U.S. Citizenship Through Parents

U.S. Citizenship Through Parents

There are several ways for a child to become a U.S. citizen with and without U.S. citizen parents.

by Michelle Kaminsky, Esq.
updated September 19, 2020 · 5 min read

Mother holding infant child in sling

How can a child become a U.S. citizen? There are a few ways to become a U.S. citizen while still a minor, but as with many legal processes, you must pay close attention to the details to determine whether your child qualifies.

Generally, a child may either be born a U.S. citizen (in some cases “acquiring” citizenship at birth) or derive U.S. citizenship through parents before age eighteen.

This is a general overview; for the definitive word, please consult the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) page, “Citizenship Through Parents.”

Citizenship by Birth in the United States

A child can become a U.S. citizen by birth if born in the United States or one of its territories.

Exceptions to this general rule, however, are children born to foreign diplomats or other recognized government officials from other countries. Such children do not gain U.S. citizenship simply by being born within the United States.

It is important to note that if a child is a U.S. citizen by birth and then lives outside of the United States even for many years, he or she still retains U.S. citizenship unless affirmative action is taken to renounce it.

Citizenship Through a Parent

A child born outside the United States to a U.S. citizen (mother and/or father) is also considered a U.S. citizen at birth, provided certain criteria are met.

This process is generally called the “acquisition” of U.S. citizenship at birth through a parent or parents.

The laws regarding children born abroad to U.S. citizens have changed drastically over the years, so it is crucial you pinpoint the period in time in which the child was born in order to determine which law applies.

As of 2015, a child is considered a U.S. citizen at birth under the following conditions:

  • If the parents are both U.S. citizens at the time of the child’s birth AND at least one parent lived in the U.S. at some point prior to the birth
  • If only one parent was a U.S. citizen at the time of the birth (child born after November 14, 1986) AND the parents are married AND the U.S. citizen parent had been physically present in the United States or its territories for a period of at least five years some time prior to the birth, at least two of which were after the parent’s 14th birthday.

If the parents are unmarried, the rules are different depending on whether the U.S. citizen is the mother or father and are as follows:

  • Mother. The mother was a U.S. citizen at the time of the birth (child born after December 23, 1952) AND the mother had been physically present in the United States or its territories for a continuous period of at least one year prior to the birth.
  • Father. The genetic father was a U.S. citizen at the time of the birth (child born after November 14, 1986) AND a blood relationship is established by clear and convincing evidence AND the father (unless deceased) has agreed in writing to provide financial support for the child until the age of majority (eighteen) AND the child was legitimated under the law of the child’s domicile or residence OR the father acknowledges paternity in writing under oath OR paternity is established by a competent court AND the father was physically present in the United States or its territories for a period of at least five years prior to the child’s birth, at least two of which were after the father’s 14th birthday.

Note that certain time spent abroad can count toward meeting the “physically present” requirements above, including but not limited to serving honorably in the U.S. armed forces or being employed by the U.S. government or certain international organizations.

All foreign births to U.S. citizen parents should be registered at the nearest consulate or embassy to obtain a Consular Report of Birth Abroad (CRBA), FS-240.

Derivative Citizenship Through Parents

Minors born outside the U.S. may also “derive” citizenship from a parent who becomes a naturalized U.S. citizen. Again, these laws have changed throughout the years, but as they currently stand, for children to qualify for automatic derivative citizenship through parents, the child must meet the following requirements:

  • be under the age of 18
  • have at least one parent who is a U.S. citizen by birth or naturalization
  • be a lawful permanent resident (hold a “green card”)
  • be living in the United States in the legal and physical custody of the U.S. citizen parent.

Note that the child is not required to file any additional application for naturalization, pass a United States citizenship test, or file an Application for Certificate of Citizenship (Form N-600), although he or she may do after the age of eighteen (or parent or legal guardian may do so before that time) along with any required supporting documentation.

Becoming a Naturalized U.S. Citizen

Can minors become naturalized citizens on their own? The answer is no, and when we look at what the process of naturalization entails, it becomes easier to understand why.

Naturalization is the process of obtaining U.S. citizenship after meeting requirements determined by Congress in the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA); these include filing a U.S. citizenship application (Application for Naturalization, Form N-400) and passing a USA citizenship test.

In order to even apply for citizenship through naturalization, though, the applicant must be eighteen years old or older—which is why a minor cannot commence the process of becoming a U.S. citizen on his or her own.

Final Considerations Regarding Citizenship Through Parents

As stated above, be sure to consult the USCIS regarding requirements for how a child can become a U.S. citizen. Remember, too, that the applicable laws have changed greatly over the years and may again, so if you have any concerns regarding your child's U.S. citizenship, be sure to stay well-informed on current legislation.

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Michelle Kaminsky, Esq.

About the Author

Michelle Kaminsky, Esq.

Freelance writer and editor Michelle Kaminsky, Esq. has been working with LegalZoom since 2004. She earned a Juris Docto… Read more