Presidential Birth Requirements and the Meaning of Natural Born Citizen

Why You Can Be Born Overseas and Still Be President of the United States

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

The presidential birth requirements set forth in the U.S. Constitution require anyone elected to serve in the highest office in the land to be a "natural born citizen." Many people misinterpret that specific presidential birth requirement, however, to mean that candidates must be born on U.S. soil. Even though that is not the case, voters have never elected a president who was not born in one of the 50 U.S. states.

The confusion over presidential birth requirements centers on the terms natural-born citizen and native-born citizen. Article II, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution doesn't say anything about being a native-born citizen, but instead states:

"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."

Natural Born or Native Born?

Most Americans believe the term "natural born Citizen" applies only to someone born on American soil. That is incorrect. The term natural born citizen applies to the child of at least one parent who is an American citizens under the modern definition. Children whose parents are American citizens are not required to be naturalized because they are natural born citizens and therefore eligible to serve in the White House under the Constitution's presidential birth requirements.

The Constitution's use of the term natural born citizen is somewhat nebulous, however. The document does not actually define it. But 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 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."

It is important to note that the U.S. Supreme Court has not weighed in specifically on this issue.

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 unsuccessfully sought his party's presidential nomination in 2016, 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.

For all of the wacky conspiracy theories about former President Barack Obama's place of birth - he was born in Hawaii and not, and his detractors believed, Kenya - it wouldn't have matter which country his mother gave birth in. She was an American citizen. And therefore Obama was at birth, too.