American Citizenship

How can you become an American?

American Citizenship

With few exceptions, anyone born in the US has an automatic claim to US citizenship. To qualify, one parent must be a US citizen and the child must be under 18 years of age and in the legal custody of the American parent. Adopted children must have been adopted before age 16. If the American parent hasn’t lived in the US for five years before the child’s birth, one of the child’s American grandparents must have lived in the US for this period.

The easiest and most popular way of becoming a US citizen is to marry a US national, although it’s prohibited to do so purely to obtain US citizenship (or residence in the US) – a situation light-heartedly explored in the film Green Card. A green card is no longer issued for life (it must be renewed after ten years), and many immigrants prefer to become US citizens, which costs less in the long run.

An immigrant aged 18 or older can become a US citizen under a process called naturalisation, which has been speeded up in recent years and should take six to nine months. Naturalisation involves living in the US for a minimum of five years (three years when married to a US citizen) and passing a naturalisation examination. To pass the examination, you must be able to read, write and speak simple English and correctly answer around 20 questions about the US government and American history, such as ‘Who drafted the Declaration of Independence?’ and ‘What is the 4th of July?’.

Currently the examinations are given informally (usually orally). Except in extremely rare cases, it’s impossible to become a naturalised US citizen without first obtaining a green card.

Citizenship is conferred by a judge in a ‘naturalisation ceremony’ when an ‘oath of citizenship’ is taken. US law permits dual nationality for naturalised citizens, who have virtually the same rights as native-born Americans (but cannot become President or Vice President!). There’s no compulsion for immigrants to become US citizens and they’re free to live in the US for as long as they wish, provided they abide by the laws of the land. In fact, fewer immigrants become naturalised (under 10 per cent) than a generation ago, when as many as 80 per cent became citizens.

Naturalisation forms can be obtained by calling 1-800-870-3676 or downloaded from the USCIS website ( ). The questions you may be asked in the naturalisation examination and other information about naturalisation are listed in a free booklet, Guide to Naturalization, available from USCIS offices or the Superintendent of Documents, US Government Printing Office, Washington, DC 20402-9325 and on the USCIS website.

This article is an extract from Living and Working in America. Click here to get a copy now.

Further reading

Does this article help?

Do you have any comments, updates or questions on this topic? Ask them here: