How to Become a U.S. Citizen

The process by which someone becomes a citizen of the United States is known as naturalization.  Naturalization does not apply to a person who was born in the United States, or who has acquired or derived United States citizenship through his or her parent(s).  The rules concerning acquiring or deriving citizenship through a parent (or even a grandparent) will not be discussed here.  

The general requirements for naturalization can be found at Sections 310 through 347 of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1990, as amended, codified at Sections 1421 through 1458 of Title 8 of the United States Code (also written as INA §310 or 8 U.S.C. §1421).  Only an individual who is a lawful permanent resident (“LPR”) of the United States of America, and is at least 18 years old, may apply to become a United States citizen through naturalization. 

The application for naturalization is known as the Form N-400 and can be found on the website for the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), www.uscis.gov.  The Form N-400 is filled out, signed and submitted to USCIS along with two face forward passport style photos, a clear copy of the front and of the back of the lawful permanent resident card, the required fee of $725.00 (as of this writing) and any necessary supporting documents.

An applicant for naturalization must have resided continuously in the United States for at least four years and nine months immediately prior to filing the application, after becoming an LPR.  The required period of continuous residence is reduced to two years and nine months for the spouse of a United States citizen who is living in marital union with that spouse, or for someone who obtained LPR status as the battered/abused spouse or child of a U.S. citizen. 

Trips outside the United States within this period must be listed on the Form N-400, with the length in days of all trips.  Short trips do not break the period of continuous residence.  However, many short trips, added together, could make the applicant ineligible if he or she spent too much total time abroad.  The applicant must have been physically present in the United States for at least half of the period of continuous residence.    

Any single long trip (more than six months but less than one year) could break the period of continuous residence, unless the applicant proves that he or she did not abandon residence in the United States.  Absence from the United States for a year or more definitively breaks the period of continuous residence, but the applicant can still qualify for naturalization if a new period of continuous residence can be established for the required amount of time prior to filing.

Naturalization applicants must appear for a personal interview at which they are examined on their knowledge of the English language and American civics and history.  Applicants who are 50 with 20 years as an LPR, or 55 with 15 years as an LPR, qualify for an automatic exemption from the English requirement, but must take the test of civics and history in their own language.  Applicants who are 65 with 20 years as an LPR take an easier version of the civics test. 

The interview for naturalization is conducted in the English language, unless the applicant has qualified for an exemption.  Inability to understand the instructions is an automatic fail.  The applicant must read out loud a selected paragraph in the English language, and then is asked to write three sentences to dictation.  An applicant can be exempted from the English requirement if a doctor attests on a Form N-648 that a medical condition caused the inability to learn English, but such exemptions are difficult to obtain.  All applicants, even those with medical exemptions, must understand the Oath of Citizenship and the responsibilities of a United States citizen.

For the required examination in American civics and history, the examiner takes out a preprinted sheet of ten questions.  The questions are asked verbally, and the applicant must respond out loud.  Once six questions are answered correctly, the test ends and the applicant has passed.  The  ten questions preprinted on the sheet are taken randomly from a larger list of approximately one hundred questions, which can be found on www.uscis.gov.  The answers to certain questions, such as “Who is the governor of your state?” or “Who is the Speaker of the House?” can change.  Those who fail the test in English or civics are scheduled for retesting three months later.  Failing the retest means that the Form N-400 will be denied, without prejudice to applying again.  

Possession of good moral character (GMC) is an important component of becoming a United States citizen.  Lack of GMC leads to either discretionary (subjective) or statutory (required) denial of the application for naturalization.  Failure to pay taxes or court-ordered child support is considered a lack of GMC.  Voting in an election (noncitizens cannot vote) or failure to register with the Selective Service System can be held to show a lack of GMC.  The biggest obstacle to showing possession of GMC is a criminal record.  Having a record does not always mean that someone will be unable to become a citizen.  Eligibility to naturalize depends upon how long ago the crime took place, and the seriousness of the offense.  Minor offenses that happened many years before could still be acceptable, but those criminal convictions categorized as “aggravated felonies” can bar citizenship forever.  Anyone who has a criminal record but still hopes to apply for United States citizenship should obtain certificates of disposition of all arrests, and then discuss the possibility of naturalization with an experienced immigration attorney.

If an applicant for naturalization passes all tests of English language competency and American history and civics, is found to possess good moral character, and meets all other requirements as to physical presence and continuous residence, USCIS will approve the Form N-400.  The applicant for naturalization will be scheduled for an oath ceremony, at which he or she will take the Oath of Citizenship and be sworn in as a new citizen of the United States of America.  The new citizen gets an official Certificate of Naturalization with photograph and signature.  Naturalized citizens do not automatically receive United States passports, but must apply for them in the same way as any other U.S. citizen. 

This article is only a general overview of the requirements for becoming a United States citizen through the process known as naturalization.  Free sample test questions, forms and study guides are at https://www.uscis.gov/us-citizenship and https://www.usa.gov/become-us-citizen.  Always look for the “.gov” suffix to ensure that you have reached a government website.   

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