Portuguese Citizenship for Sephardic Jews: How to Apply

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During the inquisition period, Jews were persecuted in Spain and Portugal. The choice was either convert, try living as a Jew in secret as many did in places like Belmonte, or leave the Iberian Peninsula altogether. 

Obviously, this is a blight on Portugal’s past and one that, since 2015, Portugal is trying to atone for by providing those with Sephardic Jewish backgrounds the right to citizenship through a law of return. 

“The Portuguese Government may grant nationality to descendants of Portuguese Sephardic Jews [over 18 years old] who demonstrate a traditional connection to a Community with Portuguese Sephardic origins, based on proven objective requirements of a connection with Portugal, such as family names, family language, direct or collateral ancestry.”

There is also – many believe – an economic incentive to the scheme as well: attracting Jews, particularly from countries like the US and Canada, many of whom are extremely well-educated and successful in their fields, would have a very positive effect on the Portuguese economy. 

Regardless of the reasons for the scheme, if you think you might have Sephardic Heritage, this is definitely worth looking into. Portuguese citizenship comes with a number of benefits, not least a Portuguese passport which gives you the right to live and work in Portugal and other EU countries. 

Neither the passport nor the birth certificate mention your Jewish identity nor the avenue by which you were able to get it: it’s exactly the same as any non-Jewish Portuguese person’s passport. 

Less practical but more sentimental is the birth certificate that the Portuguese government issues you. Your place of birth and all of your other details won’t change, but the fact that this is issued by the Portuguese government is a symbol of your heritage once again returning to you. 

Currently, applicants are not expected to be able to speak Portuguese and this is one of the few routes to Portuguese citizenship where this is the case.

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Knowing if You’re Eligible 

Some people already know that they have Sephardic Jewish heritage, while it can come as a surprise to others. 

Trevor Lewis, who’s from the US and lives in London with his husband, was unaware of his Portuguese background until he started looking into his grandmother’s family tree. Her surname was Bair, which is a German-Jewish surname and she was 3/4 Ashkenazi, but he had to look a bit further before he found the Sephardic connection. 

“My grandmother’s family was Jewish and we knew about the Jewish background, but she was not religious. She didn’t talk about her background very much, so we didn’t know many details about her background. When we started looking into her family, we saw her grandmother [Trevor’s great great grandmother] had the surname De Pinna and we thought maybe she wasn’t entirely Jewish or maybe she was Italian? After a little bit more research, we realised that it was a Portuguese-Jewish surname.” 

For Jonah Salita, also from the US and living in London, it was less of a surprise. “My last name is Salita and I’ve known my whole life that my family comes from either Spain or Portugal.” 

By chance when his parents visited Lisbon for their 25th wedding anniversary, a tour guide mentioned this new law that Portugal had passed to allow Sephardic Jews to regain their citizenship. 

Jonah coincidentally already had a strong connection to Portugal, as he was previously dating a Portuguese girl. One day while looking at a photo of his grandfather’s family, he was struck by how similar his relatives looked to hers. At that point, he decided to investigate further.

Where You Should Begin

Both Trevor and Jonah initially turned to the internet for help. Both used as many resources as they could find, citing Ancestry.com as one of the most helpful along with other sites like JewishGen.

A surname is definitely a good place to start, but be aware that having a Portuguese or Spanish-sounding surname isn’t enough. You will need a lot more than that. If you’re not sure whether you’re your surname is potentially Sephardic or not, take a look at Sephardim.co.

(Note: Surnames regularly change across generations. While Trevor’s great great grandmother used the surname De Pinna, generations prior to that used De Pina, Pina, or just Sarfati.

After surnames, the next best place to start is relatives, particularly older ones. They may have birth certs or documents that can help, as well as stories that may be able to point you in the right direction.

Your Objective

Ultimately, your goal is to put together clear evidence that you have Sephardic Jewish heritage. That evidence, along with your family tree, is submitted to the Portuguese Jewish community in either Porto or Lisbon.

Both communities have records from the time and will be able to verify whether you are, in fact, of Sephardic heritage. They also both provide a bullet-point list to guide you through the application.

Jonah applied to Porto while Trevor applied to Lisbon. Both have slightly different requirements, and there’s a lot of debate on the Facebook groups as to which one is better. Often it depends on your specific circumstances.

Neither CIL (the Lisbon community) nor CIP (the Porto community) make their records public, so in a sense you’re doing things blind but, unfortunately, that’s just a part of the process.

Once confirmed, they’ll provide a certificate which you can submit with your application to the Portuguese government. This single document is seen as the most important document in the process.

Other Documents

For Trevor, getting all the paperwork he needed wasn’t hugely complicated. His grandmother’s grandmother was British and belonged to the Bevis Marks Synagogue in London. Trevor was able to obtain the records via UCLA, who had copies of the records, but has since visited Bevis Marks and says that they’re very open to working with people who are trying to trace their heritage. 

To be on the safe side, Trevor collected more documents from the synagogue and was able to trace his family tree back even further. Since submitting his application, he has been able to trace the family tree back to Amsterdam and even back to Portugal. 

Make no mistake, there are a lot of documents and many of these need to be notarised and later apostilled. Don’t scrimp on the paperwork either: in Portugal, the rule is always the more paperwork the better.

Possible documents include:

  • A document showing your family tree.
  • Any documents used to create that family tree.
  • Proof of Judaism.
  • Birth certificates of ancestors that indicate they were a Sephardic Jew.
  • Documents that show the Ladino language being used by your ancestors.
  • Documents from when your ancestors arrived in their current country.
  • Cemetery records.

You’ll also need to submit documents proving your identity such as:

  • A copy of your passport.
  • Your birth certificate.
  • Proof of residence such as electricity bills.

Although Jonah thinks he can trace his family tree quite far back, he could only say with absolute certainty that his great grandparents were Sephardic Jews and you’re only able to submit relatives that you’re absolutely sure of. Absolutely certainty means knowing all the facts about them, including their birth date, death date, marriage date, country of origin, and original full name.

Sometimes documents are hard to find as many have been destroyed, often on purpose. For this reason, it’s a good idea to submit other evidence as well.

As well as documents relating to his family tree, Jonah also submitted photos of his Bar Mitzvah, recipes that had been passed down through his family, and any other customs he could think of.

He was also able to find letters between old family members, one of which contained a hand-drawn family tree. Finally, Jonah got in touch with the Rabbi from his childhood synagogue who connected him with a Sephardic rabbi. The rabbi was able to look at his parents’ ketubah (Jewish marriage contract) and was able to confirm that it was Sephardic. 

All of this adds up to a lot of documents, and it’s recommended that you keep them all in a tidy, organised folder on your computer.

The Letter

A part of the application involves submitting a letter in which you describe your motivations for obtaining Portuguese citizenship and your connections to Portugal.

In Jonah’s letter, he mentioned all the Sephardic rituals his family practiced. For example, duringpassover, his family would always eat rice, something that is very specific to Sephardic Jews. His family members were also regularly married a day before a major Jewish holiday, another trait of Sephardic Jews. 

Join the Community

While both Jonah and Trevor recommend sites like Ancestry.com, the main resource they recommend are the Facebook groups dedicated to the subject of Portuguese and Spanish Sephardic ancestry. 

These include:

Jonah personally has helped five people in these groups with their applications. He says finding someone else who has done it is key, and will signiciatnly cut down your own research time significantly. 

Hiring A Lawyer

Portguese citizenship is big business, and there are a huge number of lawyers and experts who can help you through the process. But are they worth it? 

“The biggest mystery in this is which lawyer to pick and when do I need a lawyer,” says Jonah. “Finding a good lawyer and knowing when you need one is hard.”

The first company Jonah worked with were incredibly impersonal and ended up firing him as a client, but at least it gave him lots of information and pointed him in the right direction. He eventually needed a lawyer to submit the application to the Portuguese government, but was able to do a lot of the other work himself.

As well as lawyers, another professional service that many people work with is a genealogist.

How to apply

Applications need to be submitted to the Portuguese Ministry of Justice who then look at your application and decide whether or not you’re eligible for citizenship. 

You can either apply yourself or use a specialist service who will help you with the application and make sure that you have all the necessary documents. If you are applying yourself, you can either send the documents or come to Portugal and submit them in person. 

Once submitted, you’ll be given an access code so you can check the status of your application and then you wait. There’s a lot of waiting involved. There are 7 steps involved, and you will be able to see what stage your application is at. The steps take differing amounts of time.

Steps for Portuguese Citizenship Via Sephardic Route

Although you can make a correction to your application once it has been submitted, it’s highly recommended that you try and get everything right the first time round. 

Once Portuguese citizenship has been granted, the Portuguese Central Registry Office will send a Portuguese birth certificate to your address. Once you have that, you can then apply for a Portuguese passport via your nearest Portuguese consulate or embassy. 

Costs

Naturally, there are costs to all of this, especially when you start getting lawyers involved, but there are other benefits to using a law firm as well.

“I think I paid around €2,000 in the end,” says Trevor, “which isn’t nothing, but I would rather know that this is going to happen rather than being stuck in limbo forever.” 

Trevor’s law firm also spoke to the Portuguese government and were able to allow him to submit his application without obtaining a criminal records check from Kenya, which would only have added more complications. 

Jonah paid around $1350, which also included his flight to Washington, DC, where the Portuguese embassy is located which was essential as he was applying from the US. 

 €2,000 is still a lot of money, but it’s much cheaper than many other routes to citizenship such as Portugal’s Golden Visa Scheme. 

As well as legal fees, the application fee for citizenship costs around €200, which doesn’t include the cost of applying for a passport.

Timeframes

Timeframes for the application vary, but most people should expect the process to take around 2 years.

For Trevor, the process was a long one. He first contacted the Portuguese Law Firm in the Autumn of 2015 and then, once he had carried out sufficient research, was able to submit his application around a year later. While he was approved in November of 2018, around 3 years after he began the process, it wasn’t until August of 2019 when he received his birth certificate and was able to apply for his passport. 

“Be patient, but also start early,” says Trevor, whose aunt is also now applying. “My aunt is really jealous. Right now a lot of people are rethinking whether it’s worth having a second passport.”

Thankfully for Trevor’s aunt, family members who have the same family tree typically have a faster application process once one family member has already been accepted. Married partners unfortunately don’t get an automatic right to Portuguese citizenship as part of the Sephardic Citizenship scheme but may be able to apply for citizenship via the normal marriage or partner route once their partner obtains their’s.

For Jonah, the process went a lot faster. He was able to get his application expedited to less than 6 months as he was living in London, citing Brexit as the reason. Despite the expedited application, however, with research included the entire process still took around 17 months. 

So, Is The Scheme Good for Portugal? 

Critics of schemes like this suggest that, while it may help Portugal right a historical wrong (somewhat), it doesn’t necessarily help Portugal advance.

For Trevor, he doesn’t have any immediate plans to live there due to work commitments in London but he still reminisces of a trip he took to Portugal several years ago. “When we have the money, we’ll get a vacation home there,” he promises himself. 

“I feel most at home when I’m in Lisbon,” says Jonah, who has already spent time living in Portugal. “I am excited to move to Lisbon next year. It will be a dream come true getting to live my life in Portuguese as my ancestors did.”

Unfortunately, a right to live in Portugal doesn’t necessarily mean that people are able to move to Portugal as wages and opportunities are often lower here than in other Western countries. But, despite that stumbling block, both Trevor and Jonah have developed strong ties to Portugal. 

Trevor speaks what he describes as “passable Portuguese,” having studied through Duolingo and later through a Portuguese class he took in London.  His husband also speaks Portuguese, having lived in Brazil. 

“If I’m going to have this citizenship, I think it’s my responsibility to speak the language of that country,” he says. 

Jonah also speaks Portuguese, and has managed to get himself to roughly the C1-level by studying for around 3 hours per day for more than 18 months. He’s so confident in his language abilities that whenever he spoke to his lawyer in Lisbon, he did so in Portuguese. “It felt a lot more authentic,” he says. 

Changes On the Horizon

In 2019, Spain got rid of its law offering Sephardic Heritage and there are expectations that Portugal will at least amend its law. 

“I don’t think this law will be around forever,” says Jonah. “Take advantage of this while you can to regain your heritage and have the opportunity to travel in a place that was your home.”

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