A person may become a U.S. citizen automatically by birth, or may choose to become a U.S. citizen later in life by naturalization. A U.S. citizen has certain privileges including the following:
- Right to a U.S. Passport
- Right to vote in U.S. elections and run for office
- Right to live and work in the United States
- Right to travel and live outside the United States for any length of time without loss of status
- Rights to many social and economic benefits not generally available to non-immigrants or in some cases permanent residents.
With very limited exceptions related to the children of diplomats, all persons born in the United States are citizens of the United States, regardless of the citizenship, place of residence, or legal status of their parents, and regardless of how long they lived in the U.S. after birth.
In addition, many persons born outside the United States are also U.S. citizens at birth if either or both of their parents are U.S. citizens. If both parents are U.S. citizens, the child will be a U.S. citizen if either parent resided in the U.S. for any length of time. If only one parent is a U.S. citizen, and the child was born after November 14, 1986, the child will be a citizen if the U.S. citizen parent resided in the U.S. for five years prior to the child’s birth, including at least two years after the parent reached the age of 14. If the birth occurred before November 14, 1986, different rules apply. The exact rules are very complicated and cannot be explained in a simple web page. Seek professional guidance if you were born outside the U.S., and you have a parent or grandparent who is or was a U.S. citizen. Citizenship by birth abroad can be established by a Consular Report of Birth Abroad, a Certificate of Citizenship, or by applying for a U.S. passport.
A person may apply for U.S. citizenship by naturalization after he or she has been a permanent resident of the United States for five years. If a person has been married to a U.S. citizen during the qualifying period, the waiting period is reduced to three years. In addition, the person must have been physically present in the United States for at least half of the qualifying period (for instance, a total of two and one half years out of the required five). In addition, no one absence can exceed a total of six months. The six month limit can be overcome by proof that the individual maintained strong U.S. ties during this period, but in no event can the continuous period exceed one year. There are exceptions to these rules for members of the military and their spouses, and several other categories.
Also, the applicant must demonstrate basic ability to speak and write in the English language, and must also be able to answer basic questions about U.S. history and civics. Study guides are available that contain the possible questions and suggested answers. There are exceptions to the language requirement for certain long term permanent residents, as well as a simplified version of the civics test for applicants over 65. There are also exceptions for persons with disabilities.
Finally, the applicant must have demonstrated “good moral character” during the qualifying period. USCIS may determine that a person is not of good moral character if he has been convicted of a crime, failed to pay his taxes, failed to support his dependents, or failed to register for the draft if required to do so.
The procedure for applying for citizenship is to file an N-400, with the necessary fee. The person will receive a fingerprinting notice, and then a notice to appear for an interview at the nearest USCIS office. The language and civics test is completed at the interview. Currently, the interviews are scheduled within six months of the filing of the N-400 in most cases. If the application is approved at or following the interview, the person will be scheduled for an oath ceremony. The person recites the oath of allegiance to the United States, and is then awarded the certificate of naturalization. This certificate can be used to apply for a passport.
The United States does not require a person to give up his former citizenship in order to become a U.S. citizen. However, becoming a U.S. citizen may cause an automatic loss of the person’s previous citizenship. This is a matter of the law of the foreign state. Becoming a U.S. citizen will not cause a loss of Canadian citizenship, but will cause a loss of Indian citizenship.
Our law firm practices in many areas of citizenship law. We are experienced in determining citizenship status, preparing applications for citizenship, obtaining proof of citizenship for U.S. citizens born abroad, and obtaining Certificates of Loss of Nationality for dual citizens who do not wish to maintain their status as U.S. citizens.