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Steve Wozniak Seeks Australian Citizenship: America May Lose Yet Another Billionaire

CNBC is reporting that Steve Wozniak, who founded Apple with Steve Jobs in 1976, is seeking to become an Australian citizen. Wozniak, who is currently in Australia promoting the launch of the new iPhone 5, spoke with Australian media and expressed his love for the country, and for the Australian government’s plans to launch its National Broadband Network (NBN). This lead many news outlets to incorrectly report that Wozniak’s motivations for emigrating were purely because of the NBN.

Wozniak mentioned that he would keep his U.S. citizenship, but said, “I intend to call myself an Australian and feel Australian.” Unfortunately, Wozniak might find holding onto his U.S. citizenship a little more difficult when it comes time to applying for Australian citizenship. According to the U.S. Department of State, dual nationality is permitted by the country because of birth, marriage, or immigrants to the U.S. retaining the nationality of their country of origin. However, for a U.S. citizen to actively seek out foreign citizenship for any other reason is grounds for them losing their US citizenship.

The chances of the State Department revoking Wozniak’s citizenship is slim, considering that the U.S. is the only country in the world that actively taxes overseas citizens. I’m sure the IRS wouldn’t want to be losing out on a check from down under every year. However, Wozniak’s revelation demonstrates a growing trend of emigration by U.S. citizens. Earlier this year Eduardo Saverin, the Brazilian-born, U.S. dual national who helped found Facebook with Mark Zuckerberg, renounced his U.S. citizenship for financial reasons. As a permanent resident of Singapore, Saverin would normally not have to pay any capital gains tax, and the maximum tax rate in the Southeast Asian city-state is 20%. However, because he held a U.S. passport, he was paying 20% and 35% respectively, even though he had not been resident in the U.S. since 2009.

In 2001 there were an estimated 5.5 million Americans living overseas, and only 491 of them had renounced their citizenship. Fast-forward 10 years to 2011, and those numbers have now increased to 6.4 million Americans living overseas with 1,781 Americans renouncing their citizenship. The number is expected to increase this year and exceed 2,000 — the highest annual figure since the Vietnam War. The figures get more complicated when considering the number of Americans with dual nationality. Since the U.S. government doesn’t keep records on its citizens with dual nationality the estimates run from between 1 to 7 million with active dual nationality,as a whopping 40 million Americans are estimated to be eligible for citizenship in another country besides the US. 

The main motivation for Americans leaving the U.S. is the same for immigration to the U.S.: economics. Whilst in the past, emigration out of the U.S. during WWII, the Vietnam War and the McCarthy era was politically motivated, emigration today is more linked to financial reasons with millions of Americans seeking to take up job opportunities overseas. Whilst most overseas American’s intend to return to the U.S., many after a prolonged period of time overseas or marriage to a foreign spouse, the possession of a U.S. passport becomes more of a liability then a benefit with the continuous taxation even after not being resident in the U.S. for so long.

Records for U.S. emigration only go back as far as 1998 and the U.S. government is starting to take note at the loss of its citizens, despite America still being a net immigration country. Plans this year were unveiled by the IRS to offer overseas U.S. citizens tax relief in hopes of staving off even more emigration. Not only is the government waking up to this growing trend, but also the people themselves are reacting to the news of American’s permanently leaving the U.S. Earlier this year the revelations that Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann possessed both U.S. and Swiss nationality called into question her ‘loyalty’ to the U.S. by many of her constituents, resulting in her renouncing her Swiss passport.

While Americans leaving America is nothing new, it seems that the increasing numbers of economically motivated emigration are now bringing the topic into the public consciousness, and a debate is building about what it means to be American and being loyal to one's country. There has been talk of following suit with countries like Japan, China, Singapore and Denmark, where dual nationality is illegal. Personally, as a holder of four nationalities and one permanent residency, I feel this would be detrimental to the U.S. economy. I acquired my nationalities at birth — two from my father and two from my mother — and feel it would be unfair to make me choose one over the other. And by forcing citizens to choose one over the other, the U.S. risks creating a brain drain of some of their most able citizens and losing some of the $30 billion dollars that overseas Americans remit back to the U.S. every year. All it takes is 1% of America to leave, and the U.S. would lose more than two-thirds of its wealth.

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