Friday, June 1, 2012


Last week we applied for a new passport for my daughter, which required a visit to the US Consulate here in Helsinki. Though her current passport expired last summer, we decided to hold off on applying for a new one until she turned 16, a few months ago.

There were some concrete benefits to waiting. As a 16-year-old, she now gets a passport valid for 10 years, like the rest of us grownups, rather than the five-year passports issued to kids.

Less crucial, but still an advantage, is the fact that since my daughter is now “of age”, we parents are not needed for application purposes. Prior to this, both my wife (who is not a US citizen) and I needed to make an appearance at the US Consulate in five years intervals to renew each of our children’s passports.

The sad rationale (as I believe) for the policy of both parents showing up is to ensure one who is a US citizen and facing the breakup of his or her marriage can’t impulsively arrange travel documents for the kids and sneak them out of the country without the other parent’s knowledge. This is an extremely heartbreaking risk of transnational marriages, and it does happen.

Some ten years ago, there were a couple of widely publicized cases of such parental child abductions in the opposite direction, with Finnish mothers refusing to return their American-Finnish children to the US. Fighting over who gets to keep the kids in a divorce is bad enough, but it can be made even uglier because of dual citizenship, which is otherwise usually a win-win arrangement for those who have it. 

All my children are dual US and Finnish citizens. Though they were born here in Helsinki, they were also born American thanks to US law, which grants citizenship to the children of native-born Americans who live abroad. (Donald Trump, take note: Barack Obama would be a US citizen, even if he had been born – against all evidence – in Kenya, and not Hawaii.)

To certify the citizenship of their children, expat Americans need to obtain a “Consular Report of Birth” from the US State Department. Soon after each of our children were born, we schlepped down to the US Embassy, taking with us various documentation (Finnish birth certificate, marriage license, etc.), and of course the actual baby in question, in order to apply for the report of birth and a passport.

When I first came to Finland, a visit to the US Consulate was a simple affair. The American diplomatic mission to Finland occupies a small campus of mostly Georgian-style buildings on the edge of Kaivopuisto, a scenic park overlooking the sea and islands off Helsinki’s southern shore. I distinctly remember on my first visits there driving into the complex and parking right outside the front door of the gray, gabled Consulate building.

Those were more innocent times. Things started to change after the 1983 suicide bombing that killed 241 US servicemen in Lebanon. Security at the Helsinki embassy, as I’m sure with all US missions, became tighter over the years following that, and after 9/11 became extremely rigorous. Sadly, a visit to the Consulate nowadays is a grim reminder of the potential threats oversea Americans face, though such worries are not something that ordinarily intrudes on our lives.
Photo credit: Noble

Today, while the Embassy complex in Kaivopuisto is undergoing extensive renovation, the Consulate is operating out of a temporarily location in downtown, which means security is even tighter than normal, if that’s possible.

Still, it’s a relatively busy place. Once my daughter and I found it and got through the security check, we shared the waiting room with three people seeking US visas:  a Helsinki-based African scholar and two 16-year-old Finnish girls off to spend a year as high school exchange students in Idaho and Massachusetts.

After a relatively short wait (I can remember some interminable waits on previous visits), the whole thing went smoothly and we were done. The Consulate staff was, as you would expect, business-like, but also really pretty friendly. Interacting with the other Americans there was a bit like briefly being back home in the States – which, in a sense, it was.

Still, I’m not unhappy about not having to return there any time soon. My daughter will get her new passport by mail, hopefully before our upcoming trip to North America in a few weeks. Otherwise, she would have to travel on her Finnish passport and apply for a “visa waiver”.

Most Finns don’t need a visa to visit the US, because in effect they are granted a waiver. Before 1991, this was automatically granted upon arrival, on the basis of a form visitors could fill out on the plane. Simple. And free. Nowadays, they must obtain the waiver online before departing, at a cost of $14. That’s simpler than visiting the Consulate for an actual visa, and cheaper, but still a bit of a hassle for Finns traveling to the US.

It’s a small hassle my children can avoid, not to mention the longer lines and probing questions at immigration that non-citizens have to endure. That's one of the perks they, as dual citizens, enjoy along with all the other rights of Americans, though they’ve spent their entire lives in Finland. 

When my boys were young, however, I worried they might lose those rights when they turned 18. Finnish men of that age must register for military or civilian service, and according to the law at the time dual citizens joining the Finnish army had to give up their other citizenship. Thankfully, the law was changed before my sons had to choose between being Finnish or American. 

I would never give up my US citizenship myself, and have never much felt the need to take on Finnish citizenship. I have permanent residency here. I can come and go and work as I please. The only complication is that whenever I renew my passport, I need to have a new stamp added.

Lately I have been thinking that after being a resident for 25 or so odd years, maybe it’s time to apply for become a kansalainen as well. And maybe, just maybe, after a few months of cramming I could even pass the very daunting language exam required to apply. If not, it’s no big deal, since I’m perfectly happy with the citizenship I have.

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