The standard rules for naturalization to U.S. citizenship require the applicant to:
- Be a lawful permanent resident.
- Not be found to have abandoned his or her permanent resident status at any point.
- Be 18 years of age or older.
- Have good moral character, particularly during the 5 years prior to applying for naturalization and continuing through the date of naturalization.
- Continuously reside in the U.S. for the last 5 years in lawful permanent resident status.
- Reside in the state or USCIS district where he or she applies for naturalization for the 3 months immediately before applying.
- Be physically present in the U.S. for at least half of the last 5 years.
- Pass examinations on basic speaking, reading, and writing in the English language.
- Pass an examination on U.S. history and government.
- Support the U.S. Constitution and form of government.
- Be willing to serve in the U.S. military in a combatant or noncombatant role and to perform work of national importance under civilian direction.
- Swear or affirm allegiance to the United States.
See below for a more detailed discussion of these requirements and some of the more common exceptions to them. For example, certain spouses of U.S. citizens have a 3-year residence period. Congress also has created more generous requirements for naturalization of immigrants who have served honorably in the U.S. Armed Forces; in some cases they do not even need to hold lawful permanent resident status. Persons who potentially qualify for naturalization through military service may obtain more information by visiting the USCIS website.
Lawful Permanent Resident Status
The first general requirement for naturalization is lawful permanent resident status. That does not just mean having a green card. The permanent resident must also have obtained his or her green card lawfully. An applicant is not eligible for naturalization if he or she obtained permanent resident status through fraud, material misrepresentation, or government error. Although USCIS will not approve a naturalization application if it believes the applicant did not obtain status lawfully, the applicant retains his or her permanent resident status until an immigration judge in removal proceedings takes that status away. Sometimes USCIS initiates those proceedings upon denying a naturalization application, sometimes it doesn‘t.
Abandonment of Permanent Resident Status
An applicant must also have not abandoned his or her permanent resident status. Abandonment occurs where a permanent resident is absent from the U.S. and while absent does not maintain a continuous uninterrupted intent to return to the U.S. within a relatively short period of time fixed by a specific event. This is a very subjective test that is applied differently at USCIS offices throughout the country.
Usually abandonment is not an issue for absences of less than 6 months, but it could be. For example, abandonment might occur where the applicant gives up her job and home in the U.S. and moves with her husband and minor children to a foreign country to begin living there permanently—even if she changes her mind and returns to the U.S. after 5 months.
On the other hand, a much longer absence might not result in a finding of abandonment if the applicant has a continuous intent to return. For example, an applicant who returned to her home country to care for a parent dying of cancer may not abandon her residence if caring for the parent takes 2 years instead of the 6 months she expected when she left the U.S.
Age Eighteen or Older/Derivative Naturalization
Only a permanent resident 18 years of age or older may file for naturalization, but children under 18 years of age may automatically receive U.S. citizenship under certain conditions. The law currently is very generous: A child under the age of 18 automatically becomes a U.S. citizen if: (1) at least one of his or her parents is a U.S. citizen (by birth or naturalization) and (2) the child is admitted to lawful permanent resident status. This law applies to children who are under 18, have a citizen parent, and have lawful permanent resident status at any point on or after February 27, 2001, when the Child Citizenship Act of 2000 took effect. To document a claim for citizenship or to learn more about the requirements under prior versions of the law, consult with an immigration attorney.
Good Moral Character
Naturalization requires good moral character, which is defined in the negative to mean the applicant has not committed certain bad acts. This includes committing certain crimes, willfully failing to support dependents, failing to file or pay taxes, falsely claiming to be a U.S. citizen, being a habitual drunkard or addict, and a whole host of other bad acts. For a more complete discussion, visit good moral character.
Continuous Residence of 5 Years in U.S.
The requirement to reside in the U.S. in lawful permanent resident status for 5 years means the applicant must (1) have their principal dwelling place in the U.S. for 4 years and 9 months immediately before applying for naturalization and (2) be a lawful permanent resident during that entire period. Why 4 years and 9 months? Although the Form N-400 states that the applicant must have at least 5 years of permanent resident status before applying, the law actually permits an applicant to file 3 months early. After applying, the applicant must then continue to reside in the U.S. until he or she becomes a citizen (which will take at least three months, often longer).
An applicant disrupts the continuity of his or her five years of residence for naturalization if he or she has a trip outside of the U.S. that lasts one year or more. An applicant who disrupts his or her residence with a trip of one year or more must wait 4 years and 1 day from the date of returning from that trip before applying for naturalization. A trip outside the U.S. of more than 6 months and less than one year also disrupts an applicant‘s continuity of residence unless the applicant can prove he or she did not disrupt his or her residence. Evidence of continued ties to the U.S. can be used to prove this. Examples of continued ties to the U.S. include continuing U.S. employment, family in the U.S., full access to a home in the U.S., and no employment abroad. Strangely, an applicant who disrupts his or her residence with a trip of more than 6 months but less than one year must wait a full 5 years from the date of return before applying for naturalization, not 4 years and 1 day. Note that the issue of disruption of residence is distinct from the more subjective issue of whether the applicant has abandoned his or her residence.
Also be aware that the continuous residence requirement applies differently or not at all to certain categories of applicants. The requirements that apply to certain spouses of U.S. citizens are discussed below. Other categories with modified residence requirements include lawful permanent residents serving in the U.S. Armed Forces, U.S. noncitizen nationals, seamen aboard ships, and certain employees of U.S. nonprofit organizations. Refugees and asylees also get their residence date rolled back. Refugees get to count all of their time in refugee status toward the continuous residence requirement. Asylees get to count one year of asylum status. Finally, some applicants may count time outside the U.S. toward the 5 years of continuous residence if they have an approved N-470 and prove that the trip was consistent with the purposes stated in the N-470. For more information about these types of situations, consult with an immigration attorney.
Local Residence for 3 Months
A naturalization applicant must also reside in the state or USCIS district where he or she applies for naturalization for the three months immediately before applying. An applicant continues to reside in a state or district if he or she is absent from the U.S. for less than one year and he or she resides in the same state or district upon return to the U.S. Also, an applicant need not meet the requirement of 3 months of local residence before applying if he or she applies early. (As discussed above, an applicant may apply up to 3 months before obtaining 5 years of continuous residence in the U.S. in permanent resident status.)
Physical Presence in the U.S. of 30 Months
In addition to the above residence requirements, which concern where the applicant has his or her principal dwelling place, the applicant must also be physically present in the U.S. for half of the 5 years (in other words, they must be present 913 days out of the 5 years) before applying for naturalization.
Most applicants must demonstrate a basic ability to speak, read, and write English. This means being able to understand and answer questions in English at the naturalization interview. Those questions concern the applicant‘s eligibility to naturalize. The examiner must rephrase those questions into simple English if necessary. The interview will also include simple tests of the applicant‘s ability to read and write in English. The applicant will need to read one sentence and write one sentence. The sentences will be composed from a fixed vocabulary list that the applicant can study in advance. Many school districts offer adult education classes to help naturalization applicants prepare for the tests.
Some applicants do not need to take the English examination. An applicant is exempt from the English literacy requirement if he or she is at least 50 years old and has held lawful permanent resident status for at least 20 years (50/20 rule) or if he or she is at least 55 years old and has held lawful permanent resident status for at least 15 years (55/15 rule). An applicant also is not required to learn or demonstrate English literacy if he or she has a medically certifiable disability that prevents doing so (see the N-648 discussion below).
U.S. History & Government Examination
Perhaps the most well-known requirement for naturalization to U.S. citizenship is the civics test. This is a 10-question test drawn from 100 possible questions about U.S. government and history. A naturalization applicant will get a study guide for the test when he or she appears for the biometrics (fingerprinting) appointment that occurs prior to the interview. An applicant need only answer 6 out of the 10 questions correctly to pass. Some of the questions are easy, others are more difficult.
Applicants who are at least 65 years old and who have held permanent resident status for at least 20 years are asked only the easy civics questions. An applicant will be tested in his or her preferred language if he or she qualifies for an exemption to the English literacy requirement.
An applicant need not take the civics test at all if he or she is unable to learn or demonstrate the required knowledge of U.S. government and history due to a medically certifiable disability. The same is true of the English test. To receive the exemption, an applicant must obtain an N-648 from a medical doctor, doctor of osteopathy, or licensed clinical psychologist. The medical professional must fully explain the connection between the disability and the inability to learn or demonstrate knowledge of U.S. government and history and/or English. USCIS will reject the certification if this connection (nexus) is not fully explained. Surprisingly, many doctors have trouble explaining the connection between the medical condition and inability to learn or demonstrate the required knowledge. So, it is best to consult with an immigration attorney before submitting an N-648.
Attachment to the U.S. Constitution & Form of Government
To naturalize to U.S. citizenship, an applicant must be attached to the principles of the U.S. Constitution and our form of government. The law expressly prohibits naturalization by persons who have been voluntary members or affiliates of a communist, totalitarian, anarchist, or terrorist group or organization. Advocacy of the principles behind those groups also results in ineligibility. Past membership, affiliation, or advocacy that occurred more than 10 years before applying for naturalization may not bar naturalization. Even past membership or activities may, however, implicate a ground of deportability. An applicant should seek expert advice before applying with a history of involvement with any of these groups or organizations.
Oath & Military Service
The oath of citizenship that occurs at the conclusion of the naturalization process requires the applicant to swear or affirm certain things. The applicant must swear or affirm loyalty to the United States and renounce allegiance to his or her former country of nationality. The applicant must also swear or affirm his or her willingness to bear arms in support of the United States (be a combatant in the military), to perform noncombatant service in the U.S. Armed Forces, and to perform work of national importance under civilian direction, if required by law.
An exemption is available to the part of the oath where the applicant swears or affirms willingness to bear arms and/or perform noncombatant service in the armed forces. To qualify for the exemption, the applicant must oppose military service under any circumstance (not just for a particular war or conflict), the belief must be religiously or ethically based, and the belief must be sincerely and deeply held.
Noncitizens who have deserted from the U.S. military during a time of war or who have obtained exemption from U.S. military service based on alienage are generally prohibited from naturalizing for life.
Special Rules for Spouses of U.S. Citizens
Certain immigrants married to U.S. citizens may qualify for naturalization after 3 years of continuous residence in the U.S. in permanent resident status (rather than the general requirement of 5 years). The period of good moral character also is just 3 years, which can be helpful in shortening a period of ineligibility for naturalization. The U.S. physical presence requirement is half of 3 years (18 months).
To qualify for naturalization with these more generous requirements, each of the following must be true during the entire 3 years prior to filing the application and continuing up to the date the applicant takes the oath of citizenship:
- The applicant‘s spouse has been and continues to be a U.S. citizen.
- The applicant has been and continues to be married to that same U.S. citizen.
- The applicant and spouse have lived and continue to live together in marital union (this means not voluntarily living apart, not informally separating, and not legally separating).
Applicants who wish to take advantage of this shorter 3 year requirement need to submit the following evidence to USCIS:
- Proof of the spouse‘s citizenship, such as a U.S. birth certificate, passport, or naturalization certificate.
- Proof of the legal validity of the marriage. This requires a marriage certificate (or evidence of a common law marriage, if the state of residence recognizes common law marriage). The applicant must also provide proof of the termination of any prior marriages for both the applicant and spouse (death certificate or divorce or annulment order).
- Proof of living together in marital union with the spouse for the last 3 years, which might include joint bank account statements, lease documents, joint insurance documents, birth certificates for common children, etc.
Permanent residents who obtained that status based on battery or extreme cruelty by a U.S. citizen spouse or parent (VAWA, Form I-360) also qualify for naturalization with only 3 years of continuous residence in permanent resident status. Spouses who apply based on this rule do not need to live together in marital union with the abusive spouse or former spouse to qualify.