By Attorneys Devin Connolly & Nancy E. Miller

Being granted United States citizenship is a dream-come-true for countless people from around the world.  Though the dream is the same, the paths to actually obtaining U.S. citizenship can vary greatly because there are many different ways that a person may become a U.S. citizen.

The most common way a person is granted U.S. citizenship is by birth in the U.S. or one of its territories.  This automatic granting of citizenship is guaranteed by the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and applies to almost everyone, regardless of the immigration status of the child’s parents. 

The next most-common way a person may obtain U.S. citizenship is through the process known as naturalization.  This is how those who immigrated to the United States become citizens.  It begins with the filing of an application and ends at a swearing-in ceremony.  It is the steps in between that can trip many up.  Some may not be eligible and not know it.  Some may have unresolved issues of removability that will become apparent when they file their application.  Some may be eligible but not provide the necessary documentation.  The wise applicant makes it his or her business to be educated and informed before filing for the benefit.

Most applicants for naturalization must be a lawful permanent resident of the U.S. for five years before they may apply for U.S. citizenship.  However, this five-year requirement is lowered to three years if the applicant has been residing in “marital union” with their U.S. citizen spouse for the prior three years.  This is true even if the applicant did not obtain their green card through the marriage.  “Marital union” means that the parties actually resided together, so even an informal separation would disqualify an applicant from applying after only three years.  In an attempt to ameliorate the delays in processing, the regulations allow the applicant to file 90 days before the three or five year period is reached. 

The applicant must have been physically present in the U.S. for at least half of the three or five year period.  And an absence of one full-year breaks the residency and the clock must start again.

Each applicant for naturalization must show good moral character for the requisite period of time.  Several past events in one’s life may not only preclude a person from showing good moral character and, thereby, prevent a grant of citizenship but may also cause the applicant to be placed into removal proceedings.  These actions include misrepresentations made to obtain an immigration benefit or convictions for certain crimes.  And CIS is entitled to look outside the prescribed period to determine the applicant’s good moral character. 

Some of these requirements for naturalization are eliminated for one who is applying based on military service, especially military service during a time of conflict.

A child of a U.S. citizen who is born outside the U.S. may acquire U.S. citizenship without going through naturalization if they meet certain conditions.  Specifically, the child must be under the age of 18, must already be a permanent resident of the U.S., at least one of their parents must be a U.S. citizen either by birth or naturalization, and the child must be residing in the U.S. in the legal and physical custody of their U.S. citizen parent.  Upon the satisfaction of the last of these four requirements, the child automatically becomes U.S. citizens and may apply for a certificate of citizenship or a U.S. passport.  This provision applies to adopted children, but not to step-children of U.S. citizens.  Also, this law only applies to children who were under the age of 18 on February 27, 2001.  There are more complex requirements for a person that turned 18-years-old before February 27, 2001.   

Finally, a person may also acquire U.S. citizenship by being born abroad to a U.S. citizen parent.  Whether the child acquired U.S. citizenship at birth will be determined based on the law that it was in effect at the time of the child’s birth.  This aspect of U.S. citizenship laws has changed many times over the years, so each applicant’s case is different.  However, a common theme has been requiring the U.S. citizen parent to have acquired a certain amount of physical presence in the U.S. prior to the child’s birth.

The laws regarding citizenship in the United States are extremely complex.  One may be a citizen and not know it.  Alternatively, one may think they are going through a simple process and wind up fighting to keep their green card.  Be informed.  Consult a knowledgeable and experienced immigration attorney when you start to think about citizenship.

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