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An Overview of Citizenship

Contents

    Being a U.S. citizen gives you many rights and protections. This article gives an overview of U.S. citizenship status. To learn more about becoming a citizen, read Becoming a Citizen through Naturalization.  

    U.S. Citizenship

    If you are born on U.S. soil, you are automatically a citizen at birth. If you were born outside of the U.S., you can become a citizen in one of three ways:

    • Acquisition – You were born abroad to at least one U.S. citizen parent;
    • Derivation – One of your parents naturalizes (becomes a citizen) before you turn 18 and you are living in the U.S. as a lawful permanent resident (LPR, or green card holder) with that parent;
    • Naturalization – You apply for citizenship after age 18 while being an LPR (to learn more about the naturalization process, read Becoming a Citizen through Naturalization.)

    No matter how you become a citizen, all citizens have the same rights and responsibilities. The one exception is naturalized citizens cannot be president of the U.S. No citizen can be deported or have their citizenship revoked (canceled) unless they got their citizenship by fraud.

    Acquisition – Being Born Abroad to a U.S. Citizen Parent

    If both your parents were U.S. citizens and married when you were born, you are automatically a citizen if at least one of your parents lived in the U.S. or its territories any time before your birth.

    If you were born on or after November 14, 1986, and your parents were married but only one of them was a citizen at the time of your birth, there is a physical presence requirement for your citizen parent. That parent must have lived in the U.S. or its territories for at least five years before your birth. Two of those five years must have been after your citizen parent’s 14th birthday. If your citizen parent lived abroad for any of the following reasons, their time abroad will be counted toward the physical presence requirement:

    • Serving honorably in the U.S. armed forces
    • Being employed with the U.S. government
    • Being employed with certain international organizations

    If your citizen parent was abroad while they were an unmarried member of your grandparent’s household, their time abroad could count toward the physical presence requirement if your grandparent was doing one of the three things listed above.

    If your parents were not married when you were born, there are different requirements. If your mother was a U.S. citizen when you were born, she must meet the physical presence requirements listed above in order for you to be eligible for citizenship through her.

    If your father was a U.S. citizen when you were born, but your mother was not, here are the requirements in order for you to be a citizen:

    • Your blood relationship to your father must be established by clear and convincing evidence;
    • If your father is still alive, he must agree (or have agreed) in writing to provide financial support for you until you turn 18;
    • While you are under 18, one of the following must happen
    • Your father claims to be your legal father under the laws of the country where you were  a resident,
    • Your father acknowledges his paternity in writing under oath, or
    • Your father’s paternity is established by court; and
    • Your father meets the same physical presence requirements as if he were married to a noncitizen (see the Acquisition section above for more information on the physical presence requirements).

    To claim your citizenship through acquisition if you are inside the U.S., you need to complete and file Form N-600, Application for Certificate of Citizenship. While the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) website offers instructions about completing the application, you may want to talk to an immigration lawyer before you file it. Use the Guide to Legal Help to find immigration lawyers and legal services in your area.

    If you are outside the U.S., you will need to contact the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate.

    Derivation – A Parent Naturalizes Before You Turn 18

    The other way of becoming a U.S. citizen through your parent(s) is if—while you are a Lawful Permanent Resident (LPR, or green card holder)— your parent is or becomes a citizen after your birth but before you turn 18. There are two different age categories.

    If you were born after February 28, 1983 and you are (or were) an LPR living in the U.S. with at least one citizen parent who has (or had) physical and legal custody of you, you could be a citizen based on your parent.

    If you were born before February 28, 1983, and both your parents were married to each other and naturalized before your turned 18, you could be a citizen based on your parents. If one of your parents died, your surviving parent must have naturalized before you turned 18. If your parents were divorced or legally separated, the parent who has physical and legal custody of you must have naturalized before you turned 18. If your parents were not married when you were born, and your father’s paternity has not been established, your mother must have naturalized before you turned 18.

    To claim your citizenship through derivation, you can complete and file Form N-600, Application for Certificate of Citizenship,or you can apply for a U.S. passport with the Department of State. While the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) website offers instructions about completing the N-600 application, you may want to talk to an immigration lawyer before you file it. Use the Guide to Legal Help to find immigration lawyers and legal services in your area.

    Citizenship through Adoption

    Adoption by a U.S. citizen parent generally grants citizenship to the adopted child, so long as the child was younger than 18 when adopted. There are some cases when the adoption had to be complete before the child turned 16. To learn more about how adoption affects citizenship, you may want to talk to an immigration lawyer. Use the Guide to Legal Help to find immigration lawyers in your area. You can also learn more by visiting the USCIS webpage on immigration and adoption.

    Dual Nationality

    Having dual nationality means a person is a citizen (national) of two countries at the same time. A dual U.S. national owes allegiance to both the U.S. and the foreign country. Both countries have a right to enforce their laws and policies, particularly when a dual national travels to that country. For example, a U.S. national must use their U.S. passport to enter the U.S. The same may be true for another country. Dual nationals are also able to avail themselves of the rights and protections of both countries. For example, a dual U.S. national is able to vote in U.S. elections.

    Dual nationality can happen automatically or by choice. An example of automatic dual nationality is a child born abroad to U.S. citizen parents. If the country where the child is born gives that child automatic citizenship, the child will be a dual U.S. national through acquisition (getting U.S. citizenship through their parents).

    When you naturalize in the U.S., you take an oath to give up allegiance to all other countries. Therefore, in the eyes of the U.S., naturalized citizens are viewed only as U.S. citizens. Sometimes, U.S. law may affect the law of your other/prior country of nationality.  For example, when someone naturalizes they may lose the nationality of the country of birth depending on the laws of that country. You should review your country’s citizenship laws to see what effects becoming a U.S. citizen mean for you. Many countries have this information on their embassy and consulate websites.