To be able to vote, hold public office or serve on a jury, a person must be a United States citizen. Living in the US doesn't automatically make someone an American citizen. Residents of the US can have the status of aliens, nationals or citizens. Aliens are people who have left a foreign country to live in the US. American nationals are natives of American territorial possessions. Persons born in the US or to US citizens in foreign countries are citizens of the US.

Aliens have some of the same freedoms and legal rights as US citizens, but can't vote in elections. Nationals have all the legal protections citizens have, but they don't have the full political rights of US citizens. Citizens of the US enjoy all of the freedoms, protections and legal rights that the US Constitution promises.

Ways to Become a US Citizen

Generally, there are two ways to become a US citizen; either as a natural-born citizen or a naturalized citizen. Those who get their citizenship at birth are known as natural-born citizens. Natural-born citizens get their citizenship either by having been born in the US or by being born to parents who are citizens of the US. Those who become citizens by law after their birth are referred to as naturalized citizens. Naturalized citizens can hold any public office except for President of the country.

Congress passed the Child Citizenship Act in 2000 allowing any child under age 18 adopted by a US citizen to acquire immediate citizenship.

Citizenship by Naturalization

If you are not a citizen by birth, then you can seek to become one by naturalization, an administrative process that requires you to take some action and that's governed by the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA).

The general requirements under the INA include:

  • A period of continuous residence and physical presence in the US
  • Residence in a particular US Citizenship and Immigration Services District prior to filing
  • An ability to read, write and speak English
  • A knowledge and understanding of US history and government
  • Good moral character
  • Attachment to the principles of the US Constitution
  • Favorable disposition toward the US

All naturalization applicants must demonstrate good moral character and attachment to the principles of the US Constitution and have a favorable disposition toward the US. The other naturalization requirements may be modified or waived for certain applicants, such as spouses of US citizens.

Steps to Follow

To become a US citizen, a person must do three specific things:

  • Fill out an application form
  • Take a citizenship test
  • Take an oath, or be "sworn-in"

The application form asks questions about the person's background. In addition to filling out the application, the person will have a set of fingerprints taken. The citizenship exam tests the person's knowledge of US government and history. The applicant will also be asked why he wants to become a US citizen. Once all of this completed and the application has been granted, the applicant must take the oath of citizenship. The applicant is usually given the choice of being sworn-in by a judge or by an official from the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

For more details, go to the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Web site, which contains specific information and the exact requirements necessary for people who want to become US citizens.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • How long do I need to reside in the US before I can apply for citizenship?
  • Is there an application fee?
  • What should I expect and how should I prepare for my appearance before a judge during my citizenship hearing?
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