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I seem to remember one of our members being on a flight when a baby was born, but can't find any reference to what happened to the baby in terms of citizenship.

Generally you hear about pregnant women being advised not to fly, but it does happen. Sometimes the unexpected happens and a baby is born mid-flight. Assuming it's an international flight and they're not over a country, what nationality does the baby get?

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Of interest, NPR has a story about this today: npr.org/blogs/krulwich/2014/08/20/341641164/… –  Jason Aug 21 at 5:59
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FWIW, via Jus Sanguinis, a child born anywhere in the world can take the nationality of his or her parents (if their country supports that scheme, most do). As a US citizen (by birth) of Indian origin, I have the opportunity to easily get an Indian citizenship, and then switch back (without too many hassles) if I want. –  Manishearth Aug 21 at 7:04
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Planes and aircraft are not lawless states once they leave their respective countries. You're essentially still on the soil of the country you left until you arrive. –  Monk Aug 21 at 11:52
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@Relaxed Worth reading: straightdope.com/columns/read/2250/… –  Monk Aug 21 at 13:27

4 Answers 4

up vote 37 down vote accepted

It's complicated, but as always, Wikipedia has it covered.

The short version is that in the vast majority of cases, the baby will inherit one or more citizenships from its parents through jus sanguinis, and nothing more.

If the baby is born within the territorial limits of a country that applies jus soli, including flying overheard and within nautical limits, the baby may be eligible for citizenship of that country as well.

If the baby's parents are of unknown citizenship, stateless or citizens of countries that don't do jus sanguinis at all (not sure any exist?), and they can't get any citizenships via jus soli (eg. birth occurred in international waters), the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness will kick in:

Article 3

For the purpose of determining the obligations of contracting states under this convention, birth on a ship or aircraft shall amount to birth in the territory of the State that gives its flag to that ship or aircraft.

So the birth will be treated as if it occurred in the country that registered the plane or ship. This doesn't mean the baby automatically gets that country's citizenship, but the Convention aims to ensure that if they can't get anything else, they'll get this as a fallback.

Since not all countries have signed the Convention, and not all countries that signed it have enacted it in law or in practice, it's still possible to fall through the gaps. Post any interesting cases in the comments ;)

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In fact, very few countries are parties to the convention –  user102008 Aug 21 at 5:02
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The parents are unknown? I think if a baby is born on a plane, most of the passengers will have a pretty good idea of who at least one of the parents must be - that lady screaming on aisle 17. –  tobyink Aug 21 at 9:19
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@tobyink: Edited. I meant "of unknown citizenship", which happens occasionally with eg. asylum seekers who destroy their documents or carry fakes and refuse to disclose it to prevent getting returned to whatever hellhole they're escaping from. –  jpatokal Aug 21 at 11:48
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Certain countries, like Mexico, extend the jus soli right to nationality to persons born on ships and aircraft registered under that flag, regardless of where the craft is at the time of birth, regardless of whether they need to or not under the 1961 Convention. –  Emilio Pisanty Aug 21 at 11:59
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@kenorb: No, since neither the US nor Iraq are Convention signatories. But the US has jus soli, so the child born overflying the US in the Iraqi airliner might qualify for US citizenship. –  jpatokal Aug 21 at 13:17

In vast majority of the cases, the child will have one or more of the parents' nationalities through jus sanguinis (this is true even if the child is born in some country). As far as I know, every country in the world (except the Vatican where nationality is ex officio) has some sort of jus sanguinis system, where children born abroad to parents of that nationality also have that nationality, under some circumstances. Some countries impose certain conditions that need to be met for the parent to transmit nationality to children born abroad, e.g. the parent needs to have resided in the country for a certain number of years, or the parent cannot have themselves gotten nationality by descent, etc. So depending on the circumstances, there's a small chance that a parent won't be able to transmit nationality via jus sanguinis. There's an even smaller chance that both parents won't be able to transmit it.

In the tiny chance that the child does not get a nationality through jus sanguinis, it could be that the law of the country of the airplane's registration provides its nationality to a child who would otherwise be stateless born on its airplane. All countries that are a party to the Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness of 1961 must provide this; but not many countries are party to the convention. A few other countries also provide this.

In the tiny chance that the above all don't apply, the child will be born stateless. However, it is still likely that one or more of the parents' countries of nationality will have a procedure to get residency or nationality for the child after birth upon the parent's application.

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Only countries that recognise jus soli ("right of the soil") consider babies born within their borders to be citizens of that country. Today, only countries in the Americas and a handful of others recognise jus soli. So, for the majority of the world it's not relevant where a baby is actually born.

However, wherever a baby is born there is generally a birth certificate of some sort issued by the local government. A birth certificate does not confer the right of citizenship.

Airlines obviously do not issue birth certificates, so the first opportunity to issue one would be on the ground at the destination (or wherever the plane actually lands, if it is considered an emergency).

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"So, for the majority of the world it's not relevant where a baby is actually born." That's not really true. Many countries distinguish between jus sanguinis born in the country, and jus sanguinis born outside the country. There are often different rules for each (e.g. more conditions for jus sanguinis outside the country). –  user102008 Aug 21 at 5:04
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Many European countries have some aspects of jus soli in their law (if not outright, then as a declaration procedure distinct from naturalization to which people born in the country are entitled or, at least, as a catch-all clause for people who would otherwise be stateless). I suspect some other countries might as well as I don't know any country that purely applies one principle (jus soli or jus sanguinis) without any nuance or exception. And @user102008 already explained, where you are born can be relevant even to the application of jus sanguinis. –  Relaxed Aug 21 at 10:32
    

If one or both of the parents are from a country which operate a jus sanguinis system, the baby would be entitled to the citizenship of that country. The vast majority of countries have a jus sanguinis system, either by itself or in conjunction with a jus soli system (which entitles the baby to citizenship if s/he is born on that country's soil).

If, however, the baby is not so entitled to citizenship, the question gets a bit more complicated, and I can't find any answer which I trust:

  • It seems to be widely repeated on the Internet that

    The United Nations considers a child born in-flight to have been born in the airplane's registered country. (source)

    However, I can't find a UN document that suggests that this is in fact the opinion of the UN (admittedly, I haven't looked very hard). Nevertheless, if the operator's registered country did agree with this interpretation, and they run a jus soli system, then the child will have that citizenship.

  • Wikipedia suggests that the coordinates at the time of birth will be compared to the origin and destination, and look at the closer country's to see if they operate a jus soli system. This strikes me as somewhat impractical, since I'm not sure anyone would take care to note down the coordinates of the plane in the middle of an unexpected birth. In addition, are you comparing the airports, or merely which country is closer? What happens if the plane diverts (as would likely occur during a birth)?

  • In practice, I have a feeling that the answer is it depends. Since most countries operate a jus sanguinis system, and there aren't that many in-flight births, it probably isn't that clear. What you really want to avoid is whatever country being decided on as the place of birth operating only jus sanguinis, with both parents only having the citizenship of countries that operate only jus soli.

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"The vast majority of countries either have a jus sanguinis system" Do you know of any countries that don't have a jus sanguinis system? (except the Vatican where citizenship is ex officio) –  user102008 Aug 21 at 5:00
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I can't think of any off the top of my head, but I couldn't find a source a list of countries with a jus sanguinis system (or an assertion that all countries have a jus sanguinis system), so I didn't want to make a definitive statement on that. –  waiwai933 Aug 21 at 5:15

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