All US citizens are US nationals, though the inverse isn’t always true (we’ll discuss the difference shortly). In contrast, a Green Card holder is an immigrant who has permission to live and work in the United States. By definition, a Green Card holder would be a foreign national or foreign citizen, not a US national.

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US Citizens

US citizens are considered citizens of the United States by virtue of birth or naturalization. To be a US citizen by birth, you must have a US birth certificate, or a Consular Report of Birth Abroad (CRBA) for children born to American parents outside of the United States. To be a citizen by naturalization, a foreign citizen or national must fulfill Congressional requirements in the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) and receive a naturalization certificate from US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

US Nationals

A US national is an individual who is born in or has ties to an outlying possession of the United States, which is currently limited to American Samoa and Swains Island. Historically, individuals who were born in Guam (1898 – 1950), Puerto Rico (1898 – 1917), the US Virgin Islands (1917 – 1927), and the Philippines (1898 – 1946) were considered US nationals. Individuals from Guam, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands are now full US citizens, while the Philippines is an independent country with no inherent rights to US nationality or citizenship. 

In some cases, a child of two US nationals who is born abroad may inherit US nationality. Similarly, the child of a US national and a foreign parent may inherit US nationality under certain conditions. However, there are strict residency requirements for the parents in order to qualify.

US nationals cannot vote in US elections or hold public office. However, they are afforded the following rights:

  • The right to work and reside anywhere in the United States without restrictions
  • The right to apply for and hold a US passport
  • The right to apply for naturalized US citizenship, subject to the same rules as lawful permanent residents

Lawful Permanent Residents

A Green Card holder is an individual who is not a US citizen or US national, but who is residing in the United States under legally recognized and lawfully recorded permanent residence as an immigrant. A Green Card holder may also be referred to as a lawful permanent resident, a permanent resident alien, or a resident alien permit holder.

Immigrants

An immigrant is an alien who has been granted permission by USCIS to live and work in the United States without restrictions. Once an immigrant fulfills the residency requirements for permanent residency status (typically 3 – 5 years of physical presence in the US, though the requirement may be waived for immediate family members of US citizens), USCIS may issue the immigrant a Green Card.

Immigrant visas are typically reserved for family members of US citizens and Green Card holders, and employment-based applicants. Visas for immediate family members and fiancés of US citizens are always readily available, but there is often a waiting list for other immigrant visa categories. This is due to the fact that Congress sets annual limits for each visa category in order to control immigration to the United States.

Nonimmigrants

Foreign nationals and citizens who receive the right to temporarily reside in the United States are referred to as nonimmigrants. A nonimmigrant is admitted into the United States under a specific nonimmigrant status that corresponds to the type of visa that they were issued by a US Embassy or consulate. 

Nonimmigrant visas can vary widely in terms of restrictions, but each nonimmigrant visa carries strict rules and guidelines. Some nonimmigrants are allowed to work in the United States (with authorization from USCIS), while others forbid US employment. Most nonimmigrant visas impose a time limit on the nonimmigrant’s stay in the United States, though there are some that do not include a cap.

When a nonimmigrant violates the terms and conditions of their visa, they are considered “out of status.” A nonimmigrant who is out of status for over 180 days may be deported and receive a ban on re-entering the United States for three years. A nonimmigrant who is out of status for one year or longer may receive an even longer ban of up to 10 years.

Undocumented Aliens

An undocumented alien is an individual who has unlawfully entered the United States without proper authorization, travel documents, and inspection, or a visa-holder who has either violated the terms of their visa or overstayed their visa’s time limit. Undocumented immigrants are subject to deportation with a 5-, 10-, or 20-year ban on re-entering the United States.

Compacts of Free Association

Residents of the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of Marshall Islands, and the Republic of Palau are free to enter the United States without a visa, remain in the country for an indefinite period of time, and work without any restrictions. This agreement is thanks to the Compacts of Free Association (CFA), an agreement between the United States and nations that were once part of the Trust Territory of the Pacific.  

When a qualifying CFA traveler enters the United States, a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer should issue them Form I-94, Arrival-Departure Record, bearing one of the following stamps:

  • CFA/FSM – for citizens of the Federated States of Micronesia
  • CFA/MIS – for citizens of the Republic of Marshall Islands
  • CFA/PAL – for citizens of the Republic of Palau

Visa Waiver Program

The Visa Waiver Program (VWP) allows foreign citizens and nationals of participating countries to travel to the United States for business or tourism for up to 90 days without a visa. To qualify, the traveler must obtain a valid Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) approval prior to traveling, carry a valid passport, and be a citizen or national of one of the following countries:

  • Andorra
  • Australia
  • Austria
  • Belgium
  • Brunei
  • Chile
  • Czech Republic
  • Denmark
  • Estonia
  • Finland
  • France
  • Germany
  • Greece
  • Hungary
  • Iceland
  • Ireland
  • Italy
  • Japan
  • Latvia
  • Liechtenstein
  • Lithuania
  • Luxembourg
  • Malta
  • Monaco
  • Netherlands
  • New Zealand
  • Norway
  • Portugal
  • San Marino
  • Singapore
  • Slovakia
  • Slovenia
  • South Korea
  • Spain
  • Sweden
  • Switzerland
  • Taiwan
  • United Kingdom

 

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