US Citizenship & Naturalization for Children

Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we'll discuss how citizenship and naturalization affect children. We'll pay special attention to the three ways in which children obtain citizenship.

A Child's Path to Citizenship

Johnny was born in the United States to parents who are illegal immigrants. Is he a US citizen? Suzy was born outside the US to parents who are US citizens. Is she also a US citizen? Maria's parents were naturalized and became US citizens when she was eleven years old. Did she become a US citizen, too?

This lesson will answer these questions and others as we discuss the three paths by which children obtain US citizenship: birth, acquisition, and derivation.

Citizenship by Birth

Citizenship by birth is the easiest path to understand and obtain. Anyone born in the United States or its territories is automatically a US citizen.

So yes, Johnny is a US citizen even though his parents are illegal immigrants. When he turns 21, he can petition for them to obtain legal immigrant status.

Citizenship by Acquisition

Citizenship by acquisition is a bit more complicated, but the gist of it is that under most circumstances, children born to parents who are US citizens, even if they live outside the US, are also citizens. They acquire their citizenship through that of their parents.

That being said, let's examine a few details. For a child to acquire citizenship through his or her parents' citizenship, the following must be true:

  • At least one of the child's parents must have lived in the US at some point before the child was born.
  • That parent must have lived in the US for at least five years before the child was born.
  • Two of those years must have been after the parent was 14 years old.

Further, if the parents were not married when the child was born, the child's citizenship is usually acquired from the mother if she is a citizen. If the father is the citizen, he must prove his paternity and promise to support his child until age 18.

Finally, if a child who was born outside the US is legally adopted by a US citizen, that child receives citizenship when the adoption process is complete.

Let's revisit Suzy's case. Her parents are US citizens living abroad. They are married, and her mother lived in the US for most of her life. Suzy would definitely be a US citizen because she would acquire her citizenship from her parents.

If, however, Suzy's parents were not married, and her mother was not a US citizen, her citizen father would have to prove that he really is Suzy's dad and promise to support her before Suzy could acquire citizenship through him.

Citizenship by Derivation

When an immigrant parent goes through the naturalization process to become a US citizen, he or she must list all of his or her children on the N-400 form, which is the official naturalization application. These children can achieve citizenship by derivation along with their parent if the following conditions are met:

  • The children are under 18 years old.
  • They live in the US.
  • They are legal and permanent residents with green cards.
  • They live in the custody of their parent.

Children under age 18 who do not live in the US with their parent are not automatically naturalized. To derive US citizenship, these children must travel to the US, at least temporarily, and their naturalized parent must fill out a form on their behalf with all the supporting documentation (see the USCIS website for more details). If the USCIS accepts this application for recognition of citizenship for a minor child, then these children, too, will become US citizens.

Maria, then, would automatically derive US citizenship from her naturalized parents if she was living with them at the time of their naturalization and if she was a legal and permanent resident of the US. If, however, she was living outside the country with relatives when her parents became citizens, they would have to bring her to the US and fill out the proper form to have her citizenship granted.

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