The Dual Citizenship of Puerto Ricans: Examining the Evolution of Puerto Rican Citizenship and Its Unique Challenges

The concept of Puerto Rican citizenship has evolved over time, marked by historical events that have shaped the island’s relationship with the United States. In the Caribbean region, Puerto Rico has faced unique challenges in defining the nationality of its inhabitants. Prior to the Spanish-American War in 1898, residents of Puerto Rico were considered Spanish nationals. However, following the war, their nationality became derived from United States law.

With Puerto Rico’s status as an unincorporated territory of the United States, Puerto Ricans hold a unique dual citizenship, as they are both considered U.S. citizens and Puerto Ricans. Though Puerto Ricans can move and live in the United States freely and enjoy full citizenship privileges, the island’s political status creates complexities surrounding their representation and autonomy. As of now, Puerto Rico continues to grapple with this dual identity, which remains an ongoing conversation among those who reside in the territory and the mainland United States.


Types of Citizenship

Puerto Rican Citizenship

Before the Spanish-American War in 1898, inhabitants of Puerto Rico were Spanish nationals. However, post-war, Puerto Rican citizenship evolved into a co-existing category with U.S. citizenship.

To be eligible for a Puerto Rican citizenship certificate, applicants must meet one of the following criteria:

  • Be born in Puerto Rico
  • Have U.S. citizenship and at least one parent who was born in Puerto Rico
  • Have U.S. citizenship and have resided in Puerto Rico for at least one year before applying

In 1901, the Foraker Act was signed by President McKinley, which established Puerto Rico as an “unorganized territory” and granted Puerto Ricans limited constitutional protections, such as due process under certain circumstances.

U.S. Citizenship

U.S. citizenship is conferred upon Puerto Ricans through birth or naturalization. There are two sources of citizenship in the United States Constitution:

  • The Naturalization Clause (Art. 1, cl. 8, ยง4)
  • The Citizenship Clause of the 14th Amendment

Since 1898, Congress has debated 101 bills related to Puerto Rican citizenship, enacting 11 overlapping citizenship laws. These laws have conferred three different types of citizenship over time. Puerto Ricans who qualify as U.S. citizens enjoy the same rights as other American citizens, including the right to vote in national elections if residing in a U.S. state. However, if living in Puerto Rico, they cannot vote in presidential elections and have limited representation in the U.S. Congress.

In summary, Puerto Rican citizenship is a unique category that co-exists with U.S. citizenship. Individuals can hold either or both citizenship statuses, depending on their birthplace, parentage, and residency. The U.S. Constitution outlines different pathways for obtaining citizenship, which has resulted in varied and complex legislation surrounding the topic.

Territorial Status and Politics

Commonwealth of Puerto Rico

The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States. This status was established by the approval of the Foraker Act in 1900, which granted Puerto Rico a civilian government with an elected legislature. However, as a territory, Puerto Rico’s residents don’t have the same rights as citizens from other states within the US. For example, they cannot vote in presidential elections.

The Puerto Rico Status Act recognizes the island’s current status as undemocratic and colonial in nature, and calls for a resolution of this historic injustice.

Statehood Movement

In recent years, the movement for Puerto Rican statehood has gained momentum. The territory has conducted six non-binding referendums addressing the political status, but no official change has been made. In the latest plebiscite, conducted on November 3, 2020, 52% of residents voted for statehood, while 47% voted against it. If Puerto Rico were to become a state, its residents would gain full rights as US citizens, including the ability to vote in presidential elections.

Advocates for statehood argue that it would provide Puerto Ricans with equal representation in the US government and access to federal benefits, while opponents fear potential loss of cultural identity and increased federal control.

Independence Movement

Another political movement in Puerto Rico is advocating for the island’s independence from the United States. If Puerto Rico becomes an independent nation, it would separate from the US and establish its own government and national identity. The independence movement, though smaller than the statehood movement, has a long history on the island and is supported by various political parties and organizations.

Independence supporters argue that self-determination and sovereignty are necessary for Puerto Ricans to fully develop their potential, free from the limitations and inequalities that come with territorial status. However, detractors argue that independence might lead to economic challenges and a loss of US citizenship benefits for Puerto Ricans.

To summarize, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico’s territorial status and politics are marked by a divide between those advocating for statehood, those advocating for independence, and those who are content with the current status as a territory of the United States. The island continues to hold referendums to gauge popular opinion on the matter, though no official changes have been made to its political status.

Rights and Benefits

Residency and Travel

Puerto Ricans are American citizens, meaning they can reside and work in any of the 50 states in the United States without restrictions. As U.S. citizens, they can also travel freely with a valid U.S. passport, without the need for visas in many countries around the world. Through their U.S. citizenship, Puerto Ricans enjoy the same rights and protections provided to citizens of the mainland United States by the Bill of Rights.

Taxes and Economic Benefits

Puerto Ricans do not pay federal income taxes but are required to pay state and local income taxes. Despite their U.S. citizenship status, Puerto Ricans receive less Medicaid than residents of the 50 states. On the other hand, they pay the same FICA taxes as the mainland U.S. residents but are not eligible for Supplemental Security Income.

Taxes and Benefits Puerto Rico U.S. States
Federal Income Tax Not required to pay Required to pay
State and Local Income Tax Required to pay Required to pay
Medicaid Benefits Lesser Higher
Supplemental Security Not eligible Eligible

Representation and Voting

In terms of political representation, Puerto Ricans elect a non-voting Resident Commissioner to the U.S. House of Representatives. This means they do not have full voting representation in the U.S. Congress. Furthermore, Puerto Ricans can vote in presidential primaries but do not have the right to vote in U.S. presidential elections. If Puerto Ricans move to one of the 50 states, however, they can vote in presidential and congressional elections, as they would be considered residents of that particular state.

Obtaining Citizenship

Puerto Rico, a Caribbean island, allows individuals to obtain a Puerto Rican citizenship certificate, which co-exists with U.S. citizenship. The process involves the submission of required documentation, including a birth certificate and photo ID.

Documentation Requirements

When applying for a Puerto Rican citizenship certificate, it is essential to gather the appropriate documentation to ensure a successful application.

Form and Fee

Applicants must submit a request in writing using the PDF form provided by the Puerto Rican government, accompanied by $30 in IRS stamps.

Birth Certificate

An original birth certificate is required to prove that the individual was born in Puerto Rico, or that they acquire U.S. citizenship in the same way as one born in any of the 50 States.

Photo ID

A valid photo identification, such as a passport or driver’s license, must be provided to confirm the applicant’s identity.

With these necessary documents in hand, applicants can submit their request for a Puerto Rican citizenship certificate. This process is significant for those interested in their civil rights and naturalization within the Puerto Rican territory, as it legally recognizes their Puerto Rican citizenship status while maintaining their U.S. citizenship.

Comparison with Other U.S. Territories


Guam, like Puerto Rico, is an unincorporated territory of the United States. People born in Guam are considered U.S. citizens. In 1950, the Guam Organic Act granted U.S. citizenship to individuals born on the island, similar to the status granted to Puerto Ricans in 1917. Guam has a non-voting delegate in the U.S. House of Representatives, but residents of the island cannot vote in U.S. presidential elections.

U.S. Virgin Islands

The U.S. Virgin Islands is another unincorporated territory with a status similar to that of Puerto Rico. Individuals born in the U.S. Virgin Islands are also U.S. citizens. The islands were purchased from Denmark in 1917, and their inhabitants were granted U.S. citizenship in 1927. Like Guam and Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands has a non-voting delegate in the House of Representatives and residents are not eligible to vote in presidential elections.

American Samoa

American Samoa is the only inhabited U.S. territory where individuals born on the island are not automatically considered U.S. citizens but are instead classified as U.S. nationals. This distinction is due to the islands’ classification as an unincorporated territory and as a result of the Supreme Court’s rulings in the Insular Cases, such as Downes v. Bidwell. As U.S. nationals, American Samoans are allowed to live, work, and travel freely within the United States; however, they are not eligible to vote in U.S. elections, and their political representation is limited to a non-voting delegate in the House of Representatives.

Demographics and Culture

Ethnic Composition

Puerto Rico is a diverse island with a rich history of various cultural influences. According to the 2015 Race and Hispanic Origin estimate by the US Census Bureau, the ethnic composition was:

  • White alone: 2,495,997
  • Black or African American alone: 301,519
  • American Indian and Alaska Native alone: 11,775
  • Asian alone: 10,159


Puerto Ricans are predominantly Spanish speakers, with Spanish being the island’s official and most widely spoken language. However, English is also recognized as an official language, and a significant portion of the population can speak, read, and write in English. This bilingualism is partly due to Puerto Rico’s status as a U.S. territory.

Way of Life

Puerto Rican culture is a blend of Spanish, African, and indigenous Taino influences, reflected in the island’s art, music, and cuisine. The island has a tropical climate, with warm temperatures year-round, making it an ideal destination for people seeking sun, sand, and beach experiences.

Some popular destinations in Puerto Rico include Fajardo, known for its bioluminescent bay, and Arecibo, famous for its large radio telescope. Additionally, many visitors and residents enjoy the vibrant nightlife scene and local festivals that often take place throughout the year.

In summary, Puerto Rico offers a rich cultural and ethnic tapestry in terms of its demographics, languages, and way of life. The island hosts a diverse population, a blend of Spanish and English languages, and an abundance of cultural traditions derived from its historical influences. This, coupled with its tropical climate and beautiful beaches, makes Puerto Rico a fascinating and unique place to explore.

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