U.S. Citizenship: How to Become an American

Welcome to America (but not to U.S. citizenship yet)! The greeting is a small joke because you must have been residing legally in the U.S. for a while before even considering becoming a naturalized citizen. 

We know you want to get there, so this guide will be your map to understanding the different paths to becoming a U.S. citizen. Read this naturalization guide to understand everything you need about naturalization requirements, USCIS forms, processing times and timelines, the step-by-step application process (old and new) fees, and more!

How to Obtain U.S. Citizenship: An Overview

Let’s begin by clarifying four main ways to acquire U.S. citizenship.

Citizenship by Birth

This is the most straightforward path. Anyone born within the United States or its territories (like Puerto Rico or Guam) is automatically a U.S. citizen, with a few exceptions for children of diplomats or certain Native American tribes.

Citizenship through Acquisition

This applies to children born outside the U.S. who can acquire citizenship automatically if certain conditions are met. Typically, at least one parent must be a U.S. citizen when the child is born, and there are specific requirements regarding the parents’ marital status and physical presence in the U.S.

Citizenship through Derivation

This path applies to children under 18 who gain citizenship automatically when their parent becomes a naturalized U.S. citizen. There are residency requirements for both the child and the parent, and the specific laws regarding derivation have changed over time.

Citizenship through Naturalization

This is the most common path for immigrants. Naturalization is the legal process by which a foreign-born person becomes a U.S. citizen. You must meet several requirements, including age (generally 18 or older) and residency status (typically at least 5 years as a permanent resident). This guide will focus on the eligibility requirements and the application process for naturalization.

What Is Naturalization? What Is a Naturalized Citizen?

Obtaining U.S. citizenship and becoming a naturalized American are two slightly different things that are impossible to separate, as they are parts of a more extensive, complex process. Let’s break things down for a better understanding of how to become an American:

What Is U.S. Citizenship?

American citizenship is like belonging to a particular club – the one of the United States of America. It’s a legal status that gives you specific rights and privileges, like voting and holding public office. You can inherit this membership by being born to U.S. citizens, or you can earn it by going through naturalization. Becoming a U.S. citizen isn’t just about the perks, though. It also means taking on responsibilities, like following the laws and contributing to your community. It’s a two-way street!

What Is Naturalization?

Naturalization is the path immigrants take to become U.S. citizens officially. It’s like a final hurdle you jump over to join the American family. Not everyone can participate in this process right away. There are usually requirements, such as living in the U.S. with a green card for a particular time (typically 3-5 years). In some cases, serving in the military can also qualify you for naturalization.

What Is the Difference Between U.S. Citizenship and Naturalization?

Citizenship is the legal status that grants you rights and responsibilities within a country (the U.S., in this case). U.S. citizens enjoy certain benefits like voting and holding office. You can be born with U.S. citizenship (citizenship by birth) or qualify in a few other ways, like having U.S. citizen parents (citizenship by acquisition or derivation).

Naturalization is different. It is a legal, specific process by which an immigrant becomes a U.S. citizen. It’s not a right but a privilege you earn by meeting specific requirements like living in the U.S. with a green card for a set time and passing a civics test. Think of it as the final step to becoming a full-fledged member of the U.S. community.

IMPORTANT! Citizenship is the status, and naturalization is the process of acquiring that status, Which is a permanent title. It reflects your legal status as a member of the United States. On the other hand, naturalization is the journey to acquire that title. Someone born in the U.S. or who qualifies for citizenship another way automatically holds that title, while someone going through the naturalization process is working towards earning it.

Becoming a U.S. Citizen Through Naturalization: Eligibility Requirements

Before getting into the details of how to become a U.S. citizen, the first issue to address is who can become a U.S. citizen. Things can get tricky when it comes to naturalization eligibility criteria and requirements, but we will break it down for you to better understand.

The Pillars of U.S. Naturalization Eligibility

Imagine these requirements as the pillars that support your naturalization application. Each one is vital for a successful outcome.

  • Age: You must be at least 18 when you file your naturalization application via Form N-400 with USCIS.
  • Green card: Holding a green card is a prerequisite. The minimum time you must hold this status before applying varies depending on your marital status:
  • Continuous residence: It ensures you haven’t spent extended periods outside the U.S. that could jeopardize your green card status. Generally, you must demonstrate physical presence in the U.S. for at least half (30 months) of the five-year (or three-year) period preceding your application. Short absences are usually allowed, but prolonged trips can raise red flags.
  • English language proficiency: You must demonstrate understanding and speaking basic English. USCIS assesses this through a naturalization test during the application process.
  • Good moral character: Upholding the law and demonstrating good character are essential. USCIS conducts background checks to verify this. Any criminal convictions or questionable activities may impact your eligibility.
  • U.S. history and civics knowledge: Passing a naturalization test that assesses your knowledge of U.S. history and government is mandatory. This test ensures you have a basic understanding of the country’s foundation and structure.

Naturalization Eligibility by Green Card Status and Residence Time

The table below summarizes the eligibility requirements for applying for U.S. citizenship through naturalization based on your green card status and physical presence in the United States:


Green Card holder (no exceptional circumstances)

Green Card holder married to U.S. Citizen (living together)

Widow(er) of U.S. citizen (died honorably serving in the military)

Green Card holder with at least one year of peacetime military service

Green Card holder with less than one year of peacetime military service

Green Card holder (previously served at least one year in peacetime military, honorably discharged more than six months ago)

Member of the Military (any wartime service)

Physical Presence in the U.S.

At least 30 months (2.5 years)

At least 18 months (1.5 years)

No requirement

No requirement

At least 30 months (2.5 years)

At least 30 months (2.5 years)

No requirement

Time to Apply for Naturalization

After five years as a lawful permanent resident

After three years as an LPR

Anytime (as long as you have a green card at the time of application)

While on active duty or within six months of your honorable discharge

After five years as a lawful permanent resident (LPR)

After five years as a lawful permanent resident (LPR)

Anytime (with or without a green card)

U.S. Naturalization Requirements Exceptions and Special Cases

The path to U.S. naturalization isn’t always a straight line. There are exceptions and particular considerations that can affect your eligibility. Here are some key examples:

Age Exceptions for the Naturalization English and Civics Test

  • Applicants aged 50 and over: If you’ve been a legal permanent resident for 20 years minimum and are over 50, you’ll still need to take the civics test, but you’ll be exempt from the English language portion.
  • Applicants aged 55 and over: Similar to the previous exception, if you’re over 55 and have held a green card for at least 15 years, you’ll be exempt from the English test but must take the civics test.
  • Applicants aged 65 and over: This age group receives the most benefit. If you’re over 65 and have had a green card for at least 20 years, you’ll only need to study 20 (instead of the usual 100) civics questions for the test. However, you’ll still need to take the civics test with a reduced workload.

U.S. Naturalization Disability Exceptions

Applicants with a documented physical, developmental, or mental disability that has lasted or is expected to last for at least 12 months may be eligible for exemptions from the English and civics tests. You must submit Form N-648  to qualify. A licensed medical professional must complete the Medical Certification for Disability Exceptions.

Military Service Exceptions for Becoming a U.S. Citizen

  • Peacetime service: If you’re applying based on at least one year of honorable peacetime military service, you’re exempt from the continuous residence requirement (typically three or five years) and the state residency requirement (living in the application state for three months). However, you’ll still need to demonstrate good moral character, as USCIS defines it.
  • Wartime service: Individuals applying based on any period of wartime military service are exempt from all age restrictions (you can be any age), the continuous residence requirement, and the state residency requirement. Like peacetime service, you’ll still need to meet the requirement for good moral character.

Special Naturalization Requirements for Military Personnel

If you are a green card holder and current or former U.S. military member, you might meet additional criteria:

  • You cannot have deserted (left your post without permission) from the U.S. military.
  • You cannot have received a discharge or exemption from the U.S. military solely because of your non-U.S. citizen status.

Marital Status Exceptions in Becoming a U.S. Citizen

As mentioned earlier, being married to a U.S. citizen for at least three years with proof of cohabitation can qualify you to apply after three years with a green card instead of five.

In some cases, spouses of U.S. citizens stationed outside the United States may be eligible for exemptions from the usual residency and physical presence requirements for naturalization.

IMPORTANT! Certain activities or circumstances during the naturalization period can trigger a “conditional bar,” meaning you might not be eligible for citizenship yet. Working with immigration advisors can help you navigate these complexities.

USCIS offers several resources to help you determine your eligibility:

  • Naturalization eligibility tool: This online tool allows you to answer a series of questions about your situation and receive a preliminary assessment of your eligibility.
  • The Naturalization Eligibility worksheet, downloadable from the USCIS website, asks you different questions to assess your eligibility.

How to Become a U.S. Citizen: Naturalization Process Step-by-Step Guide

Earning U.S. citizenship is a momentous achievement, and the naturalization process paves the way for this honor. Here’s a detailed breakdown of the ten steps involved:

Step 1: Naturalization Eligibility Check

What is the first step in the naturalization process, you ask? Eligibility, of course. Before submitting your application, ensure you meet the naturalization requirements. Resources like the USCIS naturalization eligibility worksheet can help you determine if you qualify. Referring with an immigration attorney for personalized guidance is also highly recommended at this stage.

Step 2: Naturalization Application Preparation (Form N-400)

The heart of the process is Form N-400: Application for Naturalization. As you know, you can file it online or on paper. Gather the necessary documents as per the USCIS checklist to demonstrate your eligibility. This typically includes proof of lawful permanent resident status (green card), tax returns, and military records (if applicable).

Step 3: Submission and Biometrics Appointment

Once your application and fees are submitted, USCIS will send a receipt notice. Processing times vary depending on location, but you can check online for updates. You may be scheduled for a biometrics appointment involving fingerprint scans for a background check.

Step 4: Interview and Naturalization Test

After completing preliminary processing, USCIS will schedule a citizenship interview. During this time, a USCIS officer will verify your information, assess your understanding of English and civics, and discuss your commitment to becoming a U.S. citizen.

As of 2022, the U.S. government is testing a revamped U.S. citizenship exam. This new version assesses your knowledge of American history, civics, and government and your understanding of U.S. citizens’ rights and responsibilities. You’ll also need to demonstrate English proficiency through a literacy test. The civics test requires 6 out of 10 questions answered correctly for a pass. Don’t worry; USCIS provides study materials, and you can retake the test if needed during a later appointment.

Step 5: Naturalization Application Decision

Following the interview and test, USCIS will assess your request and notify you of their decision by mail or electronically if you file it online. The decision can be approval, request for additional evidence, continuation for further processing, or denial. In case of denial, you can appeal within 30 days.

Step 6: Oath of Allegiance Ceremony

If your application is approved, congratulations! You’re eligible to participate in a naturalization ceremony. This is a momentous occasion where you’ll take the Oath of Allegiance, formally renouncing allegiance to any other country and pledging loyalty to the United States.

USCIS will send you a letter with the date, time, and place of your naturalization ceremony. Arrive on time, complete the Oath of Allegiance Ceremony questionnaire (Form N-445), and surrender your green card. You’ll then take the Oath of Allegiance, officially becoming a U.S. citizen. Finally, receive your Certificate of Naturalization, a cherished document proving your U.S. citizenship.

Step 7: Understanding Your Rights and Responsibilities

U.S. citizenship bestows a vast array of rights and responsibilities. Familiarize yourself with them so that you can actively participate in American life. You can vote in elections, hold public office, sponsor family members for immigration, and enjoy the privileges of being a U.S. citizen.

IMPORTANT! While the standard wait period for green card holders is three to five years, you can file your naturalization application 90 days before meeting the residency requirement. It allows you to get ahead in the processing queue!

How Long Does It Take to Become a U.S. Citizen After Getting a Green Card: Green Card to Citizenship Timeline?

The journey from a green card holder to U.S. citizen is exciting but can also be lengthy.

On average, the process to become a U.S. citizen, from submitting your application to taking the Oath of Allegiance, takes around 14-16 months.

However, it’s essential to understand that this is just an estimate, and the actual naturalization timeline can vary depending on several factors. Here’s a breakdown of how things go and the associated processing times of each stage to give you a clearer picture of the green card to citizenship timeline:

Application for Naturalization (Form N-400) Timeline

The processing time for this initial naturalization application is around 7-11 months. However, the sooner you can submit your complete application with all the required documents, the faster USCIS can begin reviewing it.

Biometrics Appointment Timeline

After submitting your N-400 application, USCIS will schedule a biometrics appointment, typically within a month. This appointment involves providing fingerprints, a photograph, and your signature for background check purposes. While the appointment itself only takes about 15-20 minutes, there can be a wait to get into the appointment.

Citizenship Interview and Exam Timeline

The interview typically takes place around 14 months after you file your application, although this can vary depending on your USCIS field office’s workload. You must prepare thoroughly for the interview and the exam to avoid delays.

IMPORTANT! Missing your citizenship interview can significantly delay your journey to becoming a U.S. citizen. If you can’t attend, notify USCIS before to avoid them pausing your application. If you don’t contact them within a year after the pause, your application will be denied, forcing you to restart the process and pay the fees again. While you can reschedule the interview, it may take several months to get a new date, so attending your original appointment is highly recommended.

Naturalization Application Decision Processing Time

USCIS will appraise your submission after the interview and exam and notify you of their decision within 120 days (four months). There are three possible outcomes:

  • Approval: Congratulations! You can proceed to the Oath of Allegiance ceremony.
  • Continuation: USCIS might need additional information or documentation, or you may need to retake the exam if you failed a portion.
  • Denial: If your application is denied, you can appeal the decision within 30 days.

Getting the Certificate of Naturalization Timeline

If your application is approved, USCIS schedules the Oath of Allegiance ceremony, often on the same day as your interview and exam or within two to six weeks. You’ll also receive your Certificate of Naturalization at the ceremony, proof of your U.S. citizenship.

Critical Factors Affecting the Green Card to Citizenship Timeline

While the average processing time is up to 16 months, several factors can influence your individual naturalization timeline:

  • The workload at your local USCIS office significantly impacts processing times. Offices with higher application volumes may take longer to process applications.
  • Depending on your personal history, background checks might take longer, potentially extending the processing time.
  • If you choose to appeal a denied naturalization application, the process can add several months to the timeline.

IMPORTANT! Do you wonder how long does it take to become an American citizen? For green card holders who qualify, the path to becoming an American citizen (through naturalization) usually takes around 16 months. It includes submitting your application, attending an interview and exam, and participating in the Oath of Allegiance ceremony.

How Much Does It Cost to Become an American Citizen?

The path to U.S. citizenship is an exciting one, but it does involve associated fees. Understanding these costs upfront can help you plan your application process effectively. So, how much does it cost to apply for naturalization? Let’s break it down.

Naturalization Costs

The current fee is $760 for the N-400 Form.

IMPORTANT! U.S. citizenship military applicants are exempt from the application filing and biometrics fees. Additionally, applicants 75 years and older don’t need to pay the biometrics fee but are still responsible for the application processing fee.

Naturalization Costs Starting April 1, 2024

The cost of applying for naturalization will vary depending on your filing method and eligibility for fee reductions.

Type of Filing

Paper filing, no reduced fee

Online filing, no reduced fee

Reduced fee (household income not more than 400% of FPG)

Previous Fee




Final Rule Fee




Fee Change




Percentage Change




IMPORTANT! Here are some key points to remember when you budget for becoming a U.S. citizen:

  • The filing fee for paper applications increases by 5% to $760.
  • Online filing offers a slight discount of $15, lowering the fee to $710.
  • Fee waiver eligibility remains unchanged, available to individuals with household revenue below 150% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines.
  • The reduced fee category has been expanded to include applicants with household incomes up to 400% of the FPG. Previously, this benefit was limited to those between 150-200% of the FPG.
  • Importantly, all N-400 applicants will now submit biometrics as part of the application process.
  • The separate biometric services fee of $85 will be eliminated.

You must understand these revised fee structures to plan your naturalization journey’s financial aspects better. As usual, fee waivers and reduced fees are available for qualifying applicants based on their income level.

Can USCIS Deny Your U.S. Citizenship Application, and What Can You Do About It?

After reviewing your application (Form N-400) and any additional evidence, USCIS will decide whether to approve or deny your request for citizenship. There are a few reasons they might deny your application. These include not meeting the eligibility requirements, failing the English and civics tests, or having security concerns like a criminal record or ties to terrorism.

If your application gets denied, you don’t have to give up. You have the right to request a hearing within 30 days of receiving the denial notice. This hearing allows you to present your case and convince USCIS to approve your citizenship. Remember, the sooner you file your appeal (Form N-336), the sooner you can address the reasons for denial.

Becoming a U.S. Citizen: Rights, Responsibilities, Benefits, and Considerations

Congratulations on taking the exciting path toward becoming a U.S. citizen! This is a momentous decision that unlocks a multitude of benefits but also comes with significant responsibilities and considerations.

The Benefits of U.S. Citizenship

U.S. citizenship empowers you to participate actively in the country’s political landscape. You gain the right to vote in local, state, and federal elections, influencing the nation’s course. It doesn’t stop at voting; you can even aspire to directly shape the government by running for elected office after naturalization.

U.S. citizenship offers a sense of security and stability. No more anxieties about green card renewals, filing fees, or check-ins with USCIS. It grants you peace of mind by safeguarding you from deportation.

Furthermore, becoming a U.S. citizen expands your employment and educational horizons. You unlock access to government jobs that were previously unavailable. These positions often come with better pay, benefits, and job security. Additionally, you become eligible for a broader range of federal programs, including Social Security, Medicare, and even federal student loans to help finance your education.

As an American citizen, you enjoy visa-free travel to over 180 countries, eliminating the hassle of obtaining visas in advance. U.S. passports also provide an extra layer of security when traveling abroad. You gain access to assistance from U.S. embassies and consulates, who can offer support in case of emergencies or unexpected situations. Unlike green cards, U.S. citizenship allows for greater travel flexibility with minimal restrictions on frequency or duration.

Last but not least, U.S. citizenship strengthens your family ties. Once naturalized, you can sponsor parents, adult children, or siblings who wish to immigrate to the United States and obtain lawful permanent residency. There’s also a tremendous advantage for your future children. Any children born abroad to a U.S. citizen automatically become U.S. citizens themselves. Just remember to notify the U.S. embassy or consulate of their birth to register their citizenship.

The Responsibilities of Naturalized U.S. Citizens

U.S. citizenship comes with a pledge of loyalty. You’ll take the Oath of Allegiance during the naturalization process, formally committing yourself to the United States and its core values.

IMPORTANT! You must understand the potential implications of dual citizenship. Depending on your home country’s laws, you might be required to relinquish your original citizenship upon becoming a U.S. citizen. Researching your home country’s policies beforehand will help avoid any surprises down the line.

While the military draft is currently inactive, U.S. citizenship carries the potential obligation to serve if it’s reinstated in the future. It’s also important to note that male green card holders between 18 and 25 must register with the Selective Service System.

U.S. citizens can be summoned for jury duty, which is the civic responsibility of participating in the legal system. While attendance is mandatory, you may not necessarily be chosen to serve on the jury itself. There are also exemptions available for certain professions or situations.

Finally, becoming a U.S. citizen means you’ll be responsible for filing U.S. income tax returns for life, even if you reside abroad. Specific income exclusions may apply, so it’s wise to seek guidance from a tax professional.

Special Considerations for Naturalized U.S. Citizens

The naturalization process involves a review of your criminal background. If you have a concerning criminal history that includes issues like immigration fraud, drug abuse, or domestic violence, it’s strongly recommended to consult with an attorney before applying.

How to Become an American: Frequently Asked Questions (and Answers)

If you feel you are not yet fully equipped to pursue U.S. citizenship, here are some questions we received from our clients. We hope the answers below will give you a clearer image of what it means to be a naturalized citizen, how to achieve this goal, what to do, and what to expect during the naturalization process.

How long does it take for a foreigner to become a U.S. citizen?

As you have seen in this U.S. naturalization guide, the processing time can vary, but it takes around 16 months to become a U.S. citizen on average. This timeframe applies if you meet the eligibility requirements and there are no delays in processing.

No difference exists from the answer above, no matter how you ask this question. Assuming you meet the green card residency requirement (three or five years) and there are no unexpected delays, the naturalization process typically takes around 16 months from application to becoming an American citizen.

The residency requirement to become a U.S. citizen is generally five years as a green card holder. However, there is an exception for spouses of U.S. citizens. If you’ve been married (and lived with) a U.S. citizen for a minimum of 3 years, you may be eligible to apply for citizenship after these 3 years of permanent residency.

Technically, yes (see the answer above), but only in specific circumstances. 

To become a citizen of the United States, a person must meet several requirements. To become a U.S. citizen through naturalization, you must be at least 18 years old and have lawful permanent resident status (green card) for a specific period. This can be either five years on its own or three years if you’re married to a U.S. citizen. There are also additional eligibility requirements you’ll need to fulfill.

While obtaining a green card is crucial to U.S. citizenship, it’s not technically the first step. Here’s why:

  • You must meet qualifications before applying for a green card, such as having a family member who is a U.S. citizen or qualifying for employment-based sponsorship.
  • The green card application involves multiple steps, including gathering documents, filing forms, and attending interviews.

Therefore, it’s more accurate to say that obtaining a green card is a major prerequisite for naturalization, the formal process of becoming a U.S. citizen.

The naturalization oath and ceremony is the final step in becoming a U.S. citizen. You will take the Oath of Allegiance, formally swearing your loyalty to the United States.

Living abroad itself won’t cause you to lose your U.S. citizenship after going through naturalization. It’s a permanent status in most cases. However, some situations could raise a red flag, meaning you might need to take action to show you still intend to be a U.S. citizen. For instance, working for a foreign military against the U.S. or renouncing your citizenship formally could put your status at risk.

Take the First Step to Become a U.S. Citizen Today!

The road to U.S. citizenship can be complex, but you can achieve your dream with the proper guidance. The legal advisors and immigration experts at ImmigrationDirect can help you start and finish your naturalization process, from eligibility assessment to form completion and beyond. Whether you’re a regular green card holder, a military member, a U.S. citizen spouse, or have a unique situation, we offer consultations and legal expertise tailored to your specific case. We’re here to support you on your journey to becoming a U.S. citizen hassle-free!

Scroll to Top
immigration direct logo