This is a complicated topic with complicated answers. Short answer is no – you don’t have to be a US citizen, just a US person.
Before I go any farther, I want to take the opportunity to clarify one of my Instagram Reels on this matter. I used the term “US citizen” as an incredible oversimplification, when I should’ve used the term “US person.” The Reel was simply meant to explain ITAR and EAR (we will get to those definitions below), but the oversimplification was amplified far more than I intended, and I want to make it right. So – this post is to clear the confusion with that Reel and add some more details to the situation. I know it can be VERY difficult to find clear and concise information about this subject, and I hope this post can be that resource for you.
So, let’s get into it.
US Citizen vs. US Person
What’s the difference?? A US person, according to NSA.gov, is:
- “A citizen of the United States;
- An alien lawfully admitted for permanent residence;
- An unincorporated association with a substantial number of members who are citizens of the US or are aliens lawfully admitted for permanent residence; or
- A corporation that is incorporated in the US.”
Therefore, US citizenship is encompassed in the definition of a US person, but being a US person is far more than just being a US citizen. It’s important to remember, in the context of working in the US space industry, you need to be a US person which does include green card holders. Green card holders are considered lawful permanent residents (LPRs).
ITAR and EAR
So we’ve cleared the air about citizenship vs US person – but what are the laws anyways? Why does this matter?
In the US, ITAR and EAR are two important export control laws that limit the export of information, technology, and more to non-US persons. ITAR stands for International Traffic in Arms Regulations and EAR stands for Export Administration Regulations. Great…. what does that mean?!
ITAR regulates the manufacturing, sale, and distribution of defense-related technology like military training equipment, fighter jets, and more. EAR regulates the same for “dual-use items” – those that can have a commercial and military use like spacecraft and rockets. The list of items controlled by ITAR is called the United States Munitions List (USML) and the list of items controlled by EAR is called the Commerce Control List (CCL). The space industry handles both ITAR and EAR restricted technologies. These laws are the reason you have to be either a US lawful permanent resident or a US citizen to handle this data. (Or a corporation registered in the US but I doubt any of you reading this fall into that category 🙂 )
Green Card vs. Visa
Remember I mentioned above that green card holders are considered lawful permanent residents. If you have a green card, you won’t have too many restrictions (more on slight nuances of this situation below). If you have a work visa, you can still be employed in the space industry, but your company will need to apply for an export license if you are doing technical work. Student visas (F1) are not considered permanent residents (but you can meet the Substantial Presence Test after 5 years).
- Green card: can work in the US space industry with almost no issues
- Work visa: can work in the US space industry but your company will have to apply for an export license
- Student visa: not a US person and therefore can’t work in the US space industry until obtaining a green card or citizenship
NASA vs. Defense Contractors / Commercial Companies
Defense contractors, due to the nature of their work, will have more restrictions than NASA and commercial companies. But that doesn’t mean NASA doesn’t have restrictions. In fact, according to NASA’s careers page, “other than extremely rare exceptions, you must be a US citizen in order to work for NASA as a civil service employee.” JPL is a rare exception due to the nature of its relationship with a university where you can find jobs that are open to non-US citizens.
Commercial companies will have restrictions too because even if they aren’t working with defense technology specifically, space technology inherently can be dual-use for commercial and military use, so most of it falls under EAR. But, their restrictions might be fewer than defense contractors and NASA. It’s all company-dependent.
Elon Musk gives talks on why he doesn’t hire foreign nationals. You can watch one of them here for more insight.
Can you work in the US space industry with dual citizenship if one of the citizenships is the US? Yep!
Not all export restrictions are created equal. Countries can have different export control restrictions based on the relationship between the US and that country, economic interests, and national security issues.
What is it like working in the space industry as a non-US person?
Most likely, you can expect the following:
- You will have limited access to only the information that pertains directly to your job. This is more so the case when working at a defense contractor or on defense-related technologies (rather than working a deep space science mission at JPL).
- You will be escorted in areas that you don’t have open access to. (I have seen this first-hand at a large defense contractor but of course depends on the company and the nature of the work you will be around)
But – it is doable, especially if you are working science or exploration missions rather than anything associated with defense!
So, long story short – you need to be a US person to work in the US space industry. That includes a US citizen and lawful permanent residents (green card holders). However, depending on your specific situation, you might have limited access to information and facilities. It is doable though and plenty of people do it, you just need to do your research on where you can work, what you can work on, and what to expect at work!
I hope this clears the air and can serve as a reference for you on your journey. Keep in mind that I am not an export control expert so this information is coming from government sources such as the NSA and the IRS. Your specific situation is unique to you and it’s important that you discuss these questions with potential employers during interviews.
Disclaimer: Though I work at Lockheed Martin, this post is in no way associated with Lockheed Martin and all research is my own.