There are four primary ways to become a citizen of the United States of America. Each method has unique requirements and can be a lengthy process.
Depending on the circumstances, individuals from all walks of life potentially have methods to gain U.S. citizenship.
1. Citizenship through parents or by birth in the United States
Under the principle of jus soli, any individual born on American soil automatically receives citizenship status. This principle applies even if the parents are not U.S. citizens.
Citizenship is also possible for people born on foreign soil to U.S. citizens or born in a U.S. territory. Adoption by parents who are U.S. citizens is another route. These circumstances may require an application, and various factors can affect approval. In these cases, it is recommended to apply for a Certificate of Citizenship as definitive proof of U.S. citizenship.
2. Citizenship through marriage to a U.S. citizen
Someone who marries a U.S. citizen may apply for marriage-based immigration and eventually gain permanent residency. Permanent residents who are married to U.S. citizens can apply for naturalization two years earlier that other applicants. The application process requires evidence of relationship, good moral character, criminal background checks, proof of basic English comprehension, and basic knowledge of U.S. history and government.
3. Through naturalization after five years of permanent residency
Naturalization allows foreign nationals who lawfully enter the U.S. as permanent residents to become U.S. citizens after fulfilling specific requirements set out by law. With a U.S. passport, citizens can travel without a visa to 143 countries. U.S. citizens do not need to update their address with the Department of Homeland Security, they can vote in federal and state elections, and never lose their citizenship for remaining outside the United States for years.
4. After military service
Serving in the United States Armed Forces opens a path to citizenship upon completion of service obligations. Requirements include being a permanent resident at the time of the interview, proof of honorable service, and meeting other criteria set by the Department of Defense. This program may provide expedited processing time frames and waived application fees.
Many misconceptions exist about what an individual must do to become a U.S. citizen, and the process is rarely simple. Newcomers who desire legal status can carefully review their situations to determine which option suits them.