My Journey to U.S. Citizenship – Step 5: Oath Ceremony

I have been waiting for the oath ceremony since my citizenship interview on September 18, 2012. Today my USCIS online status finally changed:

On September 27, 2012, we placed your application in the oath scheduling que. We will send a notice when the ceremony is scheduled. If you move prior to the scheduled ceremony, please use our Change of Address online tool to update your case with your new address or call our customer service center at 1-800-375-5283.

Naturalization Applicants: you will receive your certificate at your oath ceremony. You can expect to be scheduled for an oath ceremony within 45 days of receiving your recommended approval. Many offices schedule approved applicants for the oath ceremony on the same day as the day of the interview. Please check the local office profile page on our website to determine if the office where you will be interviewed schedules same day oath ceremonies.

USCIS local office in San Diego usually (always?) schedules their monthly oath ceremony on a Wednesday, so I’m guessing it will be October 24th or 31st. However, with California’s voter registration deadline coming soon, I’m hoping that USCIS will take that into consideration and actually holds a ceremony earlier next month. We’ll see.

On October 3rd, I received the oath ceremony notification in the mail. Unfortunately, it is scheduled for October 24th, two days after the California voter registration deadline (15 days before general election). I don’t understand why USCIS couldn’t organize a ceremony one week earlier, so that hundreds of new citizens would be able to vote in this year’s election. Oh well…I’m still happy my journey will finally be over, but wish it were a couple days earlier.

While waiting for the oath ceremony, I sent an email to USCIS Public Engagement and expressed my disappointment over the timing. An officer replied on the 9th, and told me that new citizens are actually exempt from the 15-day registration deadline. She also said there would be representatives from the County Registrar of Voters at the oath ceremony to explain in more details. I was very glad when I saw the email because I sincerely wanted to vote.

The day is finally here! On October 24, I drove to the San Diego Civics Theater for my Oath Ceremony. My appointment was 8am, but I knew the actual ceremony wouldn’t start until 10. So I arrived just past 9am to avoid the long lines. The downside, however, is that I would also be one of the last to receive my certificate at the conclusion of the ceremony.

Inside the hall there was a row of tables stationed by USCIS staff. I handed over my green card and appointment notice. The officer simply put my green card in a waste bin, which already had a bunch of cards – some were already cut up. I almost asked if I could keep it as a souvernier 🙂  The officer found my name in his log book, and assigned me to station 9 for receiving my certificate. I was then given a packet as well as my appointment notice with a big number 9 written on it.

I found a seat and started looking through the package: a certificate holder, some materials about voter registration, flyers regarding how to apply for a passport, and a letter from President Obama welcoming new citizens. I heard that sometimes there may be light performance on stage while people wait for the judge, but not today. I played Angry Birds for a while.

The Oath Ceremony started shortly after 10am. A person from the Department of State came on stage first to discuss U.S. passports and ways to apply for one. Then a lady from the San Diego County Registrar of Voters explained how to register and vote, and the importance of voting. Then the District Judge and a couple of USCIS officials arrived. After the National Anthem, the Judge delivered a short speech welcoming all of us. She mentioned that there was over a thousand people in the room to become new citizens on that day. She asked people to stand up to be recognized, and to receive a round of applause from the audience when their home country was called. It was actually amazing to see how many countries were represented in this one event. And people from countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq received loud cheers from the crowd. Although most countries had only a couple people representing them, when Mexico was called nearly half the room stood up!

What followed was all of us taking the Oath of Allegiance together, by repeating after the Judge:

I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.

We then recited the Pledge of Allegiance together, led by an USCIS official:

I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation, under Godindivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

This concluded our oath ceremony.

What happened next was a little embarrassing. We were supposed to remain seated until being called to the USCIS stations. One section apparently didn’t hear it, and started walking over to the tables freely. Then people sitting in other sections started to follow them, and an orderly gathering quickly turned into a free market. An organizer had to use a loud speaker and requested everyone to go back to their seats. This time it went smoothly and I got my certificate in about 25 minutes.

DOS and county officials were available afterwards to answer questions on passports and voting. I completed my voter registration on site. Since it was already too late to vote by mail or go to a poll station election day, I could bring my receipt and vote at the registrar’s office. I plan to do so within the next few days.

By now my journey to U.S. citizenship is officially over. I submitted my application on May 9, 2012, and received my Naturalization Certificate on October 24. Compared to my green card application, which took five years and many unexpected turns, this has been smooth sailing all the way. More importantly, it was done just in time so that I can finally cast my vote on the presidential election and California propositions.

Entire N-400 Citizenship Application Process:

My Journey to U.S. Citizenship – Step 4: Interview

Today I was pleasantly surprised when I saw a citizenship interview notice in my mailbox (8/17/2012). I was surprised because my USCIS online status never changed. In fact it is still showing Initial Review right now. Normally it would’ve changed to “your N400, APPLICATION FOR NATURALIZATION was placed in line for interview scheduling. When scheduling is complete,  you will receive a written notice with a time and place for your interview.” But for some reason, mine was never updated.

The I-797C notice was dated 8/14, and the interview is scheduled for mid September.

The time finally arrived. On September 18, I took my citizenship tests at the San Diego office.

I got to the USCIS office a little before 8am and my appointment was 8:15. There was a table at the font entrance and a big sign asking people to put their appointment letters in a box (except infopass notices). A worker later collected the letters and brought them inside.

The waiting room was about 10% full. I saw a couple people holding the “Learn About the United States” booklet, apparently waiting for their interviews. Two windows were open with immigration officers sitting behind them, who I assume were talking to people with infopass appointments. While I was waiting, someone (IO) would periodically come out to the waiting room and call people inside.

Then I noticed on the big sign by the front door that N-400 applicants are also required to complete a new form. It is a simply one-page form that asks if you want to change your legal name and if anything has changed since the N-400 was filed. I quickly filled it up and left it in the box (my original appointment letter was already picked up by then).

My name was called around 8:20. I followed an immigration officer to his cubicle where the interview and tests would take place. The IO looked rather young, and after a brief greeting, wasted no time and went straight to the interview.

I would say that it didn’t start very well. The conversation went like this:

IO: So you’re from China?

Me: Yes.

IO: Do you still have a house there?

Me: No, I don’t have a house.

IO: But you lived in China? Where is your birth certificate and resident record?

Me: Resident record?

IO: Yes, the one that shows your parents, siblings, home address, schools you went to, etc.

Me: I don’t have that, the only thing I have…(he cut me off here)

IO: Everyone I interviewed had a resident record! How do you prove you residence in China?

Me: We have a document called “hukou” back in China. But when I left for the U.S., the policy at that time was that I had to turn it in.

IO: So you can’t prove anything?

Me: I have a notarized document to…( show my birthdate and family members, but he cut me off again)

IO: Did you bring it?

Me: No, but I brought my passport (I was a bit concerned at this point and honestly a little upset too – the interview notice never mentioned to bring anything like that, and he apparently doesn’t believe me that I don’t have a “resident record” which I’d never heard of in China)

The conversion went on a bit longer but I can’t remember the exact words. I basically explained that I had to turn in my “hukou” and national ID card in order to apply for a passport, and my notarized documents, which I later found out were in my file right on his desk, are the only ones that confirm my birth date and also show my family members. He either believed me or gave up, and said:

IO: Show me your ID please.

Me: (Handing over my driver’s license and green card)

What followed was pretty routine. I was asked to stand up and raise my right hand, and answer yes or no when he asked if everything I say during the interview is true. Then he started to go over my N-400 application. He didn’t go though every entry on the form, but asked me to confirm some of them. So it went quickly with just one little hickup:

IO: Have you been fingerprinted outside the U.S.?

Me: No.

IO: No? You didn’t get fingerprinted the last time you got your passport?

Me: The last time I got it was in Los Angeles (I was trying to say it wasn’t out of the United States as in his original question)

IO: Did you understand my question? You didn’t have to submit fingerprints when you applied for a passport?

Me: I don’t recall being fingerprinted.

IO: You didn’t have to submit an application package and go through security checks in China?

Me: Yes, I did and it was a complicated process…

IO: So you do remember!

Me: Yes, but I don’t recall being fingerprinted during the process.

Ok, as you can see this episode came out of nowhere! He was just going through my N-400 application which doesn’t ask about fingerprinting at all. So I’m starting to think that maybe I did misunderstand his question, but he never tried to clarify and just started digging. Anyway, he moved on with the rest of the N-400 after that.

The next section was Civics test. He got a piece of paper with 10 questions on it and started from the top. The questions were easy: What is one promise you make when you become a United States citizen? Who is the governor of California? Where is the Statue of Liberty? I don’t even remember the others but he stopped after six questions. So I passed the test.

The following section was reading and writing. I was asked to read one sentence “Who lives in the White House,” and write down “The President lives in the White House.” That was it.

At this point the interview was pretty much finished. I signed a few things including the two photographs I submitted along with the N-400 package. The IO’s mood was also much improved as the interview went on. He said he would recommend approval and I should expect a notice to appear for the Oath Ceremony soon. He also said he’d be at the ceremony so if I could stop by and say hello that’d be great.

Interestingly, he asked how I felt about the interview. I said it went well, and it was smooth (what else could I say?) He then said the only thing for him was that I didn’t have a resident record which he thought everyone was supposed to have. Anyway, no biggie. He gave me a sheet of paper indicating that his recommendation for approval and that was the end of my citizenship interview.

Entire N-400 Citizenship Application Process:

My Journey to U.S. Citizenship – Step 3: Fingerprinting

The next step after accepting an application is to run a background check. These security checks typically include a fingerprint check, FBI name check and other fraud detection measures, and it all starts with a biometrics appointment.

On June 5, 2012 my online status indicated that USCIS has sent out the Biometrics Notification. On the 7th, I received it in the mail. It is a Form I-797C with a Code-3 appointment, scheduled for 6/25. Code-3 means I’ll have to provide all ten fingerprints and also take a digital photo.

I have a conflict next Monday. So I decided to try my luck and do a walk-in today. If rejected, I figured I could always re-schedule it then.

I arrived at the USCIS Application Support Center in San Marcos, CA just after 1pm. The office is located in a small shopping center just off Highway 78. When I got there the parking lot was quite full, so I was kind of expecting a big crowd. But to my surprise, there were only about five people waiting inside the room.

I handed my appointment notice to the officer at the front desk. He glanced over it and gave me a form to fill out, without asking any questions. He did remind me to turn off my cell phone, which I already left in my car.

It was a short questionnaire requesting some basic information, such as name, A-number, receipt number, DOB, citizenship, race, eye color, hair color, height and weight. In fact that was about it. It took me a couple minutes to finish the form, and the same officier verified the information against my appointment notice. He also asked to see my green card and driver’s license. The I-797 specifically said citizenship applicants must bring their green card, while other applicants only need to show their regular ID’s.

At this time I mentioned my original appointment was for next Monday but I couldn’t make it. He said no problem and gave me a ticket number along with a packet containing the biometrics notice, the questionnaire, my green card and driver’s license. He also gave me a printed booklet to study at home (M-638, Quick Civics Lessons for the Naturalization Test). In addition, he asked to see the front of my hands, apparently to check if there is anything that will interfere with collecting fingerprints.

I then sat down for just a couple minutes before my number was called.

Another officer/technician led me to a work station located in the same room. He scanned the two barcodes on the I-797 and manually typed in other information, including those I just put on the form. He then did a test run and said my fingerprints looked a bit light, so he started wiping my fingers as well as the scanner glass with a damped paper towel. Glad I didn’t eat pizza at lunch!

Once everything looked good he started the fingerprinting process, which was somewhat tedious: Four fingers on my left hand first, then left thumb, right four fingers, and finally right thumb. After that it was each finger individually, rolling from left to right while scanning. The next step was taking a digital photo. There was already a camera set up by the scanner so it was quick and easy. Finally, I signed my name on an electronic keypad. He double checked everything on the screen and told me it was done. I got the packet back (except for the questionnaire) and also filled out a short customer satisfaction survey.

So my walk-in biometrics appointment took about 15 mintues from start to finish – much better than I expected. The technician did mention that if I came in this morning I’d have to wait probably 30 – 50 minutes, so I guess it is YMMV (Your Mileage May Vary). I’m glad this step is now over, and we’ll see how long it takes for my background check to clear.

Update 8/17/2012: Received interview notice in the mail today with interview scheduled for 9/18. Strangely, my online USCIS case status never changed. Lately I’ve been anxiously checking my case status nearly every day, but it has been stuck on Initial Review since June 5. Oh well, I won’t complain.

Entire N-400 Citizenship Application Process:

My Journey to U.S. Citizenship – Step 2: Acceptance

May 10, 2012:
According to the delivery confirmation from U.S. Post Office, my N-400 application package was delivered early this morning to USCIS (P.O. Box in Phoenix, AZ).
May 11, 2012:
USCIS accepted my application and entered it into their system (as I later found out from the email notification I received).
May 15, 2012:
I received an email from USCIS notifying me that my application has been received and a receipt number has been assigned to my case. USCIS sends out notices by email only if the applicant completed Form G-1145, E-Notification of Application/Petition, which is optional.

Dear Applicant/Petitioner:

Your USCIS application/petition has been received and routed to the National Benefits Center for processing. Within 7-10 days by standard mail you will receive your official Receipt Notice (Form I-797) with your Receipt Number NBC*00269xxxx. With the official Receipt Notice (Form I-797) you may visit www.uscis.gov where you can check the status of your application using My Case Status. We suggest you wait until you have received your Form I-797 before checking My Case Status.

In addition to the email, I also received a text message on my mobile phone with essentially the same but shorter notice:

USCIS: Your application was received. Receipt # NBC*00269xxxx. Official Receipt Notice (Form I-797) to follow in mail. Msg & Data rates may apply. NO NOT REPLY.

Even though I haven’t received Form I-797, I was able to check the status of my application online using the receipt number included in the email above. Surprisingly, my case status is already at the Initial Review stage (not Acceptance as I was expecting).

On May 11, 2012, we received this N400 APPLICATION FOR NATURALIZATION, and mailed you a notice describing how we will process your case. Please follow any instructions on this notice. You will be notified by mail when a decision is made, or if the office needs something from you…
During this step, USCIS initiates the background checks of the applicant/petitioner and identifies issues that may need to be addressed either during an interview or by asking the applicant/petitioner to submit additional information or documentation. USCIS reviews the applicant’s/petitioner’s criminal history, determines if there are national security concerns that need to be addressed, and reviews the application/petition for fraud indicators.

Also on May 15, 2012, my check for the payment of $680 was cashed.

May 17, 2012:
Received Form I-797 via regular mail. The notice contains three dates:

  • Received Date: May 10, 2012
  • Priority Date: May 10, 2012
  • Notice Date: May 14, 2012

Entire N-400 Citizenship Application Process:

My Journey to U.S. Citizenship – Step 1: Application

Today is the start of my journey to U.S. citizenship. I mailed my N-400 application to USCIS this morning, and will be blogging and recording each step along the way until the Naturalization Certificate arrives.

I will try to be as specific as possible, with hopefully enough details to help other DIYers. At a minimum, I would like to document the entire process so that people thinking about becoming a citizen have a live example to reference to. However, please keep in mind that your situation may be different from mine and adjustment in your application may be necessary.

Eligibility
First thing first, let’s check to see if I’m eligible to apply for citizenship, by going through the requirement list line by line:

  • You are a lawful permanent resident (green card holder): Sure.
  • You must be 18 years of age or older: I wish I had to think twice about this but yes, I met this requirement years ago! Oh well……time flies.
  • You have resided in the US as a lawful permanent resident (LPR) for at least 5 years, with no single absence from the US of more than one year. Absence of more than 6 months may restart the clock of counting Continuous Residence: Check. I did leave the U.S. several times on business and personal trips, but none exceeded three weeks, so I’m good.
  • You have been physically present in the US for at least half of the last 5 years (30 months): No problem. The total time I spent outside the U.S. in the last 5 years was less than two months, so I definitedly meet this requirement.
  • You have resided within a state or district for at least 3 months: Yep, been calling California home for 10 years now.
  • You must be a person of good moral character: I certainly think so 🙂
  • You can read, write, speak and understand basic English: No problem.
  • You have a basic knowledge of US history and government: Check (Note to myself: Go over the test questions before interview just in case).
  • You must show attachment to the principles of the Constitution: Done.

So, it appears that I’m indeed eligible. Now the question is when to file an application.

Note that my case is based on permanent residence through employment, but there are other ways to become an LPR and their naturalization requirments may be slightly different. For example, if you obtained your green card through marriage to a U.S. citizen, you only have to wait 3 years instead of 5 to be eligible for citizenship. Also, members and veterans of the U.S. armed forces, as well as their dependents, may be eligible for citizenship and may even qualify for expedited processing.

When to file?
You can apply for naturalization at any time as long as you meet the requirements at the time of filing. But if you want to become a citizen as soon as possible, you need to figure out the earliest date you can submit your N-400. USCIS will reject your application if you file too early.

You may submit Form N-400 up to 90 calendar days before your 5th (or 3rd if marriage-based) anniversary of becoming a permanent resident. For example, if your green card says “August 1, 2007,” you meet the 5-year permanent residence requirement on “August 1, 2012.” The earliest date you can apply for naturalization would then be May 3, 2012.

I’ve built a date calculator that can be used for this purpose. All you have to do is to select your anniversary date, and subtract 90 days (not 3 months) from it to get your early filing date.

The USCIS considers an application “filed” when they receive the package, and they don’t go by postmarks. So if you are in an absolute hurry, and want to make sure your application is received on exactly May 3rd as in the example above, you can actually mail it on the 2nd if you choose Next-Day courier service. If you use regular mail you have no control over when your application will be delivered, so the risk of filing too early would be higher. If possible, give it a few days of cushion just to be safe.

Form N-400
The Form N-400 is fairly straightforward. It took me less than half an hour from start to finish. One thing that helped was my habbit of scanning all immigration related documents, making it easy to search for information. My scanned old passport, for example, allowed me to quickly figure out the exact dates I was outside the country.

USCIS has the form, instructions, eligibility worksheet, and document checklist on their website for free download.

Form N-400 requires the following information, and some of them , if applicable to you, may need extra time to gather:

  • Part 1: Your Name and A-Number, including opportunity to change your legal name
  • Part 2: Your Eligibility
  • Part 3: Personal Information: SSN, DOB, Date of Becoming Permanent Resident, Current citizenship, Marital Status, Waiver Requests, etc.
  • Part 4: Address and Phone Number
  • Part 5: Information for Criminal Records Search: Gender, Height, Race, etc.
  • Part 6, Residence and Employment History for the Last Five Years
  • Part 7: Time Outside the U.S. including Exact Dates for Each Trip
  • Part 8: Marital History (including Current Spouse’s Marital History)
  • Part 9: Information about Your Children
  • Part 10: Long List of Yes/No Questions
  • Part 11, Your Signature
  • Part 12: Signature of Person Who Prepared the Form for You
  • Part 13: Signature at Interview (Don’t Sign Yet!)
  • Part 14: Signature for Oath of Allegiance (Don’t Sign Yet!)

Application Package
My naturalization application package included only five items:

  1. Form N-400
  2. Copy of both sides of my green card
  3. Personal Check for Payment of $680 ( = $595 + $85)
  4. Two Passport-Style Photos
  5. Form G-1145 for Electronic Notification (Optional)
One thing worth mentioning is that where to file your application depends on your residence (home State), delivery method (Express Mail, Courier Service vs. Regular Mail, e.g.) and whether you’re applying as a member of U.S. armed forces.

Photos

The photo requirements for naturalization are the same as other immigration related applications. You can get them at any place that offers passport photo services, such as the Post Office, Costco, CVS, or even online. However, it is also quite easy to do it yourself with a digital camera and an inkjet printer.

I did mine at home: Stood against a white wall, made sure the lighting was good to avoid shadows, used a tripod, and took a bunch of pictures. Then I simply picked the best (looking) one and used the State Department’s online photo tool to crop it. Finally I printed two photos on glossy media using an all-in-one printer. The hardest task was actually cutting out the 2″x2″ photo and I used a precision knife and a metal ruler to do the job (and it worked out just fine). My camera is a DSLR, but even point-and-shoot cameras in recent years should have sufficient resolution and image quality for this purpose. Cell phone cameras shouldn’t be used, however. The State Department has a resource center offering extensive information on passport photos, including the photo tool I just mentioned.

After all the work, the photos you submitted are probably useless. USCIS will most likely take your photo during your biometric appointment and use the digital image instead. But since they still require actual photos, we’ll have to submit them.

Good enough for now. I’ll update whenever there is a status change.

 Entire N-400 Citizenship Application Process:

USCIS Launches Campaign to Promote Citizenship

USCIS is strongly encouraging eligible permanent residents to become U.S. citizens.

In less than a month, USCIS posted six entries (out of a total of eight) on their blog to promote citizenship and naturalization:

  • June 1: Visit our Citizenship Resource Center
  • May 27: One Woman’s Path to Citizenship: Bangladesh to the United States
  • May 25: Introducing: The Citizenship Public Education and Awareness Initiative
  • May 19: The EB-5 Program: Creating Jobs in America
  • MAY 16: Now Available: USCIS Releases Expanded Civics and Citizenship Toolkit
  • May 13: Introducing I-9 Central
  • MAY 12: Director Mayorkas Discusses Citizenship Programs with German Federal Minister of the Interior Friedrich
  • MAY 06: Do You Want to Become a US Citizen? USCIS Can Help You With the Process

USCIS also launched a series of video, radio and print ads, featuring professional actors telling immigrant stories. “The stories reflect many of the motivating factors immigrants have often noted as common reasons for pursuing U.S. citizenship,” according to USCIS.

I know that most visitors to our websites are still pursuing green cards. With a mounting I-485 backlog, most of you would rather have USCIS spend more time on adjustment of status applications. So if you are disappointed at this new “initiative,” I fully understand. Who can blame an EB-3 applicant, who has waited five+ years and has probably a few more years to go, wanting to see a different priority list.

Even some legal permanent residents may be puzzled by USCIS’ new agenda. The agency is basically trying to persuade long-term green card holders to apply for citizenship. I don’t know how many people simply “forgot” to do so, but I’m willing to bet that a large portion of them chose to remain “green.” If this is the case, I wonder how effective the promotion is going to be.

On the other hand, some permanent residents who can’t wait to become citizens must wait, because of the five-year residence rule (for employment-based immigrants anyway). If a person has already spent more than five years pursuing a green card, while fulfilling all naturalization requirements during that process (physical presence, continuous residence, good morale character, etc.), why can’t the five-year rule be shortened a little bit? Doesn’t it make sense to differentiate it from cases where people enter the U.S. on immigrant visas, and therefore must wait a few years “to be evaluated,” so to speak? Oh well, I know I’m speaking to deaf ears, because such changes can only be implemented by Congress…and that is pretty much the end of story.