There are tremendous rights, benefits, and privileges associated with U.S. citizenship, which is why so many people sacrifice so much to become a citizen of the United States. While most Americans are born in the United States, there are other ways to become a U.S. citizen for foreign nationals—four ways in all. If you were born in the United States—including Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and the Northern Mariana Islands, you are automatically a U.S. citizen.
If you were not born in the United States, you can “acquire” citizenship in specific ways. Citizenship through acquisition requires that both married parents were U.S. citizens at the time of your birth with at least one parent living in the U.S. or its territories prior to your birth, or that one married parent was a U.S. citizen at the time of your birth, and that parent was physically present in the U.S. or its territories for at least five years during his or her life prior to your birth.
Of those five years, at least two must have been after the parent’s 14th birthday. In this scenario, you must have been born on or after November 14, 1986. If you were born after October 10, 1952, but prior to November 14th, 1986, then the above rules apply, except your U.S. citizen parent must have been physically present in the U.S. for at least 10 years prior to your birth, and at least five of those years must have been after your parent’s 14th birthday.
The next pathway to citizenship is through derivation. That means that when one or both of your parents naturalize, if you are under the age of 18 and living with your parents at the time, you automatically derive citizenship provided you are a permanent resident. If you gain U.S. citizenship in this manner, you are not required to participate in a naturalization ceremony. Foreign-born children under the age of 18 generally acquire U.S. citizenship automatically if they meet the following three requirements:
- You have a green card.
- At least one of your parents is a U.S. citizen.
- You are residing in the United States, under legal and physical custody of your U.S. citizen parent.
The final path to U.S. citizenship is through naturalization. This is the process by which a person not born in the United States becomes a U.S. citizen. To apply for U.S. citizenship via the naturalization process, you must be 18 years old, and you must fall into one of the following basic eligibility categories:
- You must have been a permanent resident for at least five years,
- You must have been a permanent resident for at least three years while married to a U.S. citizen spouse, or
- You must have qualifying service in the United States Armed Forces.
When you become a United States citizen, you owe your allegiance to the United States, you are entitled to the same protections as any U.S. citizen, and you are allowed to exercise your rights and responsibilities as a citizen.
What if You Were Born in the United States but Do Not Have a Birth Certificate?
There are ways to establish citizenship if you were born in the United States but have no birth certificate on file. The following documents are required:
- The vital records office in your birth state will issue a letter with your name and the years in which they searched for a birth certificate on your behalf.
- If no record is found, then the vital records office in your state will issue a Letter of No Record from the vital records’ office.
- You will need secondary evidence to go along with the Letter of No Record you must submit at least two documents from the following list:
- Certificate of Baptism
- Hospital birth certificate (usually, with baby’s footprints)
- Family Bible record
- Any doctor’s records showing postnatal care
- School records from grade school
- S. Census record
- Birth Affidavit (Form DS-10)
You can also establish citizenship if you were born outside the United States and your birth was not registered with the consulate or U.S. Embassy. You will need your foreign birth record that shows your parents’ names, evidence of citizenship for both your parents, and your parents’ marriage certificate. If you were born outside the U.S. and your parents (U.S. citizens) registered your birth with a U.S. Embassy, you should be able to get a copy of a Consular Report of Birth Abroad from the U.S. Department of State.
U.S. Citizenship Through Naturalization
When a non-U.S. citizen wants to become an American citizen, they must follow a process that begins with obtaining a Permanent Resident Card (green card). If you have had your Permanent Resident Card for at least five years (or for three years if you are filing as the spouse of a United States citizen), you can apply for naturalization.
If your Permanent Resident Card is set to expire within six months of your application for citizenship, you must renew the card, or if your card has already expired, you must renew your Permanent Resident Card prior to applying for naturalization. You are allowed to apply for naturalization prior to receiving your new green card, but you will be required to submit a copy of the receipt from your Form I-90 (Application to Replace Permanent Resident Card) along with your naturalization application.
To apply for naturalization, you will first determine if you are already a U.S. citizen by virtue of a parent that is a U.S. citizen. If you are not a U.S. citizen, then you will need to determine whether you are eligible to become a citizen. You are eligible if:
- You are at least 18 years old;
- You have been a Lawful Permanent Resident for at least five years (three years if you are married to a U.S. citizen);
- During the last five years you have not been out of the U.S. for 30 months or more (exemptions apply);
- You have resided in the district or state in which you are applying for citizenship for the past three months;
- You can read, write, and speak basic English;
- You are of good moral character;
- You are willing to perform either military or civilian service for the U.S. if required by law;
- You know the fundamentals of U.S. history and the form and principles of the U.S. government.
- You are one of the following: a female, a male registered with the Selective Service, a male who did not enter the U.S. until after your 26th birthday, a male between the ages of 18 and 26 who did not register with the Selective Service but has a Status Information Letter with an explanation;
- You have never deserted from the U.S. Armed Forces;
- You have never received an exemption or discharge from the U.S. Armed Forces because you are an alien;
- You will support the U.S. Constitution;
- You are willing to take an oath of allegiance to the United States;
- You fully understand this oath of allegiance.
If you meet all the requirements for naturalization eligibility, then you will prepare Form N-400, Application for Naturalization. If you reside outside the United States, you will need two passport-style photos. You will pay the fees ($725) and submit your application. You can check on the status of your case online. Furthermore, you will be asked to attend a biometrics appointment where you will submit fingerprints and be photographed.
You will receive notice of an interview to complete the naturalization process. You must report to the USCIS office for this interview. After your interview, you will receive a decision from USCIS regarding your naturalization application. It will be granted, denied, or “continued.” If continued, you simply need to provide additional documentation, or you failed the English or civics test the first time.
If your application is approved, you will receive a notice to take the Oath of Allegiance; you will be mailed a notification with the date, time, and location of the scheduled ceremony. You will complete the questionnaire on Form N-445 (Notice of Naturalization Oath Ceremony), then report for the ceremony and check in with a USCIS officer who will review your responses to the questionnaire.
You will be required to turn in your green card, then take the Oath of Allegiance to become a U.S. citizen. You are not a U.S. citizen until you have taken the Oath of Allegiance. Finally, you will receive your Certificate of Naturalization. Be sure to review this Certificate and immediately notify USCIS if there are any errors on the Certificate before you leave your ceremony site.
Obtaining U.S. citizenship can be a complex process that can greatly benefit from having an experienced immigration attorney by your side from start to finish. It is important that every required document be filled out completely and correctly, so having someone who routinely fills out these documents and can answer all your questions is extremely beneficial.