Automatic Citizenship in the U.S.


What is automatic citizenship?

Automatic citizenship, also known as derivative citizenship, refers to becoming a U.S. citizen through a U.S. parent or parents, without first having to apply for a green card.  Instead of the usual long process, a person who qualifies for automatically citizenship will get it instantly, either at birth or when a parent becomes a citizen.

While the concept of automatic U.S. citizenship may appear simple, it’s actually somewhat complicated. That’s because automatic acquisition of citizenship depends on many factors. For example, the year of your birth, whether your parents were married when you were born, and whether one or both parents were U.S. citizens all play a role in automatic citizenship.

In this article, we’ll talk about when you should consider the possibility of derivative citizenship and how to apply. We’ll consider the most common scenarios and things to look for when thinking about whether to apply for automatic citizenship.

But first, let’s look at the two ways you can apply for automatic U.S. citizenship.

How Do You Get Automatic Citizenship?

Before covering the requirements for derivative citizenship, let’s look at the process of proving that you’re automatically acquired citizenship.

The Process of Proving Automatic Citizenship

Proving automatic citizenship typically involves submitting one of two possible applications to one of two possible places:

  • The first way to prove automatic citizenship is by applying for a U.S. passport at a U.S. consulate near where you live. You should choose this option if you live outside of the U.S. For example, if you live in Mexico then you should find the nearest consulate and submit the Form DS-11. Note that every consulate is different so you’ll need to contact them beforehand to see how they want you to send the form.
  • The second way you can apply is the N-600, Application for Certificate of Citizenship, which is submitted to immigration officials inside the U.S. You can use this form if you live inside the U.S. The form will be reviewed by the immigration agency known as the “United States Citizenship and Immigration Service” or “USCIS.” Unlike a passport application aboard, the process is uniform no matter where in the U.S. you’re living. Make sure to review the instructions before preparing and sending the application.

An Important Reminder

Remember that BEFORE you submit either of the above forms, you need to confirm you qualify for automatic citizenship. If you apply for derivative citizenship but don’t meet the requirements, then you could have issues coming or staying in the U.S.

For that reason, we’ll now review the requirements for automatic acquisition of citizenship to help you understand if you may qualify.

Are you a U.S. Citizen?

First, it’s important to note that a child born in the U.S. is automatically a U.S. citizen. But be careful, there can be doubt about where you were born. For example, if you were born by a midwife and not a hospital, then immigration officers may doubt you were born in the U.S. Another example is if your birth was registered in both the U.S. and another country. The existence of two separate birth certificates in two different countries may make it difficult to prove your U.S. birth.

Now we can cover situations where a child born outside the U.S. is automatically an American citizen.  Automatic citizenship breaks down into two categories:

Category One: Automatic U.S. Citizenship At the Time of Birth

The first category is automatic acquisition of citizenship at the time of birth. This is where that the U.S. government recognizes that you’ve been a U.S. citizen since the day you were born. For example, if you were born outside the U.S. on January 1, 1990 and apply for citizenship in 2021, the government will backdate your citizenship to January 1, 1990.

Automatic citizenship since the time of your birth is complicated. The first question you have to ask is whether one or both of your parents were U.S. citizens when you were born. If either or both parents were citizens, then there’s a chance that you could be a U.S. citizen since birth.

Some complications

But, as mentioned, it can get complicated. There are several other factors to consider aside from the citizenship of your parents. First, the year of your birth impacts the applicable law for automatic citizenship. If you were born before 1986, then the law is different than if you were born between 1952 and 1986. Second, derivative citizenship is affected by whether your parents were married at the time you were born. For example, if your one citizen parent is your father and you never knew him then you may not qualify for automatic citizenship. Finally, your case will depend on whether your citizen parent ever lived in the U.S. For example, if your one citizen parent is your mother but she left the U.S. as a baby and never returned then it’s unlikely you’d derive citizenship from her.

Bottom line, if you were born abroad to at least one U.S. citizen parent, you should consult an experienced immigration attorney.  The immigration lawyer will be able to inform you if you have a claim to derivative citizenship.

Category Two: Derivative U.S. Citizenship When A Parent Naturalizes

The second category of automatic citizenship is acquisition at the time a parent naturalizes. Naturalization is where your parent once had a green card and received approval on his or her application to become a U.S. citizen. If this occurs, then you may already be a U.S. citizen under the Child Citizenship Act.

The Child Citizenship Act states that you’re automatically a U.S. citizen on the day all of the following conditions have been met:

  1. You have a green card
  2. You’re under the age of 18
  3. At least one parent becomes a U.S. citizen
  4. You live with the parent that became a U.S. citizen.

An example

For example, suppose you move to the U.S. with your parents in 2010 at age 11. All three of you enter the U.S. and become green card holders. On June 1, 2015, when you’re 16 years old, your mother applies for and becomes a U.S. citizen. Assuming you’re living with your mother, you’ll automatically derive citizenship on the day she became a citizen, June 1, 2015.

But automatic citizenship cases are, as mentioned, complicated. In the context of a Child Citizenship Act case, the marital status of your parents matters. Specifically, your derivative citizenship claim could be affected if your parents divorce and one parent is awarded custody by the divorce court but the other becomes a U.S. citizen. In that case, you wouldn’t be legally living with the parent who became a U.S. citizen because of the court order. It is likely, therefore, you would qualify for automatic citizenship under the Child Citizenship Act. As indicated, automatic U.S. citizenship can be, and is very often, complicated.

The bottom line

Bottom line: examine your situation and consult with an immigration attorney to determine where you qualify.

Is there automatic citizenship after 20 years of a Green Card?

No, there’s not automatic acquisition of U.S. citizenship after 20 years. Even if you’ve had a green card for a long time, you must still apply to be a citizen, and you must meet all of the requirements for naturalization. There is, however, one benefit to having a green card for 20 years. If you’re over the age of 65 and been a green card holder for at least 20 years then the U.S. government will not make you do an English test at your naturalization interview.

Is there automatic citizenship through marriage?

No, unfortunately, you cannot automatically acquire U.S. citizenship through marriage to a U.S. citizen.  Marriage to a U.S. citizen allows gives you the chance to apply for a green card. If you get a green card through marriage, then after three to five years you may apply to become a U.S. citizen.  But you won’t be able to get automatic citizenship through the marriage itself.

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