In 2013, Portugal passed a law of return which allows descendants of Sephardic Jews who have ties to Portugal to apply for Portuguese citizenship. And, unlike other routes to Portuguese citizenship, applicants do not need to live in Portugal or even speak Portuguese. The scheme officially started in 2015.
“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.”
So, if you believe you have Sephardi heritage, you could be eligible for Portuguese citizenship. Having Portuguese citizenship would not only give you the right to live and work in Portugal, but also the right to live and work in other EU countries. It also comes with a number of travel benefits such as visa-free access to numerous countries around the world.
Portugal also allows dual citizenship. Whether or not you’ll have to give up your current citizenship depends on the rules of your current citizenship. It’s not a requirement in Portugal.
Maybe it’s time to get on ancestry.com?
Why did Portugal do this?
During the inquisition period, many jews were forced to flee Spain and Portugal. The choice was either convert, try living as a jew in secret (as many famously did in Belmonte), or leave the Iberian peninsula.
Obviously, this is a blight on Portugal’s history and one that it’s trying to atone for. Spain also had a similar scheme, but this scheme ended in 2019.
According to the Jewish Community of Porto (CIP), the majority of certificates that they’ve granted have been to people from the following Balkan (Macedonia, Greece, Bulgaria and the former Yugoslavia ) and Arabic countries (Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, the former Palestine, Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Tunisia and Libya.
Other countries with large Sephardi communities, and where people typically have a strong interest in obtaining Portuguese citizenship via this route including the United States, Mexico, Brazil, and Colombia.
What you need to know
- It’s not enough to be Jewish: you have to specifically show Sephardic heritage.
- The process can take a long time (around 6-24 months seems quite common).
- Admin costs are quite high (€200).
- You may incur other costs tracking down the necessary documents.
- The Portuguese passport application fee is not included in the admin charge.
- Tracking down your roots as far back as the 15th Century can be quite challenging.
- You may need to hire a specialist genealogist.
- You do not have to be a practicing jew, but it may help.
- Submitting false documents can lead to prosecution.
Tips for proving your eligibility
The following are some tips for proving your eligibility.
The more evidence, the better
Proving your Sephardic routes can be challenging and a good rule of thumb is: the more evidence the better. The Portuguese love paperwork, so don’t follow the “less is more” rule here. More paperwork is a good thing, especially if some of your evidence is tenuous.
Try to get a certificate from the Portuguese Sephardic Community
To get this document from the community in Porto, for example, you would need to submit several documents to them such as a copy of your passport, your birth certificate, proof of residence such as electricity bills, supporting evidence, proof of Judaism, a document showing your family tree, any documents used to create the family tree.
Surnames are a starting point
Certain surnames like Almeida, Mendes, and Sousa are often Sephardic in origin and could mean that it’s worth you tracing your family tree. Sephardim.co is a useful database of thousands of surnames that have Sephardic ties.
After surnames, the next best place to start is relatives – particularly older ones. They may have birth certs or documents that can help, or may be able to point you in the right direction.
The following documents are all helpful.
- A certificate from the Portuguese Sephardic Community.
- Birth certificates.
- A document showing your family tree.
- Any documents used to create your family tree.
- Birth certificates of ancestors that indicate they were a Sephardic Jew.
- Documents that show the Lavino language being used by your ancestors.
- Documents from when your ancestors arrived in their current country.
- Cemetery records.
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.
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 Registrar of 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.
Will my spouse automatically be eligible for Portuguese citizenship if I obtain it?
No. This doesn’t happen automatically, however, your spouse would be able to apply for Portuguese citizenship by marriage once you have obtained it. This isn’t guaranteed, and you normally need to show a strong connection to Portugal.