US Citizenship Overview

There are four primary ways that one can become a citizen of the United States: 1) birth in the US or an American territory; 2) naturalization; 3) if born outside the US, being born to a US citizen parent or parents; or 4) if a parent becomes a US citizen through naturalization.

Birth in the US

A person born in the US is automatically a citizen unless he or she is born to a diplomat or other accredited official of a foreign government. This is true no matter what the legal status of the mother is in the United States or her nationality.


There are various ways to naturalize for individuals who are at least 18 years of age. The most common is to first become a permanent resident, and then meet the requirements for continuous and physical presence in the US. If a spouse of a US citizen, 3 years from becoming a conditional or permanent resident must elapse and at least 18 months of physical presence must be accumulated. For all other permanent residents — 5 years must elapse since attaining a green card, at least 30 months of which were spent in the US.

There are other special programs of naturalization. For spouses of US citizens who are working outside the US for a US company or organization, there is no physical presence requirement to naturalize. This means that as soon as the spouse obtains a green card as a permanent resident, he or she may apply to naturalize under Section 319(b) of the Immigration and Nationality Act.

Another naturalization program is MAVNI — the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest. This is a special Department of Defense program to attract foreigners with certain language or medical backgrounds to serve in the US military. The unique advantage of MAVNI is that it is not necessary to obtain US permanent residency first. It suffices to be in the US for at least two years in valid student, employment, exchange, or dependent status.

Acquisition of US Citizenship by Birth to or Adoption by a US Citizen Parent

If one is born outside the United States, it may still be possible to acquire US citizenship by birth to a US citizen parent or parents. There are physical presence requirements imposed on the US citizen parent in order to transmit US citizenship. For example, children born outside the US after 1986 may only acquire US citizenship if the US citizen parent spent at least five years in the United States and 2 of those years must have been after the US citizen parent reached the age of 14.

If a parent cannot transmit citizenship, the child can obtain a green card, and upon arrival in the US on an immigrant visa, acquire US citizenship. Similarly, an adopted minor child of a US citizen receives an immigrant visa, and upon landing in the US acquires US citizenship. Finally, a US parent can transmit citizenship to his or her child born to a surrogate mother if the US citizen father is the genetic parent or the US citizen mother is the genetic and legal mother of the child at the time and place of the birth.

Derivation of US Citizenship

Because the naturalization process is open only to those at least 18 years or older, permanent resident children under the age of 18 derive US citizenship at the moment when a parent with whom they live becomes a US citizen.

Renunciation of Citizenship

Only by going through a special process, called Renunciation, can a person relinquish his US citizenship.

One cannot “lose” US citizenship, for example, by spending prolonged periods of time outside the US. Neither can the US government deprive you of your citizenship unless it was fraudulently obtained.

Benefits and disadvantages of US citizenship

There are many benefits of US citizenship:

  • being able to live, study, and work in the US;
  • enjoying the protections of the US government wherever you are in the world;
  • enjoying the protections of the US constitution;
  • holding a passport enabling visa-free travel to scores of countries around the world;
  • being able to petition for the immigration of family members and transmit US citizenship to children;
  • enjoying the power to vote;
  • able to live abroad without the obligation of residing in the United States;
  • work for any US government institution (with limited exception);
  • not being subject to deprivation of US citizenship or deportation.

One of the primary disadvantages of US citizenship is being subject to US taxation and reporting requirements, regardless of where you live in the world. US citizens also experience other practical hardships when living abroad, prompting some to renounce their US citizenship.

How does White & Associates help?

The rules concerning citizenship can be quite complicated. In the course of a naturalization process numerous issues can arise, such as back taxes, criminal incidents, child support, and prolonged absences from the United States. We can help guide you through dealing with these issues. We can assist spouses of US citizen expatriates seeking to traverse the expedited naturalization process who encounter a variety of issues, such as travel, fingerprinting, and being sworn in as a citizen on the day of the naturalization interview. We can provide comprehensive legal assistance, such as arranging DNA tests; confirming that a parent was not a diplomat; and in the case of surrogacy, ensuring that the US citizen genetic mother is also the legal mother of a child born to a surrogate. We render support to those who are applying for passports at a US consulate overseas; on numerous occasions, we have accompanied clients to passport interviews. We assist in obtaining Certificates of Citizenship. Even in straightforward situations, obtaining a document confirming citizenship may be difficult. Whatever the situation, we have experience and expertise and are ready to assist in guiding you through the citizenship process. Please contact us to find out how we can help you.