There are fundamentally two ways that a child (under the age of 18) can automatically become a U.S. citizen at birth. It’s common knowledge that a child born on United States soil automatically becomes a U.S. citizen. But a child born outside of the United States can also acquire U.S. citizenship at birth through a U.S. citizen parent. This is known as acquisition of citizenship for children.
A child born outside of the United States generally becomes a U.S. citizenship at birth if that child has at least one parent who is a U.S. citizen, and the U.S. citizen parent meets certain residence or physical presence requirements in the United States prior to the person’s birth. For purposes of this article, the United States includes the 50 states and the territories of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
The laws for acquisition of citizenship at birth have changed often over the years. Congress made changes in 1934, 1940, 1952, 1978, 1986 and 1994. Therefore, determining when a child was born and which law for acquisition of citizenship was in effect at that time is very important. This is an extremely complicated area of immigration law, and this article provides general guidelines. Consult with an experienced immigration attorney before determining if these laws apply to your situation.
Current Requirements for Acquisition of U.S. Citizenship
Generally, a person born outside of the United States may acquire citizenship at birth if that person has at least one parent who is a U.S. citizen and U.S. citizen parent meets certain residence or physical presence requirements in the U.S. prior to the person’s birth. For children born on or after November 14, 1986, the following is an overview of the law:
Child Born in Wedlock
- Child with Two U.S. Citizen Parents
At least one parent must have resided in the United States at any time before the child’s birth.
- Child with One U.S. Citizen Parent and One U.S. National Parent
The U.S. citizen parent must have been physically present in the United States for a continuous period of at least one year before the child’s birth.
- Child with One U.S. Citizen Parent and One Foreign National Parent
The U.S. citizen parent must have been physically present in the United States for at least 5 years, including at least 2 years after 14 years of age. Time abroad counts as physical presence in the United States if the time abroad was as a member of the U.S. armed forces in honorable status; under the employment of the U.S. government or other qualifying organizations; or as a dependent unmarried son or daughter of such persons.
Child Born Out of Wedlock
- Child Born Out of Wedlock to a U.S. Citizen Mother
The U.S. citizen mother must have been physically present in the United States for one continuous year before the child’s birth.
- Child Born Out of Wedlock to a U.S. Citizen Father
The child is a citizen if all of the following conditions are met:
- A blood relationship between the child and the father is established by clear and convincing evidence;
- The child’s father was a U.S. citizen at the time of the child’s birth;
- The child’s father (unless deceased) has agreed in writing to provide financial support for the child until the child reaches 18 years of age; and
- One of the following criteria is met before the child reaches 18 years of age: (A) The child is legitimated under the law of his or her residence or domicile; (B) The father acknowledges in writing and under oath the paternity of the child; or (C) The paternity of the child is established by adjudication of a competent court.
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Acquisition of U.S. Citizenship for Adopted Children
The U.S. Child Citizenship Act of 2000 greatly improved the U.S. citizenship rights for children who meet the immigration laws’ definition of an adopted child. As of February 27, 2001, adopted children can acquire citizenship from their U.S. parents as long as they meet certain requirements. In order to acquire citizenship, the child must:
- Have at least one U.S. citizen parent;
- Be under 18 years old;
- Reside permanently in the U.S. in the legal and physical custody of the U.S. citizen parent; and
- Be a lawful permanent resident of the United States.
If the adoption is finalized abroad, the child will be issued an IR-3 visa and will automatically acquire U.S. citizenship on the day he or she enters the United States. Children entering the U.S. on an IR-3 visa will receive a Certificate of Citizenship within 45 days of entering the U.S.
If the adoption is not finalized abroad, the child will be issued an IR-4 visa, and will be required to undergo a “readoption” process once he or she arrives in the United States. The child will acquire U.S. citizenship on the date of readoption.
The Child Citizenship Act is not a retroactive law. Therefore, a child that was born abroad and adopted by an American parent and was 18 years old or older on February 27, 2001, is not covered by the law. These individuals must apply for U.S. citizenship through naturalization using Form N-400, Application for Naturalization.
How to Know if You Have Acquired Citizenship
As mentioned, acquisition of U.S. citizenship is an extremely complex area of immigration law. It may take careful analysis by an immigration attorney to determine if you have acquired citizenship. To determine if you may have acquired citizenship, it is necessary to know:
- When and where you were born
Examples of acceptable documents include a birth certificate issued by a foreign government. If a parent isn’t listed on the birth certificate, documents such as medical records, baptismal certificate, school records, blood tests, and affidavits can demonstrate a relationship.
- If one or both parents were U.S. citizens at the time you were born
Examples of acceptable documents include: Evidence: birth certificate, naturalization certificate, certificate of citizenship or a U.S. passport.
- If your parents were married when you were born
Examples of acceptable documents include a marriage certificate.
- If your U.S. citizen parent meets the residency requirements noted previously
Examples of acceptable documents include: USCIS immigration records, employer records, military records, school records, Social Security earnings, court records, Census Bureau records, and affidavits.
Before contacting an immigration attorney, do you best to gather the information. You can save time and money by doing some of the research yourself.
Documenting Acquisition of Citizenship
If you automatically acquired citizenship through one or both citizen parents, you can prove this status using one of three documents:
- United States passport
- Certificate of Citizenship
- Consular Report of Birth Abroad of a Citizen of the United States
To get these documents, you will need to prove that you meet the legal requirements that were in effect the year you were born. An immigration lawyer or accredited representative can help you identify the most appropriate evidence for your case and help you get it.
Application for Certificate of Citizenship (Form N-600)
It can be very helpful for a child to have proof of his or her status as a U.S. citizen. Most people request a Certificate of Citizenship, but it isn’t required. To apply for a certificate, file Form N-600, Application for Certificate of Citizenship. If the applicant is a child under the age of 18, the child’s U.S. citizen parent or legal guardian must submit the application.
In general, applicants are required to appear in person for an interview before a USCIS officer after filing an Application for Certificate of Citizenship. This includes the U.S. citizen parent or legal guardian if the application is filed on behalf of a child under 18 years of age. However, USCIS will typically waive the interview requirement if all the required documentation necessary to establish the applicant’s eligibility is already included in USCIS administrative records, or if the application is accompanied by one of the following:
- Department of State Form FS-240 (Consular Report of Birth Abroad of a U.S. Citizen) What is a Consular Report of Birth Abroad?
- Applicant’s unexpired U.S. passport issued initially for a full five or ten-year period
- Certificate of Naturalization of the applicant’s parent or parents
Designed by attorneys, CitizenPath is the online service that makes immigration forms simple. The website provides simple, step-by-step guidance through USCIS applications and petitions. The low-cost service helps to simplify the process by explaining each question and providing alerts if your answer to a question could be a problem. Most people do not need a lawyer to prepare USCIS forms, but many need a little assistance. That’s where CitizenPath can help. CitizenPath also guarantees that USCIS will approve your application. CitizenPath provides support for the Application for Certificate of Citizenship (N-600), Citizenship Application (Form N-400), Green Card Replacement (Form I-90), and several other popular forms.
Note to Reader: This post was originally published on December 8, 2015, and has been modified with improvements.