Applying for U.S. Citizenship

The process of becoming a citizen of the United States citizen is known as "naturalization". Applications for naturalization are managed by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). After obtaining citizenship, you will gain certain rights including:

  • The right to vote in U.S. elections;
  • The right to participate in federal programs such as Social Security;
  • The right to obtain a United States passport;
  • The ability to qualify for certain security clearances

Eligibility for U.S. Citizenship

For basic eligibility to become a naturalized U.S. citizen, you must first a spend at least five years as a legal permanent resident of the United States, during which you did not take any trips abroad for more than six months, and were present in the United States for not less than half of the entire period (two-and-a-half years). Additional factors, such as marriage to a U.S. citizen, may affect eligibility for citizenship.

The USCIS provides an online eligibility worksheet to help people determine their eligibility.

Generally speaking, to qualify for citizenship, you must:

    1. Be a lawful permanent U.S. resident;

    2. Be 18 years of age or older;

    3. Be a permanent resident for not less than five years. (If a person obtained permanent residence through marriage to a U.S. citizen, they may be eligible for naturalization in three years if the couple has been married for 3 years, if the spouse was a citizen during that entire period, and if the couple are still living in marital unity);

    4. Have resided for not less than three months in the state where the petition was filed;

    5. Be physically present in the United States for at least one half of the five years (or one half of three if spouse is a citizen), with no absences longer than six months;

    6. Have resided continuously within the United States from the date the petition was filed to the time of admission to citizenship;

    7. Have been a person of good moral character for the five years of residence;

    8. Have an elementary level of reading and writing English. (Exceptions to this rule exist for persons over fifty, in the US for 20 years or more as a permanent resident; and for persons over 55 , in the US for 15 years as a permanent resident); and

    9. Have a basic knowledge of the fundamentals of U.S. government and history. (This requirement can be waived for people over 65 and have been permanent resident for 20 years.)

Additionally, people may qualify for naturalization as a result of:

  • Birth in the United States: All persons born in the United States are citizens regardless of the status of their parents. This is true whether the parents are citizens, green card holders, students, tourists, or illegal aliens.
  • Acquisition at Birth: A child born outside the United States where one or both parents are United States citizens may acquire U.S. citizenship at birth.
  • Derivation Through Naturalization of Parents: A child born outside the United States may become a citizen by virtue of the naturalization of his or her parents.

The Application Process

To apply for citizenship:

  • Obtain a citizenship application form (Form N-400, Application for Naturalization), either by obtaining the form from the USCIS or downloading it from their website;

  • Complete the form completely and honestly – recalling that dishonesty can result in your application being denied, even if your dishonesty related to an issue that would not otherwise disqualify you for citizenship;

  • Submit the application form to the USCIS, along with two photographs meeting USCIS requirements, the required application fee, and any documents required to document special circumstances;

  • Once your application is complete, attend an appointment where you will be fingerprinted;

  • Provide any documentation requested by the USCIS;

  • Demonstrate a basic command of the English language;

  • Pass a civics test on the history and government of the United States;

  • Answer questions about your background, and evidence supporting your application for citizenship, including information about your residence, and your willingness to take an oath of allegiance to the United States.

The Decision

Following the interview with the USCIS, a request for citizenship will either be granted, continued, or denied:

Granted: Where an application is granted, the applicant can sometimes take the oath ceremony on that very date, although many people will be informed of the decision by mail, and will attend a subsequent citizenship ceremony.

Continued: When an application is "continued", it is placed on hold while certain problems or issues are resolved, such as the failure of a test during the interview, or the provision of additional records or documents requested by the USCIS. The letter informing you of the continuation will detail what additional steps must be taken to complete the application process.

Denied. If your application for citizenship is denied, you will receive a letter explaining the reasons for the denial, and informing you of the process for appealing the denial.

Taking the Oath of Allegiance

Once your application is approved, in order to become a United States citizen you must take the Oath of Allegiance, swearing allegiance to the United States and renouncing all allegiances to any foreign country. At the time you take the Oath, you will return your Permanent Residence Card (Green Card), and will receive a Certificate of Naturalization.

Getting a Passport

Following the ceremony you will qualify for a United States Passport, and generally speaking should obtain one as soon as possible following the ceremony. If you lose your Certificate of Naturalization and you do not yet have a passport, you will not have proof of citizenship until you can obtain a replacement certificate.

Copyright © 2002 Aaron Larson, All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of the copyright holder. If you use a quotation, excerpt or paraphrase of this article, except as otherwise authorized in writing by the author of the article you must cite this article as a source for your work and include a link back to the original article from any online materials that incorporate or are derived from the content of this article.

This article was last reviewed or amended on Apr 6, 2018.