(Note: this is US-specific but if other countries have similar laws it would be interesting to hear the analogous situations as well)

I know that the law states that US citizens have the right to enter the US based on their status as a citizen alone, not on on their possession of a passport; that is, it is illegal to deny entry to a US citizen simply because they don't have their passport.

So for example, if an American shows up to a US border without their passport but with a driver's license or some other form of ID, it might be a more laborious process, but they will be let in once their identity can be proved.

However, what if hypothetically, someone who claims to be a US citizen shows up with nothing at all? Are immigration officials obligated to do everything they possibly can (e.g. going to that person's house to get their ID, summoning their acquaintances for interview; I'm honestly not sure what else ...) to help the person prove their identity, or in that case are they allowed to turn them away?

  • 4
    They might have to help a US citizen... But how would they know it's a US citizen?
    – gnasher729
    May 25, 2020 at 23:07
  • 4
    Here is a copy of the CBP Inspectors Field Manual, circa 2008. Chapter 12 has guidance on evidence of citizenship. It's not very detailed, but that may be all the instructions that border agents get. But there certainly isn't any mention of a requirement to go to great lengths to help someone prove their citizenship. May 26, 2020 at 2:12
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    The authorities also generally prefer to identify the person in case they are being sought for other reasons and to record the refusal to let them enter. In other words, it's not an either/or situation. Police is likely to make an effort (within reason) to determine the person's identity, not only out of an obligation to assist citizens but for their own purpose, even if they don't believe you and want to turn you away.
    – Relaxed
    May 26, 2020 at 14:15
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    An analogous situation, regarding the European Union: “Where a Union citizen, or a family member who is not a national of a Member State, does not have the necessary travel documents or, if required, the necessary visas, the Member State concerned shall, before turning them back, give such persons every reasonable opportunity to obtain the necessary documents or have them brought to them within a reasonable period of time or to corroborate or prove by other means that they are covered by the right of free movement and residence.” Directive 2004/38/EC, article 5(5).
    – user99895
    May 26, 2020 at 15:59
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    I suspect this happens quite often actually. People might go to Tijuana for a good time, get drunk, and lose their wallet. I would wager a few dollars there's already a well established protocol for this scenario. In very questionable cases my (admittedly ignorant) guess would be that they would refer the person to the nearest Embassy or Consulate.
    – CramerTV
    May 26, 2020 at 17:32

1 Answer 1


They're not legally obliged to help, but if the person claims US citizenship and the immigration officer is not convinced, the immigration officer does not have discretion to refuse entry: the person claiming US citizenship must be brought before an immigration judge, who must decide whether the person is a US citizen.

  • 38
    Which might mean waiting two years in custody for the court date. Better don't try it.
    – Aganju
    May 26, 2020 at 4:55
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    @Aganju whether or not it makes sense to try it depends rather on the strength of one's evidence and the relative difficulty of this route compared to getting a passport at the nearest consulate. In practice it's hard to imagine being able to convince a judge more readily than an immigration officer unless the officer is being particularly difficult.
    – phoog
    May 26, 2020 at 5:26
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    If you're going before a judge, then at some point you might have access to a lawyer, or at least a phone call. At that point, your best bet is to call friend / family, and have them bring ID items to your location as best they can.
    – Stewart
    May 26, 2020 at 8:41
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    Sometimes witnesses and maybe forensic evidence is the only possibility. For example, a US citizen goes to a holiday, is robbed, losing all documents. At the same time, his house at home is struck by lightning, burns down, destroying all other documents or copies of documents he had. It's unlikely but among millions of people it should be almost sure it happened before.
    – vsz
    May 26, 2020 at 12:32
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    @Joshua while that's a jest, it's not without merit. In Europe during the 90s, immigration officers used language skills of refugees as a quick judgement - many claimed to be from country X, knowing only that there's a war there and therefore they'd be accepted as refugees, but not knowing that the language there is A, while their own language is B. I had an acquaintance working in the field and her boss spoke fluent A. Entering the room with a quick welcoming phrase and question in A and looking into a puzzled face was all it took him to debunk their story.
    – Tom
    May 27, 2020 at 9:12

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