The process of becoming a U.S. citizen by application is called naturalization. In most cases, naturalization involves filing Form N-400, appearing for biometrics and interview, taking an English test and a civics exam, and ends in an oath ceremony in a local court or agency office. The N-400 form can be found on the USCIS website. To meet the basic eligibility requirements, an applicant must:
- Be at least 18 years old at the time of filing.
- Have held legal permanent resident status (a green card) for the last five years, or for the last three years if married to a U.S. citizen.
- Reside in the state of residence for at least three months prior to filing.
- Have been physically present in the U.S. for at least half the time of the residency requirement (i.e. 30 of the last 60 months or 18 of the last 36 months if married to a U.S. citizen).
- Have no continuous absence of more than one year from the U.S., irrespective of the protection of a re-entry permit or SB-1 visa.
- Have filed U.S. income tax returns as a tax resident each year after becoming a permanent resident.
- Possess good moral character. Examples of a lack of good moral character include:
- habitual drunkenness;
- association with prostitution, narcotics, or illegal entry of aliens;
- conviction of a crime of moral turpitude or of two or more non-political offenses for which the sentence imposed was five years or more;
- commission of immigration fraud;
- conviction of murder or an aggravated felony;
- non-support of dependents.
- Have basic knowledge of U.S. history and government and the ability to read, write, speak, and understand basic English.
Note that permanent resident status is not required in some circumstances where naturalization is based on active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces, or based on marriage to a U.S. citizen who died during active duty.
Exemptions from the English language test are available to applicants aged 50 or older at the time of filing who have resided in the U.S. as a permanent resident for a total of at least 20 years, and to applicants aged 55 or older at the time of filing who have resided in the U.S. as a permanent resident for a total of at least 15 years. In addition, exemptions from the English language test and a simplified version of the civics test are available to applicants aged 65 or older at the time of filing who have resided in the U.S. as a permanent resident for a total of at least 20 years.
Children under 18 years old can be derivatively naturalized without application when their permanent resident parent or parents both apply for naturalization. Such children may submit Form N-600 to obtain a naturalization certificate or may simply apply for a U.S. passport.
Upon receipt of the N-400 application and supporting documentation, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (“USCIS”) will schedule a biometrics (fingerprinting) appointment for the applicant at a nearby Application Support Center and notify him/her of its date, time, and location by mail. The following should be brought to the biometrics appointment:
- Appointment notice letter;
- Permanent resident card;
- Another form of photo identification, such as a driver’s license or passport.
After fingerprints have been taken, USCIS will forward them to the FBI for a background check. Once this process is completed, USCIS will schedule a naturalization interview and notify the applicant of the date, time, and location by mail. The interview occurs at the USCIS district field office nearest the applicant’s home.
A naturalization interview consists of questions about the naturalization application and the applicant’s personal background. There is also a simple test that assesses English comprehension (reading, writing, and speaking), as well as general knowledge of U.S. history and government. The exact questions and answers used on the civics portion of the exam are available for study on the USCIS website. Of 100 possible questions on U.S. history and government, the applicant will be asked up to ten questions and must answer six questions correctly to pass the civics part of the naturalization exam. Study materials for the English section of the test can also be found on the USCIS website.
The following should be brought to the naturalization interview:
- Interview notice;
- Permanent resident card;
- Passport or state identification card, if applicable;
- Any re-entry permits;
- Any additional documents requested by USCIS in the interview notice.
Applicants should arrive 30 minutes before the scheduled time. Rescheduling the interview may add months to the naturalization process, so attendance at the specified place and time is important. At the conclusion of the interview, the interviewing officer may inform the applicant of his/her decision to approve or deny the N-400 application. However, more often than not, s/he will simply tell the applicant that s/he needs to review the application further and obtain supervisory approval of his/her decision. Once a decision has been made, USCIS will notify the applicant by mail of its decision to approve or deny the naturalization application.
If, following the interview, the naturalization application is approved, the applicant will be sent a Notice of Naturalization Oath Ceremony (Form N-445) from USCIS by mail, which contains the time, place, and date of the ceremony. The oath ceremony is a solemn event during which a formal declaration of allegiance to the United States is made. At the ceremony, applicants will be asked to surrender their permanent resident cards. The Oath of Allegiance to the United States is available online.
Applicants who are unable or unwilling to promise to bear arms or perform noncombatant service because of religious training and belief may request to leave out those parts of the oath. Taking the oath of allegiance to the U.S. does not foreclose citizenship in other countries. The U.S. recognizes dual citizenship, but other countries may not.
Although the oath is largely ceremonial, certain acts taken by newly naturalized citizens may result in a loss of U.S. citizenship. Membership or affiliation in a subversive, communist or anarchist organization within five years of naturalization establishes a loss of allegiance to the United States and can result in the loss of citizenship. U.S. citizenship is not threatened by routine acts of allegiance to foreign governments, such as oaths, employment, naturalization or renewing a foreign passport. Such acts must be performed voluntarily and with the intent to relinquish U.S. citizenship before a loss of U.S. citizenship may occur.
New citizens may update Social Security records at the nearest Social Security Administration (“SSA”) office and apply for a U.S. passport immediately. To obtain a passport, complete Form DS-11 (Passport Application), which can be found online from the U.S. State Department or at the county clerk’s office. Return from foreign travel after the naturalization ceremony depends upon having a U.S. passport.