The terms US national and US citizen are often used interchangeably, but they are in fact two completely different terms with two different meanings. This article explains the difference between US national and US citizen, and what it means to be a US national vs US citizen.

US National, US Citizen, or Both?

All US citizens are both a US citizen and a US national, but some US nationals may not be US citizens. US citizen vs US national, in general terms:

  • All US citizens are automatically US nationals.
  • US nationals are not automatically US citizens.

US Nationals

Non-citizen US nationals include those persons who were born in or born to a parent(s) of outlying possessions of the United States, according to the Immigration and Nationality Act. These outlying territory possessions include American Samoa and Swains Island.

US nationals include all US citizens and other persons who owe allegiance to the US but who have not been granted the privilege of citizenship. US nationals are entitled to:

  • The consular protection of the US when abroad; and
  • US documentation such as US passports (albeit with a notation to delineate their national status).

US nationals also have the right to:

  • Reside in the United States; and
  • Apply for citizenship by naturalization after three months of residency.

However, US nationals are not entitled to voting representation in Congress and, in most states, are not entitled to vote in Federal, state, or local elections except in their place of birth. Non-citizen US nationals do, however, vote to send a delegate to Congress, but that person is a non-voting delegate.

Non-citizen US nationals may apply for a certificate of non-citizen national status to the Secretary of State.

US Citizens

US citizens include those who have obtained birthright citizenship or citizenship through naturalization. Persons acquire citizenship by birth if they are born in the United States or born to US citizen parent(s). Although US citizenship is not automatically granted to natives of American Samoa and Swains Island (who are only US nationals), natives of the following US territories do automatically acquire US citizenship:

  • Puerto Rico
  • The Marianas (Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands)
  • The US Virgin Islands

US citizens do have:

  • The right to vote in elections; and
  • Voting representation in Congress.

For more information about US citizenship, see our US Citizenship page.