U.S. Citizenship & Naturalization
Aristotle and other philosophers have asked: what does it mean to be a citizen? While we can debate the responsibilities of the citizen to the state and vice versa, the more practical question is how does a person become U.S. citizen.
There are three basic ways: by birth in the United States, by naturalization, and by operation of law.
Individuals born in the United States are U.S. citizens even if their parents do not have permanent status—or even legal status—in the United States, and even if the baby moves to another country shortly after being born. Certain diplomatic families do not get this right, but everyone else does. This is part of the U.S. Constitution, and cannot be changed by a President or Congress.
The next most common way to become U.S. citizen is to naturalize. Although there are a few exceptions, most people apply for naturalization after having permanent resident (“green card”) status for five years (three years if married to a U.S. citizen), filing an application, and passing a test of U.S. history and government, as well as showing they can speak, read, write and understand basic English. There is no requirement for a permanent resident to become U.S. citizen, but there are many benefits to becoming one, such as voting and petitioning for certain family members to immigrate.
By Operation of Law
Finally, some people become U.S. citizens automatically, sometimes without realizing it. Children born in a different country may be U.S. citizens if one or both of their parents are citizens. Children in the United States as permanent residents may become U.S. citizens if their parents naturalize before the child’s 18th birthday. There is also a way for U.S. citizens living overseas to apply for their children to become citizens, if done before the child’s 18th birthday.