An individual is granted US citizenship through several means, including being born in a US state or territory and having a valid birth certificate from that state or territory (or other valid documents as determined by the US government); being born outside the US to at least one US citizen parent and having had the birth recorded with the birth country’s US embassy or consulate; and becoming naturalized.
The concept of birthright citizenship (meaning that anyone born on US soil is automatically a US citizen, regardless of their parents’ citizenship status) does not always fully extend to all US-claimed lands. For instance, those born in Puerto Rico, a Spanish colony taken over by the US in 1898 and now considered a US territory, have had birthright citizenship since 1940, but they can’t vote in federal elections unless they live in the mainland US and don’t receive all the federal benefits that US citizens living in states do. Puerto Rico’s status as a former colony that historically has not been treated equally to states legally has led to significant economic disparities, which events like 2017’s Hurricane Maria threw into sharp relief. Puerto Rico has made bids for statehood periodically since the 1960s, but Congress has not yet ratified it as a state.
Residents of the US Virgin Islands, the Mariana Islands, and Washington, DC, are birthright citizens but cannot vote in federal elections; however, they can vote to elect a nonvoting delegate to the US House of Representatives. American Samoa is the only unincorporated US territory that does not confer birthright citizenship; a 2021 court decision (pending appeal) found that American Samoan leaders were concerned automatic citizenship could disrupt cultural traditions, such as communal land ownership and social structures organized around large, extended families led by matai, those with hereditary chieftain titles.
Generally, natives or naturalized residents of territories except American Samoa can be referred to as American citizens, though as with any such identifier, taking into account an individual’s preference wherever possible ensures coverage aligns with their lived experience. It may add vital context for audiences to mention in coverage the limits placed on citizenship in US territories and the colonial history that contributes to why those limits exist.
- Dual nationality (US State Department)
- US Virgin Islands (US Interior Department)
- Are Puerto Ricans American Citizens? (US News)
An individual is granted US citizenship through different means, including birth and naturalization. Generally, natives or naturalized residents of US territories can be referred to as American citizens; American Samoa is the only unincorporated US territory that does not confer birthright citizenship. As with any such identifier, taking into account an individual’s preference wherever possible ensures language aligns with their lived experience. It may add vital context for audiences to mention in coverage the limits placed on citizenship in US territories and the colonialist history that contributes to why those limits exist.