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U.S. Citizenship & Naturalization Overview

A foreign citizen or national can become a U.S. citizen through a process called naturalization. The privilege of citizenship requires allegiance to the United States. In return, a citizen is entitled to its protection.

Many permanent residents choose to further formalize their relationship to the United States each year. They're motivated by loyalty and love of their adopted country, as well as an interest in the benefits they'll receive as citizens. It often makes sense to hire an attorney to help you with naturalization since the application must be completed correctly and the applicant must pass two tests to be naturalized.

Bases for Citizenship: Birth, Blood, or Naturalization

The U.S. recognizes citizenship according to two fundamental principles: jus soli (right of birthplace), and jus sanguinis (right of blood). Under jus soli, a person receives American citizenship by virtue of being born in the United States. This "right of birthplace" is guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

By contrast, jus sanguinis confers citizenship on those born to at least one U.S. citizen anywhere in the world. A person who doesn't qualify under either of these principles may seek U.S. citizenship through the process of naturalization.

Requirements for Naturalization 

If an individual does not gain U.S. citizenship through either birth or descent, he or she may achieve citizenship through naturalization. Naturalization involves the acquisition of citizen status through specialized legal processes. To become a naturalized citizen of the United States, a foreign national first must meet several legal standards:

Entry, residence, and physical presence: The applicant must lawfully enter the country and gain legal permanent resident status. After becoming a legal resident, a foreign national must reside in the United States continuously for five years (or three years for spouses of U.S. citizens). During that period, he or she must be physically present in the country for at least fifty percent of the time. This "probationary" period allows the foreign national to become fully acclimated to American life and systems so that they can fully participate in the national community upon becoming a citizen.

Age: A naturalization applicant must be at least eighteen years old. Parents or adoptive parents can file applications on behalf of children under this age with their petitions. Most children receive derivative citizenship with their parents, and need not satisfy the five-year residence requirement.

Literacy and education: The applicant must possess the ability to understand, speak, read, and write basic English. Certain older applicants may receive an exemption from this requirement if their residence is of long standing. Applicants must also demonstrate knowledge of U.S. history, politics, and government, which is generally referred to as "civics." The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) administers an examination, which applicants must pass to complete the naturalization process. Applicants may take the exam more than once if required.

Moral character: Applicants must show their good moral character, and that they sustained this standard throughout their residence in the United States. While this standard is hard to define, courts have found habitual drunkenness, adultery, polygamy, gambling, and perjury to be inconsistent with good moral character.

Attachment to constitutional principles: Applicants must show they're "attached to the principles of the Constitution of the United States, and well-disposed to the good order and happiness of the United States." This requirement ensures that new citizens generally agree with the philosophical foundation of the community. Attachment to the Constitution includes a commitment to the Bill of Rights and a belief in representative democracy. Individuals well disposed to good order and happiness can show they like the U.S. and believe in its political systems.

Oath of allegiance to the United States: The applicant must pledge allegiance to the United States, renouncing other national allegiances. The pledge includes an obligation to support the Constitution and to bear arms on behalf of the United States if required.

Benefits of Citizenship

A U.S. citizen enjoys many rights and privileges that are not available to non-citizens. Included among these rights and privileges are:

Voting. The privilege to participate in government by electing those who create, debate, and enforce the law.

Holding public office. The privilege to be elected and to serve in most public offices. A naturalized citizen can't hold the office of the Vice-President or the President of the United States; these offices are only open to natural born citizens.

Traveling. The privilege of having a U.S. passport allows the freedom to travel, as well as to receive government protection and assistance when traveling abroad.

Extending citizenship to your children. Permanent resident children under the age of eighteen, who are in the legal and physical custody of the naturalizing parents automatically become U.S. citizens when their parents become naturalized. Children born after naturalization also receive citizenship through jus sanguinis.

Reuniting families. The privilege of helping immediate relatives (spouses, parents, minor and unmarried children) obtain their visas without extended delay.

Responsibilities of Citizenship

Along with the rights and privileges of citizenship come certain responsibilities. The responsibilities of being a U.S. citizen include:

  • Giving up prior allegiances to other countries.
  • Supporting and defending the Constitution and the laws of the United States.
  • Swearing allegiance to the United States.
  • Serving the United States (e.g., in military service) when required.

Get Legal Help with Your U.S. Citizenship and Naturalization Questions

Becoming a U.S. citizen can be the dream of a lifetime and have enormous benefits. But getting there takes some work if you weren't already born here. For this reason, it may be a good idea to get in touch with a skilled immigration attorney to discuss citizenship and the naturalization process as it applies to your specific situation.

You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help

Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.

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Next Steps

Contact a qualified immigration attorney to help you with the citizenship process.

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