Basic Questions on U.S. Citizenship and Naturalization

CRS Report for Congress
Basic Questions on U.S. Citizenship
and Naturalization
Larry M. Eig
Legislative Attorney
American Law Division
This report answers the following questions: Who is a United States citizen at
birth? How does one become a naturalized citizen? Must citizens take loyalty oaths?
What is the required period of residency prior to being eligible for citizenship? Is a
citizenship revocable? If so, under what circumstances? Finally, are there provisions for
dual citizenship? If so, under what circumstances?

1. Who Is a United States Citizen at Birth?

United States citizenship is conferred at birth both under the principle of jus soli
(nationality of place of birth) and the principle of jus sanguinis (nationality of parents).
The United States Constitution states as a fundamental rule of jus soli citizenship that
"[a]ll persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction
thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside."1I The
exceptions to universal citizenship comprehended by the requirement that a person be
born "subject to the jurisdiction thereof include:(1) children born to a foreign sovereign
or accredited diplomatic official; (2) children born on a foreign public vessel, such as a
warship; (3) children born to an alien enemy in hostile occupation; and (4) native Indians.2
Federal statutes repeat and expand the constitutional grant of citizenship at birth.
Respecting jus soli, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1962 (INA), as amended,
grants citizenship at birth to a person born in the United States to a member of an Indian,
Eskimo, Aleutian, or other aboriginal tribe.3 The INA also confers citizenship at birth to
persons born in various offshore territories who are subject to the jurisdiction of the
1 U.S. CONST. amend. XIV, § 1.
3 INA, § 301(b); 8 U.S.C. § 1401(a).
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
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United States.4 Respecting jus sanguinis, the INA grants citizenship at birth to any
person born outside the United States if (1) both parents are United States citizens and at
least one resided in the United States prior to the person's birth; (2) one parent is a
national of the United States and the other parent is a United States citizen who resided
in the United States prior to the person's birth; or (3) one parent is an alien and the other
parent is a United States citizen who, prior to the person's birth, was physically present
in the United States for periods totaling at least five years, two or more years of which
were after the parent attained age 14.5

2. How Does One Become a Naturalized Citizen?

The vast majority of individuals who become United States citizens after birth, or
naturalized citizens, do so on their own initiative through an administrative naturalization
process set forth in the INA.6 At the same time, minor children become naturalized
citizens automatically under the INA on the naturalization of their parents.7 On occasion
Congress has collectively naturalized the population of a territory upon its acquisition by
the United States, though in these instances individuals have at times been given the
option of retaining their former nationality.8
The Constitution empowers Congress to establish a uniform rule of naturalization.9
Under this authority, Congress has set forth substantive standards and procedures in the
INA. The primary substantive requirements for naturalization, while waived or relaxed
for aliens within certain classes, are that the applicant (1) have resided continuously in the
United States for at least five years as a lawfully admitted permanent resident, (2) be of
good moral character, (3) be attached to the principles of the United States Constitution,
(4)be literate in English,10 and (5) have a knowledge and understanding of the history and
4 Among the territories in which children are born citizens under the INA are Puerto Rico, the
United States Virgin Islands, and Guam, By virtue of separate legal authority children born in the
Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands are born citizens. Under the INA, children born
in American Samoa are nationals of the United States but not citizens. See INA, §§ 302, 306,

307, 308, 101(a)(29), 8 U.S.C. §§ 1402, 1406, 1407, 1408, 1101(a)(29). See also INA, §§ 301(a),

101(a)(38), 8 U.S.C. §§ 1401(a) [persons born in U.S. citizens], 1101(a)(38) [defining "United
States" as including Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands, and Guam].
5 INA, § 301, 8 U.S.C. § 1401.
6 INA, §§ 310 et seq., 8 U.S.C. §§ 1421 et seq.
7 INA, §§ 320-321, 8 U.S.C. §§ 1431-1432.
8 E.g., INA, §§ 306(a)(1), 307(a), 8 U.S.C. §§ 1406(a)(1), 1407(a).
9 U.S. CONST. art. 1, § 8, cl. 4.
10 INA, § 312; 8 U.S.C. § 1423. The literacy requirement is waived for an applicant who (1) is
physically unable to comply, (2) is over 50 years old and has lived in the United States for at least
20 years as a lawfully admitted permanent resident, or (3) is over 55 years old and has lived in
the United States for at least 15 years as a lawfully admitted permanent resident.
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government of the United States.11 Subversives and deserters expressly are precluded
from becoming naturalized citizens.12
To initiate the naturalization process, an applicant must file an application with the
Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). The applicant must be at least 18 years old
to apply. Subsequent to filing, the INS conducts a police check and other pertinent
investigations. Before becoming a citizen, the applicant must pass tests on English literacy
and a basic knowledge of the history and government of the United States. The applicant
also is examined in person. An attorney may be present at this examination but has no
right to actively participate. Successful applicants are eligible to take the oath of
allegiance, the final step in the naturalization process. An unsuccessful applicant may
appeal the adverse decision to administrative authorities and the federal courts.
Administrative authorities may rely on the original record or conduct their own
investigations. On judicial review, the federal courts conduct their own inquiry and come
to their own findings of fact and conclusions of law.13

3. Must Citizens Take Loyalty Oaths?

No citizen must take a loyalty oath in order to retain citizenship. At the same time,
an alien seeking to become a citizen through the naturalization process must take the
following oath before citizenship can be granted:
I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all
allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom
or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the
Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and
domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms
on behalf of the United States when required by law; that I will perform noncombatant
service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by law; that I will
perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the
law; and that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose
of evasion; so help me God.
In addition to taking this oath, any applicant holding an hereditary title or order of nobility
in a foreign state must renounce the title or order. The oath of allegiance may be modified
for conscientious objectors to military service or for individuals preferring to affirm (to
swearing to) the substance of the oath.14
11 INA, §§ 311, 312, 316, 8 U.S.C. §§ 1422, 1423, 1427.
12 INA, §§ 313, 314, 8 U.S.C. §§ 1424, 1425.
13 Current naturalization procedures are set forth in interim regulations published October 7,

1991. 8 C.F.R. parts 334-337 published at 56 Fed. Reg. 50475, 50495-50501 (Oct. 7, 1991).

14 INA, § 337, 8 U.S.C. § 337. See also 8 C.F.R. § 337.1 published at 56 Fed. Reg. 50499 (Oct.

7, 1991).

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4. What Is the Required Period of Residency Prior to Being
Eligible for Citizenship?
In order to be eligible for naturalization, an alien generally must reside continuously
in the United States for at least five years as a lawfully admitted permanent resident15
alien. A period of continuous residence is broken by an absence of over a year unless
the alien is employed abroad by the government, an international organization, a research
institute, or an American company engaged in foreign trade. An absence of between six
months and one year presumptively breaks continuous residence.16
Certain classes of aliens either are exempt from the residency requirement or are
subject to shorter residency periods. Unmarried children under 18 living with a citizen
parent are exempt from any residency requirement.17 Aliens who served in the armed18
forces for specified periods also are exempt. The residency requirement for spouses of
American citizens is three years instead of five years.19 Residency requirements also are
modified for other special classes.

5. Is Citizenship Revocable? If So, under What Circumstances?

A United States citizen may lose that citizenship through expatriation. Expatriating
acts are set forth in the INA. These acts include: (1) voluntary naturalization in a foreign
country after the age of 18; (2) making a formal declaration of allegiance to a foreign
country after the age of 18; (3) serving in the armed forces of a foreign country that is
engaged in hostilities against the United States; (4) serving in the armed forces of a
foreign country as a commissioned or non-commissioned officer; (5) holding an office
under the government of a foreign country if foreign nationality is acquired or if a
declaration of allegiance is required; (6) formal renunciation of citizenship before a U.S.
diplomatic or consular officer abroad; (7) formal written renunciation of citizenship
during a state of war if the Attorney General approves the renunciation as not contrary to
the national defense; and (8) conviction of treason, seditious conspiracy, or advocating20
violent overthrow of the government. The Supreme Court has held that performing an
expatriating act alone is an insufficient basis for revoking citizenship. Rather, according
to the Court, the Constitution requires that an expatriation act be undertaken with an
intent to relinquish U.S. citizenship.21 This restriction also has been enacted in statute.22
All United States citizens potentially are subject to expatriation. Separately, an
individual who obtained citizenship through naturalization may have that citizenship
15 INA, § 316(a), 8 U.S.C. § 1427(a).
16 INA, § 316(6), 8 U.S.C. § 1427(6).
17 INA, § 322, 8 U.S.C. § 1433.
18 INA, §§ 328, 329, 8 U.S.C. §§ 1439, 1440.
19 INA, § 319(a), 8 U.S.C. § 1430(a).
20 INA, § 349(a), 8 U.S.C. § 1481(a).
21 Vanee v. Terrazas, 444 U.S. 252 (1980).
22 INA, § 349(a), 8 U.S.C, § 1481(a).
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revoked through denaturalization. Naturalized citizenship may be revoked on grounds that
that citizenship was procured illegally, by concealment of material fact, or by willful
misrepresentation.23 Various acts occurring after naturalization are, by law, evidence of
misrepresentation or suppression at time of naturalization. For example, if a naturalized
citizen joins a subversive organization within five years of becoming a citizen and
membership in that group would have precluded eligibility for naturalization under the
INA, then the joining of the organization is held to be a rebuttable presumption that
naturalization was obtained by concealing or misrepresenting how attached to the United
States the citizen was when naturalized.24 Similarly, if a naturalized citizen begins to
permanently reside abroad within one year of naturalization, taking that residence is
deemed a rebuttable presumption that the citizen concealed a lack of requisite attachment
to the United States at the time of naturalization.25
Except for acts that bear on the integrity of the naturalization process itself, however,
citizenship through naturalization is as secure as citizenship at birth. Also, the United
States no longer conditions retention of citizenship at birth abroad on subsequent
residence in the United States by a specified age.
6. Are There Provisions for Dual Citizenship? If So, under What
The United States does not categorically forbid its citizens from holding dual
nationality nor does it expressly require dual nationals to make an election of citizenship
as such at any point. At the same time, Congress has enacted citizenship rules that militate
against acquiring dual nationality after birth.
Individuals who acquire United States citizenship under the Constitution by virtue
of being born in the United States may lose that citizenship only by committing an act of
expatriation. Under the INA, a citizen loses United States citizenship on voluntarily
obtaining naturalization in a foreign country with an intent to relinquish United States
citizenship.26 The requisite intent to relinquish need not be express. Rather, it may be
inferred from the circumstances, including the taking of an oath of allegiance as part of
the foreign naturalization process.27 While a citizen may lose citizenship through
voluntary naturalization abroad, the voluntary naturalization of a child's parents abroad
no longer results in the child's expatriation even if the child derivatively becomes a
foreign national.
Expatriation aside, citizenship acquired at birth abroad under rules set in statute
remains subject to congressional regulation. However, Congress no longer conditions
23 INA, § 340, 8 U.S.C. § 1451.
24 Id.
25 Id.
26 INA, § 349(a)(1), 8 U.S.C. § 1481(a)(1).
27 E.g., Richards v. Sec'y of State, 752 F.2d 1431 (9th Cir. 1985); Terrazas v. Haig, 653 F.2d 285
(7th Cir. 1981).
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retention of United States citizenship at birth abroad on subsequent residence in the
United States or otherwise.
Part of the process for becoming a United States citizen is the taking of an oath
"absolutely and entirely" renouncing any allegiance or fidelity to any other country.
United States naturalization, in combination with the oath of absolute allegiance, may
result in loss of foreign nationality under the pertinent foreign laws. Furthermore, United
States naturalization may be revoked if illegally or fraudulently obtained. Any exercise
of foreign citizenship subsequent to United States naturalization may be evidence of
misrepresentation in taking the oath of allegiance and thus potential grounds for
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