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The nuances, benefits and restrictions of OCI and PIO cards

Without either of these, as a foreign national you will need a visa every time you visit India.

Suri or rather Suresh, as he is called on his foreign passport, had been to India only a handful of times in the last two decades since he left for higher studies; and then proceeded to work and prosper abroad, with a family of his own. His parents continued to live in India and made annual trips to visit him. Suri’s mother passed away a few years ago. When he visited India last year for his father’s funeral, he found their house occupied by another family, claiming ownership rights. Suri thought he could take it up in court only to discover that legal recourse was not available to him as he was no longer an Indian citizen. While his parents had been Indian citizens and residents of the country, on their death the property passed back to the government and though he was their son, as a foreign national he did not have legal claims to the house or any other property for that matter.

This is a common occurrence wherein non-resident Indians (NRIs) who have taken up citizenship of the country they reside in, do not realize that India does not provide for dual citizenship—hence on becoming a foreign national, you effectively renounce your Indian citizenship. For now, you cannot vote in the Indian elections, run or hold a public office, or claim legal rights to a property.

But all is not lost—you can get some of these rights, namely legal claims to property and enjoy economic, FINANCIAL and educational parity with resident Indians by taking a few simple steps.

The first step is to apply for either a Person of Indian Origin (PIO) card or an Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) card. Without either of these, as a foreign national you will need a visa every time you visit India! Apart from that, there is the headache to register at the Foreigners’ Regional Registration Office (FRRO) for stays beyond 180 days.

What are these cards (PIO or OCI) and how do they vary from each other?

The PIO card has been around much longer and is essentially a set of privileges accorded for periods of 15-20 years. During this time you get visa-free entry, exemption from registering at the FRRO for stays over 180 days, economic, financial, and educational parity with regular Indians, legal claims to property and the ability to open bank accounts in Indian banks. You can renew this card on expiry of the 15-20-year period.

The OCI card on the other hand is a lifelong card. It is almost like a dual citizenship since you do not need a visa ever to visit India and stay for long intervals of time; you can open a bank account; and enjoy all other benefits that a PIO card gives.

However, the OCI card has a more stringent process of application and takes longer. Further the membership is restrictive—one must be born in India on or after 26 January, 1950, to be eligible for this card. Foreign-born children are ineligible to get the OCI card unless either parent is eligible for one. Additionally foreign-born spouse of an Indian citizen can apply for a PIO card but not an OCI unless he/she is eligible for one in their own right. It remains the closest thing to dual citizenship under the current system.

If you are a citizen of Pakistan or Bangladesh, you are ineligible for both OCI and PIO cards; as a citizen of Bhutan, Nepal, China, Afghanistan or Sri Lanka, you are ineligible for a PIO card but can apply for a OCI card.

You can apply either by downloading an application form from the website of ministry of home affairs (MHA) at www.mha.nic.in. This has to be submitted to the Indian mission/post in your country of residence; if you are in India on a long-term visa (more than one year), the application can be made to the FRRO in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Amritsar or to the chief immigration officer in Chennai or to the joint secretary (foreigners), MHA, Delhi.

Once received, these cards permit you to undertake any activity except mountaineering, missionary and research work and existing protected area permit for some regions mostly in northeast India and restricted area permit for some regions in northeast and Andaman-Nicobar Islands which requires specific permission.

If you are a PIO cardholder, and want to become an Indian citizen again, you need to reside in India for minimum seven years before making an application for grant of Indian citizenship. An OCI cardholder may be granted Indian citizenship after five years from the date of registration provided he/she stays for one year in India before making application.

There is talk of merging these two cards and allotting the benefits under an OCI card to a PIO cardholder as well, and allowing more privileges to both cardholders such as entitlement to appear for professional tests such as the All India Pre-Medical Test, parity with NRIs in the matter of inter-country adoption. But that could be some time away.

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