What US citizenship actually gets you: the good and the bad

Born in the USA.
Born in the USA.
Image: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
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There’s the blue passport, of course, and the much-touted access to what Donald Trump likes to call “chain migration.”

As the US president says he’d like to end birthright citizenship, here’s a look at some of the rights and responsibilities American citizens actually have.

The good

  • Consular protection overseas kicks in whenever an American is arrested or detained abroad, with officials providing resources and aid wherever they can.
  • The ability to sponsor your relatives abroad for visas or even permanent-resident green cards, eventually permitting whole families to move to the US.
  • The right to live and work in the United States, without restriction or fear of deportation. Citizens can leave for as long as they want to, without losing this right, unlike green card holders.
  • Any children born overseas to two Americans are also automatically US citizens at birth. If only one parent is a US citizen, certain conditions affect citizenship, including how long the American parent has spent in the US.
  • The right to all local, federal and state benefits. Green-card holders can access some of these, including Medicare, disaster relief and healthcare programs. Only citizens get access to the full array.
  • Unrestricted travel as a tourist to 177 different countries without a visa. Dozens more are easy for Americans to access—with just a little paperwork. US citizens have the fifth best passport for travel freedom in the world, equal with Austria, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal and the UK (for now).
  • The right to represent the US at the Olympics. (Other sporting events such as the World Cup are a little more lenient on citizenship requirements.)
  • The right to vote in federal-office elections—and arguably to choose who gets the most important job in the world. (Some restrictions apply: Several states prohibit felons from voting, even if they’ve served their sentence.)
  • The right to run for public office, providing you’ve met certain position-dependent age and time requirements. To be the president or vice-president of the US, one must be at least 35 years old, a “natural born citizen” and a resident for at least 14 years, shutting out people who may have become citizens later in life.
  • The right to work for the federal government.

The bad

  • Jury duty is the only civic duty that citizens alone, as opposed to US residents, are obliged to perform, at both a federal and state court level. Failing to appear after being summoned; appearing but refusing to serve; or withdrawing from jury duty without the permission of the court all carry a state-dependent fine. In California, that might be as high as $940,000. Mind you, the chances of serving at all are pretty slim: only 27% of U.S. adults say they had ever served on a jury, and of the 32 million summoned a year, only 8 million actually end up serving.
  • Military service is optional right now—but there’s no guarantee that will always be the case. All male U.S. citizens—and male residents, legal and otherwise—aged 18 to 25 are still required to register with the Selective Service System. This preserves the system that would draft Americans in the military if ever needed.
  • Income tax doesn’t just apply to Americans living in the country. Unusually, US citizens are subject to domestic tax wherever they are in the world—as well as being taxed in their country of residence. And while many countries have tax treaties with the US to soften the blow, US tax laws may lead to Americans abroad being taxed on their pensions and savings, which are untaxed in many countries. They’ve also led to US citizens being turned away from foreign banks, who fear the repercussions of American  account holders who fail to pay their taxes.
  • Dual citizenship sounds like the best of both worlds—but foreign parents from a variety of different countries who give birth to a child on American soil often have to make a difficult choice. While the US permits dual citizenship, countries such as Malaysia, Japan, China and the Netherlands, as well as many others, do not. Parents from these countries with an American child risk a future in which not all members of the family can live in the same country.
  • Travel restrictions make it difficult, if not impossible, for Americans to visit a number of different countries. It’s extremely hard, if not impossible, to obtain a visa to Iraq, Libya, and the Central African Republic, for example. Want to see Russia? Sharpen your pencil. As the Atlantic reports, “while most of the rest of the world’s peoples can apply for a visa to Russia using a simple single-page form of 21 questions, US citizens must use an arduous ‘new form implemented on the basis of reciprocity’ that has 41 often-intrusive questions.” Going to Cuba is also heavily restricted.