A natural born citizen refers to someone who was a U.S. citizen at birth, and did not need to go through a naturalization proceeding later in life. Under the 14th Amendment's Naturalization Clause and the Supreme Court case of United States v. Wong Kim Ark, 169 US. 649, anyone born on U.S. soil and subject to its jurisdiction is a natural born citizen, regardless of parental citizenship. This type of citizenship is referred to as birthright citizenship. One can be a citizen while not being a natural born citizen if, for example, that person gained citizenship through the process of naturalization.
In some rare cases, a person born within the United States may not be a citizen if that person is not subject to U.S. jurisdiction. In Wong Kim Ark, the Supreme Court identifies two specific examples of people not subject to U.S. jurisdiction:
- Children born of alien enemies in hostile occupation
- Children of diplomatic representatives
Political Office Requirement
Natural born citizens have all the same privileges and responsibilities as other U.S. citizens except for U.S. presidential eligibility. To become the President or Vice President of the United States, a person must be a natural born citizen. This "Natural Born Citizen Clause" is located in Section 1 of Article 2 of the United States Constitution.
The Constitution does not expressly define “natural born” nor has the Supreme Court ever ruled precisely upon its meaning. There is some uncertainty over whether a person that is born outside the U.S. but still becomes a citizen at birth through a statute is a natural born citizen. One example is U.S. citizenship that immediately passes from the person's parents.
Today, 8 U.S.C. § 1101 defines naturalization as “conferring of nationality of a state upon a person after birth, by any means whatsoever.” In contrast, § 1401 lists eight categories of peoples who are "nationals and citizens of the United States at birth," including those born in the United States and subject to its jurisdiction, as well as children of one or more U.S. citizens abroad as long as the parent(s) meet certain requirements. This means that foreign-born citizens falling under a provision in 1401 are, by statutory definition, not naturalized. The term "natural born" is not used, however.
For more on natural born citizens, see this Georgetown University Law Center Immigration and Nationality Law Review article, this Harvard Law Review article, and this Fordham Law Review article.
[Last updated in July of 2023 by the Wex Definitions Team]