U.S. Citizenship and Naturalization

Most people become US citizens through one of the following ways:

Eligibility Requirements for Naturalization

To become a naturalized US citizen, you must meet several general requirements including age, residence, presence, moral character, English language, U.S. history, etc. Below is a list of basic requirements for naturalization, for more details please download USCIS Guide to Naturalization (03/2012 edition):

  • You are a lawful permanent resident (green card holder);
  • You must be 18 years of age or older;
  • You have resided in the US as a 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 (Note that "resided" means "retained legal residence," which is different than "physically present" in the following requirement);
  • You have been physically present in the US for at least half of the last 5 years (30 months) ("physically present" means you are actually in the U.S.);
  • You have resided within a state or district for at least 3 months;
  • You must be a person of good moral character (certain crimes such as aggravated felony, drug related, gambling offenses, prostitution, etc. will most likely disqualify an applicant);
  • You can read, write, speak and understand basic English;
  • You have a basic knowledge of US history and government (see test questions);
  • You must show attachment to the principles of the Constitution;
  • You may also apply for citizenship if
    1. you have been a lawful permanent resident for 3 years if you obtained LPR status based on a marriage to a U.S. citizen, and you have been married to and living with the same citizen for the past three years (Note that the 3-year period starts with the date your green card is approved, even if it is a conditional green card); or,
    2. you have served in the U.S. Armed Forces; or,
    3. you belong to one of several groups eligible for naturalization (e.g. people who are nationals but not citizens).

How to Calculate Continuous Residence

The five-year "continuous residence" requirement means that you have not left the United States for a long period of time during the five years prior to your application for naturalization. If you leave the United States for too long, you may interrupt your continuous residence.

  • If you left the United States for six months or less, you are OK. You still maintain continuous residence;
  • If you left the United States for more than six months, but less than one year, you have broken your continuous residence unless you can prove otherwise. You need to provide additional documents;
  • If you left the United States for one year or more, you almost certainly have broken your continuous residence. The time you spent before leaving the U.S. will not count toward meeting the five-year requirement. This is true even if you have a re-entry permit.
  • If you left the United States for one year or more, but returned within two years, the last 364 days (1 year minus 1 day) outside the U.S. actually count toward your time in continuous residence. However, as mentioned above, the time you spent before leaving the U.S. does not.

Please refer to the Guide to Naturalization linked above for more detailed information on continuous residence.

How to Apply for Naturalization

To apply for citizenship:

  • Make sure you meet all eligibility requirement;
  • Download Form N-400, Application for Naturalization;
  • Fill out Form N-400 completely;
  • Take two standard passport photos;
  • Assemble all supporting documents (copies of green card, etc.);
  • Send the application including fees to the service center;
  • Receive a fingerprint appointment notice;
  • Get your fingerprints taken for FBI fingerprint check;
  • Wait for FBI name check to clear;
  • Receive an interview notice;
  • Attend the interview, bring all documents required by USCIS;
  • Answer questions, under oath, related to your naturalization application;
  • Take the English and civics tests during the interview;
  • Receive a decision after the interview: Granted (approval), Continued (on hold), or Denied;
  • If approved, you will receive a notice to attend a naturalization ceremony;
  • Check in at the ceremony and return your green card to USCIS;
  • Take the Oath of Allegiance to the United States;
  • Receive your Certificate of Naturalization and become a US citizen.

When to Apply for Naturalization

If you are applying based on five years as a lawful permanent resident (LPR) or three years as a LPR married to a U.S. citizen, you may apply for naturalization no earlier than 90 calendar days before the date you meet the "continuous residence" requirement. For example, if June 1, 2010 is your 5th anniversary of becoming a permanent resident, March 3, 2010 will be the earliest date when you can file N-400 to apply for naturalization, assuming you meet all other requirements at the time.

Another example: If a K-1 visa holder's conditional green card is approved on June 1, 2010, she will be eligible to apply to remove the conditions on March 3, 2012 (90 days before the 2nd anniversary), then on March 3, 2013 she will be eligible to apply for naturalization (90 days before the 3rd anniversary), assuming she meets all other requirements.

You can use the Date Calculator to figure out the earliest date when you can apply for citizenship.

When does My Permanent Residence Begin

The date you became a permanent resident is printed on your green card (Permanent Resident Card, formerly known as an Alien Registration Card).

What exactly is the 3-month state residence requirement?

This requirement means that you must have resided within a state or district for at least three months prior to filing your N-400 application. More specifically:

  • The 3-month period must be immediately preceding the filing of your application; and
  • You must maintain residence within a state or district during the 3-month period. However, this does not mean you have to be physically present in the residence or the state for three months. For example, if you have been a California resident and have lived in your CA home for two months, then travel to New York for one month, you may file N-400 immediately upon returning to California as long as your one-month trip is temporary in nature. If you live in CA for two months, then relocate to NY, you must wait three more months before you can file N-400 from the state of New York.

Benefits of Becoming a U.S. Citizen:

  • Become eligible to Vote. Federal elections definitely require U.S. citizenship, and most state-level elections are limited to citizens also;
  • Help family members immigrate to the United States. For many first-generation immigrants, this means they can bring their parents to live with them in the U.S.
  • Travel to many countries without visas, if you have a U.S. passport;
  • Become eligible for jobs at government agencies;
  • Become eligible for jobs at private companies that receive military and defense contracts;
  • Run for office and become an elected official;
  • Never worry about lost or expired green card;
  • Never worry about losing permanent residence.

How Long Does It Take to Become Naturalized

After Form N-400 is submitted, it can take several months to more than a year for it to be approved. Note that all applicants will have to undergo background security checks before becoming citizens.

Do I Become a Citizen after N-400 Approval

If your N-400 is approved by the USCIS, you will become a citizen as soon as you take the Oath of Allegiance to the United States in a formal naturalization ceremony. Sometimes you may take the Oath immediately after your interview, but often you will attend a ceremony on a later date.

What is My Proof of Being a U.S. Citizen

You will receive a Certificate of Naturalization after becoming a U.S. citizen. Keep the certificate in a safe place. If you lose it, you may use Form N-565 to replace it.

Your U.S. issued passport is also evidence of your citizenship. For this reason it is strongly recommended that you apply for a U.S. passport as soon as you become naturalized.

Can I Apply for Naturalization if My Green Card has Expired or will Expire Soon?

Yes, but you may have to renew your green card using Form I-90. If you apply for naturalization less than 6 months before the expiration date on your green card, or if it has already expired, you must renew your green card. If your green card is still valid for six or more months at the time you apply for citizenship, you do not need to renew it even if your naturalization application may still be pending when your green card expires.

If your green card is lost or stolen, you should replace it before applying for naturalization. This is indicated by the first item of the Document Checklist in USCIS' Guide to Naturalization (M-476). If you haven't received the replacement green card yet, you can include a copy of your I-90 receipt in your citizenship application.

New vs. Old Naturalization Test

USCIS will begin administering the redesigned (new) naturalization test on October 1, 2008. Use the chart below to determine if you will take the old or redesigned (new) test.:

USCIS New vs. Old Naturalization Test
Date Form N-400 Filed Date of Initial Exam Test to be Taken If Applicant Fails Initial Exam, Re-test to be Taken
Before October 1, 2008 Before October 1, 2008 Old Test Old Test
Before October 1, 2008 On or After October 1, 2008 up until October 1, 2009 Applicant's Choice of -Old Test or -Redesigned (New) Test The same version of the test as the one taken during the initial examination
On or After October 1, 2008 On or After October 1, 2008 Redesigned (New) Test Redesigned (New) Test
At Any Time (i.e. Before, On or After October 1, 2008) On or After October 1, 2009 Redesigned (New) Test Redesigned (New) Test

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