U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has established certain general requirements for immigrants seeking to apply for U.S.Citizenship. Once meeting these requirements, foreign nationals can set out on the journey to becoming a U.S. citizen.
Parents seeking citizenship for children under 18 years of age file either Form N-600, Application for Certificate of Citizenship or Form N-500K, Application for Citizenship and Issuance of a Certificate under Section 322. All adult immigrants–usually those aged 18-years-old and older–file Form N-400, Application for Naturalization to initiate the citizenship process and as a part of demonstrating citizenship eligibility.
Immigrants obtain citizenship by following a roadmap that adheres to established eligibility requirements, which includes age, physical presence, continuous residence and moral character. By understanding these requirements– and how they vary according to each individual situation– immigrants take the most efficient path to naturalization.
Usually, the primary components of naturalization consist of:
Legal Permanent Resident (LPR) Status
Living for a period of years in the United States with LPR status– as a green card holder– is one of the key components of the naturalization process.
For the vast majority of citizenship applicants– more than 90 percent– LPR status is required for a period of 5 years when no special circumstances exist.
For immigrants married to and living with a U.S. citizen for the past 3 years, LPR status requirements reduces to only 3 years.
USCIS allows immigrants to file the naturalization application 90 calendar days before completing the relevant LPR requirement.
Remaining within U.S. borders and not leaving the country for any significant period of time allows residents to meet the continuous residence requirement.
Very often, officials consider leaving the United States for more than 6 months as a disruption in continuous residence, though it’s sometimes possible to prove otherwise.
Immigrants who leave the United States for a period of more than 1 year almost always disrupt the continuous residence requirement, though coming back into the country as a permanent resident is possible with a Re-entry Permit.
Members of the U.S. Armed Forces serving in designated periods of conflict aren’t subject to the continuous residence requirement.
Physical Presence in the United States
Referring to an immigrant’s actual day-to-day living situation, the Physical presence requirement applies to most naturalization applicants.
Immigrants applying for naturalization based on a 5-year LPR status requirement need to meet physical presence in the U.S. for a period of 30 months.
Immigrants applying for naturalization through marriage and a 3-year LPR status requirement need to meet physical presence in the U.S. for a period of 18 months.
Exceptions to the physical presence rule apply to members of the military and other special categories of immigrants.
Importantly, physical presence and continuous residence requirements don’t necessarily coincide. While physical presence refers to an immigrant’s time inside U.S. borders, continuous residence refers to a lawful status.
USCIS District or State Resident
Immigrants applying for naturalized citizenship are required to live in their USCIS District– a geographic area served by one of the agency’s offices– or live in their state for at least 3 months before submitting the N-400 application.
Immigrant students can apply for naturalization in the area where they attend school. In cases where students remain financially dependent on their parents, students can also apply for naturalization in the area where the family lives.
Good Moral Character
USCIS officials reviewing an individual’s naturalization application must determine that an immigrant demonstrates good moral character, primarily based on the lack of a criminal record. Convictions of murder and aggravated felonies, for example, act as permanent bars to naturalization. With other offenses, officials might choose to simply delay naturalization for a period of time.
Questions around criminal offenses are included on the Form N-400 application, and it’s important that immigrants report all offenses in their response. This includes any offense removed from official records– expunged– as well as any offense committed before turning 18 years of age. USCIS guidelines allow for denial of citizenship for unreported offenses.
Immigrants with arrests or criminal convictions are required to provide USCIS with a certified copy of the arrest report, court disposition, sentencing and other relevant documents. This includes countervailing evidence around the arrest circumstances and/or conviction deemed pertinent for the agency officials’ consideration.
Traffic incidents not involving alcohol or drugs are exempt from the reporting requirement.
Incidents without arrest that involve a fine of $500 or less and/or driver license points are also exempt from reporting.
In cases involving an immigrant’s serious crimes, USCIS could decide to move forward with removal proceedings.
Immigrants attempting to deceive USCIS officers during the interview won’t receive approval for naturalization. Citizenship is withdrawn if an immigrant receives naturalization and is later found to have lied or otherwise deceived USCIS officials during the application process.
Behaviors demonstrating a lack of good moral character include:
- Any crime intended to harm a person
- A crime on property or government involving fraud or nefarious intent
- Crimes for which combined sentencing totaled 5 years or more.
- Violation of any controlled substance law of the United States, any State, or any foreign country
- Habitual drunkenness
- Illicit gambling
- Marriage to more than one person at the same time
- Lying as a means of gaining immigration benefits
- Failure to pay court-ordered child support or to make alimony payments
- Confinement in jail, prison, or other similar institution for which the total confinement was 180 days or more during the past 5 years– 3 years for those applying based on marriage to a U.S. citizen
- Failure to complete any probation, parole, or suspended sentence before applying for naturalization
- Targeted persecution of anyone based on race, religion, national origin, political opinion, or social group
Knowledge of English and Civics
As the predominant language used in the United States, immigrants most immigrants must demonstrate an understanding and an ability to read, write and speak English– at least on a rudimentary level. In addition, immigrants seeking naturalized citizenship are expected to display a strong understanding of the civics and legal principles foundational to the United States. In other words, immigrants must learn basic American history and understand primary ideas around the U.S. form of government.
USCIS rules exempt some individuals from these requirements due to age or disabilities. Among the exemptions:
- Immigrants aged 50 and older who’ve lived in the United States as a Permanent Resident for periods totaling at least 20 years are exempt from the English test. These immigrants take the civics test in the language of their choice.
- Immigrants aged 55 and older and who’ve lived in the United States as a Permanent Resident for a period totaling at least 15 years are likewise exempt from the English test. These immigrants take the civics test in the language of their choice.
- Immigrants aged 65 and older and who’ve lived in the United States as a Permanent Resident for a period totaling at least 20 years. These immigrants also take the civics test in the language of their choice. The agency also provides these immigrants with designated test questions to study.
Attachment to the Constitution
Naturalization applicants swear a willingness to support and defend the nation and the Constitution in taking the Oath of Allegiance, the last step on the road to U.S. citizenship.
In swearing the Oath, naturalized citizens swear to:
- Renounce Foreign Allegiances.
- Support the Constitution with a willingness to defend the principles of the Constitution and the laws of the United States.
- Serve the United States with a willingness to:
- Fight in the U.S. Armed Forces
- Serve in the U.S. Armed Forces in a noncombatant role
- Perform civilian service for the United States.
Along with the promise to serve in the U.S. Armed Forces, USCIS requires males aged 18 to 25 to register with the Selective Service. Taking this step demonstrates to USCIS officials a sincere willingness to serve in the nation’s military.