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Naturalized or Derived Citizen: What’s the Difference?

Naturalized or Derived Citizen

A U.S. citizen is a person born in the United States who is a legal citizen of that country and is given U.S. citizenship, which includes a U.S. passport, the right to vote, and a social security number. There are certain circumstances aside from being born to two U.S. citizen parents that can lead to citizenship. 

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Naturalized or derived citizen meaning

You can legally be considered a U.S. citizen if you fit a handful of legal requirements, such as:

  • If you just learned that you had ancestors who were citizens. 
  • If you were born somewhere else.
  • If your parents became citizens legally when you were under the age of 18.

That said, you can also become a naturalized or derivative citizen, meaning you obtained your citizenship through a lengthy legal process. 

What is a naturalized or derived citizen?

Naturalized or derived citizen meaning

There are 4 ways in which someone can obtain citizenship:

  1. The first is to be born in the United States or in one of the territories. 
  2. The second is to be born to parents who are citizens, something referred to as “acquisition” of citizenship.
  3. The third is called naturalization and this means you obtain citizenship after you submit an application and proper documentation, and pass an examination.
  4. The fourth is called derivation, and this means one parent becomes a naturalized citizen and you, by extension, receive derivation citizenship.

What does naturalized or derived citizen mean?

Both terms are ways of identifying people who have received citizenship without being born into a country, but one is earned through a series of requirements, tests, and oaths while the other is effectively given to underage children when their parents complete the series of requirements, tests, and oaths. 

When someone is born, they automatically receive the citizenship of their parents. If their parents have multiple citizenships, they are a dual citizen, children receive both of those. The process of derived citizenship replicates this concept for people who become naturalized citizens and have underage children. It is effectively a way for their children to automatically receive the citizenship that they now have just the same as they would have received it when they were born. This process of derived citizenship can also help blended families.

For example, Sun married a military man, John. Sun had 2 children from a previous marriage. Sun moved to the United States as a permanent resident with her new husband John.  After two years she was able to apply for naturalized citizenship and become an official U.S. citizen. The child she and John had one year ago is automatically a U.S. citizen because John is a US citizen. The two children she had from a previous marriage can receive derived citizenship now that Sun and John are citizens.

Eligibility for naturalized vs derived citizenship

naturalized and derived citizen

Eligibility under current law, 8 U.S.C. 1427, requires those who are not born into citizenship by one parent or the other parent to apply for citizenship. This application process is referred to as “naturalization”. But you are not able to just apply and be done with it. 

The nationality act requires those seeking citizenship first be a lawful permanent resident of the United States. They must have a green card.

There are other requirements for eligibility which include: 

  • Being 18 years of age.
  • Having a lawful permanent resident status for a minimum of five years (there are exceptions for spouses of citizens of only three years and spouses of military and refugees of only two years).
  • Living in the United States for 5 years in a row without spending more than one full year outside the United States (during the application process investigators will determine whether you abandoned your U.S. home and moved to another country to live and most of the time trips 6 months or less won’t be an issue).
  • Having lived in the district or state where you apply for at least three months
  • Having good moral character, meaning you haven’t committed crimes or failed to pay child support or taxes, and so on.
  • Being willing to swear an oath of your loyalty to the United States, wherein you state your belief in the principles of the Constitution (if you have dual citizenship you are not legally required by U.S. law to choose one or the other, in effect, to renounce the other).

Immigration law also allows children under the age of 18 to derive citizenship from parents who have legal custody and physical custody of their children and are a citizen parent. If parents are legally separated and have joint custody, then derivative citizenship can be applied for if the other parent is willing to provide consent. The eligibility requirements for this include:

  • Having a green card 
  • Bring under the age of 18
  • Living with parents at the time of application

This is similar to naturalization, but with this, a child who is under age has more confidential proceedings when seeking citizenship and acquires it without as many legal requirements. 

For parents who do not have children living with them at the time or do not have complete legal and physical custody, things get a bit trickier. Children will not automatically receive derived citizenship but will need their parents to petition for sole custody or at the very least receive permission from the other parent.

For example, Tracy is a mother of three children ages 7, 9, and 10. Tracy divorced her husband 5 years ago and moved with her children to the United States after receiving a new job. Tracy and her children have green cards and are permanent residents of the United States, where she lives with her parents down the street. She has lived with her children in the same home for 5 years and is now submitting her application for naturalization. After receiving approval and taking her oath, Tracy is an official U.S. citizen trying to get derived citizenship for her children. Unfortunately, the father still has joint custody. In order for Tracy to get full custody and complete the derived citizenship process, she would have to get the father to sign away his paternal rights or otherwise prove to a court that the father was absent from their lives and forfeited the rights as a father by not contributing financially or keeping in touch with the children.

Application process for naturalized and derived citizen 

naturalized vs derived citizenship

Once you submit your application for naturalization, you get investigated and if it is uncovered that you abandoned your residency or obtained your green card illegally, you may be kicked out of the United States through deportation proceedings. Assuming all goes well, you will need to have your fingerprints taken and pass two exams:

  1. The first is a test that proves you can read, speak, and write in English.
  2. The second is a test that proves you understand U.S. government and U.S. history.

A child who submits an application for derived citizenship acquires it without the participation in the swearing in ceremony. However, there are many fluctuations over the years as to what requirements exist for children to automatically receive derived citizenship. 


There are many ways to gain citizenship in the United States, but for those not born into it, the difference between naturalized and derivative citizenship comes down to age and parents. When parents become naturalized citizens, children over whom parents have legal and physical custody gain derived citizenship but those over 18 and those who do not have legal citizens as parents must take the same tests and oaths to become naturalized. 

Article by Megan Thompson

Megan Thompson is a legal writer at Lawrina. Megan writes about different law practice areas, legal innovations, and shares her knowledge about her legal practice. As a graduate of the American University's Washington College of Law she is an expert of law in Lawrina's team and has a slight editing touch to all content that is published on the website.

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