It’s rare that babies are born on planes due to rules about pregnant women flying in their third trimester. These rules are hard to navigate because of huge variety from carrier to carrier, with some requiring a doctor’s certificate to fly after a certain number of weeks’ pregnancy, and others applying different conditions. It’s unsurprising therefore that the overall result is to discourage women near the point of labour from flying. In fact, according to Simple Flying there have been only 75 recorded incidents of in-flight birth in the entire history of aviation. But when it does happen, a tricky question arises: what nationality will the baby be given?
On top of the difficulty of working out which country a plane was flying over when the birth occurred, the situation is made even more challenging because different countries take different approaches to citizenship. And what happens when the territory concerned is considered “international”?
Rights of the soil
Some countries award nationality and citizenship based on the location of a child’s birth, regardless of the parents’ circumstances. This is called “jus soli”, or “right of the soil”. The USA takes this approach, making all babies born on US soil, on US waters, or in US airspace, American citizens by birth.
The US is far from being the only country to apply this principle. Others too give full and unrestricted citizenship to babies born on their territory or in their airspace. They are: Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Barbados, Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Chad, Child, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Fiji, Grenada, Guatemala, Guyana, Honduras, Jamaica, Lesotho, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Tanzania, Trinidad and Tobago, Tuvalu, the United States, Uruguay, and Venezuela.
Elsewhere are the jurisdictions that take into account the parents’ citizenship, called “jus sanguinis” or “blood rights”. Countries that fall into this bracket include the United Kingdom. If your parents do not have British citizenship, or settled status themselves, you may not be considered British simply because you are born on British territory or in British airspace.
When a birth takes place over international waters or unclaimed territory, authorities might turn to the registration of the aircraft itself to establish a nationality. Under the 1944 Convention on International Civil Aviation, all aircraft are required to be registered with a country, and this is not necessarily the country it takes off or lands in. However, giving a baby the same nationality as its ‘parent plane’ is really a last resort to avoid creating ‘stateless citizens’ under the United Nations’ Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness.
Even with these rules and principles established, there remain extreme examples of babies born in unusual conditions where citizenship is not immediately clear. One mother went into labour aboard a a US military C-17 troop-transport aircraft as it evacuated Kabul during summer 2021. In that instance, “jus sanguinis” was applied and the baby took the mother’s Afghan nationality. This is because the birth did not happen over US soil and US military transport is not considered “US territory” in this situation.