Reviewing the Steps to Naturalization
For many immigrants, becoming a United States citizen is the endgame, a means of permanently living and belonging to a country they love and believe in. U.S. citizenship offers numerous powerful benefits as well as responsibilities, so beyond its symbolic value, there are numerous reasons to consider pursuing naturalization versus remaining a lawful permanent resident.
Like many immigration procedures, however, the road to the United States citizenship can be long, arduous, and confusing. Below, we review some of the basic steps and eligibility requirements involved in the naturalization process.
Step 1: Confirm Your Eligibility
Not just anyone can apply to be a United States citizen. Naturalization is typically the final piece of a much longer process that includes obtaining a green card.
Whether you are eligible to apply for citizenship generally revolves around the following three factors:
- How long you have held a green card
- How long you have physically resided in the country
- Any qualifying military service
Unfortunately, there is no easy or universal answer to the circumstances making you eligible. For many, it is a case-by-case basis requiring the assistance of an immigration attorney, but there are several common scenarios we can review.
If you have an individual green card with no extenuating or special circumstances, you can apply for naturalization after 5 years from the date you received the green card. You must have physically lived in the United States for 2.5 years, or 30 months, out of the 5 years.
If you obtained a green card through marriage, you can apply for citizenship after 3 years from when you received your green card. You must have continued to live with your spouse, your spouse must have been a citizen themselves for at least 3 years, and you must have lived in the United States for at least 1.5 years (or 18 months) out of the 3 years.
If you held a green card and were married to a U.S. citizen honorably serving in the military before dying in the line of duty, the waiting period is waived so long as you were living with them at the time of their death. Otherwise, you need only have a valid green card at the time of your citizenship interview (which we will discuss more below).
Requirements for those serving in the United States military vary depending on whether you are serving during “peacetime” or “wartime.” The United States has been in wartime since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Serving during wartime entitles you to apply for citizenship without obtaining a green card. You need only have been physically present in the United States (or above a U.S. vessel) when you entered the military.
In addition to waiting the appropriate amount of time if you have a green card or serving in the military, every individual applying for citizenship must meet the following requirements:
- You must be a legal adult (18 years or older)
- You must not have left the United States for a period greater than 6 months during your green card waiting period
- You must register with the Selective Service System if you are male and between the ages of 18 and 25
- You must be willing to serve in the United States military if called upon
- You must sincerely believe in and be willing to defend the United States Constitution
- You must have resided in the state in which you are specifically applying for a minimum of 3 months
- You must pass a naturalization test consisting of English language and civics knowledge exams
- You must have “good moral character”
The “good moral character” requirement may sound arbitrary, and unfortunately, it sometimes can be. Whether someone has “good moral character” is often determined on a case-by-case basis, but generally, the government will be evaluating any criminal charges on your record, particularly violent felonies. Committing fraud to obtain immigration benefits or lying in your citizenship interview are typically grounds for immediate disqualification.
Step #2: Formally Applying for Citizenship
Once you have determined you are eligible – preferably with the assistance of an immigration lawyer – the next step is to formally apply for naturalization. This involves completing Form N-400, the Application for Naturalization, along with the associated fees.
You can in most circumstances choose to complete Form N-400 online on the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) website or mail in a physical application. If you attempt to seek financial relief from application fees through a waiver, are presently outside the United States, or are pursuing citizenship as a result of military service, you must deliver a physical application and cannot complete the process online.
Step #3: Complete your Biometrics Appointment
If your application and eligibility are determined to be in order, USCIS will typically contact you a month or so following the submittal of Form N-400 to schedule a biometrics appointment. This is a relatively simple process conducted at the USCIS field office most convenient to you.
“Biometrics” may sound intimidating, but you are essentially only giving your fingerprints. USCIS officials will then conduct a background check.
Step #4: Participate in the Citizenship Interview and Pass the Naturalization Test
There is likely to be a lengthy waiting period after you have completed your biometrics appointment. Before COVID-19, the average wait before being contacted again by USCIS hovered around 14 months. Complications resulting from the pandemic have exacerbated delays in many areas, especially as USCIS field offices were forced to temporarily close. For the immediate future, you can likely expect an even longer wait, especially if your nearest field office faces a particularly large backlog of applications.
Eventually, however, a USCIS officer will reach out to schedule your citizenship interview and exam, which will occur simultaneously. In non-pandemic times, this would occur at your local USCIS field office, or, if you are serving in the armed forces, at a military facility. If you are applying from somewhere other than the United States, the interview typically occurs at a United States embassy or consulate.
The interview is fairly basic and mostly consists of a USCIS officer verifying the information on your application is correct. They may ask you basic questions about your time in the United States or any potential problems they discovered during your background check.
The exam takes place next and is divided into two parts. The English portion will assess your ability to write and speak the language. You will be asked to read one of three prewritten sentences aloud, as well as write one of three spoken sentences.
The civics portion covers United States history and basics of how our government functions. You might be asked questions relating to your specific area of residence, like who one of your U.S. Senators is. You will be given 10 questions from a pool of 100 and must answer at least 6 correctly to pass. USCIS publishes the 100 potential questions online, giving you the opportunity to study in advance. If you are over the age of 65 and have resided in the United States for more than 20 years, you may be exempted from taking portions of the exam.
Do not panic if you do not pass either portion of the test the first time. Every applicant is provided a “second chance” at a later date to retake the portion of the exam they failed.
Once you do pass and the USCIS is otherwise satisfied with your interview, they will approve the application. If they still have concerns, a follow-up interview might be scheduled, or you may be asked to submit additional documents.
Step #5: Take the Oath of Allegiance and Officially Become a Citizen
The last step to becoming a citizen is, perhaps fittingly, symbolic in nature. You will need to take the “Oath of Allegiance” to be officially naturalized, at which point you will be considered a U.S. citizen and granted all of the benefits and responsibilities that entails.
The ceremony is typically conducted at a local courthouse or your USCIS field office. A USCIS officer will reach out with the time, date, and location of your ceremony at some point after your interview. The amount of time it takes to schedule the ceremony has historically varied wildly, but COVID-19 has unfortunately slowed the process even more. Because many citizens take the Oath in a single ceremony, the government has struggled to adapt to physical distancing and other pandemic-ready safety requirements.
Step #6: Enjoy Citizenship!
Once you have taken the Oath, you are now a United States citizen! You can no longer be deported to your country of origin or other former citizenship. You have full rights to live and work in the country, and you can apply for a United States passport.
You will also become fully eligible for government benefit programs, including Social Security, Medicare, and federal college financial assistance. If you have relatives who are not United States citizens, you will now be able to apply for green cards on their behalf. You will now be permitted to vote and even run for office if you are so inclined.
Let Us Help You on Your Road to Citizenship
As you can see, becoming a United States citizen is a complex process with numerous stages and potentially a great deal of waiting. Making a mistake at any point during the process can lead to severe consequences: The Trump administration implemented new rules that, should any required document be omitted or error be found, the entire application process must be restarted, including the payment of new fees. That is why you need an experienced immigration attorney on our side.
At The Law Office of Yifei He, PLLC, we can guide you through every step of the citizenship process. We can determine your eligibility, work to ensure Form N-400 is correctly completed, and represent you in all communications with USCIS. We understand how challenging becoming a U.S. citizen can be and our immigration lawyer in New York is committed to helping our clients go through naturalization as efficiently as possible.