The Government of India had originally envisaged two classifications for individuals with Indian lineage - the Person of Indian Origin (PIO) and the Overseas Citizen of India (OCI), for the Indian Diaspora across the globe. Both categories extended certain rights and privileges to qualifying individuals making several visa and immigration processes redundant for them. The PIO scheme was introduced in 1999 and was subsequently revised in 2002 ("PIO Scheme"). An individual was qualified to register as a PIO if he or she was a foreign citizen (not being a citizen of Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Nepal and China), and if (i) He/she at any time held an Indian passport; (ii) He/she or either of his/her parents or grandparents or great grandparents were born in or permanently resident in undivided India; or (iii) He/she is a spouse of citizen of India or PIO covered in (i) or (ii) above.

Registered PIO card holders were entitled to visit India without a visa for 15 years from the date of issue of PIO card and were exempted from registration at Foreigners Regional Registration Office (FRRO) if their stay in India did not exceed 180 days.  In October 2014, the validity of PIO card was extended up to the lifetime of the holder and these individuals became exempt from registration requirements in India – thus granting the same privileges as those enjoyed by registered OCIs.  Individuals under both the categories received a "card," evidencing their special status. 

The OCI Scheme was introduced first in the early 2000s and formalized by the Government of India by amending the Citizenship Act, 1955.  This was done in response to the growing demand of the Indian community overseas for "dual citizenship.'' Although the OCI status does not grant Indian citizenship, the holder is granted most rights as are conferred upon an Indian citizen, barring a few such as holding public office, voting in political elections, etc. 

Qualifying individuals registered as OCIs are entitled to a multipurpose, multiple entry, life-long visa allowing them to visit India at any time, for any length of time and for any purpose. They are also exempt from registration for any duration of stay in the country. These two categories had similar criteria but gave rise to a lot of practical issues, confusion and disparities in how they were being granted.  With a view to streamlining and unifying the two categories the Government of India merged the two schemes in January 2015. 

The salient changes under the now unified schemes under the OCI category are set out below:

  1. Inclusion of the following categories for the purpose of applying for an OCI card:
  • Great grandchild
  • Minor child whose both parents are citizens of India or one of the parents is a citizen of India
  • Foreign origin spouse of a citizen of India or an OCI cardholder whose marriage has been registered and subsisted for a continuous period of at least two years immediately preceding the date of application for OCI card
  1. A child who is born outside of India to parents who are Indian citizens is now eligible to apply for an OCI Card regardless of whether his/her parents are eligible for the card themselves.
  1. The OCI category is now open to citizens of Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, Iran, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. These six nationalities were previously banned from the scheme.
  1. Clarification that if a person holding an OCI card renounces his card then the spouse of foreign origin of such OCI card holder shall also cease to be an OCI.
  1. Clarification that the Government may cancel the OCI registration if it is satisfied that the marriage of the spouse of foreign origin of an OCI (a) has been dissolved by a competent court or (b) has not been dissolved but, during the subsistence of such marriage, he/she has solemnized marriage with any other person.
  1. The criteria for updating OCI Cards after obtaining a new passport is as follows:
  • OCI holders less than 21 years of age: required to obtain a new OCI card with each new passport;
  • OCI holders between 21to 50 years of age: are not required to obtain a new OCI card when they obtain a new passport, but instead may travel with both their old and new passports along with their OCI card;
  • OCI holders above the age of 50 years: are required to update their OCI card once after obtaining a new passport after turning 50 years of age.

Another, very welcome change brought about under the changed statute affects the eligibility of those qualifying individuals who wish to apply for Indian citizenship. The Citizenship Act, required a continuous stay of 12 months in India on the date of making the application, before the following category of people could apply for registration as citizens of India (a) a person who or either of his parents, was earlier a citizen of independent India or (b) a person who has been registered as an overseas citizen of India. Under the changed regulation the Government has the power to grant an absence from India for a total of 30 days in the applicable, 12-month qualifying period, but only in special circumstances.

The OCI scheme has boosted employment in India.  Global companies are more than happy to employ OCI card holders as it a so-called 'one-time visa' with multiple entries, and the status grants a lifelong stay in India.  It spares global companies the time, effort and costs towards obtaining employment visas.  Increasing number of individuals with Indian heritage are now availing of this route as it permits these individuals to retain their foreign citizenship while simultaneously enjoying rights that are conferred on Indian citizens (except few rights).   Companies are now finding it simpler to hire OCI cardholders, who enjoy a multiple entry, multipurpose life-long visa to visit India, sparing them the need to obtain separate work permits.  

Key Highlights of the OCI Scheme

  1. OCI does not grant citizenship: Dual citizenship is not recognized by India as yet which means that an Indian citizen cannot hold a foreign passport along with his/her Indian passport.  Once an Indian citizen acquires foreign citizenship, the Indian passport has to be surrendered within a period of three months of obtaining foreign citizenship, failing which the individual could be subject to certain penalties. Generally, Indian passports are surrendered or renounced at the time of making the OCI application.
  1. Several Rights Under OCI:  Although the OCI does not grant Indian citizenship, it does grant several rights to its holder which are at par with those of an Indian citizen, barring very few rights which include the right to vote and the right to run for certain public offices.  An OCI holder can obtain education including professional education on par with NRIs and can avail of all benefits as available to Indian citizens, subject to notification issued by the Government from time to time.
  1. Lifelong Visa with no Registration Requirements:  OCI is a lifelong visa with multiple entries.  An OCI holder can leave and enter India as many times as he or she wants.  There is no requirement of registering with the local government authorities in India (FRRO).
  1. Employment permitted under OCI: An individual on OCI status is permitted to work in India and does not require a separate employment visa which otherwise would be required by a foreign national in order to work in India.
  1. OCI Filing: While applying for the OCI, one has to show proof of their present citizenship along with the documentary evidence of their Indian connection.  One can apply for an OCI in the country of their ordinary residence at the consular post of jurisdiction.  Any person holding any foreign passport can also come to India and apply for an OCI, along with their valid Indian visas and their in-country residential permits.

Establishing the 'Indian connection'

Any foreign national who wishes to get an OCI status will need to provide adequate documents evidencing his or her Indian lineage.  These could be in the form of:

  1. Self - Any person born in India, but has subsequently acquired any other nationality and his/her minor children anywhere.
  1. Up to three generations above an individual or a family  - Proof that any one (or all) of their parents, grandparents or great grandparents were Indian citizens or were eligible for Indian citizenship by birth, descent or acquisition of territory at or after the commencement of the Indian constitution.
  1. Spouse of an Indian citizen or spouse of an OCI will need to provide evidence that the qualifying marriage (subject to certain marriage registration conditions) took place at least two years prior to the date on which the OCI application is submitted. 

The OCI privilege is specifically denied to any person who is or was a Pakistani or a Bangladeshi national or whose ancestry can be traced going back three generations to present day Pakistan or Bangladesh. The list of these countries may be modified at the discretion of the government.  Any person who has no relatives, friends, property, business or connection existing in India connection can also become an OCI, provided they have at least one person of Indian lineage in their ancestry up to three generations.

Benefits under the OCI:

  1. Multiple entry lifelong visa for visiting India for any purpose (However OCI Cardholders will require a special permission to undertake research work in India for which they may submit the application to the Indian Mission/ Post/ FRRO concerned).
  1. Exemption from registration with FRRO for any length of stay in India.
  1. Parity with Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) in respect of all facilities available to them in economic, financial, and educational fields except in matters relating to the acquisition of agricultural or plantation properties.
  1. Registered OCI Cardholder shall be treated at par with Non-Resident-Indians in the matter of inter-country adoption of Indian children.
  1. Registered OCI Cardholder shall be treated at par with resident Indian nationals in the matter of tariffs in air fares in domestic sectors in India.
  1. Registered OCI Cardholder shall be charged the same entry fee as domestic Indian visitors to visit national parks and wildlife sanctuaries in India. 
  1. Parity with Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) in respect of:
  • entry fees to be charged for visiting the national monuments, and
  • historical sites and museums in India

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.