If you were born on U.S. soil, were born to U.S. citizen parents, or became a naturalized U.S. citizen and have been living in the United States, you clearly have U.S. citizenship. However, many other people became U.S. citizens automatically, despite being born in another country; and many don't even know it. For instance, you might be a U.S. citizen if you have direct ancestors who were U.S. citizens, or if your parents became U.S. citizens when you were a minor.
U.S. citizenship can be obtained in one of four ways:
Naturalization is discussed in Who Can Apply for U.S. Citizenship.
Most of the people who became U.S. citizens at birth but don't necessarily realize it fall into one of three groups:
You will, however, need to do some research to establish your citizenship rights. Here, we'll explore each of the above three possibilities in turn.
A child born on American soil automatically gets U.S. citizenship, unless the child is born to a foreign government official who is in the United States as a recognized diplomat.
Children born in certain U.S. territories—Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, the Northern Marianna Islands, and Guam—may also acquire U.S. citizenship if at least one parent is a U.S. citizen and was physically present in the United States or one of its outlying possessions for a continuous period of one year at any time before the birth.
For details, see Section 301 of the Immigration and Nationality Act.
Anyone born with U.S. citizenship retains it for life unless he or she deliberately gives it up—for example, by filing an oath of renunciation.
In many circumstances, even though a child is born outside the United States, if at least one parent was a U.S. citizen at the time of the child's birth, the child automatically "acquires" citizenship. When this child marries and has children, those children may also acquire U.S. citizenship at birth.
The laws governing whether or not a child born outside of the United States acquires U.S. citizenship from parents have changed several times. You'll need to look at the law that was in effect on the date of the child's birth (and the parents' birth, if grandparents were U.S. citizens who might have passed it down to the parent) for guidance. These laws differ for the following time periods:
To read about the law that was in effect at the time of your birth, see the book U.S. Immigration Made Easy, by Ilona Bray (Nolo).
When a parent naturalizes, his or her children may "derive" U.S. citizenship automatically, provided they have green cards and are under age 18 and living with the parent at the time.
Becoming a U.S. citizen in this way has a special benefit: A child who gets U.S. citizenship through the naturalization of either or both parents does not have to participate in a naturalization ceremony.
The laws on the automatic naturalization of children have varied over the years. Whether or not you are a U.S. citizen is determined by the laws that existed when your parent's naturalization took place. These laws differ for the following time periods:
To read about what law was in effect at the time of your parents' naturalization, see the book U.S. Immigration Made Easy, by Ilona Bray (Nolo).
If you have a claim to U.S. citizenship based on one of the laws discussed in this article, you should acquire a passport or other document to prove it. To learn more, see Obtaining Proof of U.S. Citizenship.