For some, naturalization is a deeply-felt, emotional experience. For others, it is a paper-pushing exercise. Becoming a U.S. citizen involves commitment, and each person has his or her own view of his/her connection to the national community. Naturalization is, however, taken very seriously by the U.S. government.
- Permanent residence for five years (or three years if married to a U.S. citizen)
- 50% of the five (or three) years of required residence spent in the U.S.
- Good moral character
- Passing an English and U.S. history test
- Oath of allegiance to the U.S.
Q: What is naturalization?
A: Naturalization is the process by which a legal permanent resident (green card holder) becomes a U.S. citizen.
Q: Does marriage to a U.S. citizen automatically grant U.S. citizenship?
A: Not after 1924. A U.S. citizen can only petition for his/her spouse to become a lawful permanent resident. To become a U.S. citizen, one must apply oneself. In some cases, children under 18 automatically become U.S. citizens upon the naturalization of their parents.
Reasons to naturalize
- U.S. citizens can vote, serve on juries, hold political office, and qualify for government jobs. U.S. citizens travel freely (whereas green card holders may lose their residency if they spend long periods of time abroad).
- U.S. citizens cannot be deported.
- U.S. citizens may petition for their parents, married sons and daughters, and brothers and sisters to become permanent residents in the United States. Also, their close relatives may immigrate more quickly.
- U.S. citizens may be subject to lower estate taxes.
- U.S. citizens who retire abroad receive full social security benefits (whereas permanent residents receive only 50 percent).
Reasons not to naturalize
- In some cases, individuals may lose their native nationality and overseas property rights or titles of nobility.
- When reviewing the applications for naturalization, USCIS may discover past fraud, criminal convictions or other reasons to begin deportation proceedings.
- Having made a false claim to citizenship, such as voting in a governmental election, can result in deportation.
Q: What is the U.S. residence requirement?
A: A person more than 18 years old who has been a lawful permanent resident for five years (or three years if married to a U.S. citizen) is eligible to apply for citizenship. In addition, the individual must have been a resident of the state where applying for at least three months. Applications may be filed three months before the eligibility date.
English and U.S. civics tests
Most applicants must be able to speak, read, and write basic English, as well as demonstrate basic knowledge of U.S. history and government. People who are more than 50 years old and who have been a permanent resident for 20 years or more, or who are over 55 and have been a permanent resident for 15 years, may take the examination in whatever language they choose. All other applicants must read, write, and speak basic English. People with physical or developmental disabilities or mental impairment may apply for a waiver of the test requirements.
Q: What sorts of questions are on the English and civics test?
A: The test questions cover basic U.S. history and civics, such as naming the first president, explaining the different branches of government, and other similar questions. USCIS uses a list of 100 questions and answers, which Lawler & Lawler can provide. The exam usually consists of 10 questions from this list. Usually reading the 100 questions and answers a few times is sufficient study for the exam. The 100 questions and answers and an online booklet about U.S. government and history are available at the USCIS website.
Q: Must residence in the U.S. be continuous?
A: No. However, residents must not have any continuous absences for longer than one year. In most cases, residents must demonstrate that they were physically present in the U.S. for at least 50% of the five-year (or three-year) eligibility period immediately before applying for naturalization. Absence of more than six months may be a problem.
Q: Are there any additional requirements for naturalization?
A: Yes. The following are additional requirements:
- Residents must demonstrate good moral character for the five years (or three years if married to a U.S. citizen) prior to applying for citizenship. Many criminal convictions are seen as evidence of a lack of good moral character.
- Men who lived in the U.S. as permanent residents when they were 18 to 26 years old should have registered for the draft.
- Employed permanent residents should have filed U.S. income tax returns each year.
Q: If I have received public benefits, can I still naturalize?
A: Yes, but USCIS will study your case closely. Receiving public benefits is not a bar unless there was fraud or the person received them while overseas. This area can be complex and should be reviewed by counsel in detail.
Q: Can association memberships cause problems?
A: Possibly. Membership in the Communist party, Nazi party, or other groups opposed to the U.S. government can be a basis for naturalization denial. Since 9/11, USCIS is also looking for people who may have contributed to terrorist organizations, such as Hamas, and to charitable organizations that support such groups.
- Residents must complete the USCIS Form N-400 Application for Naturalization and include two photographs, a copy of the permanent resident card, and a check or money order for the USCIS filing fee and fingerprinting fee. Applications are submitted to a regional USCIS office.
- Applicants will be scheduled for fingerprinting.
- Once the application has been processed, applicants will be scheduled for an interview.
- At the interview, the application will be reviewed and the applicant will be asked to pledge allegiance to the U.S. and, unless exempt, applicants will be tested on their knowledge of U.S. history and government and basic English.
- Successful applicants will be sworn in as naturalized citizens at a subsequent ceremony and given a naturalization certificate. Naturalized citizens may then immediately apply for a U.S. passport.
Q: Can I change my name?
A: In the past, yes. Today, not all immigration offices will allow name changes at naturalization.
Q: How long does it take to naturalize?
A: The processing times vary from city to city.
Q: Is a lawyer required for naturalization?
A: Some USCIS examiners view their job as one to locate people who should be deported. There are new strict laws which mandate deportation for relatively minor crimes. There is also a law that provides that deportation may result from making a nonmaterial misrepresentation on a naturalization application. While many can apply by themselves, it is wise to be represented by an immigration lawyer.