U.S. citizenship is obtained by birth or naturalization.  Unless you were born in the United States, or one or both of your parents were United States citizens at the time of your birth abroad, you are required to go through the naturalization process to obtain citizenship.

U.S. Citizenship by Naturalization

To qualify for U.S. citizenship by naturalization, you must meet the following requirements:

  • You must have lived in the U.S. as a lawful permanent resident (i.e., have a “green card”) for at least five years; if you are married to and living with a U.S. citizen, you must have had your lawful permanent resident status for three years
  • You are at least 18 years old
  • You did not make any other country your permanent home during your permanent residency in the U.S.
  • You have good character, no criminal arrests, filed all your taxes etc.
  • Must be able to read, write, and speak English
  • You must know the history and government of the United States
  • You must pledge your allegiance to the United States and accept the principles of the U.S. Constitution

Acquired U.S. Citizenship at Birth

If you were born abroad to U.S. citizen parents or a parent, depending on the date of your birth, and other U.S. residence and physical presence requirements of your U.S. citizen parent(s) (and in some cases, of your U.S. citizen grandparent(s)) and/or your residence in the U.S.), you may have acquired U.S. citizenship by birth.  The scenarios vary, depending on the date of your birth, since the applicable laws changed over the years.

One scenario is the following:  If you were born abroad on or after 11/14/1986, you are a U.S. citizen if both your parents were U.S. citizens, they were married at the time of your birth, and one of them had ever resided in the U.S.  If only one parent was a U.S. citizen and the other was a U.S. national, then the citizen parent must have been physically present in the U.S. or its outlying possessions for a continuous period of 1 year.  If one parent was a U.S. citizen and the other was foreign alien (non-U.S. citizen/national), then the U.S. parent must have been physically present in the U.S. or its outlying possessions for 5 years, 2 of which after the age of 14.  The physical presence may be in aggregate, and time the parent was in the U.S. as a non-immigrant or even unlawfully counts.  There are other possibilities that one born abroad to married U.S. parents may have acquired U.S. citizen at birth. This nationality chart on the USCIS website really helps to summarize the scenarios.

It is a whole different analysis if you were born abroad to unmarried parents, and whether the U.S. citizen parent was your mother or your father.   This nationality chart on the USCIS website really helps to summarize the scenario for such out-of-wedlock birth abroad (e.g., residence requirements are different depending on whether it was your mother or your father who was the U.S. citizen, and if father, then there are additional requirements of legitimation).

Derivative U.S. Citizenship

Then there is yet another birth abroad scenario in which there was no acquisition of U.S. citizenship at birth, but if certain facts exist prior to certain age (18 years in most cases, or 21 in other, earlier cases),  you may have derived citizenship through your U.S. citizen parent.  A common scenario involves foreign national parents immigrating to the U.S. with the whole family including minor children.  One or both parent naturalizes to become a U.S. citizen.  If the child was born on or after 2/27/2001 and lived in the legal and physical custody of the U.S. parent and the child is under 18, then the child has derived citizenship when the U.S. parent gained citizenship by naturalization.  Similar to acquisition of citizenship at birth, there are many variables depending on the date of birth of the child.  This nationality chart on the USCIS website really helps to summarize the scenario for derivative citizenship cases.

Advantages of being a U.S. Citizen

In addition to being able to enjoy all the rights and benefits of being a U.S. citizen, such as the right to vote and to obtain certain government benefits, you are projected from removal (“deportation”) if you were to be convicted of certain otherwise deportable offenses (e.g. aggravated felonies, crimes involving moral turpitude or “CIMT).  It is unclear at this time, however, if a U.S. citizen who has acquired U.S. citizenship automatically at birth is the same as “natural born” citizen under the U.S. Constitution, for purposes of eligibility to become the United States President.

If you are considering obtaining U.S. citizenship through naturalization, or if you believe you may have acquired or derived citizenship through your parent(s), please contact the Law Office of Alison Yew for a consultation.