What Are the Requirements for US Citizenship?
How and When to Apply?
Most permanent residents of the United States will eventually become eligible to apply for US citizenship through naturalization.
Becoming a citizen gives immigrants the ability to enjoy nearly all of the rights and privileges that natural-born US citizens have. It also gives them the same responsibilities.
If you’re considering becoming an American citizen, here’s what you need to know about the requirements for US citizenship.
What Are the Eligibility Requirements for US Citizenship?
Most permanent residents will eventually become eligible to apply for US citizenship. If you remain in good standing and you’re willing to learn the material necessary to pass the citizenship test, you can become a citizen of the United States.
Permanent Residency for Three to Five Years
Most people need to be a permanent resident of the United States for five years before they’re eligible to apply for US citizenship. If you’re the spouse of a US citizen, you may only need to be a permanent resident for three years.
It’s important to be mindful of the guidelines and restrictions that come with permanent resident status. Always get a re-entry permit if you intend to leave the United States and there’s a chance you may be gone for more than six months. Finally, you should avoid legal trouble. If you’re charged with a crime, you can be deported from the United States if you’re found guilty. Arrests, without conviction, can also be an issue.
Reading, Writing, and Speaking Basic English
The US citizenship test requires that permanent residents are able to read, understand, write, and speak English on a basic level. You do not need to be completely fluent in the English language.
The interviewer will assess your English speaking skills through conversation during the English test. They will test your reading skills by giving you three sentences to read. You need to read at least one sentence without making any significant errors.
They will also give you three sentences to write. You need to write at least one sentence without making any significant errors. It’s alright if there are simple spelling or punctuation mistakes as long as they don’t change the meaning of the sentence or make it hard to understand.
If you’re an immigrant whose first language is English, you won’t have any issues at all with this portion of the test. If English is your second language, you may want to practice reading, writing, and speaking English when preparing for your citizenship exam.
18 Years or Older
If you were born outside of the United States and you don’t have at least one parent who was a United States citizen at the time of your birth or naturalized before you turned 18, you have to wait until you’re 18 years old to become a citizen of the United States.
This is because permanent residents are required to recite an oath when becoming citizens, and only adults are allowed to take oaths involving commitments.
Good Moral Character
Having “good moral character” seems like a vague requirement, but it’s actually a very simple concept in the US.
Some countries define moral character strictly. They apply moral character laws to how people dress, their jobs, and even their alcohol consumption. The standards for good moral character are much less rigid in the United States.
Having good moral character in the US simply means you don’t break the law or associate with other people who break the law. It can also mean you fulfill your duties, like paying taxes or supporting dependents. Someone of good moral character is someone who is unlikely to face legal trouble.
Maintain Continuous Residence in the US
Continuous residence means that you’ve lived in the United States for at least 30 months of the past five years (18 months if eligible under the three-year rule). This shows that you’re establishing a meaningful life for yourself in the United States. You must live in the state from which you are filing for at least three months prior to filing your application for naturalization.
If you spend a significant amount of your time here and maintain a stable home, USCIS can see that your intention is to live in the USA on a long-term basis.
Demonstrate Knowledge of US History and Government
The civics test portion of the citizenship exam involves basic questions about US history and how the US government works. The interviewer will ask you ten questions from a list of questions provided by USCIS, the government agency that determines naturalization eligibility. You need to answer at least six of these questions correctly to pass the civics portion of the exam.
USCIS provides a study sheet. They will only ask you questions from that sheet, and they will only accept the answers they’ve provided. If you memorize all or most of the information on the study sheet, you’re unlikely to fail the civics part of the exam.
Study the sheet, learn the information, and have someone quiz you until you feel confident in your knowledge.
Taking the Oath of Allegiance
You’ll attend an official naturalization ceremony if you pass your citizenship exam. You won’t officially become a US citizen until you attend the ceremony. Other people who passed their naturalization exam will be present. You will take the Oath of Allegiance to the United States and receive your certificate of naturalization.
The Oath of Allegiance is a sworn statement you make in allegiance to the United States. The allegiance states, in simple terms, that you won’t act in the interest of a foreign government and you believe in supporting the United States constitution.
To that end, the Oath of Allegiance also states that you will bear arms on behalf of the U.S., perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces, and perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by law.
How Do You File for Naturalization?
If you meet all the requirements and feel confident in your ability to pass the exam, you can apply for naturalization using Form N-400. Filing the form is the first step of the naturalization process.
What Is the Fee to Apply for US Citizenship?
The total application fee for filing form N-400 is $725. This includes the $85 fee for a mandatory biometrics appointment. You probably had to attend a biometrics appointment when you applied for permanent resident status. You’ll need to do it again when you apply to become a citizen.
The filing fee for N-400 is high compared to the filing fee for other paperwork. Working-class families in the United States may not be able to afford the fee. USCIS won’t discount the cost of biometrics services, but you may have options available to you for the filing fee.
You can request a fee waiver if you meet the income guidelines. You can request a reduced filing fee if you don’t qualify for a fee waiver.
What Evidence Do You Need To Provide?
USCIS will ask you to provide documents with your N-400 form when you submit it. They will also ask you to bring some documents with you to your interview. You need to submit these documents with your application for naturalization:
- Copies of the front and back of your permanent resident card
- You need to provide proof if you are currently married or have been married before. A marriage, divorce, or death certificate for a spouse who has passed away serves as proof of your relationship status. If you’ve never been married, you can skip this part.
- If you or your spouse are in the United States military, you must provide form N-426 and/or DD Form 214 to show proof of discharge from duty. If you are on active duty, provide a copy of your military orders. If this doesn’t apply to you, you can skip this part.
USCIS may ask that you bring specific documents to your interview. Everyone should bring the following documents in addition to anything USCIS specifically requests:
- Your green card
- A state ID card, like your driver’s license
- Any passports you have, both valid and expired
Additional Documents You May Need
There are also some documents that not everyone will have but that you should definitely bring if they pertain to your situation:
- If you’ve ever left the country: You’ll need to bring travel documents and re-entry permits.
- If you’ve been married, divorced, or widowed: You’ll need the original documents to show as proof of your marital status. Your original marriage certificate, original divorce decree, or spouse’s death certificate will serve as proof of marital status.
- If you are married to someone who has been married before: You’ll need to bring proof that they are no longer legally married to someone else. You can bring their divorce decree or their former spouse’s death certificate.
- If you changed your legal name at any point: You’ll need to provide documents that show evidence of a name change.
- If you have children: Bring your children’s birth certificates.
- If you own assets in the United States or share them with a spouse: Your mortgage documents or statements from a shared bank account will serve as proof that you’ve built a life in the United States.
- If you have ever been arrested: You will need to bring a certificate of disposition.
What Is the Naturalization Interview Like?
When you arrive at your interview appointment, you’ll first submit the documents you were asked to bring with you. These documents and forms of identification will be returned to you.
Most of the interview is a simple conversation. The USCIS officer performing the interview will ask you questions about your background and verify the information you submitted. This portion of the interview may be shorter than your interview to become a green card holder because USCIS has more information about you now than it did before.
After you’ve answered questions about yourself and verified your information with your interviewer, the exam portion of the interview will start. Most of the exam is given verbally, so you won’t be given a test paper. Your interviewer will ask you most of the questions out loud, and you’ll answer out loud. You’ll only need to read and write very briefly.
You won’t become a naturalized citizen at the end of your interview even if your documents and forms are perfect and you pass the exam. You won’t become a citizen until your oath ceremony.
USCIS will contact you to inform you whether your N-400 form was approved. It usually only takes them a few weeks to get in touch. Your naturalization ceremony will usually be a month or two after your interview.
If you’re a permanent resident of the United States, you have firsthand experience working with the U.S. Government. Your experience will give you a good idea of what to expect when you file for US citizenship and move through the process.
The citizenship exam might feel a little intimidating, but it isn’t very difficult. There are no trick questions, and it’s easy for most people to pass on the first try. Since you have access to all of the correct answers before the test, it’s easy to study. If you’re worried that you can’t read or write English well enough to pass the test, take some time to study.
If you want more information about the process, you can always check for free naturalization information sessions in your area.
If you need any help preparing your documents to apply for United States citizenship, the thoughtful immigration lawyers at Cohen, Tucker, & Ades can help. Contact us if you need legal assistance with your naturalization case.