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Naturalization Process in U.S.: Early History

Background History of the United States Naturalization Process

By Eilleen Bolger

Editor’s Note: The following information is courtesy of the Rocky Mountain Regional National Archives and Records Administration.  Eilleen Bolger is Regional Archives Director.

The first naturalization act, passed by Congress on March 26, 1790 (1 Stat. 103), provided that any free, white, adult alien, male or female, who had resided within the limits and jurisdiction of the United States for a period of 2 years was eligible for citizenship. Under the act, any individual who desired to become a citizen was to apply to “any common law court of record, in any one of the states wherein he shall have resided for the term of one year at least.” Citizenship was granted to those who proved to the court’s satisfaction that they were of good moral character and who took an oath of allegiance to the Constitution. Under the system established by the act, aliens could be naturalized not only in Federal courts, but also in State and local courts, and the children of successful applicants, if under 21 years of age, automatically became citizens.

The act of January 29, 1795 (1 Stat. 414) increased the period of residence required for citizenship from 2 to 5 years. It also required applicants to declare publicly their intention to become citizens of the United States and to renounce any allegiance to a foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty 3 years before admission as citizens. Immigrants who had “borne any hereditary title, or been of the order of nobility” were also required to renounce that status. These actions could be taken before the supreme, superior, district, or circuit court of any State or Territory, or before a Federal circuit or district court of the United States.

On April 14, 1802, Congress passed an act (2 Stat. 153) that directed the clerk of the court to record the entry of all aliens into the United States. The clerk collected information including the applicant’s name, birthplace, age, nation of allegiance, country of emigration, and place of intended settlement, and granted each applicant a certificate that could be exhibited to the court as evidence of time of arrival in the United States.

Certain doubts had arisen as to whether State and local courts were included within the description of U.S. district or circuit courts. The act of 1802 reaffirmed that every State and Territorial court was considered a district court within the meaning of the laws pertaining to naturalization, and that any persons naturalized in such courts were accorded the same rights and privileges as if they had been naturalized in a district or circuit court of the United States.

The act of 1802 was the last major piece of naturalization legislation during the 19th century. A number of minor revisions were introduced, but these merely altered or clarified details of evidence and certification without changing the basic nature of the admission procedure. The most important of these revisions occurred in 1855, when citizenship was automatically granted to alien wives of U.S. citizens (10 Stat. 604), and in 1870, when the naturalization process was opened to persons of African descent (16 Stat. 256).

On June 27, 1906, Congress passed an act (34 Stat. 596) that expanded the existing Immigration Bureau to the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization and put it in charge of “all matters concerning the naturalization of aliens.” Although the new Bureau was part of the Department of Labor and Commerce initially, and part of the Department of Labor from 1913 to 1940, most of its operations were directed by the Department of Justice, and, in 1940, the Bureau was made part of the Justice Department. Under the act of 1906, every petition for naturalization became a case for examination by Bureau officials.

This act also established the basic procedure for naturalization during the period 1906-52. The procedure began with the filing of a declaration of intention, which recorded the applicant’s oath to the clerk of the court that it was his or her bona fide intention to become a citizen of the United States, to reside permanently therein, and to renounce all allegiances to other nations. Within a period of 2 to 7 years after filing the declaration, the applicant could petition the court for citizenship, presenting at this time the affidavits of two witnesses with personal knowledge of the applicant, stating that the applicant had resided in the United States for at least 5 years and possessed a good moral character. The petition then became the subject of an investigation and hearing before a judge. Officials of the Bureau conducted preliminary examinations and submitted findings and recommendations to the court. The hearing before a judge was the last step in the procedure, provided the judge found the findings and recommendation of naturalization officials favorable and satisfactory. If so, the applicant would take an oath of allegiance to the U.S. Constitution and laws and renounce all foreign allegiances, and the judge would issue an order of admission to citizenship and grant the applicant a certificate of citizenship. However, a judge could also order a continuance of the investigation or deny the petition, listing the reasons for the denial. A major change in this procedure occurred in 1952, when the filing of the declaration of intention was eliminated.

On May 9, 1918, Congress passed an act (40 Stat. 542) stating that any alien who had been a member of the Armed Forces for 3 or more years could file a petition for naturalization without proof of the 5-year residency requirement, and that any applicant who had been in the service during World War I was exempt from the requirement to file a declaration of intention. This act consolidated the previous statutes of July 17, 1862 (12 Stat. 597), which allowed waiver of the filing of a declaration if the applicant had a favorable discharge from the Army, and of July 24, 1894 (28 Stat. 124), which extended this provision to applicants discharged from the Navy or the Marines.

On September 22, 1922, Congress enacted a law (42 Stat. 1021) that changed the naturalization procedure for married women. Before that date, women who were married to a U.S. citizen or naturalized citizen automatically became U.S. citizens by reason of the marriage. The new law required that any woman married after the date of enactment who desired to become a citizen must meet the requirements of the naturalization laws. No declaration of intention was needed, however, and the period of required residence was reduced from 5 years to 1 year.

Source: Rocky Mountain Regional National Archives and Records Administration

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Bolger, E. (2013). Background history of the United States naturalization process. Retrieved from


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36 Replies to “Naturalization Process in U.S.: Early History”

  1. Hi, I need to find an expert on what the naturalization process was in December, 1920 when my grandfather arrived from Wales. I need to establish that there was a residency requirement and he could not possibly have become a naturalized US citizen by the time my father was born 10 months later in September of 1921. Do you know someone who could write a one-paragraph letter attesting to this? Thank you so much!

  2. My mother came to the United States from Canada in the early 1920’s. In the late 20’s or early 30’s she became a US citizen. I was born in1942. Under Canadian law a child born outside of Canada to a Canadian citizen has a birthright to Canadian citizenship.
    My question is: Since my mother had become a United States citizen at the time of my birth do I have birthright Canadian citizenship.
    Thank you,

  3. My grandmother came from Germany to US at 7 years of age in 1881/1882. She became a citizen through her father (my great grandfather). She married my German citizen grandfather in 1896. Did she lose or keep her citizenship? She never left the US from her 1882 date of arrival. My grandfather never applied to become a US citizen and stayed in the US as a German citizen. Thank you.

  4. I notice nothing here says anything about how you entered the country, only that you resided here honorably for a period of time. What is the history regarding the means by which you entered the country?

  5. When did speaking English become requirement for citizenship? Or was it always a requirements? I found where, in 1917, it became a requirement to be able to read and write in the applicant’s NATIVE language, but nothing regarding the requirement for English.

    Thank you

    • The Naturalization Act of 1906 included a requirement for speaking English. At various other times requirements for reading, writing, and understanding English were proposed (see, for example the Internal Security Act 1950), but requiring literacy (in any language) is a higher bar. The Naturalization Act of 1906 was repealed and replaced by the Nationality Act of 1940. It was modified by the Immigration Act of 1990. There are currently some exemptions to the English language requirement.

  6. My grandmother was born in the US in 1917 and went back to Russia at age 4. When she return to the US at age 15 or 16 she needed a sponsor. Additionally, I remember her telling me that she had taken “the test” to become a US citizen. My grandfather had become a citizen about a year prior to their marriage so I don’t think the Cable Act is a factor. The story I heard in the family was that my great-grandfather never maintained her US citizenship – which would have required him to travel to Moscow and complete paperwork on a regular basis. Other family member are insisting that once born in the US you are a citizen. Have the requirements changed since 1917? Can you provide any insight?

  7. This keeps cropping up in my family with no clear results: My grandfather was a Canadian born about 1903. He came to the USA via Vancouver, BC, as a very young man, and joined the US Army at March Field, California. He was assigned to Kelly Field, Texas, and later sent to Rantoul, Illinois, with a small cadre to establish Chanute Field (later Chanute AFB, now decomissioned). He was it’s one and only clerk at the time, responsible for the records of many of our more famous flyers of the time (They were always after him to tell them their latest fit-reps). At that time he also became the Army’s youngest Staff Sgt and was written up in the Army-Navy Times (later the Stars and Stripes). I have NO idea how old he was, but may have just turned 19 or 20 (educated guess). He mustered out after one tour and settled in Rantoul, married, and my Mother was born there in 1922. Having blustered on about all that background, the question is whether he actually became an American citizen while in the military and, if so, what would have been the likely citizenship process?

  8. My grandfather and grandmother where both born in Italy and married in the US in 1915. My grandfather became a Naturalized citizen in 1920. I can find no record of my grandmother becoming a citizen. My question is would my grandmother have become a citizen as a result of my grandfather’s Petition?

  9. Audrey,

    I’m suspecting that you have a pretty massive clue in the fact that they were bootleggers. Unlawful behavior is a likely cause for deportation. Do you know if they or any of their known associates were ever caught or convicted? I think it’s an angle worth investigating. 🙂

  10. My great uncle appears to have taken six years off his age in 1924 when he made his declaration (he was 48 but said he was 42).
    Would there have been a maximum age limit and he was worried he was getting too old? However surely his passport gave his true age?

  11. Audrey,
    If they were deported it could mean only one thing – that they overstayed their privilege to be here in the US without becoming a citizen. I am not sure where you could go to find out formally about this though.

  12. I wonder if anyone can help with this question?

    My mom was born in Canada in 1919. Her parents were Irish, but I’m sure that their entry to Canada was legal. Later they went to the USA during the prohibition and became bootleggers. In March 1930 my mom and her brother were in a children’s home and on the census it has un in the Naturalization column. Then in November of the same year they were deported to ireland.

    Does this imply that they could have been illegal immigrants? Is there any way I can find out about this? I live in England and unable to travel.

  13. I was looking at my great grandfather’s naturalization records and for date of naturalization it says “Denied Sept. 19, 1922”, but on the back it states other facts of record as “Unwilling to assume duties of citizenship. Claimed exemption.”

    Does anyone know what this means? He did re-apply and get citizenship in 1949, but could not understand the first attempt.

    Any insight would be appreciated.

  14. Jully Davis, I too was surprised that my American born great-grandmother had to repatriate. The NPR article above explains about the Expatriation Act of 1907, which required American women who married a non-citizen to take their husband’s citizenship. It revoked the citizenship of American women who married non-citizens. The Cable Act of 1922 negated the Expatriation Act of 1907, by no longer tying a woman’s citizenship to her husband. But it didn’t restore the lost citizenship, so anyone who had their citizenship revoked still had to naturalize the same as a foreign born immigrant subject to immigration quotas for the husband’s country. Unless the woman was widowed or divorced, then she could repatriate. The Nationality Act of 1940 finally allowed all women who had lost their citizenship under the Expatriation Act of 1907 to repatriate regardless of marital status. Fun times, all that sexism!

  15. So if I understand correctly – when an Italian wife came over to be with her already immigrated husband who had already become a US citizen, she immediately became a citizen herself without any additional waiting period?

  16. My Mother was a Cadanian citizen who married an American citizen in the late 1930’s early 1940’s. Would there be a record of her “citizenship” or was it just automaticly applied. I know she had citizenship status as I can remember her being able to vote.

  17. I have been embroiled in immigrants and illegal immigrants pros and cons. I am for allowing immigrants into our country, albeit those who have ties to terrorist groups. But I have been reading and see that not counting the cost of the paperwork it can be upwards of between 5-15,000 dollars to get a American citizenship. I feel this is unjust. I was lucky enough to be born here but if I had to apply for citizenship, I could not afford it. I don’t think many of the low to middle class working persons could.

    My Question
    Were there extreme cost involved when the immigrants came in via Ellis Island? Keeping in mind the cost of living then?

  18. Under what circumstances would a U.S born women in the early 1920’s have to become naturalized citizen? Her husband was Russian and also became a naturalized citizen.

  19. I am quite surprised that to become an American citizen, my mother’s Italian citizenship was renounced. Everyone in my family thought that they were citizens by birth in Italy and citizens by naturalization of the U.S. That sure throws a wrench into our getting Italian citizenship. I hope that the Italian Consulate will be helpful.

    • Joanne this is throwing me for a loop as well. It’s not fair. I want my Italian citizenship, but now because of this I cannot. Is there a way around this?

  20. Am I correct in assuming that in 1934, an alien man married to a U. S. citizen did not gain automatic citizenship by that marriage, but had to apply, following all the rules?

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