When Can a Green Card Holder Become a U.S. Citizen?

Immigrants who are married to and living with a U.S. citizen need to wait only three years before applying to naturalize. Most others must wait five years.

by Lawrence Gruner, California Attorney

Q. I have had my green card for three years. Can I apply for U.S. citizenship?

A. It depends on whether you fall into an exception. Most people must wait a full five years.

  1. If, however, you are married to a U.S. citizen, you may qualify to apply for naturalization now. This assumes the following: you are currently married to and living with a U.S. citizen; and you have been married to and living with that same U.S. citizen for the past three years; and your spouse has been a U.S. citizen for the past 3 years.
  2. If you are an asylee, then you must wait four years after your approval of permanent residence (because your year as an asylee counts; in fact, you will notice that your green card is already back-dated one year)
  3. If you are a refugees, you must wait five years from your date of U.S. entry rather than the date you were approved for permanent residence, because your time as a refugee in the U.S. counts toward permanent residence.
  4. There are also special rules for current and former military members and spouses of military members who died during active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces, which are beyond the scope of this article. See How to Get U.S. Citizenship Through Military Service.

Your permanent residency begins on the date you were granted your permanent residence status. Look at your permanent residence card. It will state the date on your card.

Continuous Residency Requirement

There are special rules that apply if you have taken trips outside of the United States of six months or longer. In these cases you may have disrupted your "continuous residence" (unless you can prove otherwise) and you will not be eligible for naturalization without waiting longer. There are, however, exceptions to this rule, which are beyond the scope of this article. If this is your situation, you may still be eligible to apply for naturalization at a later time. However, you should speak to an immigration attorney to review the facts and circumstances of your case.

Physical Presence Requirement

If your application is based on being a permanent resident for three years, then you must prove that you were physically present in the U.S. for 18 months within that three-year time period before applying for naturalization.

If your application is based on being a permanent resident for five years, then you must prove that you were physically present in the United States for 30 months within the five-year time period before applying for naturalization.

You must also have resided in the district or state in which you are applying for citizenship for the last three months. Students may apply in the district either where they go to school or where their family lives (as long as they are still financially dependent on their parents).

According to USCIS, you may file for your naturalization 90 calendar days before you complete your permanent residence requirement if your eligibility for naturalization is based upon being a : permanent resident for at least five years; or a permanent resident for at least three years if you are married to a United States citizen. Please note that you need to have lived with your spouse in the United States for three full years before applying for naturalization under the three-year exception. So if you entered with a conditional or permanent green card then you have to be present in the United States for three full years before applying for naturalization and you cannot file 90 days early.

There are also many other eligibility requirements that you must satisfy, besides the requirements listed above, in order for you to qualify to become a naturalized United States citizen. As you can not only be denied your citizenship but also lose your permanent residency should problems arise in your case, it is always a good idea to consult with a lawyer before you apply for naturalization.

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