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Citizenship » Becoming a U.S. Citizen

What does it take to be a citizen of the United States?

A person can be or become a citizen in several ways. Usually citizenship of the place of birth is automatic, but in other cases an application may be required. One can become a U.S. citizen by birth, through “acquired citizenship,” through a process called “naturalization” or through “derivative citizenship.”

Citizenship by Birth

Citizenship is automatic to all persons born in the United States and is guaranteed in the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution, Section 1: “All persons born…in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.”

Persons born in the United States, or in one of its territories or possessions, receive U.S. citizenship at birth no matter what the citizenship of their parents is, including those parents who are in the United States illegally, so long as the child is subject to U.S. jurisdiction.

Map of United States
Persons born in the United States receive U.S. citizenship at birth.

Fourteenth Amendment:

“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

Acquired Citizenship

In its most common usage, the phrase “acquired citizenship” refers to citizenship by virtue of being born abroad to a U.S. citizen parent or parents. The child is said to “acquire” U.S. citizenship based on the citizenship of the parents. If one or both of a child's parents are U.S. citizens, the child automatically receives U.S. citizenship. If only one parent is a U.S. citizen, the child will receive dual citizenship in the United States and in the other parent's country.

Acquired citizenship also can refer to persons who have been granted the status of U.S. citizen through the naturalization process, which is not automatically granted to the person as it is in birthright citizenship.

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If a person is born outside the U.S. to a U.S. citizen parent the child acquires U.S. citizenship based on their parents' citizenship.

Citizenship by Naturalization

Naturalization is a process by which citizenship may be granted to a person who has entered a country legally and has lived there for a specified period. The naturalization process can be very lengthy and requires extensive documentation of the foreign citizen or national. U.S. citizenship is granted after the applicant fulfills the requirements established by Congress in the Immigration and Nationality Act.

Generally, to be eligible for naturalization, a person must:

  • Be age 18 or older
  • Be a permanent resident for a certain amount of time (usually 5 years or 3 years, depending on how the person obtained status)
  • Be a person of good moral character
  • Have a basic knowledge of U.S. history and government
  • Have a period of continuous residence and physical presence in the United States
  • Be able to read, write and speak basic English

A person who meets all the naturalization requirements can apply to become a naturalized U.S. citizen. The process includes an interview and review of the application. English skills and an understanding of U.S. history and government are tested. If the tests are passed during the interview, an appointment is set to be “sworn in” as a U.S. citizen by taking the Oath of Allegiance to the United States. Once sworn in, the person is a citizen of the United States.

Because of the age requirement for eligibility to apply for naturalization, minor children of a family living in the United States as lawful permanent residents will not be eligible to file for naturalization with their parents. In many cases, these minor children do not need to request U.S. citizenship; rather, it is conferred when either parent naturalizes. This is considered “derivative citizenship,” as the child is said to “derive” citizenship from the status of the parents.

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Immigrants take the oath of allegiance at a naturalization ceremony.
Photo by Joe Hermitt

“America has never been united by blood or birth or soil. We are bound by ideals that move us beyond our backgrounds, lift us above our interests and teach us what it means to be citizens. Every child must be taught these principles. Every citizen must uphold them. And every immigrant, by embracing these ideals, makes our country more, not less, American.”

George W. Bush image

George W. Bush

43rd U.S. President

The Oath of Allegiance

"I hereby declare, on oath,

that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen;

that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same;

that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law;

that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law;

that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God."

In some cases, USCIS allows the oath to be taken without the clauses: "…that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by law…"

Source: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services

(Take the naturalization civics self-test here.)

Derivative Citizenship

Derivative citizenship is citizenship given to children through the naturalization of parents, or to foreign-born children adopted by U.S. citizen parents, if certain conditions are met. Derivative citizenship happens automatically - neither the parent nor the child must apply - however, the legal requirements for derivative citizenship are very complex.

The Child Citizenship Act of 2000 (CCA), effective February 27, 2001, is the current law that governs how a child may automatically derive U.S. citizenship from the naturalization of a parent or from adoption by a U.S. citizen parent. Under the CCA, biological or adopted children younger than 18 will automatically acquire U.S. citizenship when the following requirements are met:

  • At least one parent is a U.S. citizen by birth or naturalization;
  • The child is residing in the United States in the legal and physical custody of a U.S. citizen parent; and
  • The child is a lawful permanent resident.

Regardless of how one becomes a U.S. citizen, citizenship to this country involves many rights, duties and responsibilities.