Generally speaking, citizenship is either determined by place of birth (jus soli, from latin, literally “law of the soil”) or by the citizenship of the parents regardless of the place of birth (jus sanguinis, “law of blood”).
Since 1868, with the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the U.S. adheres to the concept of jus soli citizenship.
Basically, a person born in the United States who is subject to the jurisdiction of the United States is a U.S. citizen at birth, which conveys the right for that child to enter and reside in the U.S. at any time.
That child’s birth in the U.S. and consequent American citizenship carries no immigration benefit on his/her foreign national parents or siblings, this is in fact a common misconception.
That child has the right to remain in the United States, but the parents and siblings have no rights unless they qualify on their own.
In other cases, people are already U.S. citizen without even knowing it. In this case we are talking about three groups of people:
- people born in the U.S. who have lived most of their lives outside the United States;
- people who have U.S. citizens in their direct line of ancestry;
- children of naturalized U.S. citizens.
If you were born in the United States, unless you were born to a foreign government official who is in the U.S. as a recognized diplomat, you will automatically have U.S. citizenship. Anyone born with the U.S. citizenship holds it for life unless he or she deliberately gives it up.
If you were born from U.S. citizen parents, you may “acquire” U.S. citizenship from them. For instance, if you were born outside the United States, and at least one of your parents was a U.S. citizen at the time of your birth, you automatically acquire citizenship.
The laws governing whether or not a child born outside of the United States acquires U.S. citizenship from parents have changed several times. You’ll need to look at the law that was in effect on the date of the child’s birth (and the parents’ birth, if grandparents were U.S. citizens) for guidance. These laws differ for the following periods:
- prior to May 24, 1934
- May 25, 1934 to January 12, 1941
- January 13, 1941 to December 23, 1952
- December 24, 1952 to November 13, 1986, and
- November 14, 1986 to present.
Federal law provides that those who are born in any of the 50 states, Puerto Rico, the former Panama Canal Zone, the Virgin Island of the United States and Guam are all native-born citizens, including the children of an American Indian, Eskimo, Aleutian, or any other tribal member.
If you were born from “naturalized” parents, meaning you were brought to the United States before becoming an adult, and your parents become citizens, then you are entitled to claim U.S. citizenship when you become adult. Before that time, you may file an application with the Secretary of State and obtain in the meantime, a certificate of nationality.
Moreover, if you get your U.S. citizenship through the naturalization of either or both your parents, you don’t need to participate in a naturalization ceremony.
Whether or not you are a U.S. citizen is determined by the laws that existed when your parent’s naturalization took place. These laws differ for the following time periods:
- parents who naturalized before May 24, 1934
- parents who naturalized between May 24, 1934 and January 12, 1941
- parents who naturalized between January 13, 1941 and December 23, 1952
- parents who naturalized between December 24, 1952 and October 4, 1978
- parents who naturalized between October 5, 1978 and February 26, 2001, and
- parents who naturalized between February 27, 2001 and the present.