US citizenship, and who is considered a citizen, is a complex topic. Some people may be considered US citizens and not become aware of it until later in life.
To learn more about the citizenship issues facing Americans abroad, see here.
The USCIS Office of Citizenship and IMmigration Services can help individuals who need to resolve problems with US Citizenship and Immigration Services Who We Are | Homeland Security (dhs.gov)
Determining and Transmitting US Citizenship
Your child is a US citizen if he or she was born in the USA (except if the parents were foreign diplomats on official duty in the USA at the time).
Your child is also a US citizen if he or she was born abroad and both parents are US citizens at least one of whom had a residence in the US or possession at any time before the birth of the child.
If only one parent is a US citizen (mother or father), that parent must have been physically present in the US or possession at least five years, at least two of which were after the parent's 14th birthday, prior to the child's birth. Any periods of presence in the US, even a few days, can be counted towards the five year total. Time spent in the US when not a US citizen (i.e., before being naturalized) can also be counted. Time spent abroad in honorable US military service, employment with the US Government or intergovernmental international organization (of which the US is a member), or as a dependent unmarried son or daughter and member of the household of a parent in such service or employment, may be included. (For births before November 14, 1986, the American parent had to have been physically present in the US for at least ten years, at least five of which were after age 14.)
In addition, if the father was not married to the mother at the time of birth, a blood relationship must be established between the father and the child, and the father must have been a US citizen at the time of the child’s birth. The father (unless deceased) must agree in writing to support the child until 18 years and while the child is under 18 years (i) the child is legitimated, (ii) the father acknowledges paternity, or (iii) paternity is established by court adjudication.
Note that starting June 12, 2017, due to a Supreme Court decision, the same rules apply for children born to unwed American mothers.
Other rules apply for children born abroad before 1952.
See the flowchart below or consult the Table of Transmission Requirements for determining possible US citizenship at birth for children born abroad to an American mother and/or father.
As a general rule, children born abroad to a US citizen parent or parents should have been registered at the nearest US consulate before the child's 18th birthday. If your child was registered at a US consulate at the time of birth and you wish to replace or amend this document (DS-1350 or FS-240 "Consular Report of Birth Aboad") you can access the Washington Office of the US Department of State using this link: travel.state.gov
Note that if you, the American parent, have satisfied the US presence requirements before your child's birth, your child born abroad will always have a claim to US citizenship, even if you do not specifically request a Consular Report of Birth Abroad.
Flowchart for determining possible claims to US citizenship at birth since 1986.
What Happens if My Child Has No Claim to US Citizenship at Birth?
Your child born abroad may perhaps not qualify for US citizenship at birth because the American parent has not satisfied the US presence requirement. If this is the case, there are two methods for possibly having your minor child (under age 18) NATURALIZED as a US citizen:
The Child Citizenship Act of 2000 (Section 320: child immigration)
Naturalization under Section 322 (invoking the parent's OR grandparent's 5-year US presence using Form N-600K.
One or both of these methods may be applicable in your case if your child is not a US citizen at birth. These methods are optional; if you do not pursue either of these methods before the child's 18th birthday or if you do not qualify then your child will have no claim to US citizenship by virtue of the parents' US citizenship. See the flowchart below explaining the applicability of these procedures.
Citizenship and Residency
The US Citizenship and Immigration Service has recently announced ("USCIS Policy Alert" dated August 28, 2019) a new interpretation of what constitutes "US residency" when considering the US citizenship of certain children born or adopted abroad especially as applied to military families. Here are the facts concerning this new interpretation:
- Children born in the USA are automatically US citizens, (except for children born to foreign diplomats on official business in the US). Nothing has changed concerning this.
- Children born on US military bases abroad or inside US embassy compounds were never able to claim US citizenship merely because of birth inside such a base or compound. Their claim to citizenship was and is based on their parents' citizenship and previous US residence or presence, the same as for all civilian children abroad born to an American parent or parents. Nothing has changed concerning this.
- Children born abroad to two American parents (military or civilian) married to each other are considered to be US citizens at birth if at least one of their parents “had a residence” in the USA before the birth. The interpretation of “had a residence” is often a subject of debate and has never been clearly defined. It is usually acquired by a continuous presence and activity in the USA such as attending college, working at a steady job or raising a family. Physical presence is not a determining factor for claiming "residence." The August 28, 2019, USCIS Policy Alert merely re-states current USCIS and State Department policy on this point, and (this is the new interpretation, effective October 29, 2019) applies the same rules to US military personnel. In other words, living on a US military base abroad does not, by itself, confer “US residency” on that person.
- Children born abroad to one American parent (father or mother) and a foreigner (mother or father) can acquire US citizenship if the American parent has been physically present in the USA for an accumulated time of at least five years, at least two after age 14, but before the birth of the child. In this case it is actual “physical presence” that counts, not “residence” which is defined differently from “presence.” In fact, the “physical presence” can actually be outside the US in the case of US military or US diplomatic personnel (and their minor children living with them).
- Children born abroad who are not able to claim citizenship because their parent or parents have not met the “residence” and/or “presence” requirements continue to have the possibility of being naturalized before their 18th birthday under two different procedures, either of which may be applicable, depending on the circumstances. These two procedures are:
- Naturalization under Section 320 (child immigration) which involves returning to the US with the child to take up “residence.” After having applied and been accepted for immigration, the child (born to or adopted by an American parent or parents) becomes a US citizen immediately upon arrival in the USA with his/her American parents. The August 28, 2019, USCIS Policy Alert specifies that living on a US military abroad does not constitute "US residency" for the purpose of conferring US citizenship on children born or adopted abroad.
- Naturalization under Section 322 which involves having the child be sworn in as a citizen at a USCIS Field Office in the US after having completed the application by filing Form N-600K invoking the parent's or grandparent's 5-year US presence. For civilians, the swearing in has to take place in the US where the child is present under a visitor visa or visa waiver. For US military personnel, the swearing in can take place at one of the four designated overseas military bases where naturalization of service members and their family members is possible. This is the only exception for military personnel. For all other questions of “presence” and “residence” the same rules apply to civilian, military and government personnel, as explained in the August 28, 2019, USCIS Policy Alert.
Foreign children adopted by American families (residing in the US or abroad) never became US citizens "automatically." They have to be naturalized using one or other of two possible procedures (as explained above). For families residing in the USA this would be naturalization under Section 320 which confers US citizenship on children arriving in the USA as immigrants. American families residing abroad (civilian, military or government) should request naturalization for adopted children under Section 322 which confers US citizenship at a special swearing in ceremony during a short visit to the USA after having completed and filed form N-600K.
The August 28, 2019, USCIS Policy Alert specifies that as of October 29, 2019, military families adopting children abroad have to file for naturalization under Section 322 using form N-600K and cannot evoke their presence on a US military base abroad as constituting "US residency." They are, however, allowed to have the swearing in be done at one of the four designated overseas military bases where naturalization of service members and their family members is possible. They do not have to travel to the US for this. This is the only difference between military and civilian naturalization procedures for children born or adopted abroad.
An American family on active military duty, living on an American military base in Europe adopts a child. This child will not become a US citizen until the family returns to the USA with the child as an immigrant. In this case the child becomes a US citizen upon arrival in the USA. Or the child can be naturalized at a designated base in Germany or Italy after the parents apply for naturalization by filing form N-600K.
A child, born to American parents, lives and grows up on American military bases in Europe and Asia, but never in the US. This child meets and marries another US citizen having grown up under similar circumstances. These parents, even though they are both US citizens, will have difficulty conferring US citizenship on their future children because neither of them has acquired “US residency.” They will however, have acquired US presence time and may be able to confer US citizenship because of this.
A person born in the USA whose mother and father were foreign tourists momentarily present in the USA and left the USA to return abroad soon after his/her birth is an American citizen having been born in the US. However, he/she will not have acquired “US residency” for the purpose of transmitting US citizenship to his/her future children born abroad. He/she will however, have acquired US presence time for the actual time spent in the US as a child.
Frequently-asked Questions About US Citizenship
Q: We are married and expecting a baby and we live outside the USA, will our child be an American citizen?
A: If both parents are American citizens, married to each other and at least one of the parents has resided in the USA sometime in their life prior to the child's birth, the child may have a claim to US citizenship. Be sure to register the birth and apply for a US passport at the nearest US consulate before the child's 18th birthday. The "Consular Report of Birth Abroad (CRBA)" or FS-240 is an important document as it proves that the child is a US citizen.
Q: I am an American woman and I gave birth outside the USA after receiving an implanted ovum. Is my child an American citizen?
A: In cases of assisted reproductive technology and same-sex marriages, the US State Department has recently (October 2014) changed its policy on this matter. It now recognizes that the "natural mother" and/or "natural father" can be either the genetic or the gestational parent. (Previously, it applied a strict basic rule of a blood relationship for recognizing US citizenship of children born abroad.) However, as this new interpretation has only recently come into force, it remains to be seen how it will be applied in individual cases.
Q: I am the American father of a child born out of wedlock outside the USA. Does my child have a claim to US citizenship?
A: Yes, if (1) you've been physically present in the US at least five years prior to the child's birth, two of which were after age 14. Honorable US military service, employment with the US Government or intergovernmental international organization or as the dependent unmarried son and member of the household of a parent in such service or employment, may be included AND (2) a blood relationship has been established between you the father and the child, and you agree to support the child until 18 years, and while the child is under 18 (i) the child is legitimated, (ii) you acknowledge paternity, or (iii) paternity is established by court adjudication.
Q: I am an unmarried mother. I am a US citizen. Does my child born abroad have a claim to US citizenship?
A: For births on or after June 12, 2017, your child may have a claim to US citizenship if you've been physically present in the US for an accumulated time of five years, at least two of which were after your 14th birthday, but before the birth of the child. (Previously, before June 12, 2017, your child would have a claim to US citizenship if you had lived at least one entire uninterruped year in the USA.)
Q: I was born outside the USA. I believe I have a claim to US citizenship. How can I prove it?
A: If you have a "Consular Report of Birth Abroad FS-240" or "Certification of Report of Birth (DS-1350)" that's all you need. You can apply for a US passport at any time, either in the USA or at a US consulate abroad. If you do not have one of these documents, you will have to get one from the US consulate in the area near where you were born if you are still under the age of 18. If you are an adult and your birth was registered at a US consulate but you have lost or misplaced the document, you can make a written request to the Vital Records Section in Washington DC. If your parents never requested a Report of Birth Abroad for you and you are over the age of 18, you can apply for a US passport directly at a US consulate and/or a Certificate of Citizenship (in the USA). A US passport is definitive proof of US citizenship.
Q: I was born in the USA to non-American parents from Canada. We moved back to Canada when I was two years old. Am I still a US citizen?
A: Yes. All persons born in the USA are American citizens for their whole life. (The only exception is the child of a foreign diplomat born during an official tour of duty in the USA.) You can apply for a US passport at any US consulate.
Q: I was born abroad. My American father was married to my German mother at the time I was born. Do I have a claim to US citizenship?
A: Yes, if your father was physically present in the US at least five years prior to your birth, at least two of which were after his 14th birthday (for births after 1986). Presence abroad in honorable US military service, employment with the US Government or intergovernmental international organization or as the dependent unmarried son and member of the household of a parent in such service or employment, may be included.
Q: I was born abroad. My American mother was married to my Spanish father when I was born. Do I have a claim to US citizenship?
A: Yes, if your mother was physically present in the US at least five years prior to your birth, at least two of which were after her 14th birthday (for births after 1986). Honorable US military service, employment with the US Government or intergovernmental international organization or as the dependent unmarried daughter and member of the household of a parent in such service or employment, may be included.
Q: I was born on an airplane while it was flying over the USA. Do I have a claim to US citizenship?
A: Probably, yes. Births on aircraft and vessels may confer US citizenship if the aircraft or vessel was within the territorial area of the US (land territory and 12 nautical mile limit). However, a US registered aircraft/vessel outside US airspace or territory is not considered to be part of the USA. A child born on such an aircraft/vessel outside US territory does not acquire US citizenship by reason of the place of birth. This area of the law is complex and depends on the citizenship status of the parents, aircraft/vessel country of registration, exact geographic position at the time of birth, and port of call immediately following the birth.
Q: I was born to non-American parents inside a US embassy compound where my parents took refuge during civil strife in my home country. Do I have a claim to US citizenship?
A: No. US diplomatic or consular facilities abroad and US military installations abroad are not part of the United States within the meaning of the 14th Amendment. Contrary to popular belief, a child born on the premises of such a facility is not born in the United States and does not acquire US citizenship by reason of birth there.
Provided here is a Table of Transmission Requirements for children born abroad to an American mother and/or father (valid for births before June 11, 2017). For births aboard on or after June 12, 2017, new rules apply for unwed American mothers.
This ACA page updated November 23, 2017
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