Individuals may become U.S. citizens at or after birth.  Individuals who are born in the U.S. and in certain territories or outlying possessions of the U.S. are citizens at birth.  However, an individual born outside of the U.S., and its territories or outlying possessions, may also “acquire” or “derive” citizenship at birth if their parent or parents were citizens at the time of the child’s birth and other requirements are met.  Finally, individuals may obtain citizenship by applying for naturalization on their own.

The laws regarding citizenship have changed numerous times over the past few decades.  As such, the determination of whether an individual is entitled to U.S. citizenship is dependent upon the law in effect when they were born. 

Acquired Citizenship

Generally, an unmarried child born outside of the U.S. may acquire citizenship under section 322 of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), if the following criteria are met:

  • At least one parent is a U.S. citizen or, if deceased, the parent was a U.S. citizen at the time of death;
  • The U.S. citizen parent or his or her U.S. citizen parent has (or at the time of death had) been physically present in the United States or its outlying possessions for at least 5 years, at least two of which were after attaining the age of 14;
  • The unmarried child is under the age of 18 years;
  • The child is residing outside of the United States in the legal and physical custody of the U.S. citizen parent (or, if the citizen parent is deceased, an individual who does not object to the application); and
  • The child is temporarily present in the United States after having entered lawfully and is maintaining lawful status in the United States.

An adopted child may be eligible for citizenship under INA section 322; however, a step-child cannot qualify for citizenship under this provision unless the child was formally adopted.

Derived Citizenship

Under the Child Citizenship Act an unmarried child (adopted or biological) automatically becomes a U.S. citizen when all of the following criteria are satisfied:

  •  At least one parent of the child is a U.S. citizen, whether by birth or naturalization;
  • The child is under the age of 18 years; and
  • The child is residing in the United States in the legal and physical custody of the U.S. citizen parent based on a lawful admission for permanent residence.


The process of Naturalization permits certain legal permanent residents to apply for U.S. citizenship.   Generally, applicants for naturalization must be 18 years of age or older and must be persons of good moral character.  In addition, they must have maintained permanent resident status for at least five (5) years or three (3) years if they obtained permanent residence through marriage to a U.S. citizen.

Applicants must also demonstrate that they have maintained continuous permanent resident status in the U.S. (i.e. they have not travelled abroad for six (6) months or more on one trip).

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