Automatic U.S. Citizenship for Children by Birth To Citizen Parents (Acquisition)

A child can, under certain circumstances, acquire U.S. citizenship automatically through birth to U.S. citizen parents, no matter where the birth took place.

A child who is born to U.S. citizen parents (or in some cases, to only one U.S. citizen parent) outside the U.S. may automatically become a U.S. citizen. This is called "acquisition" of U.S. citizenship.

When this child marries and has children, those children may also acquire U.S. citizenship at birth, regardless of where they are born. This means that you can, in effect, get U.S. citizenship through a grandparent, even if your parent never realized that he or she was a U.S. citizen.

However, before deciding whether someone is a citizen based on acquisition, you need to check on the law that was in effect on the date of the child’s birth. The laws governing whether or not a child born outside U.S. boundaries acquires U.S. citizenship from his or her parents have changed several times, and set different requirements for the passing on and retaining of citizenship.

Most laws regarding acquisition of citizenship require that the parent, the child, or both have spent some time living in the United States (had "residence" there). Sometimes the residence is required to have been for a specified length of time (such as five years) and sometimes it is not. When the law doesn’t say exactly how long the residence period must have been, you can assume that even a brief time, such as a month, might be enough, depending on individual facts and circumstances.

The key element is often not the amount of time spent in the U.S. but whether or not you can convince U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) or the State Department that the parent had established a residence in the U.S. and wasn’t just visiting. If the stay meets the characteristics of residence, the exact length of time doesn’t matter.

Below is a brief summary of the laws in effect during different time periods.

Child Born Prior to May 24, 1934

If you were born before 1934, the law said that only your U.S. citizen father (not mother) could pass citizenship on to you. The father must have resided in the U.S. at some time before the child’s birth. The law didn’t require any particular length of residence.

Once a child obtained U.S. citizenship at birth through a U.S. citizen father, there were no conditions to retaining it. These rules also applied to so-called illegitimate children (children born to unmarried parents), provided the U.S. citizen father had at some time legally legitimated the child (acknowledged paternal responsibility). U.S. citizenship was then acquired at the time of legitimation, without regard to the child’s age. This law has been challenged several times as discriminatory, with some courts holding that citizenship could also be passed by the mother to the children.

Congress finally addressed this issue in 1994 and amended the law, retroactively, to provide that either parent could pass his or her U.S. citizenship to children. So if you were born before May 24, 1934, and either of your parents was a U.S. citizen, that citizenship might have been passed on to you. Also, if either of your parents was born before May 24, 1934, they may have acquired U.S. citizenship from either of their parents, which they then passed on to you under laws in existence at a later date.

Child Born Between May 25, 1934, and January 12, 1941

If you were born between May 25, 1934, and January 12, 1941, you acquired U.S. citizenship at birth if both your parents were U.S. citizens and at least one had resided in the U.S. prior to your birth. The law at this time placed no additional conditions on retaining U.S. citizenship acquired in this way.

You could also get U.S. citizenship if only one of your parents was a U.S. citizen, as long as that parent had a prior U.S. residence. If your U.S. citizenship came from only one parent, you too would have been required to reside in the U.S. for at least two years between the ages of 14 and 28 in order to keep the citizenship you got at birth.

Alternatively, you could retain citizenship if your noncitizen parent naturalized before you turned 18 and you began living in the U.S. permanently before age 18. Otherwise, your citizenship would be lost. If the one U.S. citizen parent was your father and your birth was illegitimate (took place while your parents weren’t married), the same rules applied, on the condition that your father legally legitimated you (acknowledged paternal responsibility). Citizenship was passed at the time of legitimation without regard to your age, so long as you had met the retention requirements.

Child Born Between January 13, 1941, and December 23, 1952

If you were born between January 13, 1941, and December 23, 1952, both your parents were U.S. citizens, and at least one parent had a prior residence in the U.S., you automatically acquired U.S. citizenship at birth, with no conditions to keeping it.

If only one parent was a U.S. citizen, that parent must have resided in the U.S. for at least ten years before your birth. At least five of those years must have been after that parent reached the age of 16.

With a parent thus qualified, you acquired U.S. citizenship at birth, but with conditions for keeping it. You must have resided in the U.S. for at least two years between the ages of 14 and 28. Alternatively, if your noncitizen parent naturalized before you turned 18 and you began living in the U.S. permanently before age 18, you could retain your U.S. citizenship. As a result of a U.S. Supreme Court decision, if you were born after October 9, 1952, your parent still had to fulfill the residence requirement in order to pass citizenship on to you, but your own residence requirements for retaining U.S. citizenship were abolished—you need not have lived in the U.S. at all.

If your one U.S. citizen parent was your father and your birth was illegitimate (took place while your parents weren’t married), the same rules applied provided you were legally legitimated (your father acknowledged paternal responsibility) prior to your 21st birthday and you were unmarried at the time of legitimation.

Child Born Between December 24, 1952, and November 13, 1986

If at the time of your birth, both your parents were U.S. citizens and at least one had a prior residence in the U.S., you automatically acquired U.S. citizenship, with no other conditions for keeping it. If only one parent was a U.S. citizen at the time of your birth, that parent must have resided in the U.S. for at least ten years, and at least five of those years must have been after your parent reached the age of 14.

If your one U.S. citizen parent is your father and your birth was illegitimate (took place while your parents weren’t married), the same rules apply, provided you were legally legitimated (your father acknowledged paternal responsibility) prior to your 21st birthday and you were unmarried at the time of legitimation.

Child Born Between November 14, 1986, and the Present

If at the time of your birth, both your parents were U.S. citizens and at least one had a prior residence in the U.S., you automatically acquired U.S. citizenship, with no conditions for keeping it.

If only one parent was a U.S. citizen at the time of your birth, that parent must have resided in the U.S. for at least five years, and at least two of those years must have been after your parent reached the age of 14.

Even with only one U.S. citizen parent, there are still no conditions to keeping your citizenship. If your one U.S. citizen parent is your father and your birth was illegitimate (took place when the parents weren’t married), the same rules apply so long as you were legally legitimated (your father acknowledged paternal responsibility) before your 18th birthday. In addition, your father must have established paternity prior to your 18th birthday, either by acknowledgment or by court order, and must have stated, in writing, that he would support you financially until your 18th birthday.

What to Do If You Didn’t Meet the Requirements for Retaining Your U.S. Citizenship

If you were born and raised outside the U.S., you may have not known that you acquired U.S. citizenship at birth from your parents or grandparents. You may have then lost your U.S. citizenship by failing to fulfill the requirements related to U.S. residency.

The U.S. Congress sought to deal with this unfair situation by adding a law saying that such persons can get their U.S. citizenship back by simply taking the oath of allegiance to the United States. It is not necessary that the person apply for naturalization. Contact a U.S. consulate or USCIS office for more information. The relevant statute is 8 U.S.C. § 1435(d)(1), I.N.A. § 324(d)(1).

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