Naturalization is the conferring of citizenship by a country upon those who did not acquire it at birth. The 14th Amendment of the Constitution of the United States provides that "all persons born or naturalized in the United States...are citizens of the United States." The U.S. Constitution (Article I, Section 8) also empowers the Congress of the United States to pass uniform laws for naturalization. Congress did so for the first time in 1790.

For all except veterans of the U.S. armed services, naturalization in the United States requires:

  1. lawful entry for permanent residence;
  2. five years residence or, for spouses of U.S. citizens, three years;
  3. good moral character, as displayed during the period of residence;
  4. attachment to the Constitution;
  5. understanding of English, including an ability to read, write, and speak it except where physical disability prevents;
  6. knowledge and understanding of the fundamentals of U.S. history and government; and
  7. residence for six months in the district of the naturalization court.

An alien seeking to become a U.S. citizen must make an application, be interviewed and investigated, and then file a formal petition for naturalization. Petitioners take an oath of allegiance and renounce their former nationality. They are also required to pledge to bear arms on behalf of the United States, or to perform noncombatant service in the armed forces, or do work of national importance under civilian direction when required by law. Veterans of the U.S. armed services may be naturalized without regard to residence if they meet certain requirements.

Naturalization in the United States confers all the rights of citizenship except the right to become president of the United States or, for a limited time, to run for congressional office. A naturalized citizen may run for the House of Representatives after seven years, and for the Senate after nine years. Aliens under the age of 16 may acquire citizenship upon the naturalization of their parents. Those between 16 and 18 who have citizen parents may be naturalized on the petition of their parents.

In some countries, aliens who are wives of citizens are given citizenship by law or by registration. Other countries reduce the period of residence for spouses of citizens. Some countries give special consideration to an alien's skills, military service, inventions, investments, or other contributions to the country's welfare. In some countries citizenship may be conferred by act of parliament.

Customarily countries limit naturalization to persons who have entered legally. In 1986, however, the U.S. Congress passed amnesty for illegal aliens resident since Jan. 1, 1982. In the United States, immigration and naturalization are controlled by the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952, administered primarily by the Department of Justice.


By Jack Wasserman

Bibliography: Alesi, Gladys, How to Prepare for the U.S. Citizenship Test, 4th ed. (1996); Becker, Aliza, et al., Citizenship Now: A Guide for Naturalization (1995); Quayle, Louise, Citizenship Made Simple (1991); Williams, Rod, U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Made Easy (1996).