Aliens, naturalisation and citizenship

Published on 10 May 2021

Photo of Mayor, Sheryl Mai.

In 1955, just 4 years before I was born, our modern form of citizenship ceremony was introduced.

The history of New Zealand citizenship has been on my mind since Friday, when we held our first in-person Citizenship Ceremony since pre-COVID times. Officiating at these ceremonies is always a highlight for the council calendar, and the 41 new citizens on Friday were as delighted as I was to be celebrating in person rather than in isolation. Through the lockdowns 130 new citizens received their papers via post – not exactly the pomp and circumstance you’d hope for when receiving this new status.


While the rights and responsibilities of being a full citizen of Aotearoa have remained in essence very similar throughout the years, the pathway to becoming a citizen has taken many twists and turns. New Zealand citizenship was established by law in 1948, and for the 108 years leading up to that time, New Zealanders who were naturalised had the status of British subjects.

Citizens being called aliens in past

Māori were guaranteed British citizenship through the Treaty of Waitangi, however if you weren’t a British subject, you were known as an ‘alien’, and there was a whole Act dedicated to that status: the ‘Aliens Act’. Through the years, being designated an ‘alien’ came with a raft of specific challenges. In 1866, ‘aliens’ had to pay a  £1 naturalisation fee, in 1917 (and again in 1939-45), all ‘aliens’ had to register with the police (some 9,000 had already registered by 1921), and it was only in 1926 that ‘aliens’ gained the right to vote (but not stand as candidates) in local elections.

‘Aliens’ were not allowed to own shares in New Zealand registered ships, hold parliamentary office, or vote in parliamentary elections. They could be deported if convicted of any offence punishable by more than a year’s imprisonment (sound familiar?), they could not be barristers or solicitors, or members of other professional bodies.

Shockingly, parts of the Aliens Act remained in force right up until 1977.

Today, I’m happy to say we no longer use the term ‘alien’. Our language has changed, and so have the attitudes of our people and our governing bodies. Those who choose to call New Zealand their home country are welcomed into our communities with open arms, their cultures are respected and their stories woven into our own.

Citizenship ceremony 2021

On Friday, I witnessed 41 people pledge to observe the laws of our country and fulfil their duties as New Zealand citizens. Emotion overflowed for many, it was obvious that becoming a citizen is much more than receiving papers in the mail.

Each new citizen also received a kowhai tree to plant, symbolising the setting of roots in our soil, and a copy of the book ‘Choice’ – the New Zealand citizenship story, which gives valuable insights into how far we’ve come as a country, and as a people.

Congratulations to all new citizens – we are proud that you have chosen Aotearoa as your home.

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