Whether or not a child was a U.S. citizen at birth can be a surprisingly complicated question, if he or she was not born inside the country. Federal law recognizes citizenship in some cases of out-of-country birth, but not in others.
For example, an infant born outside the U.S. is a citizen if her parents are married and U.S. citizens, and at least one of the parents lived in the U.S. or a territory before the child was born. It is also possible for the child to be a citizen at birth with only one citizen in the marriage, if certain conditions exist.
Not all children are born to married parents. In general, if the child’s mother is a U.S. citizen who had lived in the U.S. for at least a year, the child is also a citizen. Or if the father is a citizen, the child may also be a citizen, if a genetic relationship is proven and other factors apply.
Other children born abroad may not have citizenship at birth, but will automatically receive citizenship before they turn 18 under certain circumstances. For instance, children born after Feb. 27, 2001, will become citizens if at least one of their parents is a citizen, the child is still under 18 and living in the U.S. under the custody of that parent pursuant to lawful admission for permanent residence.
A minor born before that date can receive citizenship if she was living in the U.S. under a green card and her parents both become naturalized citizens, or just the custodial parent in the event the parents are legally separated.
Many of these cases involve foreign-born children being adopted by U.S. citizen parents. In those situations, once the child has lived with the adoptive parent for at least two years, or was an orphan or Convention adoptee whose adoption was completed abroad, generally the child will gain citizenship.
As we said, it can get pretty complicated. An immigration attorney can explain the law in more detail for you and your family.