How to become a U.S. Citizen

Share this post

The laws regarding U.S. citizenship and naturalization are very complex and there are several ways through which a person may be or become a U.S. citizen. The four most fundamental ways are: by birth in the U.S., through derivation, through acquisition, and through naturalization.

Birth in the U.S. and the “Jus Soli”

Being born in the U.S. or one of its territories is by far the most common way to obtain U.S. citizenship. The right to citizenship of an individual born on U.S. soil (including the territories of Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands) is called “jus soli.” This expression comes from Latin (it literally translates as “right of the territory”) and applies to almost all individuals born on U.S. soil, even to those born to undocumented foreign nationals. The “jus soli” has very few exceptions.  For example, one of the exceptions is for children born to foreign government officials, as these children are not automatically U.S. citizens at birth even if they were born on U.S. soil.

U.S. citizenship through naturalization

The second most common way a person may obtain U.S. citizenship is by “naturalization,” a process through which a foreign national voluntarily becomes a U.S. citizen. Naturalization begins with the filing of an application and ends with a swearing-in ceremony. The whole process is quite often tricky and lengthy, as there is a plethora of requirements that the foreign national must meet to qualify for naturalization. Furthermore, to make things even more complicated, these requirements may vary or may be subject to a number of exceptions, depending on the applicant’s situation. In almost all cases however, only lawful permanent residents who are over 18 years of age can apply for naturalization.

U.S. citizenship by acquisition and derivation

Two other ways to obtain U.S. citizenship are by “acquisition” and by “derivation.” Both are processes through which a child born outside of the U.S. may obtain citizenship from a parent who is a U.S. citizen by birth or naturalization. The laws regarding acquisition and derivation are extremely complex because they take into account many factors, including the citizenship of the parents, whether the child was born in or outside of wedlock, residence or physical presence of the parents and of the child, and the age and custody of the child. Furthermore, these laws have changed many times over the years, and different laws may apply according to the child’s date of birth.

What documents are usually accepted as proof of U.S. citizenship?

Different documents may be accepted as proof of U.S. citizenship, depending on how the individual became a citizen. However, the most common documents that establish U.S. citizenship are:

  • Birth Certificate, when the individual was born on U.S. soil;
  • U.S. Passport;
  • Certificate of Citizenship, issued for example to an individual born outside the U.S. who derived or acquired U.S. citizenship through a U.S. citizen parent;
  • Consular Report of Birth Abroad, or FS-240, issued by a U.S. embassy or consulate – if established that a child born outside of the U.S. acquired U.S. citizenship at birth; or
  • Naturalization Certificate, issued to an individual who became a U.S. citizen through naturalization.

Loss of U.S. citizenship

Though rare, it is possible for naturalized and for natural-born U.S. citizens to lose their citizenship. Naturalized U.S. citizens can have their citizenship taken away through a process called “denaturalization.” The most common grounds for denaturalization are:

  • formally and voluntarily renouncing to U.S. citizenship;
  • having procured naturalization illegally, meaning that the person was not eligible for naturalization in the first place (i.e. the person did not meet one of the requirements) or if there was deliberate deceit on the part of the person in misrepresenting or failing to disclose a material fact when applying to naturalize;
  • other than honorable discharge before 5 years of honorable service after naturalization;
  • membership or affiliation with certain organizations (i.e. a terrorist organization);
  • committing treason against, attempting by force to overthrow, or bearing arms against the U.S.;
  • in some cases, refusal to testify before Congress;
  • in some cases, becoming a naturalized citizen of another country after age 18;
  • holding certain positions with the government of another country.

Some of the above grounds require the intention of relinquishing U.S. citizenship in addition to performing the actions mentioned, while some do not.

On the other hand, natural-born U.S. citizens may not have their citizenship revoked against their will. Rather, they can only lose it by voluntarily performing the below acts with the intention of relinquishing their citizenship:

  • formally and voluntarily renouncing to U.S. citizenship;
  • applying for and obtaining naturalization in a foreign country, provided that the person is at least 18 years old;
  • taking an oath of allegiance to a foreign country, provided the person is at least 18 years old;
  • joining the military of a foreign country when the foreign state is engaged in hostilities against the U.S. or if serving as a commissioned or non-commissioned officer;
  • serving in a foreign government position that requires an oath of allegiance to the foreign country, provided that the person is at least 18 years old; and
  • committing treason against, attempting by force to overthrow, or bearing arms against the U.S.

It is important to note that natural-born U.S. citizens can only lose their citizenship if they possess the specific intent of relinquishing it when they perform the aforementioned acts.

About the Author

Alessandro Giordano

Alessandro Giordano is a multilingual and multicultural immigration attorney. Practicing out of Tampa, FL, he serves clients nationally and worldwide.

Full Biography