U.S. Citizenship

Applying for U.S. Citizenship 101

Most people who immigrate to the U.S. ultimately have the goal of becoming a U.S. citizen.  Becoming a U.S. citizen is not necessary, but it comes with benefits you would not get as a permanent resident (aka green card holder) such as, the right to vote, being able to hold certain government jobs, and being able to live in another country for the rest of your life while still being able to come back to the U.S. as you please.  Read below to find out more about what it takes to become a U.S. citizen.

How to Apply for U.S. Citizenship

  • Make sure you are eligible to be a U.S. citizen. The eligibility requirements are covered in the next section.
  • Prepare and submit Form N-400, Application for Naturalization. This has a filing fee of $640 and a biometric fee of $85. If you are over 75, you do not need to pay the biometric fee.
  • Attend your biometrics appointment. You will receive an appointment notice.
  • Attend your naturalization interview. This interview includes an English and civics test. Find more about the interview below.
  • Receive written decision on your Form N-400. Your application may be granted, continued, or denied. Continued means you may need to provide more evidence or documents, or you failed an English or civics test.
  • Receive notice to take the Oath of Allegiance. This notice is called Form N-445, Notice of Naturalization Oath Ceremony. It comes with a short questionnaire, which you should fill out before you attend your naturalization ceremony.
  • Take the Oath of Allegiance to the United States. Find more details on the oath below.

Attending the Naturalization Interview

When you attend your interview, make sure to bring the following documents: (a) appointment notice, (b) permanent resident card, (c) passports, and (d) state identification card, like a driver’s license. You may also want to bring these additional documents to ensure the interview goes smoothly: (a) proof of marital status, like a marriage certificate, (b) court decree for name change, (c) spouse’s marital history, (d) court disposition in criminal cases, (e) Selective Service registration, if you are a man between 18 and 31 years old.

The test will consist of you answering some questions, writing a sentence in English, and reading a sentence in English.  As you are interviewed, your interviewer tests your English-speaking ability by asking you questions and listening to your answers. You must also read and write one out of three sentences correctly to show you can read and write in English. You will be asked 10 out of 100 civics questions, and you must answer 6 of these questions correctly. You can find study resources for each test on USCIS.gov.

During the interview, you may be asked to recount your travel history. Make sure to have explanations for each time you have left the United States over the past three or more years.

Taking the Oath of Allegiance

The oath of allegiance is the last step in becoming a U.S. citizen. You take the oath at a naturalization ceremony, which will be scheduled when you receive notice to take the oath. The oath ceremony occurs at a later date after your interview.  Make sure to give your questionnaire responses (on Form N-445) and permanent resident card to USCIS when you check in at the naturalization ceremony.  

If you are worried about having to memorize the oath, you can put those worries to rest; you do not have to memorize the oath. The oath itself contains your promise to (a) support the constitution, (b) cut all allegiance to foreign powers, (c) defend and bear allegiance to the laws of the United States, and (d) bear arms or perform noncombat service for the United States when required by law.

In some situations, you can have the oath modified or waived. First, if you are against serving in the armed forces based on your religious views, you can request to have that part of the oath removed. You may be asked to provide documents from your religion showing its beliefs and that you are a member in good standing. Next, you may request the words “on oath” or “so help me God” be removed from the oath. You do not need to provide evidence for this modification. Last, USCIS may completely waive the oath if you show any disability that would make it impossible to understand the meaning of the oath.

You officially become a U.S. citizen at the naturalization ceremony, not at the interview, even though you pass the naturalization test and the officer says she is approving you.  If a person commits any crime or is convicted of a crime between the time of the interview when she is approved to the time of the naturalization ceremony, that could affect the person’s ability to get U.S. citizenship.  In fact, it could even be denied.

Requirements to Become a U.S. Citizen

As U.S. citizenship is the last step on your road to completing the immigration process, and for many, the ultimate goal, its requirements may appear daunting at first. As you go through the requirements, you may need help from an attorney to know if you meet an eligibility requirement or not.  Here are the requirements:

  • At least 18 years old.
  • Permanent resident with a green card.
  • Have had a green card for at least 5 years, 3 years if you got your green card based on marriage. If you have been a permanent resident for three and want to apply for citizenship, then you (a) must have been married to and living with a U.S. citizen for at least three years, (b) your spouse has been a U.S. citizen for those years, and (c) during the past three years, you have not been out of the country for 18 months or more.
  • Have not been out of the U.S. for 30 months or more in the last five years. There are exceptions to this rule for battered spouses or children and marriage as discussed in (2).
  • Have not taken a trip out of the U.S. that lasted one year or more in the last five years. If you have been a permanent resident for three to five years, then the requirements in (3) apply, not the requirement here.
  • Have resided in the place you will apply for citizenship in for at least three months.
  • Can read, write, and speak basic English. You do not have to meet this requirement in certain circumstances. This is explored in more detail below.
  • Know the basics of U.S. history and government. Check USCIS.gov for learning materials.
  • Have good moral character. See more on good moral character below.
  • If you are a male, you registered with the Selective Service. In some cases, this is not a requirement if you entered the U.S. after your 26th birthday, or you were in the U.S. between age 18 and 26 as a lawful nonimmigrant (i.e. you were here on an F-1 student visa and you maintained that status between the ages of 18 – 26). Further, if you were born after March 29, 1957, and before December 31, 1959, registration would not have been required. However, if you were required to register but did not, you are still able to qualify for naturalization.  This will briefly be explained below.
  • Have never deserted the armed forces.
  • Have never received exemption or discharge from the U.S. Armed Forces because of foreign status.
  • Willing to perform military or civilian service for the U.S. if the law requires.
  • Will support the U.S. Constitution.
  • Ready and willing to take the oath of allegiance to the U.S.

Good Moral Character

Good moral character does not mean you have a perfect record; rather, it means that you don’t have items on your record that would make you ineligible for U.S. citizenship. Some of these items include deriving most of your income from illegal gambling, committing an aggravated felony, or drug smuggling. To be eligible in most cases, you must show good moral character for five years. However, a USCIS officer can look beyond the five years.  Generally, traffic citations, such as a speeding ticket, will not count against you, even if they occurred within the five-year good moral character period unless they involved drugs or alcohol.  If you are on some sort of probation and the probation is not completed by the time the interview happens, your application will be denied.  Making sure you have been paying on any back taxes is important too.  If you haven’t, it could be a basis for denial for lack of good moral character.

Exceptions to the English Language Requirement

You do not have to meet the English language requirement if you are (a) over 50 years old and have lived in the U.S. for 20 years or more since becoming a permanent resident, (b) over 55 years old and have lived in the U.S. for at least 15 years since becoming a permanent resident, or (c) have a disability preventing you from fulfilling this requirement. If (c) applies, you will need to file Form N-648, Medical Certification for Disability Exceptions and have it signed by a doctor. For (a) and (b), a person must still be able to pass the civics test but can do so in his/her native language.  For example, a person who cannot speak much English, and her native language is Mandarin, she will be able to answer the questions in Mandarin.

Selective Service Requirement

The Selective Service is the U.S. government agency that oversees the draft. A draft occurs when the government requires able-bodied men to register for military service. Although a draft has not happened since the Vietnam War ended, men from age 18 to 26 are still required to register with the Selective Service.  Knowingly and willingly failing to register between age 18 to 26 during the good moral character period could result in a denial of your naturalization application.  For example, if you are 21 and filing for naturalization, and you did not knowingly and willingly did not register for Selective Service, your application could be denied.  If you failed to register when you were supposed to, you can address this by sending a written explanation to the Selective Service.  If you are over 31 and you knowingly and willingly didn’t register, you would still be eligible for naturalization.  You can find out more about Selective Service here: https://www.sss.gov/.

As always, if you have any questions about your eligibility for naturalization, make sure you talk to an experienced immigration attorney.