Navigating the Pathway to Citizenship: A Comprehensive Guide for Immigrants in the United States

Navigating the Pathway to Citizenship: A Comprehensive Guide for Immigrants in the United States

October 27, 2023 Off By Glespynorson

Becoming a U.S. citizen is a dream for many immigrants who live and work in the United States. Citizenship offers many benefits, such as the right to vote, travel with a U.S. passport, and sponsor family members for immigration. However, the process of obtaining citizenship can be complex and confusing, especially for those who are not familiar with the legal system and the immigration laws.

In this article, we will explore the various routes immigrants can take on their journey to obtaining U.S. citizenship. We will delve into the intricacies of different pathways, shedding light on eligibility criteria, documentation requirements, and the overall process. Special emphasis will be placed on the adjustment of status application, providing a step-by-step walkthrough to help you understand and navigate this crucial aspect of your immigration journey.

Four Fundamental Ways to Become a U.S. Citizen

According to a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, “citizenship is a very, very valuable commodity.” However, not everyone can become a U.S. citizen by simply applying for it. There are certain conditions and requirements that must be met before one can qualify for citizenship.

In general, there are four fundamental ways to become a U.S. citizen:

  • Citizenship by birth in the U.S.
  • Citizenship through derivation
  • Citizenship through acquisition
  • Citizenship through naturalization

Let’s take a closer look at each of these pathways and see how they work.

Citizenship by Birth in the U.S.

This is the most common and straightforward way to become a U.S. citizen. Anyone who is born within the United States or its territories (such as Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands) is automatically granted U.S. citizenship at birth. This is based on the principle of jus soli, or “right of soil,” which is enshrined in the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

There are some exceptions to this rule, such as children of foreign diplomats or members of a sovereign Native American tribe, who are not subject to the jurisdiction of the United States. However, for most people born on U.S. soil, citizenship by birth is a guaranteed right that cannot be taken away.

Citizenship Through Derivation

This is a way for children who are born outside the United States to obtain U.S. citizenship through their parents. If at least one parent is a U.S. citizen at the time of the child’s birth, and certain other conditions are met, the child may automatically “derive” citizenship from that parent.

The specific requirements for citizenship through derivation vary depending on when the child was born and whether both parents or only one parent were U.S. citizens at that time. Some of these requirements include:

  • The parents were married at the time of the child’s birth
  • The U.S. citizen parent lived in the U.S. or its territories for a certain period of time before the child’s birth
  • The child was under 18 years old when applying for citizenship
  • The child was residing in the U.S. with the U.S. citizen parent when applying for citizenship

Citizenship through derivation is not automatic; it must be claimed by filing an application with USCIS or by applying for a U.S. passport.

Citizenship Through Acquisition

This is another way for children who are born outside the United States to obtain U.S. citizenship through their parents. However, unlike citizenship through derivation, citizenship through acquisition does not require any additional action from the child or the parent; it is automatically “acquired” at birth if certain conditions are met1.

The main difference between citizenship through acquisition and citizenship through derivation is that citizenship through acquisition does not depend on whether the parents were married or not at the time of the child’s birth. However, it does require that at least one parent was a U.S. citizen at that time and that other criteria were fulfilled. Some of these criteria include:

  • The U.S. citizen parent was physically present in the U.S. or its territories for a certain period of time before the child’s birth
  • The child was born on or after a certain date
  • The child did not renounce his or her U.S. citizenship before reaching 18 years old

Citizenship through acquisition can be proven by presenting evidence such as a birth certificate, a passport, or a certificate of citizenship.

Citizenship Through Naturalization

This is the most common way for immigrants who are already living in the United States to become U.S. citizens. Naturalization is the process of applying for and obtaining citizenship after meeting certain eligibility requirements.

To be eligible for naturalization, you must:

  • Be at least 18 years old at the time of filing the application
  • Be a lawful permanent resident (green card holder) of the United States
  • Have resided continuously in the U.S. for at least five years (or three years if married to a U.S. citizen)
  • Have been physically present in the U.S. for at least half of that time
  • Have lived in the state or USCIS district where you are applying for at least three months
  • Demonstrate good moral character and attachment to the principles of the U.S. Constitution
  • Demonstrate an ability to read, write, speak, and understand basic English (unless exempt due to age, disability, or long-term residence)
  • Demonstrate a basic knowledge of U.S. history, government, and civic principles
  • Take an oath of allegiance to the United States

The naturalization process involves filing an application form (Form I-485), paying a fee, submitting supporting documents, attending a biometrics appointment, attending an interview, taking a citizenship test, and attending a naturalization ceremony.

Adjustment of Status Application: A Step-by-Step Guide

One of the most important steps in the naturalization process is the adjustment of status application. This is the  n-600 form that you use to apply for lawful permanent resident status (also known as a green card) when you are already present in the United States. Having a green card is a prerequisite for becoming a U.S. citizen through naturalization.

The adjustment of status application can be filed either concurrently with an immigrant petition (such as a family-based or employment-based petition) or separately after an immigrant petition has been approved and a visa number is availableThe availability of visa numbers depends on the category and country of chargeability of the immigrant petition, as well as the annual and monthly limits set by law.

To file an adjustment of status application, you need to follow these steps:

  1. Determine if you are eligible to apply for a green card. You must meet certain criteria, such as being admissible to the United States, having an approved immigrant petition or qualifying for an exception, and having a visa number available (unless exempt).
  2. File Form I-485, Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status, with USCIS. You must submit this form along with the required fee, supporting documents, and photos. You can file this form online or by mail.
  3. Go to your Application Support Center appointment. After you file your Form I-485, you will receive a notice from USCIS with the date, time, and location of your biometrics appointment. You must attend this appointment to provide your fingerprints, photograph, and signature.
  4. Go to your interview (if applicable). Depending on your case, you may or may not be required to attend an interview with a USCIS officer. If you are scheduled for an interview, you will receive a notice from USCIS with the date, time, and location of your interview. You must bring your original documents, such as your passport, birth certificate, marriage certificate, etc., as well as any additional evidence requested by USCIS.
  5. Respond to requests for additional evidence (if applicable). Sometimes USCIS may need more information or clarification from you before they can make a decision on your case. If this happens, they will send you a request for evidence (RFE) or a notice of intent to deny (NOID). You must respond to these requests within the specified time frame and provide the requested evidence.
  6. Check your case status. You can check the status of your case online using your receipt number or by calling the USCIS Contact Center. You can also sign up for case status updates by email or text message.
  7. Receive a decision. Once USCIS has reviewed your case, they will send you a notice of decision. If your case is approved, you will receive your green card in the mail within 120 days. If your case is denied, you will receive a notice explaining the reasons for denial and your options to appeal or file a motion.


Becoming a U.S. citizen is not an easy task, but it is not impossible either. By understanding the different pathways to citizenship and following the steps involved in each one, you can achieve your goal of becoming a full-fledged member of the American society.

We hope this article has provided you with some useful information and guidance on how to navigate the pathway to citizenship. If you have any questions or need any assistance with your immigration case, please contact us today. We are here to help you make your American dream come true!