Citizenship in the United States, being a citizen, is a status that entails specific rights, privileges, and duties. Citizenship is understood as a "right to have rights" since it serves as a foundation for a bundle of subsequent rights, such as the right to live and work in the United States and to receive federal assistance.
There are two primary sources of citizenship: birthright citizenship, in which a person is presumed to be a citizen provided that he is born within the territorial limits of the United States, and naturalization, a process in which an immigrant applies for citizenship and is accepted. These two pathways to citizenship are specified in the Citizenship Clause of the Constitution's 1868 Fourteenth Amendment which reads:
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.
—from the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
Citizenship through Naturalization
Naturalization is the process by which U.S. citizenship is granted to a foreign citizen or national after he or she fulfills requirements established by Congress in the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). In general terms (and there are exceptions to some of these requirements) an applicant for naturalization must be a lawful permanent resident status for five or three years depending on one’s circumstances, 18 years or older, demonstrate compliance with applicable continuous residence, physical presence, and good moral character requirements, and must demonstrate satisfactory knowledge of the English language, U.S. history, and U.S. government. A criminal record can result in denial of the naturalization application. Conviction of some serious crimes can bar naturalization completely.
The law provides exceptions and modifications to the naturalization requirements in some circumstances, including accommodations for individuals with disabilities, exemptions from the English language requirement, and continuous residence exceptions for individuals engaged in certain kinds of overseas employment. The law in these areas is complex and consultation with an experienced immigration attorney is advisable if you are concerned about your eligibility for naturalization.
After applying for naturalization you will be interviewed by a USCIS examiner. At your interview, you will be required to answer questions about your application and background, including questions about your membership in organizations that can bar you from naturalization. You will also take an English and Civics test unless you qualify for one of the exemptions or for a waiver. If your application is approved you will be scheduled for a swearing-in ceremony where you must take an oath of allegiance in a public ceremony. The law allows for modifications to the Oath of Allegiance in some circumstances.
Naturalization for Spouses of U.S. Citizens
If you are a spouse of a U.S. citizen, you may be eligible to apply for citizenship through the naturalization process in less than the normal five year waiting period. To qualify, you must be a permanent resident (green card holder) for at least three years and you must be living with the same U.S. citizen spouse during such time. Other than a shorter waiting period before applying for naturalization, spouses of U.S. citizens must still comply with all of the other naturalization eligibility requirements. In some instances, spouses of U.S. citizens employed overseas can qualify for naturalization in an expedited manner.
Citizenship Acquisition at birth or derivation through Parents
Some individuals born outside of the U.S., where one or both of the parents are U.S. citizens, may acquire U.S. citizenship at birth. Very specific requirements apply in these situations, including special rules for children born out wedlock and adopted children, as well precise rules governing the residence and physical presence in the U.S. by one or both U.S. citizen parents. Children of one or both parents who have naturalized may also automatically be deemed U.S. citizens themselves – this is called derivation of citizenship. Proof of acquired or derived citizenship can be obtained through an application for a Certificate of Citizenship, a direct application for a U.S. passport, or both.
Citizenship for Military Personnel & Family Members
USCIS recognizes the important sacrifices made by non-U.S. citizen members of the U.S. armed forces and their families. USCIS is committed to processing their naturalization applications in a timely and efficient manner while providing maintaining the integrity of the immigration system and the security of the process. Members of the U.S. armed forces and their dependents (spouses and children) may be eligible for citizenship, including expedited and overseas processing, under special provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA).
You can apply for a passport at a passport agency or any of approximately 7,000 passport acceptance facilities nationwide (including many federal, state, and probate courts, post offices, most county and municipal offices, and some libraries). For more information on obtaining a passport, visit the Department of State’s web site, or call the National Passport Information Center at 1-877-487-2778, TDD/TTY: 1-888-874-7793.