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 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
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.