The Naturalization Exam has been changed...Are you ready for it?

The Naturalization Exam has been changed...Are you ready for it?

by Nikki Mehrpoo Jacobson, December 2009

April 15, 2008: Tax Day. July 4, 2008: Independence Day. October 1, 2008: New Citizenship Exam Day! Are you ready for it? How do you avoid it? What is it? Well, "in the interest of creating a more standardized, fair, and meaningful naturalization process," the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), has redesigned the naturalization exam applicants must take and pass in order to become a United States Citizen. The USCIS claims that in redesigning the exam, (the first since it was created in 1986 as a standardized examination) it will help encourage citizenship applicants to learn and identify with the basic values we all share as Americans."

The goal of this redesigned exam was to produce a test that would ensure that naturalization applicants have uniform, consistent testing experiences nationwide, and that the civics test can effectively assess whether applicants have a meaningful understanding of U.S. government and history.

The USCIS initially piloted a new exam-with an overhauled English reading and writing section, as well as new history and government questions-in ten sites across the country. The final redesigned exam was introduced to the general public on September 27, 2007. Before USCIS included a question/answer item on the final exam, it was analyzed for its cognitive and linguistic characteristics, and to see if it met one or more of the following criteria:

  1. Does the item involve critical thinking about government or history?
  2. Does the item offer an inferred or implicit concept of government, history, or other areas?
  3. Does the item provide a geographical context for a historical or current event?
  4. Does the item help the applicant better utilize the system? Is it useful in their daily lives?
  5. Does the item help the applicant better understand and relate to our shared history?

The USCIS claims that many items added to the exam either directly or indirectly help applicants learn more about their rights and responsibilities. So, the new naturalization exam covers 40 content areas, including geography, instead of the previous 23. In addition, the reading and writing portion of the test are now more civic-focused as well.

What this all means to most applicants wanting to apply for U.S. Citizenship is that the exam will be more difficult and confusing. Currently, most of the questions on the exams are questions of fact where there is usually one correct answer. On the new version, there will be conceptual questions such as "What is the 'rule of law'?" and "What is the economic system in the United States?" and "What stops one branch of government from becoming too powerful?" Oftentimes, there will be more than one "right" answer and the individual must really understand the concept of the question in order to answer it. For example, a question such as "What are two ways that Americans can participate in their democracy?" can have numerous answers, including but not limited to: vote, join a political party, join a community group, run for office, write to a newspaper, call Senators and Representatives, and help with a campaign. In addition, the expanded geography section will ask applicants to name rivers, oceans and countries bordering (or within) the United States, as well as U.S. states that border countries such as Canada and Mexico.

Anyone who files an N-400 Application for Naturalization on or after October 1, 2008 will be taking this new redesigned exam. Questions from the current and redesigned Naturalization exam are posted on the USCIS website ( in addition to study materials. The overall format has not changed, only the content. Legal immigrants who are eligible to become citizens must pass the civics exam as well as a test of English proficiency in reading and writing. In a one-on-one oral examination, an immigration officer asks the applicant 10 civics questions of varying degrees of difficulty selected from the list of 100. To pass, the applicant must answer 6 of those 10 questions correctly.

If, however, someone files for Naturalization before October 1, 2008 but has the naturalization interview after October 1, 2008, the applicant will have the option of taking the new exam or the current one. In addition, applicants who are 65 year old or older and have been a legal permanent resident for 20 years or more, they may just study the easier questions marked with an asterisk (*). If you think you are eligible to apply for Naturalization, seek the advice of an experienced immigration attorney and apply before October 1, 2008. Many experienced immigration attorneys provide free consultations and are aware of the many dangerous consequences of applying for naturalization if you do not qualify.