U.S. Citizenship Through Parents or by Birth

Generally speaking, a person can become a U.S. citizen in one of four ways. First, by being born in the United States or one of its territories. Second, if you were born to parents who are U.S. citizens, then you may be a U.S. citizen yourself. This process is called "acquisition" of citizenship. Third, you can be a citizen through the naturalization process, which generally involves applying for, and passing, a citizenship test. Lastly, you may be a citizen if one or both of your parents have been naturalized. This is called "derivation" of citizenship.

It may come as a shock, but many people in the United States have already obtained their American citizenship without realizing it. These people sometimes can normally be grouped into three categories.

First, there are people that are born in the United States, but have lived most of their lives outside of the U.S. 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 is not true.

Next, there are some who believe they are not citizens even though they have ancestors that were citizens of the United States. It may be that, even though an individual was born outside of the U.S., that person is a citizen if their parents or grandparents were U.S. citizens.

Lastly, 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 with green cards will also acquire American citizenship. This is true because children under the age of 18 cannot usually apply to become citizens through the naturalization process.

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. However, children born to diplomats and other recognized government officials from foreign countries will not receive U.S. citizenship if born on American soil. You can learn more about this by looking through Title 8 of the U.S. Code.

If you were born in the U.S., your U.S. citizenship will last your entire life unless you make an affirmative action to give it up, like filing an oath.

Citizenship by Being Born to U.S. Citizens

In a number of situations, if you were born to parents, at least one of whom was a U.S. citizen at the time of your birth, you automatically gained U.S. citizenship through the process of acquisition. It does not matter whether you were born on American soil or foreign. As well, if you have children, those children will also acquire U.S. citizenship through you at their birth. Additionally, foreign-born adoptees to U.S. citizens also may claim U.S. citizenship.

The laws regarding citizenship obtained through acquisition are some of the most complex of all of U.S. citizenship laws and take into account things like the citizenship of parents, as well as if the child was born in or 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, and
  • Born after November 14, 1986.

Derivation of Citizenship and Naturalization of Parents

A child may become a U.S. citizen through the process of derivation if one of his 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 an American 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

Carry Proof of Your Citizenship

If you believe that you are 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.

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 citizenship through your parents. 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.

Next Steps

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