Becoming a citizen of the United States through naturalization is a process in which a non-U.S. citizen voluntarily becomes an American citizen. To apply for naturalization to become a U.S. citizen, these are the general requirements:
- Be at least 18 years of age at the time you file the application.
- Have been a lawful permanent resident for the past three or five years (depending on which naturalization category you are applying under).
- Have continuous residence and physical presence in the United States.
- Be able to read, write, and speak basic English.
- Demonstrate good moral character.
- Demonstrate a knowledge and understanding of U.S. history and government.
- Demonstrate a loyalty to the principles of the U.S. Constitution.
- Be willing to take the Oath of Allegiance.
These are 10 Steps You Can Take Now to Prepare You for Citizenship
1. Make sure you have been a permanent residence based on a lawful admission for the statutory period.
How long must a person be a resident before applying for U.S. citizenship?
Section 318 of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) requires a naturalization applicant to show that he or she has been lawfully admitted to the United States for permanent residence (Green Card) in accordance with all applicable provisions of the INA in effect at the time of admission or adjustment. If the LPR status was not lawfully obtained for any reason, the applicant is ineligible for naturalization even if the applicant was admitted as an LPR and possesses a Permanent Resident Card. For this reason, it is important to analyze the applicant’s records before applying for Naturalization.
A person is generally considered a Lawful Permanent Resident (LPR) at the time USCIS approves the applicant’s adjustment application or at the time the applicant is admitted into the United States with an immigrant visa. With a few exceptions1, most applicants applying for adjustment of status become LPRs on the date USCIS approves the application.
The generally required five-year period as LPR begins on the date of admission. If the applicant obtained LPR through marriage with a US Citizen, the statutory period is reduced to 3-years from the date of admission. In this case, the applicant has the burden to prove that she or he is still married to and living with the U.S. Citizen, and the spouse has been a U.S. citizen for the past 3 years.
2. Physical presence in the US.
Another requirement to apply for U.S. citizenship is that applicant must have physically lived in the United States for at least half of five years (more specifically 913 days) or at least half of three years (548 days) if you’re married to a U.S. citizen.
This requirement may offer some challenges for applicants who travel abroad quite often and for extended periods of time. If you cannot show the minimum physical presence for the required statutory period, you may need to delay the application for naturalization, or, in some situations, you will have to start counting the required statutory period all over again.
a. Commuter Status.
Living in as US City near the border with Mexico or Canada, allows LPRs to obtain a Commuter card without risking his or her status as Permanent Resident. Under normal circumstances, a lawful permanent resident (LPR) is considered to have abandoned his or her status if he or she moves to another country with the intent to reside there permanently. However, in certain situations, an LPR may commence or continue to reside in a foreign contiguous territory and commute to the United States for employment. This administrative grant of “commuter status” is only available to LPRs living in Canada or Mexico.
The two types of commuters are as follows:
- Those who commute for regular employment in the United States; and
- Those who enter to perform seasonal work in the United States, but whose presence in the United States is for 6 months or less, in the aggregate, during any continuous 12-month period (seasonal commuters or seasonal workers).
LPRs must use the Application to Replace Permanent Resident Card (Form I-90) to take up commuter status or when taking up actual residence in the United States after having been a commuter. Commuters receive a Permanent Resident Card (PRC) that indicates their status as a commuter.
Having commuter status does not guarantee a presumption of abandonment of LPR status. A commuter who has been out of regular employment in the United States for a continuous period of 6 months loses LPR status. However, an exception applies when employment in the United States was interrupted for reasons beyond the person’s control (other than lack of a job opportunity) or when the commuter can demonstrate that he or she has worked 90 days in the United States during the 12-month period before the application for admission into the United States at a port of entry.
b. Effect of Breaks in Continuous Residence.
An applicant for naturalization has the burden of establishing that he or she has complied with the continuous residence requirement, if applicable. Generally, there are two ways outlined in the statute in which the continuity of residence can be broken:
- The applicant is absent from the United States for more than 6 months but less than 1 year; or
- The applicant is absent from the United States for 1 year or more.
The concept of continuous residence involves the applicant maintaining a permanent dwelling place in the United States over the period of time required by the statute. The residence in question “is the same as that alien’s domicile, or principal actual dwelling place, without regard to the alien’s intent, and the duration of an alien’s residence in a particular location measured from the moment the alien first establishes residence in that location.” Accordingly, the applicant’s residence is generally the applicant’s actual physical location regardless of his or her intentions to claim it as his or her residence.
An officer may also review whether an applicant with multiple absences of less than 6 months each will be able to satisfy the continuous residence requirement. In some of these cases, an applicant may not be able to establish that his or her principal actual dwelling place is in the United States or establish residence within the United States for the statutorily required period of time.
An LPR’s lengthy or frequent absences from the U.S. can also result in a denial of naturalization due to abandonment of permanent residence.
3. Study for the Civic and English Test.
A naturalization applicant must demonstrate an understanding of the English language, including an ability to read, write, and speak words in ordinary usage. An applicant must also demonstrate a knowledge and understanding of the fundamentals of the history and principles and form of government of the United States (civics). These are the English and civics requirements for naturalization.
a. Exceptions to the English and Civic Test.
There are statutory exceptions to the English and Civics requirements for Naturalization.
- If a person is 50-year-old or older and resided in the United States as a lawful permanent resident (LPR) for at least 20 years at time of filing, she/he is except form the English test but is still required to take the civics test in the language of his/her choice.
- If a person is 55-year-old or older and resided in the United States as an LPR for at least 15 years at time of filing. she/he is except form the English test but is still required to take the civics test in the language of his/her choice.
- If a person is 65-year-old or older and resided in the United States as an LPR for at least 20 years at time of filing, is except form the English test but officers administer specially designated civic test forms. Applicants may take the civics test in their language of choice using an interpreter.
- A person may be eligible for an exception to the English and civics naturalization requirements if he or she is unable to comply with these requirements because of a physical or developmental disability or a mental impairment by filing Form N 648 Medical Certification for Disability Exception.
4. Applicant Must Show Good Moral Character.
An applicant for naturalization must show that he or she has been, and continues to be, a person of good moral character during the five-year period immediately preceding his or her application for naturalization and up to the time of the Oath of Allegiance. Good moral character means character which measures up to the standards of average citizens of the community in which the applicant resides.
An officer’s assessment of whether an applicant meets the good moral character requirement includes an officer’s review of:
- The applicant’s record;
- Statements provided in the naturalization application; and
- Oral testimony provided during the interview.
5. Can Criminal Records Beyond 5 Years Affect Me?
An Immigration Officer is not limited to reviewing the applicant’s conduct only during the applicable 5-year good moral character period. An applicant’s conduct prior to the statutory period may affect the applicant’s ability to establish good moral character if the applicant’s present conduct does not reflect a reformation of character or the earlier conduct is relevant to the applicant’s present moral character. An officer must consider the totality of the circumstances and weigh all factors, favorable and unfavorable, when considering reformation of character in conjunction with GMC within the relevant period.
The following factors may be relevant in assessing an applicant’s current moral character and reformation of character:
- Family ties and background;
- Absence or presence of other criminal history;
- Employment history;
- Other law-abiding behavior (for example, meeting financial obligations, paying taxes);
- Community involvement;
- Credibility of the applicant;
- Compliance with probation; and
- Length of time in United States.
There are permanent bars to good moral character: murder, aggravated felony, persecution, genocide, torture, or severe violations of religious freedom.
In addition to the permanent bars, the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) and corresponding regulations include bars to good moral character that are not permanent in nature. USCIS refers to these bars as “conditional bars.” These bars are triggered by specific acts, offenses, activities, circumstances, or convictions within the statutory period for naturalization, including the period prior to filing and up to the time of the Oath of Allegiance.
Consulting with a trusted attorney is recommended if your situation involves possible bars to good moral character.
6. Registration With the Selective Service.
Applicants who are a man who lived in the U.S. or got the green card at any time between the ages of 18 and 26, they were expected to register with the U.S. Selective Service System.
Failure to register for the Selective Service is not a statutory bar nor a regulatory bar to good moral character. Importantly, the Federal Selective Act (50 USC App. § 462(g) requires that no one be denied a federal right or benefit if he shows by a preponderance of the evidence that his failure to register for Selective Service was not knowing and willful. There are a few exceptions to this requirement.
7. Avoid these common mistakes
a. You are a US citizen already.
If you were born outside the United States, but one or both of your parents were U.S. citizens when you were born, you may still be a U.S. citizen. This is called citizenship through derivation. There are usually additional specific requirements, and sometimes citizenship can be through a combination of a parent and grandparent.
Whether or not someone born outside the United States to a U.S. citizen parent is a U.S. citizen depends on the law in effect when the person was born. These laws have changed over the years, but usually require a combination of the parent being a U.S. citizen when the child was born, and the parent having lived in the United States or its possessions for a specific period of time. Derivative citizenship can be quite complex and may require careful legal analysis. Consulting with an experienced attorney is recommended.
b. Underage vs. Automatic Acquisition of Citizenship after Birth.
As a general rule, if you are a LPR and have not reached 18-year-old, you are not eligible to apply for naturalization.
However, the Child Citizenship Act of 2000 (CCA) created only one statutory provision and method for children in the United States to automatically acquire citizenship after birth. A child born outside of the United States automatically becomes a U.S. citizen when all of the following conditions have been met on or after February 27, 2001:
- The person is a child of a parent who is a U.S. citizen by birth or through naturalization (including an adoptive parent);[
- The child is under 18 years of age;
- The child is a lawful permanent resident (LPR); and
- The child is residing in the United States in the legal and physical custody of the U.S. citizen parent.
8. Fill Out the Application for Naturalization.
If you are eligible to apply for naturalization, you can fill out the Form N 400 online by creating your free online account.
You should carefully read the instructions to complete Form N-400. Collect the necessary documents to demonstrate your eligibility for naturalization. If you reside outside the United States, get 2 passport-style photos taken. Use the document checklist (PDF, 178.19 KB) to make sure you collect all the required documents.
9. Fingerprints and Interview Appointments.
After submitting the application and paying the application fees, if you need to take biometrics, USCIS will send you an appointment notice that includes your biometrics appointment date, time, and location. You should arrive at the designated location at the scheduled time and have your biometrics taken.
Once all the preliminary processes on your case are complete, USCIS will schedule an interview with you to complete the naturalization process. You must report to the USCIS office at the date and time on your appointment notice, otherwise the case will be considered abandoned.
10. Can I Have Dual Citizenship?
Before applying for U.S. citizenship, you may want to consider if you can have dual citizenship.
The concept of dual nationality means that a person is a national of two countries at the same time. Each country has its own nationality laws based on its own policy. Persons may have dual nationality by automatic operation of different laws rather than by choice. For example, a child born in a foreign country to U.S. national parents may be both a U.S. national and a national of the country of birth. Or, an individual having one nationality at birth may naturalize at a later date in another country and become a dual national.
U.S. law does not mention dual nationality or require a person to choose one nationality or another. A U.S. citizen may naturalize in a foreign state without any risk to his or her U.S. citizenship. However, persons who acquire a foreign nationality after age 18 by applying for it may relinquish their U.S. nationality if they wish to do so. In order to relinquish U.S. nationality by virtue of naturalization as a citizen of a foreign state, the law requires that the person must apply for the foreign nationality voluntarily and with the intention to relinquish U.S. nationality. Intent may be shown by the person’s statements and conduct.
Dual nationals owe allegiance to both the United States and the foreign country. They are required to obey the laws of both countries, and either country has the right to enforce its laws. It is important to note the problems attendant to dual nationality. Claims of other countries upon U.S. dual-nationals often place them in situations where their obligations to one country are in conflict with the laws of the other. In addition, their dual nationality may hamper efforts of the U.S. Government to provide consular protection to them when they are abroad, especially when they are in the country of their second nationality.
U.S. nationals, including dual nationals, must use a U.S. passport to enter and leave the United States. Dual nationals may also be required by the foreign country to use its passport to enter and leave that country. Use of the foreign passport to travel to or from a country other than the United States is not inconsistent with U.S. law.
However, dual citizenship is regulated by every country, and while the US allows more than one nationality, some countries don’t allow dual citizenship. As a result, you may be required to give up on your US citizenship or your other nationality.
There are countries that allow dual citizenship with the U.S. ( Portugal, Sweden, Tunisia, Australia, Belgium, Philippines, France, Hungary, and others.)
There are countries that allow dual citizenship only by descent. Therefore, if you become a naturalized citizen in any of the following countries, you may have to renounce your US nationality: Liechtenstein, Netherlands, Croatia, Bulgaria, Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Cambodia.
There are countries where US dual citizenship is not allowed: Andorra, Japan, Guyana, Panama, Qatar, Cuba, Estonia, Montenegro, and others.
The US Immigration and Naturalization is a complex body of law that requires extensive knowledge of the law. Additionally, becoming a US citizen means that you have legal obligations, and it may have a legal impact on your birth citizenship. Consulting with an experienced attorney is recommended.