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Chapter 2 - Becoming a U.S. Citizen

A person may derive or acquire U.S. citizenship at birth. Persons who are born in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction of the United States are citizens at birth. Persons who are born in certain territories of the United States also may be citizens at birth. In general, but subject in some cases to other requirements, including residence requirements as of certain dates, this includes persons born in:

  • Puerto Rico on or after April 11, 1899; [1] 

  • Canal Zone or the Republic of Panama on or after February 26, 1904; [2] 

  • Virgin Islands on or after January 17, 1917; [3] 

  • Guam born after April 11, 1899; [4] or

  • Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) on or after November 4, 1986. [5] 

Persons born in American Samoa and Swains Island are generally considered nationals but not citizens of the United States. [6] 

In addition, persons who are born outside of the United States may be U.S. citizens at birth if one or both parents were U.S. citizens at their time of birth. Persons who are not U.S. citizens at birth may become U.S. citizens through naturalization. Naturalization is the conferring of U.S. citizenship after birth by any means whatsoever.

In general, an applicant files a naturalization application and then USCIS grants citizenship after adjudicating the application. In some cases, a person may be naturalized by operation of law. This is often referred to as deriving citizenship. In either instance, the applicant must fulfill all of the requirements established by Congress. In most cases, a person may not be naturalized unless he or she has been lawfully admitted to the United States for permanent residence.

Deciding to become a U.S. citizen is one of the most important decisions an immigrant can make. Naturalized U.S. citizens share equally in the rights and privileges of U.S. citizenship. U.S. citizenship offers immigrants the ability to:

  • Vote in federal elections;

  • ​Travel with a U.S. passport;

  • Run for elective office where citizenship is required;

  • Participate on a jury;

  • Become eligible for federal and certain law enforcement jobs;

  • Obtain certain state and federal benefits not available to noncitizens;

  • Obtain citizenship for minor children born abroad; and

  • Expand and expedite their ability to bring family members to the United States.

Footnotes


[^ 1] See INA 302.

[^ 2] See INA 303. If the person was born in the Canal Zone, he or she acquired U.S. citizenship at birth if born between February 26, 1904 and October 1, 1979, and one parent was a U.S. citizen at the time of the person’s birth. The Canal Zone ceased to exist on October 1, 1979. See the so-called Torrijos–Carter Treaties (September 7, 1977). If the person was born in the Republic of Panama, but not in the Canal Zone, one parent must have been a U.S. citizen parent employed by the U.S. Government, or by the Panama Railroad Company, at the time of the person’s birth.

[^ 3] See INA 306.

[^ 4] See INA 307.

[^ 5] See Section 303 of the Covenant to Establish a Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands in Political Union with the United States of America, Pub. L. 94-241 (PDF), 90 Stat. 263, 266 (March 24, 1976) (48 U.S.C. 1801 note). In addition, certain persons in the CNMI who were born before November 4, 1986, and their children if under age 18 on that date, became U.S. citizens at that time. See Section 301 of Pub. L. 94-241 (PDF), 90 Stat. 263, 265-66 (March 24, 1976) (48 U.S.C. 1801 note). In addition, the Department of State will issue U.S. passports to persons born in the Northern Mariana Islands between January 9, 1978 and November 3, 1986, pursuant to a judicial decision holding that such persons are U.S. citizens. See Sabangan v. Powell, 375 F. 3d 818 (9th Cir. 2004).

[^ 6] See INA 308.

Resources

Legal Authorities

INA 301 - Nationals and citizens of the United States at birth

INA 302 - Persons born in Puerto Rico

INA 303 - Persons born in the Canal Zone or Republic of Panama

INA 306 - Persons living in and born in the Virgin Islands

INA 307 - Persons living in and born in Guam

INA 308 - Nationals but not citizens of the United States at birth

INA 309 - Children born out of wedlock

INA 310, 8 CFR 310 - Naturalization authority

INA 316, 8 CFR 316 - General requirements for naturalization

INA 318 - Prerequisite to naturalization, burden of proof

INA 332, 8 CFR 332 - Naturalization administration, executive functions

INA 335, 8 CFR 335 - Investigation of applicants, examination of applications

INA 336, 8 CFR 336 - Hearings on denials of applications for naturalization

INA 337, 8 CFR 337 - Oath of renunciation and allegiance

Appendices

Appendix: History of Acquiring Citizenship under INA 320 for Children of U.S. Citizens who are Members of the U.S. Armed Forces, U.S. Government Employees, or their Spouses

Before October 29, 2019, USCIS considered children of members of the U.S. armed forces or U.S. government employees, who were stationed outside of the United States, to meet the requirement of “is residing in” the United States for the purpose of acquiring citizenship under INA 320.[1] This interpretation was consistent with the definition of “residence” for purposes of naturalization under INA 316.[2] Based on this treatment of U.S. government employees and their children in the context of naturalization under INA 316, USCIS determined that “residing in the United States” for purposes of acquisition of citizenship under INA 320 should likewise be interpreted to include children of U.S. military and government employees stationed outside of the United States who were residing with their parents.[3]

This interpretation, however, was inconsistent with other provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), including the definition of “residence” at INA 101(a)(33) and language in INA 322(a) and INA 322(d), which suggested that the citizenship of military children residing outside of the United States should be considered under that provision rather than under INA 320. Effective October 29, 2019, USCIS amended its policy guidance to address these concerns, and determined that children of members of the U.S. armed forces or U.S. government employees stationed outside of the United States would not be eligible for citizenship acquisition under INA 320.[4]

On March 26, 2020, the Citizenship for Children of Military Members and Civil Servants Act was enacted,[5] amending INA 320, so that a child residing with his or her U.S. citizen parent, who is stationed outside of the United States as a member of the U.S. armed forces or a U.S. government employee, or is residing in marital union with a member of the U.S. armed forces or a U.S. government employee who is stationed outside of the United States, acquires citizenship under INA 320 if all requirements of INA 320(c) and INA 320(a)(1)-(2) are met. In line with the statute, USCIS rescinds its previous guidance, clarifying that these children are eligible to acquire citizenship under INA 320 if all other requirements under INA 320 are met.

The amendment to INA 320 applies to children who were under the age of 18 on March 26, 2020.

Footnotes


[^ 1] Even though the child of a member of the U.S. armed forces or U.S. government employee stationed outside of the United States may be eligible to apply for a Certificate of Citizenship under INA 322 since he or she resides outside of the United States, USCIS interpreted the child to meet residency requirements under INA 320 as well, which formerly required the child to be residing in the United States with his or her parent to acquire citizenship.

[^ 2] For example, U.S. government employees, including members of the U.S. armed forces, are eligible to apply for an exception to the continuous residence requirement for naturalization under INA 316 as long as their residency outside of the United States was on behalf of the U.S. government. See INA 316(b). See INA 316(a). See Part D, General Naturalization Requirements, Chapter 3, Continuous Residence [12 USCIS-PM D.3].

[^ 3] See Policy Manual Technical Update, Child Citizenship Act and Children of U.S. Government Employees Residing Abroad (July 20, 2015); and Acquisition of Citizenship by Children of U.S. Military and Government Employees Stationed Abroad under Section 320 of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), No. 103, issued May 6, 2004.

[^ 4] See USCIS Policy Alert, Defining “Residence” in Statutory Provisions Related to Citizenship [PA-2019-05] (PDF, 308.45 KB). This Policy Alert has been superseded by Policy Manual updates to reflect changes made under Pub. L. 116-133 (PDF).

[^ 5] See Pub. L. 116-133 (PDF) (March 26, 2020).

Updates

Technical Update - Moving the Adjudicator’s Field Manual Content into the USCIS Policy Manual

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is updating and incorporating relevant Adjudicator’s Field Manual (AFM) content into the USCIS Policy Manual. As that process is ongoing, USCIS has moved any remaining AFM content to its corresponding USCIS Policy Manual Part, in PDF format, until relevant AFM content has been properly incorporated into the USCIS Policy Manual. To the extent that a provision in the USCIS Policy Manual conflicts with remaining AFM content or Policy Memoranda, the updated information in the USCIS Policy Manual prevails. To find remaining AFM content, see the crosswalk (PDF) between the AFM and the Policy Manual.

Technical Update - Replacing the Term “Foreign National”

This technical update replaces all instances of the term “foreign national” with “alien” throughout the Policy Manual as used to refer to a person who meets the definition provided in INA 101(a)(3) [“any person not a citizen or national of the United States”].

Technical Update - Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands

This technical update adds the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands to list of certain territories of the United States where, subject to certain requirements, persons may be U.S. citizens at birth.

POLICY ALERT - Comprehensive Citizenship and Naturalization Policy Guidance

USCIS is issuing updated and comprehensive citizenship and naturalization policy guidance in the new USCIS Policy Manual.

Read More