There are generally five ways to become a citizen of the United States. First, you are a U.S. citizen if born in the U.S. or in an unincorporated U.S. territory. Second, if one or both of your parents are U.S. citizens and you are born outside the U.S., then under certain circumstances you may acquire U.S. citizenship at birth (“acquisition of citizenship at birth”). Third, if you meet certain criteria and pass a citizenship test, you may become a citizen through “naturalization.” Fourth, if one or both of your parents become citizens through naturalization and you are a lawful permanent resident under 18 years old living with your parent(s) in the U.S. at the time, then you automatically derive citizenship (“derivation of citizenship”). Lastly, if you are under 18 and living outside the U.S. in the legal and physical custody of a U.S. citizen parent who was physically present in the U.S. for five years (two of which was after age 14), then you may acquire citizenship by applying during the course of a lawful admission to the U.S.
Citizenship At Birth
The first way you become a citizen at birth is based on your physical location at birth. If born in the U.S., Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands or Guam, then you are automatically a citizen, unless your parents are diplomats or certain other foreign government officials not subject to U.S. jurisdiction.
The second way to become a citizens at birth is based on your parentage at the time of your birth abroad – i.e., whether one or both of your parents were U.S. citizens at the time of your birth outside the U.S. The rules regarding acquisition of citizenship at birth also depend on whether your parent(s) met U.S. physical presence requirements at the time of your birth and on what year you were born, because the laws have changed over the years.
Under the current law governing acquisition of citizenship at birth, the following situations provide citizenship:
- If at the time of your birth, your parents were married, both were U.S. citizens, and at least one had previously resided in the U.S., then you automatically acquired U.S. citizenship.
- If at the time of your birth, your parents were married but only one of them was a U.S. citizen and the citizen parent resided in the U.S. for at least five years, at least two of which were after the age of 14, then you automatically acquired U.S. citizenship.
- If at the time of your birth, your parents were not married and your father is the U.S. citizen, then you automatically acquire U.S. citizenship if your father met the same residency rules described immediately above and he establishes that he is your father before your 18th birthday, either by acknowledgment, legitimization or court order, as well as he states, in writing, that he will support you financially until your 18th birthday.
Citizenship After Birth
Naturalization is the procedure by which a U.S. lawful permanent resident becomes a U.S. citizen, regardless of what country you come from. The following are the primary requirements for becoming a naturalized citizen:
- be at least 18 years old
- be able to read, write, speak and understand English
- know and understand basic information about U.S. history and government
- be able to show good moral character (If you have been convicted of murder at any time or an aggravated felony after November 29, 1990, you are permanently barred from demonstrating good moral character. If you have been convicted of certain crimes during the last five years, you may be unable to prove good moral character until the crime is more than five years old. If you have been convicted of certain other crimes that are more than five years old, you may be deportable based on those crimes, making you unable to naturalize in some cases)
- be able to show continuous residence as a lawful permanent resident in the U.S. for a certain time; show physical presence in the U.S. for a certain time; and show residence within a state or district for at least 3 months prior to applying
- be agreeable to the principles of the U.S. Constitution and welfare of the U.S., be willing to take the oath of allegiance to the U.S., and be willing to bear arms and perform noncombatant service or work of national importance if required
There are some exceptions to the above requirements, depending on your circumstances. For instance, persons who have served honorably in the U.S. Armed Forces do not have to meet the residency or physical presence requirements, and persons over 50 years of age with 20 years of lawful residence in the United States, or 55 years of age with 15 years of lawful residence, 65 years of age who have lived in the United States for over 20 years as lawful permanent residents do not have to meet the English language requirement.
Other than naturalization, there are a few other ways to become a U.S. citizen after birth. If one or both of your parents become citizens through naturalization and you are a lawful permanent resident under 18 years old living in the U.S. in the legal and physical custody of your parent when he or she naturalizes, then you automatically derive citizenship from that parent.
Alternatively, if you are under 18 years old and living outside the U.S. in the legal and physical custody of a U.S. citizen parent who was physically present in the U.S. for 5 years (two of which was after age 14), then you may acquire citizenship by applying during the course of a lawful admission to the U.S. This could include lawful admission as a tourist, student or any other type of visa.
Legal Editor: Albert Ades, May/June 2015 (updated June 2019)
Changes may occur in this area of law. The information provided is brought to you as a public service with the help and assistance of volunteer legal editors, and is intended to help you better understand the law in general. It is not intended to be legal advice regarding your particular problem or to substitute for the advice of a lawyer.