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From 1840 until 1 January 1949 most people in New Zealand (including Māori) were British subjects/citizens. Non-British were ‘aliens’. Those excluded from the state’s definition of citizenship were often seen as ‘suspect’, especially in wartime. Through naturalisation aliens could become citizens.

In 1947 New Zealand adopted the British Statute of Westminster (1931) and in 1948 passed a number of acts to institute New Zealand citizenship. From 1 January 1949 people were designated either New Zealand citizens or ‘Aliens’, requiring either New Zealand passports or those of other countries.

In 1977 a review of citizenship and residency removed the term alien from official use. Increasingly the focus has been on citizenship, or residency, or various other more temporary arrangements.

Māori were guaranteed British citizenship by the Treaty of Waitangi, and this was confirmed by the Native Rights Act 1865 (though the act was primarily concerned to bring Māori under British law).

Since New Zealand was from 1840 a British colony, British citizenship applied. Those who were not British were aliens and to become British citizens they needed to go through a process called naturalisation. The only uncertainty over citizenship came with people, not clearly British in ethnic origin, who were born in other British colonies or protectorates.

Apart from Chinese and other Asians migrating to New Zealand, there was little restriction on aliens or naturalisation before the First World War began in 1914. Wartime regulations began tighter control of aliens which continued until the Citizenship Act 1977 removed the term from official use, though it was not until 1986 that all people wishing to enter New Zealand did so as equals.


Passports are the official documents used to show citizenship when travelling. We hold few passport related records useful to family historians as passport applications are normally destroyed. Those that survive are for well-known New Zealanders such as Walter Nash and Keith Holyoake [ACGO 8392 IA 69/2/8 & ACGO 8392 IA 69/2/9]. A file concerning the search for Jean Batten 1986-87 also includes her 1974 passport application [AAAC 6859 W4593/1]. There are other passport applications for notable politicians, sports players and their spouses in series 8333. These can be found by performing a keyword search for 'Passport Files'.


Naturalisation is the process by which a non-citizen becomes a citizen of a country. Most people in New Zealand were British citizens until 1948. Up to then naturalisation gave British citizenship. After the beginning of New Zealand citizenship in 1949, naturalisation gave New Zealand citizenship.

We hold naturalisation records dating from the early 1840s. Later naturalisation records, especially from 1939, are often closely linked to alien records.

After New Zealand adopted the Statute of Westminster in 1947, it had to establish its own citizenship distinct from British citizenship. The British Nationality and New Zealand Citizenship Act and the Aliens Act, both 1948, allowed any alien, except Chinese, to become naturalised New Zealand citizens. The process was simpler for British citizens than for others.


Access to naturalisation files is restricted until 100 years after the birth of the person documented or 40 years after death, whichever is sooner. Permission to access restricted files is to be obtained from:

Director Birth, Deaths, Marriages and Citizenship

Department of Internal Affairs



An alien in New Zealand before 1914 was merely someone who did not have British citizenship. Apart from Chinese and to a lesser extent other Asians, there was, for many years, little restriction on aliens. They often contributed significantly to New Zealand life and many became naturalised British citizens.

However, large-scale international warfare, beginning with World War I in 1914, marked a change in attitudes towards aliens, and a change in status for many of them. ‘Enemy’ aliens were regarded with considerable suspicion in wartime. During World War I attention was focused most on people from Germany and Austria-Hungary, the main ‘enemy nations’.

Wartime regulations allowed aliens (non-citizens) to be detained or their activities monitored and restricted. The process of putting into effect various regulations and acts resulted in a considerable volume of records to do with both policy and action towards aliens.

Alien regulation was suspended in 1923, but re-imposed at the outbreak of World War II in 1939. Again, a variety of regulations, acts, and official bodies dealt with aliens and created many records. As in World War I some aliens were interned. The main focus was on people from Germany, Austria and Italy, as well as places conquered by Germany. There were very few Japanese in New Zealand.

After World War II the numbers of those who were aliens in New Zealand was initially increased by the creation of separate New Zealand citizenship on 1 January 1949. Registration of aliens was confirmed by the Aliens Act 1948 and continued until it was repealed by the Citizenship Act 1977.

Chinese New Zealanders

Limited citizenship

Although there were some constraints on Asians generally, the only people who were really restricted in terms of citizenship were the Chinese. Legal restrictions affected their migration to and from New Zealand, and their lives in this country from 1881 until 1986.

The main records relating to Chinese are Alien and Naturalisation files, and Immigration records from the Labour Department archives. Many general records of interest to family historians, such as twentieth century immigration records [ADBO 16135 SS1], Notices of Intention to Marry [ADAQ 8937 BDM20], Probates and Coroners Reports, can also provide information on Chinese New Zealanders.


Chinese labourers first arrived in 1866, having been invited by the Otago provincial government to re-work the gold fields of southern New Zealand. They were not assisted immigrants, so there are usually no immigration records. Most Chinese then, and later, came to New Zealand via Australia. In the 1870s, when strong anti-Chinese feeling first appeared in New Zealand, many were still living in Otago, but more than 1000 were also on the West Coast goldfields.

The Chinese Immigrants Act 1881 levied a £10 entry or poll (head) tax on Chinese newcomers and decreed ships were to carry no more than one Chinese for each 10 tons of the ship’s weight. The Customs Department issued poll tax receipts and exemption certificates, but the records are now held under the Labour Department (see next column). Poll tax payment allowed Chinese to land and gain permanent residency, but they remained aliens, except for the few who were naturalised. The latter often spoke English before arrival.

Many further acts restricted Chinese immigration to New Zealand, such as the raising of the poll tax to £100 in 1896. The ability of Chinese to become British citizens in New Zealand through naturalisation was prevented in 1908.

There were three other periods when Chinese were allowed into New Zealand in significant numbers: after World War I 1918-1920, at the beginning of World War II 1939-1940 as refugees, and for a few years after World War II 1948-1951, but otherwise restrictions remained. Many of those who came were ‘students’ or relatives of Chinese already living in New Zealand.

The poll tax was abolished in 1944 and in 1951 the government permitted the naturalisation of Chinese in New Zealand again. However, the number of Chinese immigrants remained relatively small – mostly chain migration of family members – and it was not until 1986 that the immigration status of Chinese and Europeans was made the same.