There are four fundamental ways to become a U.S. citizen: citizenship by birth in the U.S., citizenship through derivation, citizenship through acquisition, and citizenship through naturalization.
Path 1: Citizenship through Birth
Under United States law, any person born within the United States (including the territories of Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands) is automatically granted U.S. citizenship.
Path 2: Citizenship through Acquisition
In some circumstances, a child automatically “acquires” citizenship even though that child was born outside the United States. At least one parent needs to be a U.S. citizen at the time of the child’s birth and several other conditions must be met. When this child marries and has children, those children may also acquire U.S. citizenship at birth. The ways a child can become a U.S. citizen through acquisition generally include:
- Both parents were U.S. citizens
Requires that both parents were U.S. citizens at the time of the child’s birth and the parents were married at the time of birth, and at least one parent lived in the U.S., or its territories, or both, prior to the child’s birth.
- One parent was a U.S. citizen
Requires that one parent was a U.S. citizen at the time of the child’s birth; and the child was born on or after November 14, 1986; and the parents were married at the time of birth; and the U.S. citizen parent was physically present in the U.S. or its territories for a period of at least five years at some time in his or her life prior to the birth, of which at least two years were after his or her 14th birthday.
- One parent was a U.S. citizen
Requires that one parent was a U.S. citizen at the time of the child’s birth; and the birth date is before November 14, 1986, but after October 10, 1952; and the child’s parents were married at the time of the birth; and the U.S. citizen parent was physically present in the U.S. or its territories for a period of at least ten years at some time in his or her life prior to the child’s birth, at least five of which were after his or her 14th birthday.
Path 3: Citizenship through Derivation
When a parent naturalizes, his or her children (under the age of 18 and living with the parent at the time) may “derive” U.S. citizenship automatically, provided they are also permanent residents. What’s more, a child who gets U.S. citizenship through derivation does not have to participate in a naturalization ceremony. Generally, foreign-born children under 18 automatically acquire U.S. citizenship if three requirements are met:
- The child must have U.S. lawful permanent resident status (“green card” holder); and
- At least one parent must be a U.S. citizen; and
- The child must be residing in the United States in the legal and physical custody of a U.S. citizen parent.
Path 4: Citizenship through Naturalization
Naturalization refers to the process in which a person not born in the United States voluntarily becomes a U.S. citizen. For foreign-born persons, naturalization is the most common way to become a U.S. citizen. There are several requirements that must be fulfilled before an individual can apply for citizenship. Generally, applicants must be 18 years old and fall into one of the following three basic eligibility categories:
- 5 years as a permanent resident
- 3 years as a permanent resident who has lived in marital union with a U.S. citizen spouse for at least 3 years
- Qualifying service in the U.S. Armed Forces
For more information, please visit the Citizen Path website.