“I didn't flee a dictator or swim an ocean to be an American like some do. I just thought long and hard about it.”
― Craig Ferguson,
Researching How to become a U.S. citizen? If you already have a Green Card and feel like you’re ready to take the next step in your immigration process, read this before you take action.
How to become a U.S. Citizen
Many permanent residents ask why they should bother with filing for U.S. citizenship. After all, Permanent Residents can live permanently in the U.S., so why take any further action? The short answer is that the name is misleading – Permanent Residence isn’t permanent.
A person can lose residence by committing a criminal offense, traveling after even a misdemeanor criminal offense, or staying outside of the United States for extended periods of time.
Even if none of these problems occur, citizenship confers the right to vote in the United States, and after the hotly contested 2016 Presidential Election, we all can understand the significance of our votes.
The process of a foreign national becoming a U.S. citizen through application and interview is called naturalization. Foreign nationals who wish to become naturalized U.S. citizens must meet certain criteria to be eligible to apply and be approved.
An applicant for naturalization must be at least 18 years of age, have been a permanent resident for at least 3 or 5 years, have maintained continuous residence for the 3 or 5 year period, meet required periods of physical presence in the U.S., and be a person of good moral character.
BASIC NATURALIZATION CRITERIAAn applicant must meet one the following criteria:
(1) have been a lawful permanent resident of the U.S. for at least five years; or
(2) have been a lawful permanent resident of the U.S. for at least three years AND have been married and living with the same U.S. citizen spouse during this time; or
(3) have served in the United States military and qualify to apply on this basis. (Since there are a few ways to qualify for naturalization through military service, consult with an experienced immigration attorney to determine if you qualify.)
In addition to the above criteria, most applicants for naturalization must be able to demonstrate the following:
- Physical Presence: The applicant meets the required amount of physical presence within the last 5 years (or within the last 3 years if applying based on being married to and living with a U.S. citizen);
- Continuous Residence: The applicant has maintained a continuous residence in the U.S. since becoming a permanent resident;
- Residence within the State or USCIS District: Immediately preceding the filing of the application, the applicant has resided within the State or USCIS District in which the application was filed for at least 3 months;
- Good moral character: The applicant must demonstrate good moral character within the last 5 years (or within the last 3 years if applying based on being married to and living with a U.S. citizen); and
- Civics and English Test: The applicant must demonstrate proficiency in English and an understanding of the U.S. Constitution, its history, and government.
Here’s a closer look at these requirements:
Physical Presence Requirement for Naturalization
Naturalization applicants must show that they have met the required period of physical presence. Individuals applying based on being a permanent resident for 5 years must show that they were physically present for half of the previous 5 years, which means they must have been in the United States for 913 of the previous 1825 days. Individuals applying based on marriage to a U.S. citizen must show that they were physically within the United States for 548 of the previous 1095 days.
Continuous Residence in the U.S. Requirement for Naturalization
Green card holders are able to travel in and outside of the U.S.; however, one should refrain from trips over 6 months out of the U.S. as it may appear you do not wish to reside in the U.S. permanently. When completing your N-400 application, you will need to list all entry/exit dates for the last five years and include a copy of your full passport.
Note that meeting the physical presence requirements does not guarantee that USCIS will determine that the continuous residence requirement is met. In other words, some individuals may have been in the United States for enough days to meet the physical presence requirements, but cannot show that they have maintained a continuous residence.
Absences of 6 months or more but less than 1 year: The regulations on naturalization specifically state that absences from the U.S. for 6 months or more but less than 1 year indicate a failure to maintain continuous residence in the U.S. An applicant who has these absences has to provide evidence of maintenance of residence, such as ownership of a home to which he/she has access (i.e. the home is not rented out to someone else), payment of U.S. taxes and has not declared himself a nonresident, and has not taken up employment overseas, etc.
Absences of 1 year or more: If an applicant was absent from the United States for 1 year or more, the period of 5 or 3 years of residence starts over.
If you frequently travel out of the United States for long periods of time and are interested in applying for naturalization, consult with an experienced immigration attorney about how you might be able to show continuous residence before you apply.
Residence within the State Requirement for Naturalization
Naturalization applicants must have resided for at least three months in the State or Service district having jurisdiction over his place of residence immediately preceding the filing of his application. An applicant's residence during any absence of less than one year shall continue to be the State or Service district where he last resided if he returns to that state or district.
Good Moral Character Requirement for Naturalization
Generally, an applicant for naturalization must show good moral character within the previous 5 years (or 3 years if applying based on marriage to a U.S. citizen). Individuals with a criminal history, pending charges, or a sentence or probation that is not yet completed during this period may have their naturalization application denied.
However, the determination of good moral character is done on a case-by-case basis, and any and all arrests, charges, convictions and pleas must be disclosed. Any criminal history may be a basis for denial even if the conviction was expunged or occurred outside the previous 5 years (or 3 years in the case of those applying based on marriage to a U.S. citizen).
However, an arrest or conviction – even one within the last 5/3 years - does not necessarily mean the application will be denied.
Certain crimes including a conviction for murder or a conviction for a crime classified as an aggravated felony bar applicants from obtaining U.S. citizenship. Other factors, such as unlawful voting, non-support of dependents, and failure to register with Selective Service, may also bar an applicant from naturalizing.
If you have any of the above and wish to become a U.S. citizen, consult with an immigrant attorney to assess your options. If U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services denies your application for citizenship and your criminal history makes you deportable from the United States, you may be referred to Immigration Court. Thus, it is important to determine your options and the potential risks of applying for naturalization by working with an experienced immigration attorney.
Naturalization History, Civics, Geography and English Testing
One of the most well-known aspects of the Naturalization process is the English Proficiency and Civics Test, which involves answering questions about U.S. history, government, and geography in English. (Note that there are exceptions to the English language requirement for individuals of a certain age who have also been permanent residents for period of at least 15 years. There are also waivers available for those with disabilities).
Applicants must demonstrate proficiency in reading, writing, and speaking English throughout the interview by answering 10 questions relating to the U.S. Constitution, history & government. USCIS maintains a list of 100 possible civics test questions & answers along with flash cards and other resources online here.
N-400 Application Process
Individuals who meet the above criteria and wish to become Naturalized U.S. citizens must file the Form N-400, Application for Naturalization, and include supporting documentation and the filing fee of $725.00 ($640.00 filing + $85.00 biometrics fee as of new fee increase on December 23, 2016), and a recent passport-style photo. For general information on the N-400 application process, please visit their page here.
N-400 Interview at your Local USCIS Office
Once the N-400 application is filed at the designated USCIS filing address, a receipt notice with a unique case number (called a “receipt number”) will typically be issued within 30 days. The receipt number will allow the applicant to track the progress of the application via the USCIS online case status system, which can be found here.
Once USCIS has reviewed the application for completeness and determined that the required information has been submitted, the applicant will receive an interview notice stating the designated time and date for the interview at the USCIS local office in their area.
It is of utmost importance that an applicant keep his or her mailing address up-to-date so that the interview notice is received. Failure to appear at a scheduled interview may result in the denial of the N-400 application. Interviews should only be rescheduled if necessary, as rescheduling may cause a delay of several more weeks or months. Failure to appear at a scheduled interview may result in the denial of the N-400 application.
Naturalization Oath Ceremony
Once your N-400 has been approved, USCIS will schedule a Naturalization Ceremony where you will take the Oath of Allegiance, be given a Naturalization Certificate and at that point you will have become a U.S. citizen!
N-400 Application Average Processing Time
The total amount of time it takes for an N-400 application to be approved can vary depending on the number of applications USCIS receives and each applicant’s individual factors such as criminal background, documentation provided, and whether the applicant passes the naturalization test at the interview.
The Law Office of Kathryn N. Karam has assisted applicants in the Houston, Texas area and around the United States with applications for naturalization for years. We have experience working with applicants with criminal history and those who have traveled extensively.
Please contact us if you need help applying for naturalization by clicking here:
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We work to make our clients’ experiences as smooth as possible. Where there is a risk involved in travel, we want our clients to understand the risk and to be prepared to explain the purpose of their travel and their eligibility for entry into the U.S.. We hope this guide provides helpful information