Requirements for Citizenship

To exercise the right to vote, hold public office, or serve on juries, a person must be an American citizen. Under the Constitution, all persons born in the United States and subject to its jurisdiction are citizens of the United States and of the district in which they reside. Under certain conditions, children born to American citizens while they are traveling or living outside the country are also citizens. Persons born in Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands -- all of which are part of the United States but are not states -- are American citizens as well.

A person born in a foreign country may become an American citizen through the process of naturalization. Aliens who live in the United States are not compelled to become citizens, nor are they penalized for not doing so. A great many noncitizens live in the United States and enjoy the same freedom of thought, speech and action accorded to natural-born Americans. They may not, of course, vote, and in some states citizenship is a requirement for applicants who wish to obtain licenses to practice law or medicine.

To be eligible for naturalization, a person must be at least 18 years of age. He or she must have entered the United States legally and must have been a resident of the country for at least five years, including at least six months in the state in which he or she applies for citizenship.

A candidate for citizenship makes application to the Immigration and Naturalization Service of the Department of Justice. The agency notifies the applicant where and when to appear for examination. An officer of the agency aids the applicant in filing a petition for naturalization with a court. It is required that two American citizens, known to be truthful, must support the petition and swear that the applicant has fulfilled the residence requirements, is of good moral character, and will support the principles of the Constitution of the United States. Both the applicant and the witnesses are questioned by an examiner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service to make sure the applicant is qualified.

The final step is taking the oath of allegiance to the United States. At least 30 days must pass between the filing of the petition and taking the oath. After the oath, a judge signs an order granting naturalized citizenship. A certificate of naturalization is issued and the new citizen is then eligible to vote and take an active part in the government.