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What does It Mean to be a US Citizen?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 17, 2024
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You may hear the phrase in the US that “it’s a free country,” and to an extent this is true. As a US citizen, you have many rights clearly defined in the Bill of Rights, which has been amended to promote greater inclusiveness of what defines a citizen. If you look at the early versions of the Bill of Rights, you will see the many exclusions to citizenship defined by the early United States and its founding fathers. Those not counted as citizens in early days included Native Americans, most African Americans, and most women.

Today a US citizen is defined as a person born in this country or a person who has gone through the full immigration process to become a citizen. In many cases, becoming a citizen in the United States means you forswear allegiance to other countries, though in certain cases, people can possess dual citizenship. But first and foremost, the highest allegiance you have as a US citizen is to your country.

So what are the rights of a US citizen? As defined by the Bill of Rights, anyone classed as a citizen has the right to practice any religion of their choosing, to freely assemble, and to speak or write their opinion, even if that opinion criticizes the government. Citizens also are allowed, under most circumstances, to possess weapons, and to be treated equally by businesses, education systems, and government institutions. Other protections include your right to be free from search and seizure of your property without a warrant, your right to privacy, and the right to a trial before a jury of peers if you are accused of crimes. Citizenship always means that if you are accused of a crime, the burden of proof is on the accuser, and you are always presumed innocent of a crime until a jury or judge decides otherwise.

As a US citizen, you also have certain responsibilities. You must remain lawful, obeying laws of both the country and the state in which you live. You cannot commit acts of treason against your government. Male citizens at the age of 18 must register with the Selective Service, and if a draft is in place, male citizens drafted must not refuse to serve their country.

Another responsibility is your willingness to respond to summons to juries when called. Since all citizens are accorded the right to trial by jury, regular citizens must staff juries. Normally a US citizen can’t refuse to serve jury duty. You do have to show up, though you may be granted an exception of being part of a jury under certain circumstances.

There is some dispute on whether voting is a right or a responsibility. As a US citizen you don’t have to vote, but many believe that full citizenship is realized as a result of a participatory electorate, or where all citizens exercise their right to vote. Nevertheless, voting is not a requirement of citizens, but rather a right.

For many, citizenship in the US is very special, and others bemoan the fact that people don’t realize how lucky they are. It’s easy to take for granted the rights that were hard won by early founders of the country, especially if you were born a citizen of the US. It’s interesting to note when people immigrate to the US, how many of them are very anxious to exercise the rights that many of us do take for granted. Immigrants often can’t wait to vote and eagerly anticipate their ability to take full part in the democratic process.

America Explained is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a America Explained contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon269442 — On May 17, 2012

How do these rights differ from that of a US person?

By anon210504 — On Aug 30, 2011

I needed this big time, for school. Thank you so much for the help.

By anon171731 — On May 01, 2011

"ability to take full part in the democratic process"... Yeah, right: an ostensibly democratic process, disguised as a two ruling party system, is nothing but one omnipotent ruling elite, pretending to safeguard the rights of their constituents, but in actuality all they do is tyrannize the poor and favor the rich!

Thanks for nothing.

P.S. Let's see if you'll have the guts to keep this post from a disgruntled citizen or your elite media handlers will order you to remove it based on my First Amendment rights to free speech or am I inciting sedition?

By anon115251 — On Oct 01, 2010

this is big help! thanks!

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a America Explained contributor, Tricia...
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