According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the right to citizenship is one of the fundamental rights. Still, by acquiring the status of a citizen, a person acquires a certain set of obligations. The USA is one of the leading democratic countries in the world, in which a citizen is considered a person who has received state-protected rights and obligations in accordance with the Constitution and laws.
Features of the U.S. Citizenship Institution
Like any other country, the United States has its own specifics regarding the institution of citizenship. This institution of constitutional law is governed primarily by the US Constitution, which establishes the basic principles under which federal and state citizenship are declared. The country's legislation allows dual citizenship. This means a person does not have to renounce current citizenship to obtain a U.S. citizen passport.
Citizenship is also regulated by the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, which uses two concepts: nationality and citizenship. The term ‘nationality’ is broader and defines a person's legal relationship not only with the United States but also with its overseas territories. Persons possessing the nationality of the USA are called Americans or persons of American nationality, and persons possessing the citizenship of the USA are called U.S. citizens.
Persons of American nationality have a much narrower range of rights. They are granted the right to US patronage abroad, free entry and exit from the country, the right to a simplified procedure for acquiring citizenship, etc. Citizens have a direct connection with the state and are subject to its protection.
Ways of Obtaining United States Citizenship
The procedure for acquiring U.S. citizenship also has certain features. The most common ways to become citizens of the country are through parents and naturalization. Citizenship through parents is usually granted to persons born on the territory of this country and subject to its jurisdiction.
As for naturalization, this process can be both collective and individual. A person who acquires citizenship through collective naturalization automatically receives it when the territory is granted statehood. According to the Citizenship and Immigration Act, USCIS is responsible for this process.
The main conditions for naturalization under the Immigration and Nationality Act are 18 years of age, legal residence in the country for at least five years, high moral character, knowledge of English and US history, and a willingness to take an oath of allegiance to this country.
Other ways to become a U.S. citizen are through marriage and the military. Read the material below and learn about each way in detail.
What is Naturalization and How to Get Information About This Procedure?
Naturalization is the legal process by which U.S. permanent residents (green card holders) can become U.S. citizens. Individuals aged 18 and older who wish to become U.S. citizens must obtain Form M-476: Naturalization Guide. This guide contains important information about the requirements for naturalization. It also lists the forms you will need to begin the naturalization process.
To find out if you are eligible for naturalization, visit the Citizenship Information Center at www.uscis.gov/citizenship. Use Form N-400 Naturalization Application to submit your request. There is a fee for filing an application. Visit www.uscis.gov/fees for more information.
In general, there are 6 basic requirements for naturalization:
- Continuous residence. You must be registered as a permanent resident of the United States for a certain period;
- Physical presence. Confirm physical presence in the United States of America during certain periods;
- Time of residence in the USCIS state or district. Prove that you have lived in the USCIS state or district for a certain period;
- Good moral character. Demonstrate yourself as a respectable and law-abiding citizen;
- Knowledge of English and the basics of law. You need to know the basics of the English language, the history, and government of the United States;
- Commitment to the Constitution. You must understand and accept the principles of the US Constitution.
You may be eligible for certain exceptions and amendments if you are a native of the United States, work overseas, married to a U.S. citizen, etc.
The continuous residence requirement means that you must live in the United States of America as a permanent resident for a certain period. In most cases, continuous residence in the U.S. is required for five years before starting the naturalization process (or three years for those who are married to a U.S. citizen).
The five years start from when you become a permanent resident or green card holder. If you leave the United States of America for an extended time (usually six months or more), you may lose your permanent residence status.
If you leave the United States of America for one year or more, you will only be able to return to the country if you have a re-entry permit. You must apply for a re-entry permit prior to leaving the USA. In most cases, the time you spent in the United States of America before moving to another country will not count towards your continuous residence. This means that you will have to renew your period of permanent residence upon your return to the United States of America.
Physical presence is your actual presence in the United States of America. If you are a permanent resident, you must be physically present in the United States of America for at least 30 months in the last five years (or 18 months in the last three years if you are married to a U.S. citizen) before you can apply for naturalization.
Physical presence differs from continuous residence in that it refers to the total number of days you have been in the United States of America. Physical presence does not include time spent outside the US. Each day spent outside the country is deducted from the total days of physical presence. Continuous residence is the total time you lived in the United States of America as a permanent resident before you applied for naturalization.
Time of Residence in the USCIS State or District
Most people need to live for at least three months in the USCIS state or district before applying for naturalization. Students of educational institutions can apply either at the place of study or the place of residence of their family.
Good Moral Character
To qualify for naturalization, you must be of good moral character. A person who has committed certain crimes within the five years before applying for naturalization or lied during a naturalization interview cannot be considered an individual of good moral character.
Other behaviors that may indicate a lack of good moral character include:
- Drunk driving or regular alcohol abuse;
- Participation in illegal gambling;
- Fraud to obtain immigration status;
- Refusal to pay child support in accordance with a court decision;
- Persecution of another person based on race, religion, national origin, political opinion, or membership in any social group.
When applying for naturalization, try to be as frank as possible. Report all crimes you have ever committed. These include crimes committed before the age of 18. If you do not report this to USCIS, you may be denied citizenship and face criminal charges.
Knowledge of English and the Basics of Law
Applicants for U.S. citizenship must demonstrate the ability to understand, read, write, and speak Simplified English. They are also required to receive a basic knowledge of US history and government. To confirm knowledge, a person will need to pass a test in English and civics.
Commitment to the Constitution
You must be ready to support and defend the United States of America and its Constitution. By taking the Oath of Allegiance, you declare your commitment to the United States of America and become a citizen of the country.
Naturalization Procedure Changes
The naturalization procedure described above may be subject to change in some cases. See the paragraphs below for details.
Exemption from Tests in English and Civics
The requirements for passing naturalization tests may vary depending on the person's age and period of residence in the United States of America. For example, if you are 50 or older and have lived 20 years as a permanent resident in the US, you do not need to take an English language test but must take a civics test in your native language.
If you have a physical disability or mental illness, you can request an exemption from testing by completing Form N-648: Medical Certification for Disability Exceptions on the USCIS website. For more information, visit the website.
Citizenship Through Parents: 6 Specific Cases
If you are a child of a U.S. citizen, you are also eligible for U.S. citizenship. But there are some features of the procedure for obtaining citizenship, depending on whether one or both your parents have a U.S. passport and whether you are a biological child or adopted.
Citizenship by Birthright
U.S. citizenship is automatically granted to children born to American parents, both inside and outside the United States. The father and mother of the child may have their status jus sanguinis or by naturalization. Such a citizen has the right to receive an identity document (ID card or State ID) and a U.S. passport at any age.
The United States also adheres to the principle of jus soli, whereby citizenship is granted by place of birth. According to the 14th Amendment of the Naturalization Clause, a kid born in the US is a citizen by birth, regardless of the civil status of the parents. Therefore, giving birth on American territory is often one of the ways to grant U.S. citizenship to children.
Only One Parent Is a U.S. Citizen
Even if one of your parents is a citizen of the country, you are still eligible for citizenship status if your parents are married and the U.S. citizen parent can prove physical presence in the USA for at least 4-5 years before you were born.
Citizenship if the Parents Are Officially Unmarried
If you wish to become a U.S. citizen, but your parents are not married, then USCIS suggests considering the following scenarios:
- Your mother is a citizen of the USA and was physically in the country for more than 1 year at the time of your birth;
- Your biological father is a U.S. citizen and has lived in the country for at least 4-5 years. In this case, a written statement from the father about the material support of the child under 18 is also required.
U.S. Citizen Status After Birth
Children born after February 27, 2001, can become U.S. citizens if they meet several important criteria. The child must be over 18, live in the US, and have a U.S. citizen parent who provides physical and legal custody. Those born before this date must meet slightly different criteria.
Citizenship by Adoption
Some children get U.S. citizenship through the adoption procedure. In this case, it is important that the adoptive parents have physical and legal custody of the child.
Becoming a U.S. Citizen Through Birth in the Country's Territories
According to the law, a person born on US territories (Northern Mariana Islands, US Virgin Islands, Guam, Puerto Rico, etc.) is still entitled to receive American citizenship.
Citizenship Through Marriage: General Requirements
U.S. citizenship through marriage is one of the easiest ways to obtain a U.S. passport. An adult who is officially married to a citizen and has been permanently residing in the country for at least three years can apply for naturalization in this way. In addition, a person must have lived in the same state for at least 3 months before submitting an application.
These are the most common requirements for those who wish to acquire citizenship through marriage. But they may vary. Let's consider several examples.
Getting a Green Card
The first and most popular way to become a U.S. citizen through marriage involves entering your spouse's country on a tourist visa and applying for a green card. This is an ID that allows a person to live in America legally without having U.S. citizenship. The main advantage of a green card is that it gives the owner almost the same rights as citizens of the country have:
- Cross the border freely;
- Get an official job;
- Take a loan at low-interest rates;
- Arrange insurance;
- Receive free education;
- Travel without a visa to different countries of the world;
- Apply for social benefits, etc.
A green card holder is eligible to apply for citizenship after 5 years of residence in the country. Therefore, such a card is a step toward obtaining American citizenship.
Legal Marriage in America
The second typical case is when the marriage relationship is not legally registered, and the couple is going to get married in America. In this case, one of the spouses is a citizen of the country and submits a petition. The immigration process should be started with a K1 visa. It is usually issued subject to the following conditions:
- The future spouse is a citizen;
- The couple must have met in person at least once within the last two years at the petition time.
If you do not marry the petitioner within 90 days, you will not be able to change your status or get a green card, even if you marry another citizen of the USA.
Entering the Country as a Permanent Resident
Another fairly common situation is when an official marriage is concluded (does not matter in America or abroad), but the husband/wife is outside the country. In this case, a visa is required to enter the territory of the United States as a spouse. It is usually available to citizens or permanent residents.
Citizenship Through Marriage Under Strict Control of Immigration Authorities
Obtaining the status of a citizen through marriage is under the strict control of immigration authorities. This is due to the fact that many people who seek to obtain citizenship solve this issue by concluding a fictitious marriage. However, such actions are considered a criminal offense and may result in a fine of up to $250,000 and imprisonment for up to 5 years.
How to Become a Citizen Through the Military: General Issues
Foreigners who have served in the US armed forces for at least 1 year in peacetime or participate in military conflicts on the American side are granted the right to obtain United States citizenship. Persons with permanent resident status between the ages of 17 and 42 with completed secondary education, good physical fitness, and without a criminal record can become military personnel.
Obtaining U.S. citizenship is possible subject to compliance with U.S. laws, legal obligations to the state, and knowledge of English and civics. The application is submitted through an authorized official, for example, a representative of the military court service. The required forms are the following: N-400 and N-426. Assignment of U.S. citizenship occurs at the time of taking the oath.
US Military Requirements
The most important condition for entering the US military is the status of a permanent resident of the country. Other requirements are:
- Good knowledge of English. You must be fluent in writing, reading, and speaking English;
- Age 17-42 years. Those wishing to enter the US military before the age of 17 must provide parental permission;
- Excellent physical health. There are no specific selection tests. But you can rely on AR 40-501 when evaluating your own strengths and capabilities;
- High School Diploma. A GED certificate is sometimes enough;
- Successful completion of ASVAB. This test allows you to determine which branch of military service suits you best (Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marine Corps, Navy, etc.).
Key Benefits of the US Military for Immigrants
Here are the top 3 benefits of joining the US military for citizenship:
- Less required length of residence. Foreigners usually need 5 years of residence in the United States to obtain citizenship (or 3 years in the case of marriage to a foreign citizen). But it is enough to serve 1 year in the US military to fill out the form N-400 and start the naturalization process legally;
- No residency requirements. To submit a completed application for citizenship in a particular state, you must live in that territory for at least 3 months. But this rule does not apply to military personnel;
- No fees. Applicants for citizenship pay fees for reviewing documents and biometrics. But those who serve in the army are exempt from paying for these services.
Despite the advantages described above, it is worth noting that there is such a term as Security Clearance, which means access to classified information. It is obvious that such access cannot be granted to foreigners. But this restriction is removed for those who have citizenship, and the person can progress in the US military.
Why Should I Get U.S. Citizenship?
Becoming a U.S. citizen, you assume all responsibility and obligations as an American. In return, you receive important benefits and rights of citizenship. Practice shows that permanent residents of the United States enjoy most of the rights of citizens, but there are several notable reasons to become a citizen:
- Participation in elections. In most US states, only citizens of the country are eligible to vote in federal elections;
- Taking part in the jury. Citizens are eligible to serve on federal juries. Serving on a jury is one of the key responsibilities of a U.S. citizen;
- Traveling with a U.S. passport. A U.S. citizen's passport allows one to resort to the help and assistance of a U.S. state abroad;
- Opportunity to move the whole family to the USA. U.S. citizens have priority in applying for their family members to enter the U.S. permanently;
- Possibility of getting U.S. citizenship by kids born abroad. A kid of a U.S. citizen born outside the country automatically becomes a U.S. citizen;
- Eligibility for federal employment. Certain government jobs require U.S. citizenship;
- Possibility to become an elected official. Only U.S. citizens are eligible for elected office in the federal government;
- Retention of the right of residence in the United States. Citizens cannot be deprived of the right to reside in the country;
- Eligibility for scholarships and federal grants. Many financial aid grants, including college scholarships and government-issued funds for specific goals, are provided only to U.S. citizens;
- Opportunity to receive government benefits. Only U.S. citizens can receive certain types of government benefits.
Final Notes: How Long Does It Take to Obtain U.S. Citizenship?
There are several ways to become a U.S. citizen: naturalization, parents, marriage, and the military. The term for obtaining citizenship may differ in each individual case. But naturalization is the most common way to get a U.S. passport. To complete it successfully, you need to live in a country as a green card holder for five years. The residency requirement is reduced to three years for people married to U.S. citizens.