If you are a foreign-born person who is or has become a U.S. citizen, you'll want a document to prove it. Everyone who becomes a U.S. citizen is on a nearly equal footing in terms of rights in the United States. However, the appropriate documentary proof of their status depends in some cases on how citizenship was obtained, as described below.
If you were born on U.S. soil (meaning in a U.S. state or a U.S. territory, including Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, or Guam) and there is a record of your birth, a standard U.S. birth certificate was likely issued by a state government agency. It is your best primary proof of U.S. citizenship. (Birth certificates issued by hospitals are not official records, however, and do not serve as proof of U.S. citizenship.)
If your birth was not registered within six months of your birth date, or there are other anomalies on your birth certificate, some government agencies in the United States might require the "long-form" version of your birth certificate or other secondary proof of your birth in the United States.
If you were naturalized in the United States, meaning you first held lawful permanent residence (with few exceptions) and then you submitted an N-400 application and passed the English and civics tests, you will be given a naturalization certificate at your swearing-in or oath ceremony.
Any U.S. citizen can apply for a U.S. passport, which is used mostly for travel and return to and from the United States.
The possibility of applying for a passport is especially useful for people who have a right to U.S. citizenship through parents but never received any document proving it, as discussed in detail in U.S. Citizenship by Birth or Through Parents. In this case, you will have to apply for either a U.S. passport, an enhanced REAL-ID driver's license, or a certificate of citizenship (both discussed below).
The application process for a U.S. passport is the same way as for someone born in the United States. However, such applicants will have the added requirement of establishing their citizenship claim. The types of evidence to have on hand will likely include:
More specifically, evidence might take the form of birth or citizenship records, work or tax records, school records, medical and vaccination records, travel records, baptismal records, and affidavits from you, your parents, or your grandparents.
To apply for a U.S. passport, you can visit a passport acceptance facility in the United States or a U.S. consulate abroad. U.S. passport acceptance facilities include designated U.S. post offices, public libraries, county clerk's offices, and other designated locations approved to accept passport applications, but the personnel at these locations are not consular officers. They therefore might not be familiar with all the documentation needed to establish your claim. Still, they should accept your application as long as you provide the basic required documentation, and forward it to the Department of State for a decision.
When the Department of State receives your application, it will check to see whether the documentation you provided is sufficient. If not, you will receive a letter specifying what additional documents are needed for your claim.
If you apply for a passport at a U.S. consulate abroad, you will have the opportunity to speak directly to a U.S. consular officer who has specialized training in U.S. citizenship law. The officer might be able to tell you right away whether or not you have a valid citizenship claim. Applying at a U.S. consulate is a good option if you live overseas. But if you live in the U.S. and you don't have an existing legal way to return to your birth country, you should not rely on the possibility of receiving a U.S. passport to come back with. Your claim could be denied or delayed, if you need additional documentation or have a particularly complicated claim.
If you did not acquire U.S. citizenship at birth, but have a claim to it through a parent's naturalization, you can apply for a passport at a passport acceptance facility or apply for a certificate of citizenship.
For people who live in U.S. states that border Canada, it might be possible to obtain an enhanced license, permit, or non-driver ID. This is a state-issued document that you can use instead of a passport to return to the United States by land or sea from Canada, Mexico and some countries in the Caribbean. To obtain one, you will need to prove U.S. citizenship, using documents similar to what you'd submit to obtain a U.S. passport.
The enhanced license cannot, however, be used for international travel other than described above (no air travel at all), so a passport might ultimately be your best bet.
Another way to proof of U.S. citizenship is by applying for a certificate of citizenship from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Anyone with a claim to U.S. citizenship can apply for a certificate of citizenship, using Form N-600. These are issued only by offices of USCIS located inside the United States.
In most cases, it is more difficult to prove U.S. citizenship through a certificate of citizenship application than by applying for a U.S. passport, mostly because it takes more time. In some of the busier USCIS offices, it can take a year or two to obtain a certificate of citizenship. Also, the application fee is higher than for a passport. You cannot use a certificate of citizenship to travel internationally, so you might still need a U.S. passport in any case.
Evidence of your claim to U.S. citizenship should include your parents' birth certificates, marriage certificates, and naturalization certificates. You will also need your birth certificate, marriage certificate, or divorce decree to prove what your name is and to document any changes to your name. Depending on the circumstances of your claim, you might also need to provide proof that you lived in the legal and physical custody of a U.S. citizen parent.
If you were born outside the United States and at least one of your parents was a U.S. citizen at the time, they might have registered your birth with a U.S. consulate. If your parents did so before your 18th birthday, they would have been issued what is called a Consular Report of Birth Abroad. The consular certification is conclusive proof of U.S. citizenship.
But, if your parents did not take the steps to register your birth with the consulate before you turned eighteen, there is no way of obtaining one now. You will have to apply for a passport or certificate of citizenship using the procedures outlined above. If they did receive one, but misplaced it, you can request a replacement.
For help figuring out whether you have a claim to U.S. citizenship, see U.S. Immigration Made Easy, by Ilona Bray (Nolo). And if you're having trouble figuring out your legal situation or claiming your citizenship from the U.S. government, consult an experienced immigration attorney.