How To Become a U.S. Citizen

In a Nutshell

Every year, several people become U.S. citizens and enjoy the benefits that come with U.S. citizenship. There are four general ways to become a U.S. citizen: by birth, acquisition, derivation, or naturalization. This article explains each of the four ways of becoming a U.S. citizen and who qualifies to use each process.

Written by Jonathan Petts
Updated October 2, 2022

What Is Citizenship by Birth?

Being born on U.S. soil is the most common claim to citizenship. The 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution says, “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.”

This means every person born in the United States automatically receives U.S. citizenship. This includes the U.S. territories of Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands.

Certain exemptions exist for children of foreign diplomats or members of sovereign Native American tribes. Members of sovereign Native American tribes are not “subject to the jurisdiction” of the U.S. government, so they do not meet the eligibility requirements for U.S. citizenship by birth.

What Is Citizenship by Acquisition?

Sometimes, a child can automatically “acquire” U.S. citizenship even if they’re born outside of the United States. In these cases, at least one of the child’s parents needs to be a U.S. citizen at the time of their birth, and they must meet several other conditions as well. Later in their life, when the child marries and has their own children, these children can be eligible to acquire U.S. citizenship by birth.

An individual can “acquire” U.S. citizenship if one of the following conditions apply:

  • Condition 1: Both of the child’s parents were U.S. citizens.

    • Both parents must have been U.S. citizens at the time of their child’s birth, and at least one parent must have lived in the United States or its territories before the child’s birth.

  • Condition 2: One of the child’s parents was a U.S. citizen. 

    • The child must be born on or after Nov. 14, 1986, to be eligible in this scenario. At the time of the child’s birth, at least one parent must have been a U.S. citizen, and the child’s parents must have married at the time of the child’s birth. The U.S. citizen parent must have been in the U.S. or a U.S. territorY for at least five years at any point in their life before the child’s birth. At least two years of these five years must occur after the parent’s 14th birthday, OR

    • The child was born between Oct. 10, 1952, and Nov. 14, 1986. At the time of their child’s birth, one parent must have been a U.S. citizen, and both parents must have been married. The U.S. citizen parent must have had a physical presence in the United States or U.S. territories for at least 10 years at some point in their life before the child’s birth. At least five years of these 10 years must occur after the parent’s 14th birthday.

What Is Citizenship by Derivation?

When a parent becomes a U.S. citizen, their children under 18 and living in the same household can automatically “derive” U.S. citizenship. To be eligible for citizenship by derivation, the child must hold permanent residency status. Children who receive their U.S. citizenship through derivation do not need to undergo a naturalization ceremony.

These children will automatically derive U.S. citizenship if they meet the following requirements:

  • The child is a green card holder with lawful permanent resident status in the United States.

  • The child has at least one parent who is an American citizen.

  • The child resides in the United States under their U.S. citizen parent's legal and physical custody.

Note that immigration law provisions depend on when a parent’s naturalization took place and that you cannot derive U.S. citizenship from step-parents.

What Is Naturalization?

Naturalization is the process by which a foreign national can voluntarily become a U.S. citizen. The naturalization application process involves the following:

  • Filing forms

  • Completing a naturalization interview

  • Passing a basic English test and U.S. history and civics test

  • Undergoing a biometrics appointment (fingerprinting and a background check), and

  • Taking an Oath of Allegiance to the United States.

To be eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship by naturalization, individuals must be at least 18 years of age and meet one of the following eligibility requirements:

  • Live in the United States for five years with permanent resident status. 

  • Live in the United States for three years with permanent resident status (as long as they’re in a marital union with a U.S. citizen for at least three years).

  • Complete qualifying military service in the U.S. Armed Forces (at least one year).

There are other qualifying eligibility categories for U.S. citizenship applicants listed in Chapter 4 of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Guide to Naturalization. To begin the naturalization process as a green card holder, you will need to file Form N-400: Application for Naturalization.

Those who successfully complete their forms, English language test and U.S. civics test, biometrics appointment, and interview with a USCIS officer, will likely gain approval for naturalization. Applicants who successfully file for naturalization will become U.S. citizens and receive their certificate of naturalization (or the certificate of citizenship).

Note that the U.S. government does not require you to relinquish your original citizenship. You may legally hold dual citizenship even after naturalizing in the United States. As a naturalized U.S. citizen, you will receive access to a U.S. passport. You won’t need to worry any longer about how your immigration status affects your chances of deportation or receiving work authorization.