Immigration 101: Citizenship and Naturalization

There are two ways to become a citizen of the United States. First, you can become a citizen by being born in the US, or having parents who are US citizens. Because this kind of citizenship is automatic, you may be a US citizen and not even know it. The second path to citizenship is to apply for naturalization. If you succeed, you will be granted US citizenship once you take the citizenship oath.

Below, we list some of the most common ways you can automatically become a citizen. We also list the process and requirements for naturalization. This overview doesn’t cover all of the possibilities. For example, the rules and requirements sometimes change, depending on the exact date that you or your parents were born. There are also some unique rules for people born in certain places like American Samoa and the Panama Canal Zone, and for people who were adopted by US citizens. If you believe you might be a US citizen, you should meet with an experienced immigration attorney to discuss your situation.


If you were born in the US:

If you were born in the United States, you are automatically a US citizen. Even if your parents were not citizens, or they weren’t in the country lawfully – even if you left the US the day you were born and never returned – you’re a US citizen if you were born on US soil.

What qualifies as “US soil”? Obviously, it includes all 50 US states. It also includes Puerto Rico, Guam, the US Virgin Islands, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. If you were born in any of these locations, you are a US citizen.

There is only one exception to this rule. The children of foreign diplomats who are born on US soil do not automatically acquire US citizenship.

If you were born outside of the US to to US citizen parents:

           If both your parents were US citizens, but you were born outside the country, you are probably a US citizen. The answer usually depends on whether your parents were married at the time you were born. If they were married, you are a citizen so long as at least one of your parents lived in the US at some point before you were born. If they were not married, you must show that you have a valid citizenship claim through one of your parents.

If only one of your parents was a US citizen

           If only one of your parents was a citizen of the United States, things get very complicated. You should speak with an experienced attorney to discuss specifics, but in general, you are a citizen if:

  1. Your parents were married AND your US citizen parent spent a certain number of years (usually between five and ten) living in the US before you were born, AND some of those years occurred after your parent’s 14th
  2. Your parents were not married, your mother was a US citizen, and she was physically present in the US for a continuous (not interrupted) one year period before your birth.
  3. Your parents were not married, your father was a US citizen, and he lived in the US for a certain number of years, AND he agreed to support you financially, AND you can establish paternity.


If you were born abroad and one of your parents subsequently acquired US citizenship

           If one of your parents became a US citizen after you were born, you may acquire citizenship through that parent. The rules are different depending on when you were born, but most people have to show that they were less than 18 years old when their parent became a citizen, and that they were living in the US as a lawful permanent resident at the time.

If you were born abroad and adopted by a US citizen

           If you were adopted by a US citizen, you may have automatically acquired citizenship through your adoptive parent. Generally, an adoptee born after 1982 is a citizen if they were admitted to the US as a lawful permanent resident and lived in the US with the adoptive US citizen parent.


           If you are a foreign national and you want to become a US citizen, you must go through a process called naturalization. Once you become a naturalized citizen, you have the permanent right to live and work in the US, and the right to vote in US elections. There are different factors that determine whether you are eligible for naturalization. Special rules apply to certain categories of applicants, including children who are under age 18, members of the US armed forces, and people whose spouses are employed by the US government or certain public and private institutions. The following rules apply to the most common category of applicants: lawful permanent residents who are over age 18. If you fall into that category, you are eligible to naturalize if you can meet all of the following requirements.

  1. You have been a lawful permanent resident of the US for at least five years. However, if you have been married to a US citizen for at least three years, and your spouse has been a US citizen during that entire period, you only need three years of lawful permanent residence to meet this requirement.
  2. You must have continuously resided in the US during your required period of lawful permanent resident status. This means that you made the US your home, and that the US was the primary place where you lived. Traveling abroad during this period is fine, although any trips out of the US that last longer than six months will constitute a break in your continuous residence period.
  3. You must have been physically present in the US for at least half of the required residence period. This is different from the continuous residence requirement, which requires you to maintain a residence in the US. The physical presence requirement means that you must have been actually present in the US for more than 50% of the residence period.
  4. You must be a person of good moral character. “Good moral character” generally means that you have not done anything that would be considered fraudulent or dishonest. If you have committed certain kinds of crimes, you may be found to have bad moral character. Minor crimes may be an obstacle to a finding of good moral character, but they won’t necessarily prevent you from satisfying the requirement. If you have a criminal record but still wish to apply for citizenship, you should consult with an experienced immigration attorney to get a better understanding of how your record might impact your application.
  5. You must take a test that demonstrates that you have a basic understanding of English, and can read, write, and speak simple English words and phrases. This requirement may be waived(not required as part of your application) if you have certain physical or developmental disabilities, or if you are more than 55 years old and have been a lawful permanent resident in the US for a long time.
  6. You must pass a test to show that you understand the basic history, principles, and functions of the US government. This requirement can be waived for people with certain physical and developmental disabilities. Depending on your circumstances, you may be allowed to take the test in your native language.
  7. You must be willing to take an oath of allegiance (a solemn promise to be faithful and loyal) to the United States.

If you meet all of these requirements, you are probably eligible to apply for naturalization. The path to citizenship is very complicated, and it can be difficult to understand all of the steps you’ll need to take in order to complete the process successfully. It’s very important to find an experienced immigration attorney who can help you navigate this difficult area of law.

This article is part of our ongoing “Immigration 101” series, in which we break down topics in US immigration law. For more articles in this series, click here.

The content in this post was originally written by Stuart Nickum and adapted by Lena Barouh.

Disclaimer: The content in this blog is intended to be used for informational purposes only. Nothing herein should be construed as legal advice or opinion. If you are seeking legal advice, please contact us.

Tags: attorney, ice, citizens, naturalization, immigration 101, uscis, citizenship, immigration, 101

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