Deriving Citizenship Through Parents If You Turn 18 on or After February 27, 2001

You may already be a U.S. citizen, through an automatic process called "derivation."

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You might have your green card and be thinking about naturalizing to become a U.S. citizen. Or perhaps you are thinking about how to get your green card back because you believe you lost it due to having spent too much time abroad. In any such case, you should make sure that you do not already have a claim to U.S. citizenship before you apply for a green card or submit an application for naturalization. This article discusses whether you can “derive” citizenship from your U.S. citizen parent if you were 18 years old or younger on or after February 27, 2001.

For more general information on U.S. citizenship and naturalization, see Nolo’s section, “How to Become a U.S. Citizen.”

Who Is Eligible to “Derive” U.S. Citizenship?

There are a number of ways a person can become a U.S. citizen. Most become U.S. citizens when they are born in the United States. Some people who were born in a foreign country to a U.S. citizen parent (or parents) “acquire” U.S. citizenship based on their parent’s time spent in the United States before they were born. A green card holder can also become a U.S. citizen later in life by naturalizing – applying for citizenship based on time spent in the U.S. as a permanent resident and having met other eligibility criteria.

If you were born abroad, you can also “derive” citizenship from the actions of your parents. The laws affecting derivation of citizenship have changed many times over the years, and so depend on your date of birth. If you were 18 years old or younger on or after February 27, 2001, you may benefit from the provisions of the Child Citizenship Act and automatically derive U.S. citizenship once a number of conditions are met. These conditions are:

  1. at least one of your parents is a U.S. citizen, either by birth or by naturalization
  2. you are unmarried and under 18 years old
  3. if you were born out of wedlock, and your U.S. citizen parent is your father, you were “legitimated” before the age of 16
  4. you are a permanent resident of the United States (a “green card” holder), and
  5. you are residing in the U.S. and are in the physical and legal custody of the U.S. citizen parent.

If you are the adopted child of a U.S. citizen, separate rules apply.

Common Situations Where You Can Derive U.S. Citizenship From Your Parents

Keep in mind that you do not have to meet all of the conditions listed above right now. Once you do fulfill all of these requirements, you will automatically derive U.S. citizenship on that day. For example, if you are an unmarried 16-year-old U.S. permanent resident living in the United States with your mother, and your mother naturalizes, you will derive your U.S. citizenship on the day she becomes a U.S. citizen.

In another scenario, let's say you are unmarried and 16 years old, you and your U.S. citizen mother are living abroad and you have never resided in the U.S., but you are both planning a move to the United States soon. If she submits a green card petition on your behalf, you will instantly derive U.S. citizenship once you both move to the United States and you receive your green card.

Or let’s say you are over 18 years old now, but you don’t have a green card and you are currently living abroad with your U.S. citizen mother. If you had your green card and resided in the U.S. with your mom when you were a child, but have since lived in a foreign country for many years, you might think that you lost your permanent residence. However, in this case, you have already derived U.S. citizenship based on your prior time in the U.S. and you can apply for a Certificate of Naturalization from U.S. Citizenship and Naturalization Services (USCIS) as proof of your status.

How Do I Know Whether I Have Been “Legitimated?”

What happens if your father is the one who is a U.S. citizen? If you parents were married when you were born, then it doesn’t matter which parent – either your father or your mother – is the U.S. citizen for purposes of deriving U.S. citizenship. The same conditions above apply in either case.

However, if you were born “out of wedlock” to a father who naturalized or was a U.S. citizen at birth, and you want to know whether you derived U.S. citizenship from this relationship, you will need to determine whether you were “legitimated” (your father established his paternity) before you turned 16 years old.

What qualifies as “legitimation” for children born out of wedlock differ depending on the laws of the country in which your father was born or currently resides. The usual ways in which a father may “legitimate” his child include by signing a Statement of Paternity or your birth certificate, paying financial support for your care, marrying your mother at a certain time after your birth, taking a DNA test, or by “taking you into his home” and calling himself your father.

How Can I Prove I Am a U.S. Citizen?

If, based on this information, you determine that you derived U.S. citizenship, you may want to apply for proof in order to enjoy the benefits of being a U.S. citizen such as a U.S. passport and voting rights. If you are now over 18 years old, you can apply using Form N-600, Application for Certificate of Citizenship. If you are under 18 and you live abroad, your parent should file another application on your behalf, Form N-600K, Application for Citizenship and Issuance of Certificate Under Section 322. These can be downloaded for free on the Forms page of the USCIS website.

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