Naturalization is the process of obtaining United States (U.S.) Citizenship. One can obtain naturalization automatically, by operation of law, or through a process of affirmative application through USCIS.
Individuals who are born in the U.S. are automatically citizens upon birth. There are limited exceptions for those who are born to foreign heads of state or on foreign vessels in U.S. waters.
In addition, certain individuals born abroad to a U.S. citizen parent or parents may be citizens at birth. The rules for automatic citizenship for those who are born abroad are extremely complicated and vary depending upon the year in which the individual seeking citizenship was born. If you were born abroad to a U.S. citizen parent or parents, contact Attorney Joseph A. Connell, Sr. about your eligibility for automatic citizenship.
Children born outside the U.S. who have not acquired citizenship at birth may still derive citizenship when one or both parents naturalize.
Under current law, a child derives citizenship if one parent is a U.S. citizen by birth or naturalization, and the child is under 18, is a lawful permanent resident, and is residing in the U.S. in the legal and physical custody of the U.S. citizen parent. Stepchildren do not qualify under these provisions.
Members of the Armed Forces are allowed to naturalize under liberalized rules. To qualify the applicant must have served honorably for three years in any branch of the U.S. Armed Forces.
If the application is filed within 6 months of honorable discharge, the applicant must meet the following criteria:
- Must be lawfully admitted to the U.S. for permanent residence before the application is filed; and
- Must not have been discharged under less than honorable conditions.
There are no physical presence or residence requirements. There is no requirement to show good moral character for any particular period of time.
If the application is not filed within six months of honorable discharge, the applicant must show, in addition to the above:
- Five years of residence, however military service during the preceding five years shall be considered as residence and physical presence.
If the applicant served during a war or period of military hostilities, there are even more relaxed requirements. The applicant must demonstrate:
- That he or she served during a designated period of war or hostility;
- That he or she was an alien or national during the time of active service;
- That he or she was discharged honorably; and
- That he or she must have been enlisted in the U.S. or a U.S. territory or have been lawfully admitted to permanent residence.
There is no residency or physical presence requirement and the good moral character requirement is “at least one year.”
All individuals applying for citizenship through an affirmative application for naturalization must be at least 18 years old. In addition, applicants must satisfy the following criteria:
- Have continuously resided in the U.S. for five years after becoming a permanent resident (three years if married to a U.S. citizen);
- At least half of the permanent residency time must have been spent physically in the U.S.;
- Must have lived for at least three months in the jurisdiction where the application will be filed;
- Must demonstrate good moral character for the entire period of residence required (5 or 3 years), and an attachment to the principles embodied in the U.S. Constitution; and
- Must possess basic English skills and knowledge of the history and government of the U.S.
Certain individuals are not eligible for citizenship even if they have met the above requirements. These include people who have held certain ideological beliefs and people who have deserted the U.S. military. While criminal offenses do not of themselves preclude a person from being naturalized, people with aggravated felony convictions after 1989 are unable to show good moral character.
For a person to become a U.S. Citizen, he or she must prove “attachment” to the principles of the U.S. and the U.S. Constitution. To do so, applicants must take the oath of allegiance, which states in part, “that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty, of whom or to which I have heretofore been a subject or a citizen.”
Although the U.S. government does not encourage dual citizenship, it continues to tolerate dual citizenship. The reason for this is that the U.S. government has an obligation under international law to recognize the laws of foreign states within their own territory. This means that if another country continues to treat one of its citizens as a citizen, despite his or her later acquisition of U.S. citizenship, the U.S. must respect that decision of the foreign state. Each country is free to determine how it will treat an individual who is a citizen of both that country and the U.S. For this reason, it is very important to check the laws of the foreign country to see if the foreign country recognizes dual citizenship, and what effect an oath of allegiance to the U.S. will have upon citizenship in the other country. Most of the world’s countries do not recognize dual citizenship, although there are many exceptions.