Four current paths to citizenship

park visitors folding american flag at park closing nightly ceremony

The United States is a country that can offer unlimited potential, personal freedom, and economic stability for those all across the world who wish for a better life. If you have made the challenging decision to leave your home country for the United States, you’ve now become an important part of defining what it means to be an American. 

By becoming a U.S. citizen, you will have access to many new rights and freedoms and the responsibility to honor and respect the laws and privileges granted by the U.S. Constitution, the written charter of government. As a citizen, you will have the right to:

  • Vote
  • Obtain a U.S. passport
  • Sponsor visas for your family
  • Not be subjected to deportation
  • Apply for federal jobs and become an elected official
  • Obtain government benefits
  • Apply for federal grants and scholarships
  • Serve on a jury

The decision to become a United States citizen is a significant and life-changing commitment. It requires you to demonstrate your allegiance to the United States and its form of government. Between 2010 and 2019, an average of 730,000 immigrants each year achieved U.S. citizen status. If your goal is to make the United States your new home, there are currently four paths to citizenship: 

  1. Birth – You were born in the United States or one of its territories
  2. Acquisition – At least one of your parents was a U.S. citizen at the time of your birth
  3. Derivation – At least one of your parents is a U.S. citizen through naturalization
  4. Naturalization – A multistep process that concludes with an Oath of Allegiance ceremony 

Citizenship through birth

If you were born in the United States or one of its territories – American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, you are granted U.S. citizenship. The only exception is if you were born to a foreign government official who is in the United States as a recognized diplomat. 

Also called “birthright citizenship,” the Citizenship Clause of the U.S. Constitution’s 14th amendment states, “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.” This clause also grants citizenship to “a person of unknown parentage found in the United States while under the age of five years, until shown, prior to his attaining the age of 21 years, not to have been born in the United States.”

If you were born in the United States but have lived most of your life in another country, you remain a U.S. citizen and retain this status for life, unless you take steps to relinquish this right, such as filing an oath of renunciation

Citizenship through acquisition

If one or both of your birth parents or adoptive parents are U.S. citizens, you “acquire” U.S. citizenship, even if you were born outside of the United States. However, the date you were born, the age of your parent(s) when they resided in the United States, how long they were there, and whether you were born out of wedlock all play a factor. 

According to the U.S. State Department, you can acquire citizenship in the following situations: 

  • You were born abroad in wedlock to at least one U.S. citizen parent and:
    • For birth on or after November 14, 1986, the U.S. citizen parent was present in the United States for at least five years before your birth and was older than 14 for at least two of those years.
    • Or, for birth between December 24, 1952, and November 13, 1986, the U.S. citizen parent must have been physically present in the United States for at least ten years before your birth and was older than 14 for at least five of those years. 
  • You were born abroad by two U.S. citizen parents who are not married and:
    • You were born on or after November 14, 1986, and at least one parent resided in the United States before your birth. 
  • You were born abroad by a U.S. citizen father and a foreign mother who are not married and: 
    • Your birthday is on or after November 14, 1986, your father was a U.S. citizen at the time of your birth, and written documentation is provided that declares your father financially responsible for you until your 18th birthday.
  • You were born abroad between December 24, 1952, and June 11, 2017, by a U.S. Citizen Mother who is not married and:
    • Was a U.S. citizen at the time of your birth and physically present in the United States for a continuous period of one year before their death. 
    • Or, you were born on or after June 12, 2017, and your mother was a U.S. citizen at the time of your birth and was physically present in the United States for at least five years, two of which were after the age of 14. 

Citizenship through derivation

You are automatically granted citizenship if you were born to a foreign national who became a naturalized U.S. citizen before your 18th birthday. However, this depends on the laws that existed when your parent became a citizen. The rules vary depending on these time periods:

  • Before May 24, 1934
  • Between May 24, 1934, and January 12, 1941
  • Between January 13, 1941, and December 23, 1952
  • Between December 24, 1952, and October 4, 1978
  • Between October 5, 1978, and February 26, 2001
  • Between February 27, 2011, and the present

Citizenship through derivation was made possible because of the Child Citizenship Act of 2000. Before the passing of the act on February 26, 2001, you were required to apply for citizenship once you became a legal adult. The Child Citizenship Act of 2000 provides automatic citizenship if:

  1. You have at least one parent that is a U.S. citizen by birth or naturalization
  2. You have lawful permanent resident status
  3. Your naturalized U.S. citizen parent is your legal guardian
  4. If adopted, the adoption process is legally complete and fully recognized by the United States

While you are granted automatic citizenship, you still need to obtain supporting documents to prove your citizenship, such as a Certificate of Citizenship or a U.S. passport. You can download the application form for the Certificate of Citizenship (Form N-600) on the USCIS website.  

Citizenship through naturalization

Most immigrants in the United States become citizens through the naturalization process. Naturalization is the process by which U.S. citizenship is granted to a lawful permanent resident after meeting the requirements established by the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). To be eligible for naturalization, you must:

  • Be at least 18 years of age at the time you file the application
  • Have been a lawful permanent resident for the past three or five years (depending on which naturalization category you are applying under)
  • Have continuous residence and physical presence in the United States
  • Be able to read, write, and speak basic English
  • Demonstrate good moral character
  • Demonstrate knowledge and understanding of U.S. history and government
  • Demonstrate loyalty to the principles of the U.S. Constitution
  • Be willing to take the Oath of Allegiance

Some categories of applicants can apply for citizenship sooner than five years if:

  • You are a spouse of a U.S. citizen and have been married and living together for at least three years
  • You are the battered spouse of a U.S. citizen, even if divorced or separated
  • A refugee or a political asylee
  • A U.S. military member, or a military widow or widower
  • A spouse of a U.S. citizen who is “regularly stationed abroad” in qualified employment for at least one year

If you meet the eligibility requirements, you must file a Form N-400 to declare your intent to become a U.S. citizen and pay a filing fee. Once USCIS receives the application, the next step is an interview and civics test. USCIS will notify you if you need to complete a biometrics appointment before scheduling your interview. A biometrics appointment collects your fingerprints and photo to conduct a background check. After this is completed, you will receive an appointment notice for your naturalization interview. 

During your interview, a USCIS officer will go over the information collected on your Form N-400. You may also be asked questions about your work history, the time you’ve spent outside of the United States, your education, family history, and personal ethics. At the time of your interview, you will also be given an exam to test your English language skills and a civics test to assess your knowledge of U.S. history and the U.S. government. USCIS provides study guides to help prepare for this exam. If you do not pass the test during this interview, you will be granted another opportunity to test again at a later date. 

Once you pass the interview and exam portion of the naturalization process, the last step is to attend an Oath of Allegiance ceremony. At the conclusion of the ceremony, you can now begin your new life as an American citizen.


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