zealand citizens, nor does New Zealand seek to influence or persuade aliens in this matter. It is considered better that resident aliens should themselves decide freely and at leisure whether or not they wish to be New Zealand citizens. 1

Citizens by choice

The naturalisation ceremony is an important event for many immigrants who choose to become New Zealand citizens. Eva Szegoe arrived in New Zealand in 1957 as a Hungarian refugee. Five years later the family took out citizenship. The mayor of Wellington presided over the ceremony in the Town Hall, as Eva Szegoe describes: ‘I remember we were there sitting in half a circle. All different nationalities. It was very nice. [The mayor said that] we are citizens by choice. More special than [those] who are born here.’ 2

The ceremony

In 1954 the New Zealand government decided that the oath of allegiance sworn at the citizenship ceremony should be taken with due solemnity. It was ‘essential that any ceremony be restrained and dignified if it is not to become embarrassing’ to the New Zealanders involved, who would naturally be ‘conservative and unemotional in the matter of public display of feeling’. 3 Since 1955, groups of new citizens have publicly sworn allegiance to the Queen and loyalty to New Zealand by oath or affirmation. (New citizens from countries where Queen Elizabeth was the head of state could take the oath in writing and get their certificates by post until 1996, when they too were required to attend a public ceremony.)

New citizens receive their certificates from the local mayor and join in the singing of ‘God defend New Zealand’ before enjoying a cup of tea or glass of wine, sometimes following the Loyal Toast. Although this rite of passage includes declaring loyalty to the reigning monarch, the ceremony of granting citizenship focuses on celebrating the creation of new Kiwis. These ceremonies are meaningful to those who take part, but little noticed by the wider community unless there is something unusual about them, such as neighbours from different countries becoming citizens at the same time.

    • Appendix to the Journals of the House of Representatives, 1960, H-22, p. 51. › Back
    • Quoted in Megan Hutching, New Zealanders by choice, Wellington: Department of Internal Affairs, 1998, p. 50. › Back
    • Secretary for Internal Affairs, IA 52/12, cited at › Back

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: David Green, 'Citizenship', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 June 2024)

Story by David Green, published 8 February 2005