Citizenship Acquisition – US Law in a Global Context
Time 4 Minute Read
Categories: Naturalization

As discussed in last week’s post, obtaining US citizenship is the ultimate goal for many foreign nationals in the US who often wait years for a green card and then wait a few more years to apply for citizenship through naturalization. But naturalization is not the only way to obtain citizenship. A major source of data on citizenship laws, GlobalCit’s Global Database on Modes of Acquisition of Citizenship available from the Global Citizenship Observatory has identified 30 different modes of acquisition of citizenship, 10 of which are available under US law through more than 15 different sections of the Immigration and Nationality Act.

In recent days, one of the many ways to acquire US citizenship has been in the news. A change in policy surrounding a mode of citizenship acquisition available to children of certain U.S. government employees and military service members stationed abroad to has generated many headlines. Following this outcry, the government clarified that this specific change is expected to impact a limited number of children, that it only changes whether that mode of citizenship acquisition is automatic, and that other means of obtaining citizenship remain available to the families if a parent meets requirements other than simply being a US citizen.

Citizenship Generally – Jus Soli and Jus Sanguinis

Broadly speaking, there are two categories of citizenship acquisition: jus soli “right of soil” or “birthright citizenship”, and jus sanguinis “right of blood”. In a pure jus soli system, place of birth is the single operative fact. A child born in a country is a citizen of that country, regardless of any characteristic of their parents such as citizenship or immigration status. In a pure jus sanguinis system, parentage is the single operative fact. A child born to a citizen of a country is a citizen of the parent’s country, regardless of place of birth.

The Scarcity of Pure Jus Soli and Pure Jus Sanguinis Systems and Why the US is Neither

According to the GlobalCit database, about 50% of countries has some sort of jus soli citizenship, but only 8 of 174 countries (less than 5%) impose no requirements beyond place of birth.

The US is not one of these 8. Although commonly thought of a country with “birthright citizenship” that grants US citizenship to any child born on US soil, there are some conditions. The US does not grant citizenship to (a) children of diplomats (a routine exclusion) or to (b) children born in the US “outlying possessions” of American Samoa and Swains Island unless one parent has met a 1-year continuous physical presence requirement.

Pure jus sanguinis systems are much more common. GlobalCit documents 50 countries that grant citizenship automatically to children of citizens, regardless of where the child is born, how their parents obtained citizenship, or any other factor. The US is also not a pure jus sanguinis system. Being born to a US citizen is not enough; residency requirements also apply. For example, a child born to two US citizen parents will only be a citizen at birth if at least one of the parents “resided in” the US at some point prior to the child’s birth.

 Variations in Citizenship Law

The US, like most countries is the world, has a hybrid system of citizenship that takes into account various factors beyond the child’s place of birth and citizenship of parents. For example, under US law, whether a child is a US citizen depends on several factors including:

  • The child’s date of birth (a key factor as the laws have changed over time);
  • The parents’ marital status (whether the child’s parents are married to each other at the time of the child’s birth),
  • Legitimation (whether a citizen father legally acknowledged his child) and,
  • The parent’s history of residency in the US.

Beyond the US, there are even more variants. Some countries place heavy reliance on religious heritage, others focus on the potential citizen’s non-familial ties to the country, and others put special emphasis on the father’s citizenship. Some countries also provide expedited citizenship for those who have special achievements, have performed special service to the country, or who have made investments in the country. There are also variations in the treatment of foundlings, refugees, and dual citizens.

Citizenship laws are diverse and complex. They are, after all, an attempt by a nation to answer the age-old question at the core of national identity: Who is “us,” and who is “them”?

Resource: For more data on global variations in citizenship law, visit the GlobalCit Database.

  • Associate

    Lieselot is a global immigration and labor and employment lawyer advising companies on immigration processes around the world.

    With experience guiding companies and individuals through immigration processes in the US and ...


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