Often people confuse the difference between citizenship vs. nationality when describing where they come from and their inherited cultural background. When it comes to immigration matters it’s essential to understand the difference between the two terms. In this post, we’ll explore not only citizenship vs. nationality but also the difference between nationality vs. ethnicity and the different paths to citizenship in the United States.

Difference between Citizenship vs. Nationality

The word nationality refers to where you are born. A country’s government grants citizenship when specific legal requirements are met.

Citizenship can be seen as a political status because it indicates which country recognizes you as a citizen. Nationality has more to do with the relationship between you and your place of birth and can often be seen as ethnic or racially related. Citizenship can fluctuate since you can be a citizen of multiple places simultaneously and can also renounce your citizenship to a country. On the other hand, you cannot change nationality because it’s innate.

In the United States, people born in the country are citizens. The 14th Amendment, ratified on July 9, 1868, states, “All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” 

U.S. National vs. U.S. Citizen

When it comes to the United States, U.S. citizens are U.S. nationals. Still, not all U.S. nationals are U.S. citizens since U.S. law states a national as “a person owing permanent allegiance to a state” and having “an outlying possession to the United States.”

The best example is U.S. nationals from American Samoa and the Swains Island (part of American Samoa) and individuals born outside of the United States to two U.S. national parents. Likewise, a person born outside of the U.S. to one U.S. national parent and one alien parent. A U.S. national has an “irrevocable right to reside in the territory of the United States without limitation.” A U.S. national can become a citizen via naturalization. It’s important to note that U.S. nationals can’t vote in a United States election or hold office.

Are you considered a non-citizen U.S. national? You are if you are born in one of the following:

  • Puerto Rico between 1898 and 1917.
  • Guam between 1898 and 1950
  • U.S. Virgin Islands between 1917 and 1927
  • The Philippines between 1898 and 1946

Suppose you were born after the date listed above. In that case, you are now automatically considered a full U.S. citizen, with the exception of the Philippines since it is an independent country and never afforded U.S. citizenship.

Is a Green Card Holder a U.S. National?

A green card holder is not the same as a U.S. national. A green card holder is a foreign national given the ability to work and live in the United States. Another term for green card holder is a lawful permanent resident (LPR). Congress sets annual limits for each visa category for immigrant visa categories apart from immediate family members and fiances of citizens.

Compacts of Free Association Agreement

The Compacts of Free Association between the U.S. and nations of the previous Trust Territory of the Pacific make it possible for their residents to come to the United States without needing a visa, work without restriction, and stay as long as they want.

The nations that were once part of the Trust Territory of the Pacific are:

  • The Republic of Marshall Islands
  • Federated States of Micronesia
  • Republic of Palau

When they enter the U.S, these individuals will get a Form I-94, Arrival-Departure Record, from a Customs and Border Protection officer. The I-94 will either have a stamp that says CFA/FSM (citizens of Federated States of Micronesia), CFA/MIS (citizens of the Republic of Marshall Islands), or CFA/PAL (citizens of the Republic of Palau).

Rights of U.S. Nationals

Under the law, U.S. Nationals are afforded rights in the country. They are as follows:

  • Permitted to work and live anywhere in the United States
  • Eligible to apply for a U.S. passport
  • Eligible to apply for citizenship through naturalization through the same process as permanent residents

In addition to these rights, U.S. nationals have their freedom of expression protected, freedom to worship the religion of their choice, freedom to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and their right to consular protection of the United States while they are abroad.

Can U.S. Nationals become U.S. citizens? 

They can go through the naturalization process after having lived continuously in the country for three months.

You will need to submit proof of the physical presence requirement when applying. Skip to the section below to learn the naturalization requirements and how to transition from a U.S. national to a U.S. citizen.

After becoming a citizen, you gain the ability to vote in federal elections, among other rights.

Some states allow non-citizens to vote in local elections. For example, as of December 2021, fourteen local jurisdictions allowed non-citizens to vote in NYC, eleven in Maryland, and some in Vermont. In addition, the Northern Mariana Islands and U.S. territories of American Samoa permit non-citizen nationals to vote.

What is Nationality vs. Ethnicity?

Ethnicity and nationality are not the same things. A person’s ethnicity refers to someone’s cultural markers, a common social group that shares shared ancestry, religious expression, culture, and/or language. This understanding of ethnicity came about starting in the 1900s. Ethnicity also differs from race because race is based on physical and biological traits like skin color, hair texture, complexion, etc.

Types of Citizenship

There are two categories of citizenship: through birth and naturalization.

According to the Fourteenth Amendment, “all persons born in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof are citizens by birth.” There are other ways to gain citizenship through birth, and those include being born :

  • To a member of an Indian, Eskimo, Aleutian, or other aboriginal tribes
  • Outside of the United States with citizen parents whom at least one has resided in the United States or one of its outlying possessions
  • To one parent who is a U.S. citizen and that citizen parent has lived in the United States for at least one year before your birth
  • With one parent who is a  U.S. citizen parent and one who is a  U.S. national and the citizen parent was physically in the U.S or one of its outlying possessions for at least one year
  • To one parent who is a U.S. citizen and one who is an alien, the citizen parent was physically in the United States for at least five years, including at least two years after age 14. Note that time abroad can count as physical time in the United States if the parent was a member of the U.S. armed forces in good standing, employed by the U.S. government or organization abroad, or as a dependent unmarried son or daughter of someone with the two scenarios above.

Other situations may qualify someone for birthright citizenship. For instance, if the mother used Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART) and surrogacy Abroad. In those cases, if the child has a biological connection to a U.S. citizen parent, then the child can be considered a citizen at birth.

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Naturalization Process – From U.S. National to U.S. Citizen

The second form of citizenship is through the naturalization process. The naturalization process requires several qualifications before getting citizenship.

You may qualify for naturalization if you:

  • Have maintained permanent residency within the U.S. and fulfilled all other requirements for eligibility
  • Are the spouse of a U.S. citizen who has maintained permanent residency within the U.S. and fulfills all other requirements for eligibility
  • Have served or continue to serve in the U.S. armed forces and fulfill all other requirements for eligibility

Additionally, your child may qualify for naturalization if you, the parent, are a U.S. citizen, the child was born in a foreign country, is presently in a foreign country, and fulfills all other requirements for eligibility.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) also requires that individuals applying for naturalization are:

  • Minimum of 18 years old
  • Residents who have been physically and continuously present in the United States for at least five years at the time of application
  • Of good moral character and merit

If you meet these requirements,  complete an N-400 application, attend an interview, and pass a civics and English test before receiving citizenship. The cost for filing your N-400 is $640, with an additional $85 biometric fee. You can make out the check to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

The Citizenship Interview

During the interview, you’ll be asked various questions about your citizenship eligibility. Some of these questions may be about your:

  • Where you’ve lived/worked during your time in the U.S.
  • Status as an LPR (Legal Permanent Resident)
  • Background, marriage, and history
  • Moral character
  • Relationship with the U.S. and its founding principals
  • Decision to take an oath of allegiance to the country

During the interview, a USCIS officer will examine your proficiency with the English language. The officer wants to ensure that you can assimilate into U.S. society.

Learn all about the 100 Citizenship Test Questions and Answers in 2023

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What if I Lost My Naturalization Certificate?

If you lost or damaged your naturalization certificate, you can apply for a new one by filing the N-565 form with USCIS.

If you’re interested in pursuing the naturalization process, you should get help from an experienced citizenship lawyer. They’ll be able to best guide you to transition from permanent resident status to full U.S. citizenship. Take the first step by scheduling a consultation with a VisaNation Law Group attorney.

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Knowing how to navigate the U.S. citizenship process can be challenging to say the least. Fortunately, there are professionals with the skills and knowledge available to help you down the path. VisaNation Law Group is ready to help you and your family gain citizenship through the proper legal channels.