Defining Citizenship for Babies Born on Flights to the US

A woman gave birth this week on a flight from Ghana to the United States, which begs the question: Can being born mid-flight affect citizenship?

CHARLOTTE, NC — It was the flight of a lifetime for those aboard a United Airlines plane going from Ghana to the United States.

The plane, which landed at Dulles International Airport on Sunday, had one more passenger than when it took off. A woman on board went into labor, prompting an onboard doctor and a nurse-trained flight attendant to spring into action. United staff greeted mother and baby on landing with gifts, including a congratulatory card, and the couple went to hospital afterwards.

The question

Can Being Born Mid-Flight Affect a Baby’s Citizenship?

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The answer

Yes, a flight birth can affect a child’s citizenship.

According to the Foreign Affairs Manual, “All children born in and subject at the time of birth to the jurisdiction of the United States acquire United States citizenship.”

The manual states that some locations other than actual U.S. soil may qualify as U.S. jurisdiction for citizenship purposes. An example would be a ship on American ‘inland waterways’, including a harbor, harbor or bay. Birth on a ship in the US “territorial sea” or on an airplane over the US country or the “territorial sea” seems murkier, but a child may also qualify for citizenship.

According to the manual, the “territorial sea” includes waters within 12 nautical miles of the US coastline.

There are some exceptions.

For example, the handbook states that those born on a foreign military vessel, even within the limits listed above, are ineligible for US citizenship. Meanwhile, those born outside the borders, such as on a military base abroad — which does not count as U.S. jurisdiction for citizenship purposes — can still be U.S. citizens with one or both parents U.S. citizens, under the U.S. Code of Conduct Act.

The Foreign Affairs Manual states that for in-flight births, U.S. Customs and Border Protection will require documentation of the birth upon landing, likely including a logbook from the captain showing the time, latitude, and longitude of the birth.

The parent would then have to report the birth to the civil authorities in the U.S. jurisdiction where they landed or docked.

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