Automatic U.S. Citizenship
March 10, 2006

How does a foreign born individual residing in the U.S. become a U.S. citizen without ever submitting Form N-400, Application for Naturalization? Simple – by way of their parent or parents being sworn in as U.S. citizens.

In the vast majority of cases, an applicant for naturalization must be 18 years of age, have resided in the U.S. as a lawful permanent resident for 3 or 5 years (depending on whether married to a U.S. citizen) and demonstrate “good moral character”. However, it is often the case that a foreign born living in the U.S. is a U.S. citizen and does not even know it.

More specifically, if the individual resides in the U.S. as a lawful permanent resident, and a parent with legal and actual custody over them becomes a U.S. citizen while the individual is under 18 years of age, that individual automatically becomes a U.S. citizen at the moment his parent is sworn in as a U.S. citizen. (For cases involving the naturalization of a parent(s) prior to February 27, 2001 and after Dec. 24, 1952, both parents, if still married, must naturalize prior to the child’s 18th birthday in order for their child to derive US citizenship). If the parents are divorced or “legally separated”, only the parent having legal custody of the child needs to become a U.S. citizen in order to pass on the benefit to the child, again, as long as the child is a lawful permanent resident and he is under 18 years of age at the time. The same rule applies for a child with one deceased parent, and the child resides with the surviving parent who naturalizes before the child’s 18th birthday.

An individual who falls into one of the above categories can obtain proof of their U.S. citizenship in one of two ways. One way is to apply for a Certificate of Naturalization, by way of Form N-600. Importantly, there is no time limit in submitting this application, as the applicant becomes a U.S. citizen by operation of law at the time of their parent(s)’ naturalization, and not at the time of the approval of the N-600. Therefore, an applicant can be well into their adult years and still lay claim to U.S. citizenship and obtain a Certificate of Naturalization – that is, as long as the above conditions are met.

Proof of U.S. citizenship can also be obtained by way of applying for a U.S. passport. The U.S. Department of State’s passport office will issue a U.S. passport who can prove their U.S. citizenship in any number of ways: 1) by presenting a U.S. birth certificate, 2) by presenting their Certificate of Naturalization OR 3) by presenting proof that their parent(s) naturalized while they were under the age of 18, and that they were lawful permanent residents at that time. Again, there is no time limit to laying claim to U.S. citizenship by way of this latter method either, and such an applicant need not obtain a Certificate of Naturalization in order to be considered for a U.S. passport.

It is important to note that the rules outlined above are ones that most often apply to current applicants. However, different rules were at play during various periods prior to 1952 when predecessor statutes governed. Additionally, slightly different rules are at play for children born out of wedlock. Lastly, a completely different set of rules govern a foreign born’s acquisition of U.S. citizenship at birth when one or both of the parents are U.S. citizens at the time of birth.

Copyright © 2006-2008, By Law Offices of Richard Hanus, Chicago, Illinois