What are the requirements to vote?

Paper airplane illustration with ballot and requirements to voteImage: Paper airplane illustration with ballot and requirements to vote

In a Nutshell

Voting is a pillar of democracy. In short, the requirements to vote include being a U.S. citizen, being at least 18 years old on or before Election Day, and being registered to vote by your state’s registration deadline. But some states have additional limitations, such as if you’ve been convicted of a felony or have been declared mentally unable to vote by a court.
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To vote in a U.S. election, the basic requirements are simple.

You have to be …

  • A United States citizen
  • At least 18 years old on or before Election Day
  • Registered to vote by your state’s voter registration deadline

But the processes and restrictions around registering to vote and casting a ballot vary by state. Let’s go over some common questions about requirements to vote so you can be prepared — and have your say in the next election.

Do I have to be a U.S. citizen to vote?

Yes. The first thing to know about voter eligibility is that you must be a citizen of the United States to vote in federal, state or local elections. Non-citizens — even permanent legal residents — may not vote.

Can I vote if I’m a U.S. citizen living in another country?

In most cases, where you live doesn’t matter. If you’re a U.S. citizen but live in another country, you can still vote, even if you don’t maintain residency or own property in the U.S. (To vote in state or local elections, you typically need to maintain residency status in your last state of residence.)

Even if you’ve never lived in the U.S., you may still be able vote (it depends on your state) as long as you’re a U.S. citizen. In that case, you’d likely provide your parents’ last address in the U.S. when you register to vote.

But if you live in a U.S. territory — Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the North Mariana Islands or the U.S. Virgin Islands — you can’t vote in general presidential elections. You can only vote in presidential primaries. This is despite the fact that most people born in U.S. territories, with the exception of American Samoa, are U.S. citizens. Voter-rights advocates have taken legal action to try to change this.

Can I vote if I’ll be 18 by Election Day?

While the legal voting age in the U.S. is 18, voter registration and pre-registration rules and ages can be different depending on the state. In almost every state, you can register to vote before your 18th birthday as long as you’ll be 18 by Election Day.

In some states (California, Colorado, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Washington, D.C.) you can pre-register by age 16 or 17.

Some states also allow you to vote in a primary election at age 17 if you’ll be 18 by the next general election.

You can find the voter registration and pre-registration age requirements for each state here

What voter registration deadline do I have to meet?

All states except North Dakota require you to register to vote. Depending on your state, the registration deadline could be between seven and 30 days before an election. Some states also allow same-day registration, either during early voting periods or on Election Day. With same-day registration, you can register to vote and cast your ballot on the same day.

Note that a state’s voter registration deadlines may differ for in-person, online and mail-in registration. Check out VoteAmerica for a breakdown of every state’s voter registration deadlines.


What are the identification requirements for registering to vote and voting?

If you’re registering to vote for the first time by mail or online, you must provide a driver’s license number or the last four digits of your Social Security number on the voter registration application. If you don’t have either, you’ll be assigned a voter ID number once the registration is approved.

But what about ID requirements when it comes time to cast your ballot? Federal law requires first-time voters who registered by mail to show proof of identification the first time you vote. Laws regarding ID for non-first-time voters vary by state. As of this year, 35 states require proof of identity — such as a birth certificate, passport, driver’s license or some type of photo identification card — at the polls. The other 15 states use other methods, such as signature verification, to check identity. If you plan to cast a mail-in vote, you may need to provide a form of ID with your absentee ballot application, depending on your state. Check out VoteAmerica’s chart of identification requirements for voting, broken down by state.

One important thing to note: If you don’t have the identification required for voting in your state, the Help America Vote Act requires poll workers to provide a provisional ballot, which will be counted after your voter eligibility is verified.

Can I vote if I have a felony conviction?

In some states, people who have felony convictions may be ineligible to vote. Laws vary by state and fall into four categories.

  • In Maine and Vermont, those convicted of a felony never lose their right to vote.
  • In 16 states and Washington, D.C., felons lose their ability to vote only while incarcerated.
  • In 21 states, felons lose voting rights throughout their sentence and for a period of time afterward — usually while on parole or probation.
  • And in 11 other states, felons lose their voting rights for an indefinite period of time and may need a governor’s pardon to get their voting rights restored, may have to wait a certain time period after parole or probation, or may need to take other actions to be able to vote again.

The National Conference of State Legislatures has two charts that detail which states fall into the above categories, plus state policies for restoring voting rights for convicted felons.

Other voting requirements and restrictions

There are a few other voting requirements and restrictions to keep in mind.

Can I vote if I’m homeless?

If you’re homeless, you can still register and vote in all 50 states — but you may face some obstacles.

The good news is that the federal voter registration form and many state voter registration forms provide a space for people to give nontraditional home addresses, like shelters or even specific street corners or parks.

The organization Nonprofit Vote recommends that homeless registrants list a shelter address where they can receive mail as their voting address.

Things can get a little trickier depending on your state’s “duration of residency” and personal identification requirements.

Most states require that you live in the state or county for a minimum number of days before you can vote. This period can last up to 30 days. The nonprofit National Coalition for the Homeless outlines states’ duration of residency requirements in this 2009-10 chart. You can also contact your local elections officials to learn more about duration of residency requirements.

Can people with mental challenges vote?

In 39 states and Washington, D.C., laws allow courts to declare people mentally incompetent to vote — but there is no uniformity or set standard for how judges gauge whether someone has the mental capacity to vote.

To learn more about the laws — if any — in your state, check out this 2016 table of state laws affecting voting rights for the mentally disabled, prepared by the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law.

States that do not have these laws include …

  • Colorado
  • Idaho
  • Illinois
  • Indiana
  • Kansas
  • Maine
  • Michigan
  • New Hampshire
  • North Carolina
  • Pennsylvania
  • Vermont

Next steps

If you’re still unsure if you’re eligible to vote in the upcoming election, contact your state or local election office. You can also go VoteAmerica and click on your state for a rundown of info, including voter registration deadlines, polling places and many of the eligibility issues we’ve covered here.

You can check your voter registration status online on the VoteAmerica site. To find your record, you’ll need to enter some personal information, including …

  • Name
  • Address
  • Date of birth
  • Email address
  • Cellphone number

And if you have questions on Election Day about your ability to vote, you can call the Election Protection Hotline to get help in a number of languages.

  • English: 1-866-OUR-VOTE (1-866-687-8683)
  • Spanish: 1-888-VE-Y-VOTA (1-888-839-8682)
  • Arabic: 1-844-YALLA-US  (1-844-925-5287)
  • For Bengali, Cantonese, Hindi, Urdu, Korean, Mandarin, Tagalog or Vietnamese: 1-888-274-8683

About the author: Amy Kalin is a copy editor at Credit Karma. A former journalist, Amy primarily reported on high-profile criminal and civil legal affairs in Los Angeles before transitioning to broadcast news as an investigative segmen… Read more.