The Difference Between Citizenship and Naturalization

When researching immigration law, a person doesn’t have to wade deep into the weeds before stumbling over confusing legal terms. Often times, these terms are used casually (and incorrectly) in everyday conversation. Some examples known to cross the wires of otherwise intelligent people include green card and visa, asylee and refugee, as well as citizenship and naturalization. So what is the difference between citizenship and naturalization?

Quick, without looking at your smart phone, what is the difference between citizenship and naturalization?

Put simply, whether a person holds a certificate of citizenship or a certificate of naturalization, they are a U.S. citizen. The key difference is how they arrived at their citizenship. In some cases citizenship happens at birth, whereas the lengthy process of naturalization is usually undertaken by a foreign national.

Difference Between Citizenship and Naturalization | Immigration Attorney


Any person, regardless of being born outside of the U.S., is eligible for citizenship simply by virtue of being born to at least one U.S. citizen parent.  Likewise, a person  born in the U.S. (or one of its territories) to undocumented parents is also considered a citizen, a so-called anchor baby.

During the recent Republican presidential race it was impossible to avoid hearing strident arguments decrying long-held U.S. standards of citizenship.

For instance, candidate Ted Cruz’s eligibility for president was called into question due to the circumstances of his birth. Cruz was born in Canada in 1970 to a U.S. citizen mother and a Cuban-native father. While legal experts sounded off on his presidential eligibility, level heads agreed that long-established legal standards recognized Cruz as a U.S. citizen, and therefore eligible for the presidency.

In an article written for the Harvard Law Review in March 2015, attorneys Neal Katyal and Paul Clement noted that the concept of the natural born citizen has roots in pre-Constitution British law, when children born abroad to subjects of the British Empire were themselves considered subjects. Katyal and Clement noted that Congress adopted the same interpretation early in the history of the U.S.

“Despite the happenstance of a birth across the border, there is no question that Senator Cruz has been a citizen from birth and is thus a “natural born Citizen” within the meaning of the Constitution,” they wrote.

Presidential eligibility wasn’t the only citizenship issue raised during the Republican primary. Rancorous discussion also focused on birthright citizenship and whether or not the 14th amendment applies to children born on U.S. soil to immigrant parents.

Those who oppose this long-recognized type of citizenship point to a section of the 14th amendment, which defines U.S. citizens as “all persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof.”

Birthright opponents focus closely on the definition of the term “jurisdiction.” Attorney John Eastman of the Dale E. Fowler School of Law at Chapman University argues that U.S. jurisdiction should apply only to children born on U.S. soil to at least one parent who owes allegiance to the U.S.

But as a 2015 Mother Jones article notes, the term jurisdiction has been interpreted for years as a “carve out” for the children of foreign diplomats and enemy combatants on U.S. soil. This interpretation has not historically been used to deny citizenship to children born in the U.S. to immigrant parents.


When asking what is the difference between citizenship and naturalization, it is important to keep in mind that naturalization is a process. Unlike a person born to U.S. parents (on or off U.S. soil), a person who seeks naturalization is not automatically eligible for citizenship.

Lawful permanent residents become naturalized by fulfilling certain requirements established in the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). These requirements include swearing allegiance to the U.S. and giving up prior national allegiance.

While a lawful permanent resident (green card holder) has obtained permission to live and work in the U.S., they don’t have the right to vote, or to obtain a passport. They get these rights only after being naturalizaed. In a 2012 Pew Research poll examining Hispanic trends, 18 percent of Latino foreign-born U.S. citizens cited civil and legal rights as their primary reason for naturalizing.

In order for a permanent resident to become naturalized, they must wait up to five years before filing an Application for Naturalization (Form N-400). During the naturalization process, the permanent resident will also submit to an interview with a representative of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), and demonstrate an understanding of the English language and knowledge of U.S. history.

Many folks might be surprised to learn that former Baywatch star Pamela Anderson is a naturalized citizen. Originally born in Canada, to Canadian parents, Anderson was sworn in as a U.S. citizen in 2004.

“I felt it was important to become a U.S. citizen in order to vote in the United States,” Anderson said at the time in a written statement. “U.S. citizenship will allow me, in the future, to petition to bring my children’s grandparents down to the United States to care for them once they become older.”

Contact an Attorney for More Information

Hopefully, if you were asking what is the difference between citizenship and naturalization, you have a better idea now. If you are a lawful permanent resident interested in learning more about naturalization, contact our immigration lawyer to find out if we can help you navigate the process.