Complete Guide: What is a U.S. National?

Updated on April 10, 2024
At a Glance:
  • A U.S. national refers to someone who has the right to reside in the United States without limitation but may not be a U.S. citizen.

  • While all U.S. citizens are U.S. nationals, individuals can be U.S. nationals without being citizens.

  • U.S. nationals have rights similar to citizens, such as the right to live and work in the U.S., obtain a U.S. passport, and apply for U.S. citizenship through naturalization.

  • However, they are restricted from voting or holding elected office.

  • U.S. nationals can become citizens through the process of naturalization, which involves meeting certain eligibility requirements and completing the necessary application and tests.
  • Are you a U.S. national, but you aren’t sure what the difference is between yourself and a U.S. citizen? Or are you part of this country as a U.S. national, but you also want to have the right to vote? Look no further. Below we unpack what the difference is between a U.S. national and a U.S. citizen. We’ll also see how you can apply to become a U.S. citizen yourself.

    What is a U.S. National?

    Let’s start with the simple part – all U.S. citizens are U.S. nationals. That is easy. You can, however, be a U.S. national without actually being a U.S. citizen. How does this work? Let’s start by taking a look at the difference between a U.S. national and a U.S. citizen.

    Difference Between a U.S. National and a U.S. Citizen

    A U.S. citizen is someone who either has citizenship through their birth or obtained citizenship through naturalization. If you acquire citizenship by birth, you are either born in the U.S. or born in a foreign country, but your parents are U.S. citizens.

    We will look at how a U.S. National can become a U.S. citizen through the process of naturalization further below in the article.

    A U.S. national, on the other hand, is someone who has the “irrevocable right to reside in the territory of the United States without limitation“. Note, Green card holders aren’t U.S. nationals as, even though they have the right to reside in U.S. territory, this right can be revoked.

    A U.S. national is also more formally defined by the Internal Revenue Service as someone who “owes his sole allegiance to the United States”.

    U.S. nationals who aren’t also U.S. citizens are referred to as people who were “born in or who have connections with the United States’ outlying possessions”. This includes Swains Island and American Samoa.

    You will also be a “non-citizen U.S. national” if you were born in one of the below countries in the listed time period:

    Country of BirthPeriod of Birth
    Puerto RicoBetween the years 1898 and 1917
    GuamBetween the years 1898 and 1950
    U.S. Virgin IslandsBetween 1917 and 1927
    PhilippinesBetween 1898 and 1946

    If you were born in any of the countries above (excluding the Philippines) after the listed dates, you will automatically be considered a U.S. citizen.

    There is only a small number of people that will ever be a U.S. national without also becoming a U.S. citizen.

    How Can U.S. Nationals Become U.S. Citizens?

    As mentioned above, if you are a U.S. national, you can become a U.S. citizen through the process of naturalization. You can do this after you have resided in the U.S. continuously for a period of three months.

    Naturalization Requirements

    Over and above the requirement to have continuously resided in the U.S. for three months, the following eligibility requirements apply to naturalization:

    • You must be at least 18 years old
    • You must be able to read, write and speak basic English
    • You must understand the basics of the U.S. government and history
    • You must show good moral character.

    Note you must have continuously resided in the U.S. in the state or United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) district where you are applying for naturalization. You will also have to provide proof of this.

    Naturalization Process

    In short, the naturalization process works as follows:

    • Step 1: Determine whether you are not perhaps already a U.S. citizen.
    • Step 2: Determine if you are eligible to become a U.S. citizen.
    • Step 3: Complete your Form N-400 – Application for Naturalization.
    • Step 4: Submit your Form N-400.
    • Step 5: Attend your biometrics appointment and have your fingerprints taken (only if required).
    • Step 6: Complete your citizenship interview.
    • Step 7: Receive the USCIS decision. If your application is denied, you can appeal the decision. If your application is approved, proceed to step 8.
    • Step 8: If your application is approved, take the oath of allegiance.
    • Step 9: Make sure you understand your rights and responsibilities of being a U.S. citizen.

    For more in-depth details on the naturalization process, take a look here:

    Naturalization Test

    As part of the naturalization process, there are two other important steps you need to go through. Firstly, you need to attend a citizenship interview. Secondly, you will also be required to write a naturalization test. This test will include a civics test and an English test. The results of your test will determine whether you are eligible for U.S. citizenship.

    Your English test will consist of three different sections. The first is a speaking test that determines whether you can speak English. The second is a reading test, where you will be asked to read three sentences aloud. You have to read at least one of these sentences correctly. The last section is a writing test. In this part, you will be asked to write three sentences. You have to write at least one sentence correctly to prove you can write in English.

    The civics test consists of a list of 100 questions. These questions relate to the history and the government of the U.S. You will only be asked 10 of the 100 items, and you must answer at least 6 of the 10 correct to pass.

    Rights and Restrictions of a U.S. National

    Most of the rights are similar between a U.S. citizen and a U.S. national. There are only a few exceptions. To make sure it is clear what rights and restrictions apply to a U.S. national specifically, we’ll delve a little deeper into those.

    Rights of a U.S. National

    As a U.S. national, you will automatically have the following rights:

    • You are allowed to live anywhere in the U.S.
    • You are allowed to work anywhere in the U.S.
    • You can get a U.S. passport. Just like with a U.S. citizen, your passport will indicate “Nationality – USA”.
    • You can apply for U.S. citizenship through naturalization, just like permanent residents of the U.S. can.

    Other rights that are protected for U.S. nationals are:

    Restrictions for U.S. Nationals

    The only big restrictions on U.S. nationals are that they can’t vote or hold an elected office. Further than that, the rights between U.S. Nationals and U.S. citizens are the same.

    Read More

    Final Thoughts

    If you are a U.S. national without being a U.S. citizen, you already have a lot of the same rights a U.S. citizen has. If you want to have the right to vote or you wish to hold an elected office as well, you can apply to become a U.S. citizen. You can do this through naturalization. F

    FAQ About U.S. Nationals

    Below, you will find some common questions about what U.S. Nationals are and their answers.

    What’s the Difference Between U.S. Citizens and U.S. Nationals?

    While all U.S. citizens are U.S. nationals, not all U.S. nationals are U.S. citizens. A U.S. national is someone who has an irrevocable right to reside in the United States without limitation, which includes U.S. citizens. However, there is a small number of people who have this right but are not citizens. These are mostly individuals born in American Samoa or Swains Island.

    What Are the Rights of U.S. Nationals?

    U.S. nationals can live and work in the United States without restrictions and are entitled to a U.S. passport. They receive consular protection abroad but cannot vote in federal elections or hold federal elected office. Their status as U.S. nationals is indicated in their passports.

    How to Acquire Citizenship at Birth in U.S. Territories?

    Residents of Puerto Rico, the Marianas (Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands), and the U.S. Virgin Islands automatically acquire U.S. citizenship at birth. However, natives of American Samoa and Swains Island do not automatically become U.S. citizens but are U.S. nationals.

    What is the Naturalization Process for U.S. Nationals?

    U.S. nationals who wish to become citizens can do so through naturalization. They must establish residency in a U.S. state and file Form N-400, Application for Naturalization. The requirements include being at least 18 years old, having 5 years of continuous residence in the U.S., being physically present in the U.S. for at least 30 months out of the last 5 years, passing English and civics tests, and being of good moral character.

    What Are the Benefits of Becoming a U.S. Citizen?

    Upon naturalization, U.S. nationals gain full citizenship benefits, including the right to vote in all federal elections and a U.S. passport without restrictions. This opens up new opportunities in terms of participation in the country’s democratic processes and international travel.


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    Frank Gogol

    I’m a firm believer that information is the key to financial freedom. On the Stilt Blog, I write about the complex topics — like finance, immigration, and technology — to help immigrants make the most of their lives in the U.S. Our content and brand have been featured in Forbes, TechCrunch, VentureBeat, and more.

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