Occasionally I receive calls in which someone who married a U.S. citizen is looking at naturalization (N-400). Individuals who are naturalizing through marriage may do so in three years instead of five. But what happens to the children, and what if the parent doesn’t naturalize but the children want to naturalize?

This usually involves step-children of the sponsoring U.S. citizen or LPR, usually the natural issue of the foreign spouse, who entered into the US as derivatives. These children are usually on LPR status in the United States. Sometimes they remain outside of the U.S., staying with a former spouse of the beneficiary of the petition.

Answering this question is deceptively complex, but the principal is simple: If the children aren’t adults, they become citizens when the parents are citizens. If they are adults, they have to naturalize on their own. 

First, ask the “location of children” question. Are they in the US or outside? Are these children of U.S. citizen military members? Children of U.S. citizen military members have special provision. 

Second, how old are the children? Are they under 18?

  • Children over 18 cannot benefit from parent(s) naturalizing, and must seek their own N-400 petition (5 years).
  • Children who are under 18 (and there is some debate on what counts as “under 18”) become U.S. citizens (naturalize) the moment their parents do, when certain conditions are met.
  • Children under 18 cannot naturalize on their own unless they are active members of the U.S. military.

Third, if the children are in the US, do they already have LPR status and does the US citizen parent have legal and physical custody of the child? If they are outside of the US, does the transmitting parent meet the physical presence requirement and can the child be admitted and enter the US? If these prerequisites are met, the child is a U.S. citizen. 

This is a greatly simplified version of the discussion USCIS has on their page. Basically, will a parent naturalize and how old is the kid? If under 18, the kids get only what the parent has and become citizens automatically when certain requirements are met. If over 18, the kids have to naturalize on their own. The details can be found in 12 USCIS Policy Manual, Part H