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What is the definition of a U.S. national?

The terms ”U.S. national” and “U.S. citizen” are often used interchangeably even though the two have very different meanings. All citizens of the United States are considered U.S. nationals—while not all U.S. nationals are citizens of the United States.

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The terms ”U.S. national” and “U.S. citizen” are often used interchangeably even though the two have very different meanings. All citizens of the United States are considered U.S. nationals—while not all U.S. nationals are citizens of the United States.

So what exactly does U.S. national mean and how does it differ from citizenship? In this guide, we provide an overview of U.S. nationality and the difference between nationality and citizenship.

U.S. national, defined

According to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), a U.S. national is any person who “owes his sole allegiance to the United States.” By definition, all citizens of the country are considered U.S. nationals. However, as mentioned, not all U.S. nationals are U.S. citizens.

“Non-citizen U.S. nationals” refer to individuals who were born in or who have connections with the United States’ outlying possessions, including Swains Island and American Samoa.

Those born outside of the United States to at least one U.S. national parent are also considered nationals; however, in order for a child to obtain birthright nationality status, the parent(s) must have been continuously present in the United States or one of the country’s outlying possessions for a minimum of one year.

For tax purposes, a U.S. national is any person who was born in the American Samoa Islands. It also includes any person who was born in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands who opted for a U.S. nationality status as opposed to a U.S. citizenship status.

A non-citizen U.S. national is also someone who was born:

  • In Puerto Rico between the years 1898 and 1917

  • Guam between the years 1898 and 1950

  • The U.S. Virgin Islands between 1917 and 1927

  • The Philippines between 1898 and 1946

It should be noted that lawful permanent residents (Green Card holders) are not considered U.S. nationals.

Who is a U.S. citizen?

By contrast, those who meet one of the following qualifications are considered citizens of the United States:

  • Individuals born in the United States

  • Individuals who have at least one parent who is a citizen of the United States

  • Individuals who were former aliens but have been naturalized

  • Individuals who were born in Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands after the dates mentioned above

Note, however, that while individuals born in Puerto Rico, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands are automatically considered citizens, those born in the Philippines are not. 

Rights of U.S. nationals and U.S. citizens

U.S. nationals share many of the same rights at U.S. citizens. Below, we outline the rights for both groups of people.

Rights and responsibilities of U.S. citizens

According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), citizens of the United States are automatically granted the following rights:

  • Right to vote

  • Right to run for elected offices

  • Right to work in the United States without restrictions

  • Freedom of expression

  • Freedom to worship their religion of choice

  • Freedom to pursue “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”

  • The irrevocable right to live in the United States

USCIS also states that U.S. citizens are also automatically granted the following responsibilities:

  • Participation in democratic processes

  • Support and defend the United States Constitution

  • Obey all laws on a local, state, and federal level

  • Respect others, right, opinions, and beliefs

  • Pay local, state, and federal taxes

  • Serve on a jury

  • Defend the country (serve in the Armed Forces)

Rights and Responsibilities of U.S. Nationals

U.S. nationals are automatically granted the following rights:

  • The irrevocable right to live in the United States

  • The irrevocable right to work in the United States without restrictions

  • The right to a U.S. passport

  • The right to consular protection of the United States when abroad

  • The right to apply for citizenship by naturalization after continuously living in the United States for three months

  • Freedom of expression

  • Freedom to worship their religion of choice

  • Freedom to pursue “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”

While U.S. nationals are granted many of the same rights as citizens, they do not have the right to vote or to hold an elected office.

Like citizens, nationals are also obligated to serve in the United States Armed Forces when the need arises. However, nationals are not obligated to pay taxes, serve on a jury or support the democratic process (as they cannot vote in elections or run for elected offices).

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How can U.S. nationals become citizens?

U.S. nationals have the right to become citizens through the process of naturalization after continuously residing in the United States of America for a period of three months.

Naturalization is the process by which individuals who were not born in the U.S. voluntarily choose to become citizens of the country.

Eligibility Requirements for Naturalization

In order for a national to apply for citizenship through naturalization, they must meet the following eligibility requirements:

  • Be at least 18 years of age

  • Provide proof that they have been physically present in United States for a minimum of three months within the state or USCIS district where they are applying for naturalization

  • Be able to speak, read and write in basic English

  • Have a basic understanding of U.S. government and history

  • Demonstrate good moral character

The process of naturalization

Generally speaking, the process of becoming a citizen through naturalization involves the following:

  1. Determination of citizenship status

  2. Determination of eligibility to obtain citizenship status

  3. Complete and submit USCIS Form N-400, Application for Naturalization

  4. Complete fingerprinting, if necessary

  5. Complete an interview

  6. Receive a decision from USCIS about your Application for Naturalization

  7. Understand your rights and responsibilities as a citizen of the United States

Naturalization tests

In order to become a naturalized citizen, you will need to attend an interview with a USCIS officer. During this interview, the officer will ask you questions that pertain to your completed Form N-400, as well as questions that pertain to your background.

Additionally, you will also be required to take naturalization tests, including a civics and English test, the results of which will determine if you are eligible for citizenship.

The civics test includes a list of 100 questions that relate to the history and the government of the United States. You will be asked 10 questions from this list of 100 questions, and you must answer six of those 10 questions you are asked in order to pass the test.

The English test includes three separate parts:

  • A speaking test, which will determine your ability to speak English

  • A reading test, during which you will be asked to read aloud three sentences, one of which you must read correctly in order to demonstrate that you can effectively read the English language

  • A writing test, during which you will be asked to write three sentences, one of which you must write correctly in order to demonstrate your ability to write in the English language

If you successfully complete these tests and your Form N-400 is accepted, you may be granted citizenship through naturalization.

The takeaway

While all U.S. citizens are U.S. nationals, not all U.S. nationals are U.S. citizens. While nationals are granted many of the same rights as citizens, if you wish to receive all of the rights that citizens possess, you can apply for United States citizenship through naturalization.

For more resources on how to navigate your new life in the U.S., visit Nova Credit’s resource library where you can learn about everything from renting an apartment to finding the best credit cards for noncitizens. 

Moved to the U.S. from Australia, India or the UK?

Start your U.S. credit building journey on the right foot

A strong credit score helps you access a lot in the U.S., and a credit card is an easy way to start building your U.S. credit score. Access your free international credit score, and see which U.S. credit cards could be right for you. No SSN required

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