What is the difference between US citizenship and residency

Individuals are granted certain rights depending on which of the two groups they belong to

Nuevos ciudadanos estadounidenses.
People are sworn in during their naturalization ceremony aboard the USS Bataan in Miami, Florida, May 7.Lynne Sladky (AP)
Alonso Martínez

U.S. citizenship and residency are two distinct statuses, and for anyone seeking to immigrate to the United States it is important to know the difference between the two, as each grants a series of rights and obligations.

Generally speaking, citizenship usually represents a legal bond between an individual and a country. By becoming a citizen, one receives the rights granted by the country, such as the right to vote, or to receive consular protection when traveling to another country. Citizenship is usually acquired by birth (if born in the country, or if the parents are natives of the country) or through naturalization, which is a process that involves meeting certain criteria, including passing a citizenship test in addition to residency.

On the other hand, residency refers to the act of living in a country. Someone can become a resident of a country legally through a visa or a residence permit. Although it provides some rights, they are more limited than those of citizenship. A resident may be entitled to health insurance and education, in addition to having obligations such as paying taxes. Below is an explanation of each within the context of the United States.

U.S. citizenship

U.S. citizens are those who have acquired citizenship by being born within the United States or through the naturalization process. Children born abroad who have at least one U.S. citizen parent may become citizens.

In order to be eligible for naturalization, a person must be at least 18 years of age, be able to read, write and speak basic English, and must declare that he or she has “good moral character.” People who have more than five years as a permanent resident (with a Green Card), who are married to a U.S. citizen, who are members of the U.S. military service, or who are children of a U.S. citizen may apply.

A form must be completed for the naturalization process, which can be done online. Various documents must be submitted to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) for an interview, which includes the Citizenship Test, through which the applicant must demonstrate knowledge of U.S. law and history. The process can take between nine and 11 months, however, the time depends on several factors. Finally, the person must take the Oath of Allegiance to the United States, the last step in becoming a citizen.

What rights do U.S. citizens have?

U.S. citizens have a number of privileges and rights from the federal government, such as the ability to vote in elections, apply for family immigration, obtain driver’s licenses, access education at all levels, open bank accounts, obtain Social Security numbers, seek employment with both private and government entities, access federal benefits such as Social Security and Medicare, obtain passports for international travel without jeopardizing citizenship, and even run for political office.

U.S. residency

Residents are people who have obtained legal permanent residency through a Green Card. These persons are allowed to live and work in the country indefinitely. This category also includes those with nonimmigrant visas, who have temporary permission to reside in the United States for specific purposes, such as work, study or tourism.

To apply for a Green Card, individuals must follow a series of steps outlined by the USCIS, although the details may vary depending on individual circumstances. First, either another person or the applicant themselves must file an immigrant petition. Once this petition is approved by the USCIS, the applicant submits a Green Card application to the USCIS or a visa application to the U.S. Department of State. The applicant then attends a biometric appointment to provide fingerprints, photos and a signature. This is followed by an interview, after which the applicant awaits a decision on his or her application. On the other hand, the process for obtaining nonimmigrant visas varies according to the needs of each applicant.

Green card
A Green Card in a file image.Evgenia Parajanian (Getty Images)

What rights do U.S. residents have?

People who have residency through their Green Card enjoy various rights and privileges. They can obtain a Social Security card, which gives them access to various benefits, such as Social Security, Medicare and Supplemental Security Income. In addition, they are able to sponsor visas for their spouses and children to reside in the United States, and may serve in certain branches of the U.S. military. They are also eligible for federal assistance programs such as SNAP (food stamps), TANF and others based on length of residency and income. In addition, they are free to travel outside the U.S., with brief trips not affecting their permanent resident status.

As responsibilities, Green Card holders must file tax returns, in addition to notifying USCIS of any change of address. They cannot vote in elections, take extended trips, nor are they eligible for federal assistance available only to U.S. citizens.

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