Do Presidents Have to Be Born On U.S. Soil?

Constitutional Requirements for Service as President

Ted Cruz
Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz is worth more than $1 million, according to personal financial disclosures. Alex Wong/Getty Images News

Conventional wisdom holds that candidates for president must be born on U.S. soil to serve in the highest office in the land. That belief, however, appears to be a misinterpretation of Article II, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution, which states in part:

"No Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any Person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States."

Most Americans believe the term "natural born Citizen" applies only to someone born on American soil. A native-born citizen, in other words.

But that's not likely the case.

The Constitution's use of the term is somewhat nebulous - the document does not actually define it - and most modern legal interpretations have concluded that you can be a natural born citizen without actually being born in one of the 50 United States.

The U.S. Supreme Court, however, has not weighed in specifically on this issue.

You Probably Don't Have to Be Born in the U.S.A.

You don't have to be born in the United States to be eligible to serve as president of the United States as long as one of more of your parents were American citizens at the time of birth, it is commonly held.

The Congressional Research Service concluded in 2011:

"The weight of legal and historical authority indicates that the term 'natural born' citizen would mean a person who is entitled to U.S. citizenship 'by birth' or 'at birth,' either by being born 'in' the United States and under its jurisdiction, even those born to alien parents; by being born abroad to U.S. citizen-parents; or by being born in other situations meeting legal requirements for U.S. citizenship 'at birth.'"

The predominant legal scholarship holds that the term natural born citizen applies, quite simply, to anyone who is a U.S. citizen at birth, or by birth, and does not have to go through the naturalization process. The child of parents who are U.S. citizens, regardless of whether he or she is born abroad, fits into the category under most modern interpretations.

Continued the Congressional Research Service:

"Such interpretation, as evidenced by over a century of American case law, would include as natural born citizens those born in the United States and subject to its jurisdiction regardless of the citizenship status of one’s parents, or those born abroad of one or more parents who are U.S. citizens (as recognized by statute),11 as opposed to a person who is not a citizen by birth and is thus an “alien” required to go through the legal process of naturalization to become a U.S. citizen."

Modern Examples

The issue of whether a candidate was eligible to serve as president because he was born outside the United States arose during the 2008 presidential campaign. Republican U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the party's presidential nominee, was the subject of lawsuits challenging his eligibility because he was born in the Panama Canal Zone, in 1936.

A federal district court in California determined that McCain would qualify as a citizen “at birth,” and thus was a “natural born” citizen because he was "born out of the limits and jurisdiction of the United States” to parents who were U.S. citizens at the time.

Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, a Tea Party favorite who is widely seen as a potential presidential candidate in the 2016 election, was born in Calgary, Canada.

Because his mother was a citizen of the United States, Cruz has maintained he also is a natural born citizen of the United States. 

In the 1968 presidential campaign, Republican George Romney faced similar questions. He was born in Mexico to parents who were U.S. citizens. "I am a natural born citizen. My parents were American citizens. I was a citizen at birth," Romney said in a written statement in his archives.

Legal scholars and researchers sided with Romney at the time, too.