Someone who was born outside the U.S. potentially can acquire U.S. citizenship automatically if one of their parents was a U.S. citizen when they were born and spent at least some time in the U.S. before the child’s birth. Unfortunately, the rules governing acquisition of citizenship tend to be highly technical and change over time. This discussion covers acquisition for people who were born on November 14, 1986 or later. If you are interested in acquisition for people born before that date, you should read more here about their possible options. Acquisition of citizenship means that you are a citizen regardless of whether you have proof, but you still should apply for a Certificate of Citizenship from USCIS to provide proof.
If you do not meet the criteria for acquisition, you still can get U.S. citizenship by pursuing the formal naturalization process required for most foreign nationals. Acquisition is simply an easier way to establish your citizenship.
Acquisition with Two U.S. Citizen Parents
If both of your parents were U.S. citizens before you were born, you have citizenship through acquisition if one of your parents lived in the U.S. for some time before you were born. With your application for a Certificate of Citizenship, you will need to submit evidence of your parent’s residence in the U.S. This might include a lease for an apartment, records of tax filings, a government-issued ID card, or other documents. You do not need to show that you resided in the U.S. for any period.
Acquisition with One U.S. Citizen Parent
You may have citizenship through acquisition if you can show that one of your parents was a U.S. citizen, and they meet more stringent residency requirements. They must have spent at least two years in the U.S. after they turned 14, and at least five years in total. If your U.S. citizen parent was your father, and you were illegitimate, you will need to show that your father legitimated you and acknowledged paternity before you turned 18. Proving acquisition based on just one U.S. citizen parent involves a greater effort than proving acquisition based on two U.S. citizen parents. Proof of residency must be more detailed and specific, possibly including employment records, affidavits, property records, tax filings, and school enrollment records. You still do not need to show that you ever lived in the U.S.
An illegitimate child is a child who was born to unmarried parents. A father can legitimate a child by putting his name on the child’s birth certificate, signing a statement that acknowledges his paternity, or registering as a parent in the records of the country where the child was born. The specific rules and procedures for legitimation depend on the country, though. In addition to formally legitimating the child, the father must have taken responsibility for the child’s care before they turned 18. This often involves paying child support to the mother for the child, which may be paid voluntarily or through a court order. In other situations, the father may marry the mother of the child soon after the birth or have his paternity established through DNA testing. Sometimes paternity will be acknowledged if the father acts in public as though he is the father of the child, or if he lives in the child’s home.