Who is Already a U.S. Citizen?

Chief Justice Warren famously described citizenship as “nothing less than the right to have rights.” Some immigrants may find that they’re already U.S. citizens.

Last updated on May 15th, 2019

Are you already a citizen of the United States?

There is certainly no greater defining question in a person’s life. Citizenship carries with it not only an element of belonging, but also the protection of an entire country. Chief Justice Warren famously described citizenship as “nothing less than the right to have rights.”[i]

So, were you born in the United States? Were either of your parents United States citizens? If so, you may have acquired U.S. citizenship as a birthright.

Being Born on U.S. Soil: Jus Soli Citizenship

In most situations, simply being born in the United States is enough to be recognized as a U.S. citizen. The Citizenship Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution reads:

“All person born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.”

Essentially, if you are born in the United States and you are subject to its courts, then you are a U.S. citizen by birthright regardless of whether your parents are citizens, legal permanent residents, or even undocumented immigrants.[ii]

Being Born to a U.S. Citizen Parent: Jus Sanguine Citizenship

Even if you were not born on U.S. soil, you may still have acquired citizenship by birthright. There are certain situations where simply having a U.S. citizen parent will convey birthright citizenship to a child.

  • If both of your parents were U.S. citizens and at least one of them maintained a residence in the States prior to your birth, then you acquired citizenship at birth.[iii]
  • If only one of your parents was a U.S. citizen, then he or she must have been physically present in the U.S. for a total of five years before the birth (two of which must have been after they were 14 years old).[iv]
  • If one of your parents is a citizen and the other is a U.S. national, then you will acquire birthright citizenship only if the citizen parent resided in the U.S. continuously for one year prior to your birth.[v] All citizens are considered nationals, but there are nationals who are not considered citizens. The distinction is that nationals are born in or to parents of a outlying possession of the United States.[vi]

What if you do not know where you were born?

You may have acquired birthright citizenship even if you cannot prove you were born in the United States or to U.S. citizens.

If you were found in the U.S. before the age of five and your parents and place of birth are unknown upon you reaching the age of 21, then you will be deemed a citizen of the United States.[vii]

You are treated as a U.S. citizen from the date you are found with unknown patronage until the earlier of reaching the age of 21 (at which time you will be deemed a U.S. citizen) or the date your birth country is determined.[viii]

Special Cases of Birthright Citizenship

There are several nuanced special cases in nationality law that warrant special attention. Among these examples are:

  • If you are born in the U.S. to an Indian, Eskimo, Aleutian, or their aboriginal tribe, then are a citizen by birth, unless granting you birthright citizenship would impair or otherwise affect your right to tribal or other property.[ix]
  • If you were born in Puerto Rico on or after January 13, 1941, and were subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, you are a citizen of the United States at birth.[x]
  • If you were not born in the United States, but you were born in one of the U.S.’s outlying possessions, then you may acquire citizenship by birth. To acquire this birthright, however, one of your parents must have been a US citizen at the time of your birth and must have been physically present in the United States for at least one year at any time prior to your birth.[xi] Currently, the United States has only two outlying possessions: American Samoa and Swains Island.[xii]

Another special consideration is whether your parents were married at the time of your birth. If you were born outside of the United States and at the time your parents were not married, then special rules apply.

  • If you were born after December 23, 1952, outside the United States, out of wedlock, your mother was a U.S. citizen or national at the time of your birth, and she had previously been physically present in the United States (or one of its outlying possessions) for a continuous period of one year, then you will acquire U.S. citizenship by birthright. [xiii]
  • If your father was a U.S. citizen and your mother was not, then to acquire citizenship you must:
    1. be able to establish a blood relationship to your father by clear and conniving evidence (e.g. a DNA test);
    2. your father must have been a U.S. citizen or national at the time of your birth;
    3. your father (unless deceased) must have agreed in writing to provide financial support until you reach the age of 18; and
    4. while you were under the age of 18 either
      • you were legitimated under the law of your residence;
      • your father acknowledged paternity in writing; or
      • a court established your paternity.[xiv]

Have you lost your birthright to citizenship?

There are limited circumstances in which you could lose your birthright to citizenship. These instances include, among other things:

  • becoming naturalized in another country after reaching the age of 18;
  • making an oath of allegiance to a foreign state after reaching the age of 18;
  • entering or serving in the military of a foreign state that is engaged in hostilities against the United States; or
  • committing an act of treason.

Each of these instances requires that the act be voluntarily, and you must have had the intention of relinquishing your United States nationality.[xv]

[i] Perez v. Brownell, 356 U.S. 44, 64, 78 S.Ct. 568, 2 L.Ed.2d 603 (1958) (dissenting opinion).

[ii] United States v. Wong Kim Ark, 169 U.S. 649, 18 S.Ct. 456; 42 L.Ed. 890 (1898) (ruling that individuals who are born in the United States and are subject to its jurisdiction are eligible for citizenship regardless of the parents’ nationality).

[iii] See 8 U.S.C. §1401(c).

[iv] See 8 U.S.C. §1401(g).

[v] See 8 U.S.C. §1401(d).

[vi] See 8 U.S.C. §1408.

[vii] See 8 U.S.C. §1401(f).

[viii] See id.

[ix] See 8 U.S.C. §1401(b).

[x] See 8 U.S.C. §1402.

[xi] See 8 U.S.C. §1401(e).

[xii] See INA §101(a)(29).

[xiii] See 8 U.S.C. §1409(c).

[xiv] See 8 U.S.C. §1401(a).

[xv] See 8 U.S.C. §1481(a).

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