The term “naturalization” refers to the process of allowing a foreigner who lives in one country to become a citizen of another country. For example, naturalization involves a process by which the foreigner must live, for an extended period, in the country he wishes to become a citizen of. There are also other requirements he must meet, such as not violating any laws within the country of which he hopes to become a citizen. To explore this concept, consider the following naturalization definition.

Definition of Naturalization


  1. The process of allowing a foreign individual to become a member of one’s country.


1585 – 1595

What is Naturalization?

Naturalization is the process by which a person becomes a citizen of another country. The rules concerning how a person can become a citizen of a country vary by country. However, the standard is typically that the person must promise to obey and uphold the laws of that country.

There may be some other requirements that a person must meet as well. For example, naturalization may depend upon that person living in the new country for a particular amount of time, or having a significant understanding of that country’s language and culture.

Naturalization Act of 1790

The United States Congress passed the first Naturalization Act in March of 1790, an act that would prohibit most of today’s immigrants from becoming U.S. citizens. This is because this first act only allowed anyone who met the following requirements to become a U.S. citizen. The applicant must:

  • Be free (i.e. not a slave)
  • Be white
  • Be an adult
  • Have lived within the U.S. for a period of 2 years or more

So long as a person could meet these conditions, could show the court he possessed a good moral character, and took an oath of allegiance to the U.S. Constitution, then he could become a citizen. Courts who could oversee citizenship hearings included Federal, State and even local courts. Once adults became citizens, then their children were automatically citizens as well, so long as they were under the age of 21 years old.

Naturalization Act of 1795

In January of 1795, Congress amended the Naturalization Act to increase the required residency period from two years to five. Additionally, Congress now required applicants to publicly declare their intent to become U.S. citizens, and to renounce their allegiance to their former country. They had three years before they became citizens in which to do this, and they could do so before any court in any state or territory within the U.S.

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 turned prior naturalization acts on their heads by abolishing the requirement that a person had to meet a certain race or national origin. Now, it wasn’t just “free white people” who could become U.S. citizens, but individuals from all over the world. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 loosened the restrictions that were previously in place, allowing people to escape from countries of persecution when they otherwise would not have been able to come to the U.S.

Citizenship through Naturalization

A person can achieve citizenship through naturalization by fulfilling the requirements Congress established in the Immigration and Nationality Act. An individual may qualify for citizenship through naturalization if he/she:

  • has been a permanent resident of the U.S. for at least 5 years, and meets all the eligibility requirements.
  • has been a permanent resident of the U.S. for 3 years or more, and meets all the eligibility requirements for filing as a U.S. citizen’s spouse.
  • has served in the U.S. armed forces and meets all the eligibility requirements.

A person’s child can qualify for naturalization if:

  • His parent is a U.S. citizen.
  • He was born outside of the U.S.
  • He is currently residing outside the U.S.
  • He meets all the other eligibility requirements.

Applying for Naturalization

To apply for naturalization, an individual must first fill out a Form N-400, which is the Application for Naturalization. He must, of course, double-check that he meets all the eligibility requirements before filling out and submitting the form. The U.S. government offers a checklist of 10 steps for an individual to review during the application process. Some of these steps include:

  • Submitting the Form N-400
  • Going to the biometrics appointment
  • Completing an interview
  • Receiving a decision
  • Receiving a notice to take the Oath of Allegiance (and then taking the Oath)

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)

The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, or “DACA,” is a U.S. immigration policy that allows some undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children to receive a two-year deferral on deportation. The DACA also allows these individuals the opportunity to become eligible for a work permit in the U.S., so long as they do not have serious crimes on their records.

Research shows that DACA has had some positive effects on undocumented immigrants, including increasing their wages and employment status and improving their mental health. DACA has also cut down on the number of people living in poverty in the U.S. As of August 2018, there were approximately 700,000 to 800,000 DACA recipients living in the U.S.

Naturalization Example Involving a Chinese Immigrant

An example of naturalization litigation occurred in the U.S. in 1898, with the case of United States v. Wong Kim Ark. Here, Wong Kim Ark was born in San Francisco, California in 1873. When he was 21 years old, he took a trip to China to visit his parents, who had previously lived in the U.S. for 20 years. When he returned to the U.S., however, the U.S. prohibited him from reentering the country, claiming he was not a U.S. citizen and citing a law that, at the time, restricted Chinese immigration.

U.S. Supreme Court

Kim Ark took the U.S. to task and challenged the government’s contention before the U.S. Supreme Court, claiming the government was violating his Fourteenth Amendment rights. Ultimately, the Court agreed. Plain and simple, Kim Ark was born in the U.S., and that made him a U.S. citizen. Said the Court, in its own words:

“The power of naturalization, vested in Congress by the Constitution, is a power to confer citizenship, not a power to take it away…Congress having no power to abridge the rights conferred by the Constitution upon those who have become naturalized citizens by virtue of acts of Congress, a fortiori no act or omission of Congress, as to providing for the naturalization of parents or children of a particular race, can affect citizenship acquired as a birthright, by virtue of the Constitution itself, without any aid of legislation. The Fourteenth Amendment, while it leaves the power where it was before, in Congress, to regulate naturalization, has conferred no authority upon Congress to restrict the effect of birth, declared by the Constitution to constitute a sufficient and complete right to citizenship.

No one doubts that the Amendment, as soon as it was promulgated, applied to persons of African descent born in the United States, wherever the birthplace of their parents might have been, and yet, for two years afterwards, there was no statute authorizing persons of that race to be naturalized. If the omission or the refusal of Congress to permit certain [p704] classes of persons to be made citizens by naturalization could be allowed the effect of correspondingly restricting the classes of persons who should become birth, it would be in the power of Congress, at any time, by striking negroes out of the naturalization laws, and limiting those laws, as they were formerly limited, to white persons only, to defeat the main purpose of the Constitutional Amendment.

The fact, therefore, that acts of Congress or treaties have not permitted Chinese persons born out of this country to become citizens by naturalization, cannot exclude Chinese persons born in this country from the operation of the broad and clear words of the Constitution, ‘All persons born in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States.’”

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Congress – The legislative branch of the United States federal government, composed of the House of Representatives and the Senate.