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U.S. Citizenship Through Parents or by Birth

There are a handful of ways individuals may become citizens of the United States. In addition to the naturalization process, which is open to legal permanent residents (i.e. green card holders), people typically acquire U.S. citizenship through their parents or by birth. These avenues to citizenship are enshrined primarily in the U.S. Constitution.

Generally speaking, a person can become a U.S. citizen through parents or by birth in one of three ways:

  1. By being born in the United States or one of its territories ("birthright" citizenship);
  2. By being born to parents who are U.S. citizens ("acquisition" of citizenship);
  3. You may be a citizen if one or both of your parents have been naturalized ("derivation" of citizenship).

The following is an overview of birthright citizenship and related ways in which someone may become a U.S. citizen.

Are You Already a U.S. Citizen?

It may come as a shock, but many people in the United States have already obtained their U.S. citizenship without realizing it. These people generally may be grouped into three categories:

  1. People who were born in the United States, but have lived most of their lives outside of the country. Some of these people mistakenly believe that they may lose their citizenship and naturalization by living outside of the country for an extended period of time, but this isn't the case.
  2. Those who believe they're not citizens even though they have ancestors that were U.S. citizens. It may be that, even though an individual was born outside of the United States, that person is a citizen if their parents or grandparents were U.S. citizens.
  3. Some minor children of naturalized U.S. citizens may mistakenly believe that they may not be U.S. citizens. However, when parents become naturalized citizens, their kids (under the age of 18) with green cards will also acquire U.S. citizenship.

U.S. Citizenship by Being Born in the United States

In most situations, any child that is born in the United States or one of its territories will automatically receive American citizenship. This is called "birthright citizenship" and is protected by the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which (in Section 1) states the following:

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.

However, children born to diplomats and other recognized government officials from foreign countries won't receive U.S. citizenship if born on American soil (Title 8 of the U.S. Code). If you were born in the United States, your U.S. citizenship will last your entire life unless you make an affirmative action to give it up, like filing an oath.

Acquisition of U.S. Citizenship by Being Born to U.S. Citizens

If you were born to parents, at least one of whom was a U.S. citizen at the time of your birth, you'll automatically gain U.S. citizenship through the process of acquisition in many cases. It doesn't matter whether you were born on U.S. or foreign soil. And if you have children, they'll also acquire U.S. citizenship through you at birth. Additionally, foreign-born adoptees to U.S. citizens also may claim U.S. citizenship.

The laws regarding citizenship obtained through acquisition are quite complex and take into account factors such as the citizenship of parents and whether the child was born outside of wedlock. This complexity has not lessened at all because Congress has made major changes to these laws throughout history. In order to determine which laws will apply to you or your child, you must first see which date range applies:

  • Born prior to May 24, 1934;
  • Born between May 25, 1934 and January 12, 1941;
  • Born between January 13, 1941 and December 23, 1952;
  • Born between December 24, 1952 and November 13, 1986; or
  • Born after November 14, 1986.

Derivation of U.S. Citizenship and Naturalization of Parents

A child may become a U.S. citizen through the process of derivation if one of their parents becomes a U.S. citizen via naturalization. However, at the time the parent becomes naturalized, the child must have a green card, be under the age of 18, and living with the naturalized parent in order to take advantage of these laws. In addition, a child who becomes a U.S. resident through this special process does not have to go through the process of applying for and passing a naturalization test.

Like the laws that apply to children acquiring citizenship by being born to American residents, the laws relating to derivation have change much in the past. In order to figure out which set of laws apply to you, you need to look at the date of naturalization of your parent(s). These dates are:

  • 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, or
  • After February 27, 2001

Should You Carry Proof of Your Citizenship?

If you believe that you're a citizen of the U.S., you should acquire proof of your citizenship (such as a passport) to ensure that receive all the benefits of citizenship. While there's no requirement to carry proof of citizenship in your day-to-day activities, you may need it for a job application, to apply for a state driver's license, or other processes where proof of legal residency is required.

Immigration Issues Concerning You? Contact an Attorney

It's important to be up-to-date on the law, particularly if you're an immigrant or are hoping to gain U.S. citizenship through your parents (or if you've already acquired it through birth). For help understanding immigration laws, you can contact an immigration attorney who can answer any questions you may have about citizenship and help you file any necessary forms.

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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