For many immigrants, becoming a U.S. citizen through naturalization is an important goal. Naturalization confers many benefits and rights, including the ability to vote, serve on a jury, travel with a U.S. passport, and petition for family members to immigrate. It also demonstrates a commitment to being a fully participating member of American society.
The naturalization process allows lawful permanent residents (green card holders) to apply for U.S. citizenship. It involves several steps mandated by the Immigration and Nationality Act, including filing an application, passing English and civics tests, having an interview with USCIS, and taking the oath of allegiance. While the process takes time and effort, gaining citizenship through naturalization is an extremely meaningful milestone for immigrants.
Overview of Naturalization
Naturalization is how immigrants become citizens of the United States. It is governed by federal law under the Immigration and Nationality Act and overseen by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), part of the Department of Homeland Security.
In order to naturalize and become a U.S. citizen, you must:
- Be at least 18 years old
- Be a lawful permanent resident (have a green card)
- Have continuously resided in the U.S. for 5 years (or 3 years if married to a U.S. citizen)
- Demonstrate good moral character
- Demonstrate English proficiency
- Pass a civics test on U.S. history and government
- Take the oath of allegiance to the U.S.
Naturalization gives immigrants almost all of the same rights and responsibilities that U.S. citizens have. This includes being able to vote, serve on juries, hold public office, and obtain certain jobs that require security clearance.
About 800,000 immigrants become naturalized each year after completing the multi-step process. The most common countries of origin are Mexico, India, the Philippines, China, and Vietnam.
Eligibility for Naturalization
In order to apply for naturalization and become a U.S. citizen, you must meet certain eligibility requirements under immigration law. The main requirements are:
Lawful Permanent Resident Status
You must have a green card and have maintained permanent resident status for a minimum number of years:
- 5 years as a lawful permanent resident if married to a non-U.S. citizen
- 3 years as a lawful permanent resident if married to a U.S. citizen
Time living abroad can disrupt continuous residence for naturalization purposes.
You must have been physically present in the United States for at least 30 months out of the last 5 years (or 18 months out of the last 3 years if married to a U.S. citizen).
Good Moral Character
You must demonstrate good moral character during the statutory period before filing. Certain offenses, such as felonies and multiple misdemeanors, can bar you from establishing good moral character.
You must be able to read, write, and speak basic English. This is assessed through the naturalization test.
Civics & History Knowledge
You must pass the civics test, demonstrating a knowledge of U.S. history and how the U.S. system of government works.
Meeting all the eligibility criteria is essential for a successful naturalization application. Green card holders should thoroughly review the requirements before applying.
Immigration and Nationality Act
The main laws around U.S. immigration and naturalization are contained in the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), which was first passed in 1952. The INA has been amended many times over the decades, but it remains the central governing law for immigration and citizenship.
For naturalization in particular, the INA specifies:
- The eligibility criteria for naturalization
- The process and documents required
- Grounds for denial of naturalization
- The oath of allegiance
- Benefits of naturalization
- Reasons citizenship may be revoked
USCIS regulations provide further rules and guidance for how the INA’s naturalization provisions are implemented. For example, the regulations set out the specific English, civics, and U.S. history knowledge required for the citizenship test.
Understanding the INA and USCIS policies is helpful for navigating the naturalization process smoothly. Immigration attorneys can provide guidance on more complex naturalization cases involving the INA.
Submitting Form N-400
The first major step in the naturalization process is submitting a completed Form N-400 application. This is USCIS’s naturalization application form that collects information about your eligibility.
Key details the Form N-400 requires include:
- Your biographic information (name, DOB, SSN, address, etc.)
- Information about your lawful permanent resident status
- Your marital history and spouse’s details
- Your children’s information
- Your employment history for the last 5 years
- Your travel abroad over the last 5 years
- Your criminal history (if any)
- Tax information
You’ll also have to provide supporting documents like your green card, driver’s license, tax transcripts, and passport pages. Photos and a check covering the application fee are also required.
The Form N-400 must be accurately completed and signed. USCIS will run background checks to verify the information. Any mistakes or omissions can delay your application or lead to denial of naturalization.
It’s recommended to take time and care when putting together your N-400 application package. Getting an immigration attorney’s help can also minimize the risk of errors.
As part of the naturalization process, USCIS requires new applicants to complete biometric screening. This includes having your fingerprints taken and getting a photograph.
A USCIS biometrics appointment notice is mailed out with a scheduled date, time, and location shortly after you submit your N-400. Failure to show up to the appointment can negatively impact your application.
At your bio screening appointment, a USCIS employee will take your fingerprints digitally. These fingerprints are run through FBI and Homeland Security databases to check for any issues in your background.
You’ll also have your photograph taken at the biometrics appointment. This photo will be printed on your naturalization certificate if you are approved.
Completing biometrics is a key part of the security and background checks USCIS runs on all citizenship applicants. Making sure to attend your bio screening is important for avoiding delays.
Thorough background checks are conducted by USCIS on everyone applying for naturalization. This investigates whether you meet all the eligibility criteria under immigration law.
The background checks look at factors like:
- Status – Checking lawful permanent resident status and continuous residency.
- Criminal History – FBI and Homeland Security databases checked for any disqualifying crimes.
- Moral character – Evaluation of good moral character based on criminal, employment, and other records.
- Tax compliance – Review of IRS records to ensure taxes were properly filed and paid.
- Security risks – Checking for any affiliations or activities that may pose a security risk.
In some cases, USCIS may contact employers, landlords, neighbors, or acquaintances to gather information for the background check.
Passing the comprehensive background checks and maintaining eligibility throughout the process is required for citizenship approval. If red flags arise in the checks, your application could be denied.
Once your Form N-400 is filed and you complete biometrics, the next step is an interview with a USCIS officer.
Naturalization interviews typically last 30-60 minutes. They take place at local USCIS field offices. You’ll get an interview notice in the mail with the date, time, and address.
In the interview, the USCIS officer will:
- Verify your N-400 application information
- Ask for originals of supporting documents
- Go through your background check results
- Orally test your English skills
- Orally review your knowledge of civics and U.S. history
It’s best to dress professionally for the interview and arrive early. You should also study and practice for the English and civics exams beforehand. Having an attorney accompany you is allowed if you want legal representation.
The interview is a key part of the approval decision on your naturalization case. Being prepared to provide all needed documents and pass the tests is very important. If issues arise, USCIS may re-interview you on a future date after you take corrective action.
English and Civics Tests
A crucial part of the naturalization process is passing tests that demonstrate English proficiency and knowledge of U.S. history and government.
The English test evaluates whether you can read, write, and speak conversational English. There are three components:
- Reading vocabulary words from a provided list
- Writing sentences as dictated by the USCIS officer
- Answering oral questions in a conversation with the officer
For the civics test, you will need to correctly answer at least 6 out of 10 oral multiple choice questions about American history and how the U.S. system of government functions. There are 100 total possible questions that could be asked.
Applicants with certain medical conditions can get exemptions from the English test, while the civics test requirement applies to all naturalization applicants.
You will have two chances to pass each test during your interview. Practice tests and study guides are available through USCIS to help you prepare.
The final step for naturalization is attending a ceremony and taking the oath of allegiance. Ceremonies are meaningful events held at USCIS offices, community centers, schools, and public parks.
At the ceremony, you will check in and turn in your green card. A USCIS official will say a few words about the significance of naturalization. You will watch a patriotic video and then stand to take the oath of allegiance.
The oath states:
Finally, you will receive your naturalization certificate, making your U.S. citizenship official. Becoming a citizen in one of these ceremonies is a proud and unforgettable moment.
Oath of Allegiance
The Oath of Allegiance is a key part of the naturalization process. Immigrants take this solemn oath at their naturalization ceremony to finalize their transition from lawful permanent resident to U.S. citizen.
The oath requires newly naturalized citizens to:
- Renounce foreign allegiances – You must renounce loyalty to any nation or sovereignty that you were previously a citizen or subject of.
- Support the U.S. Constitution – You must vow to support and defend the principles of the U.S. Constitution.
- Serve the country – You must pledge to bear arms, perform noncombatant service, or work of national importance on behalf of the United States when required by law.
- Freely take the oath – You must affirm your oath freely and without reservations. Adding qualifications or objections would invalidate the oath.
By taking this oath of allegiance, you demonstrate your commitment to becoming a U.S. citizen and embracing civic responsibilities. Failing to take the oath would mean your naturalization is not complete.
U.S. law allows modifications to the oath for those whose religious beliefs preclude taking it in the standard form. But the core elements demonstrating allegiance must be included.
Benefits of Citizenship
Naturalization provides numerous significant benefits and privileges to U.S. citizens that are not available to green card holders. Gaining citizenship can be extremely worthwhile.
Key benefits include:
- Voting – Citizens have the right to vote in local, state, and national elections. This gives you a political voice to impact public policy.
- Serving on a jury – Citizens can be selected to serve on civil and criminal juries, performing an important civic duty.
- Obtaining certain public service jobs – Many government jobs require U.S. citizenship, especially in law enforcement. Federal jobs also have citizenship requirements.
- Traveling with a U.S. passport – The U.S. passport allows easier international travel and expedited processing when re-entering the country.
- Petitioning family members to immigrate – Citizens can sponsor certain family members so they can get green cards.
- Accessing certain benefits – Some government programs have citizenship requirements, like federal student loans, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), and food stamps.
Gaining these rights and benefits is a major advantage of naturalization and provides strong incentives to pursue U.S. citizenship.
Denials and Appeals
Unfortunately, USCIS may deny a naturalization application if the eligibility criteria are not met. Common reasons include:
- Failing the English or civics tests
- Outstanding orders of removal/deportation
- Criminal offenses making you ineligible
- Violating your status as a lawful permanent resident
- Inadequate physical presence in the United States
- Failure to demonstrate good moral character
If you receive a denial letter, you have 30 days to file a request for a hearing with USCIS. This begins the appeals process. You may submit new evidence to overcome the original grounds for denial.
Having a lawyer assist with a denial appeal can be very helpful. An attorney can identify any mistaken conclusions by USCIS and make the strongest case for approval.
Persisting with the appeals process is important if you believe the grounds for denial were incorrect. USCIS may reverse its decision and approve your naturalization upon appeal.
In certain circumstances, lawful permanent residents can qualify for expedited naturalization procedures to accelerate the timeline.
Qualifying categories include:
- Spouses of U.S. citizens – Requirements are reduced from 5 years to 3 years of permanent residence, with only 18 months of physical presence.
- Military members – Honorably serving during hostilities allows naturalization in as little as one day. Peacetime service waives the residence requirement.
- Children – Applicants under 18 with a U.S. citizen parent have reduced requirements.
- Employees abroad – Citizens working abroad for U.S. businesses or government may naturalize after only one year of permanent residence.
Each special category has specific conditions to qualify for the expedited process. Consulting with an immigration attorney can be extremely helpful in determining eligibility.
While extremely worthwhile, there are various costs involved in the naturalization process. The total expenses can range from $725 to $1,170 per applicant.
The primary costs are:
- Form N-400 filing fee – $640 application fee paid to USCIS
- Biometrics fee – $85 for fingerprinting appointment
- Attorney fees – Around $1,000 if using a lawyer’s assistance
- Ceremony costs – New suit, transportation, and party treats add up too!
Low income applicants may request a fee waiver for the Form N-400 charges. Having an attorney can also lower costs by avoiding any complications in the process.
Many immigrants save up for years and budget carefully to cover the expenses required for naturalization. Becoming a U.S. citizen is widely viewed as worth the cost and effort.
The full naturalization process takes approximately 6-12 months from start to finish. However, the timeline can vary considerably based on individual circumstances.
Here is a general overview of the timeline:
- 0-2 Months – Prepare and submit Form N-400 application
- 2-4 Months – Receive biometrics appointment
- 3-5 Months – Complete background checks
- 4-10 Months – Get scheduled for interview
- 5-12 Months – Attend naturalization ceremony
The process may be lengthened by application backlogs, the need to re-take tests, appeals of denials, or other complicating factors.
Applicants should plan for at least 6 months from their Form N-400 filing to completion. Those with straightforward cases can expect to be naturalized within 9-12 months.
The naturalization process allows immigrants to make the meaningful transition from permanent resident to U.S. citizen. While lengthy and complex, naturalization provides enormous rights and benefits.
Gaining citizenship requires filing Form N-400, having biometrics taken, passing background checks, being interviewed by USCIS, demonstrating English proficiency, passing civics tests, and finally taking the oath of allegiance at a naturalization ceremony.
The various steps involved make thorough preparation essential. Following the process carefully and avoiding any mistakes or delays leads to the best chances for approval.
With perseverance and dedication, immigrants can navigate the naturalization process successfully. Becoming a U.S. citizen offers an incredibly rewarding sense of belonging and opportunity.
How can I check the status of my naturalization application?
You can check your case status online using your receipt number at the USCIS website. You can also contact the USCIS Contact Center or set up an account on the website to receive automatic case updates. Checking regularly lets you stay informed of where your application stands.
What should I wear to the naturalization ceremony?
While there is no required dress code, most choose to dress formally as a sign of respect. For men, a business suit and tie is recommended. For women, a dressy blouse and skirt or pantsuit is appropriate. This is a solemn occasion so dress conservatively.
Can my family attend my naturalization ceremony?
Yes, USCIS encourages family and friends to attend the ceremony to witness this important milestone. Guests don’t need tickets or an invitation. They will need to arrive early with you to pass through security screening before being seated.
How much time should I set aside to study for the citizenship test?
Experts recommend studying for at least 2 months before your test date. Plan to study 20-30 minutes a day using USCIS materials, online practice tests, flashcards, and tutoring if needed. The more you prepare, the more confident you’ll feel answering questions.