How to Become a U.S. Citizen

How to Become a U.S. Citizen

by Renee Hykel Cuddy, Esq., February 2015

If you are currently a lawful permanent resident (green card holder) of the United States, you may be eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship. Green card holders who wish to apply for citizenship must submit an application for citizenship to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (“U.S.C.I.S.”) (Form N-400, Application for Naturalization) and must meet certain requirements. How to become a U.S. citizen is detailed below.

Requirements to Become a U.S. Citizen through Naturalization

1) Lawful permanent resident of the U.S.

You must be a lawful permanent resident of the United States (green card holder), which includes those who hold “conditional” green cards. Conditional residents are those who obtained their green card through a marriage that is less than two (2) years old or those who obtained a green card through the immigrant investor visa program (EB-5) and are in the preliminary 2-year period of permanent resident status.

2) You must be 18 years of age or older

If you are under the age of 18 years old and your parents are green card holders, you may already be a citizen. You should consult an immigration attorney to determine if you are already U.S. citizen.

3) You must have resided for three months in the state where you will apply for U.S. citizenship

4) Continuous residency and physical presence in the U.S.

You must have resided in the U.S. for five years after the date you became a green card holder. However, if you got your green card based on your marriage to a U.S. citizen and you are still living together in marital union with your spouse, you only need to have been a green card holder and resident of the United States for three years. You are permitted to go on vacation or leave the U.S. during the required years; however, if you are absent for more than 6 months on any one trip, you do not qualify. Additionally, you cannot be absent from the United States for more than half the residency period required (two and a half years or 912 days in total for a five-year period, or one and a half years or 547 days for a three-year period). The U.S. citizenship application provides a worksheet for you to add up all of the days you were absent from the United States. An immigration lawyer can also help you analyze your trips and determine the best time to apply for citizenship if you have had extensive travel outside of the United States.

5) You must be a person of good moral character

For the five years immediately preceding your application for citizenship (or three years for a spouse of a U.S. citizen living together in marital union with the spouse), you must demonstrate good moral character. “Good moral character” is broadly defined under the immigration laws (I.N.A. 101(f)) and there are hard requirements (no criminal convictions for certain crimes) and discretionary factors (failure to support children, failure to pay taxes, adultery tending to destroy a marriage, etc.) If you have a criminal history, you must consult an immigration attorney? before you apply for U.S. citizenship. A lawyer can help you determine if and when to apply based on your criminal history and can also advise you of the potential of being placed in removal (deportation) proceedings based on your criminal history. Expunged criminal convictions must still be disclosed to U.S.C.I.S. on your application; therefore, you should discuss these with a lawyer before applying. U.S.C.I.S. will review your old green card application to compare your answers and ensure that all of the information you have provided is consistent. If information is not consistent, you may be accused of fraud.

6) You must demonstrate knowledge of the English language, U.S. history and the U.S. government

You must have an elementary ability to speak, read and write English to become a U.S. citizen. The test will be given during an interview at U.S.C.I.S. where you will be asked to write the answer of a very basic English question like “Where does the President live?” You will also be asked ten questions about U.S. history and the U.S. Government and you will need to answer six questions correctly to pass. There are many study materials available online to prepare for the English and civics exam.

Exemptions from the English and Civics Test

Some people do not have to take the English language portion of the test. If you are over 50 years old and have lived continuously in the United States for 20 years, or if you are over 55 years old and have 15 years of continuous residence, you do not have to take the English test. If you are over 65 years old and have lived in the U.S. for 20 years, you are permitted to take the civics test in your native language.

Additionally, if you are suffering from a learning disability or have a physical or mental impairment that prevents you from completing the test, you may be eligible for a medical disability waiver. You should consult an immigration attorney to determine whether your particular condition may qualify you for a medical disability waiver.

7) You must be willing to take the Oath of Allegiance to the United States

You must be willing to swear your allegiance to the United States in front of a U.S. government official or U.S. district court judge. This will include a statement that you will bear arms or perform non-combative service for the United States if required and that you renounce your allegiance to all other nations. The United States does not recognize dual-citizenship; however, the U.S. Government will not confiscate your foreign passport. Though you may hold two passports, you must be willing to be faithful to the United States.

How Long Does It Take to Become a U.S. Citizen?

How long it takes to become a U.S. citizen depends on where you are located. U.S. citizenship applications are first reviewed at a national processing center, but are then forwarded to the U.S.C.I.S. Local Field Office closest to your home so someone can interview you and conduct a final review of your application. Each local office has different processing times, which are published on the USCIS website. For example, as of December 23, 2014, a local field office of Philadelphia, PA is currently processing applications filed May 13, 2014; therefore, the processing time for residents near Philadelphia is about 7 months. After you attend the interview, there may be an additional delay of several days, weeks or months before you will take your oath of allegiance to the United States. This too is dependent on your location. For example, the Newark, NJ Field Office swears applicants in on the same day they pass their interview.

Other Ways to Qualify for U.S. Citizenship

If you have parents who are U.S. citizens or green card holders, you may automatically derive U.S. citizenship from them. Additionally, if you are employed as a missionary, nun, brother or sister, or are a member of the U.S. Armed Forces, you may be exempt from some of the requirements mentioned above. Consult with an immigration attorney to see if you qualify for U.S. citizenship and to find out more about how to become a U.S. citizen.

Are you a green card holder who is interested in becoming a U.S. citizen? You can get advice from an attorney through the LegalZoom personal legal plan.