If you have been wanting to change your name – whether your first name, last name (surname) or both -- applying to become a naturalized U.S. citizen offers you a possible way to do so, and with very few administrative hassles. You can legally change your without extra court procedures by simply filling in your chosen new name on Form N-400 (the Application for Naturalization issued by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, or USCIS). Part I, Question D of the form is specifically meant for this purpose.
However, there is one catch. This name-change service is available only through USCIS offices where the swearing-in (oath) ceremonies are held in a courtroom, presided over by a judge, not a USCIS officer. The judge has the authority to grant your name change at the swearing-in ceremony.
In some regions of the United States, ceremonies presided over by a judge are held only a few times per year, so asking for a name change will result in your waiting longer than most people to receive citizenship.
In other regions, the swearing-in ceremonies are held at a USCIS office – sometimes right after your naturalization interview. In such a case, your request for a name change on Form N-400 cannot be acted upon. You will need to follow the name change procedures provided under your state’s law, which most likely involves filing a name change petition with the state court. After the court grants your name change, you will need to apply to USCIS for a new certificate of naturalization, using USCIS Form N-565.
To find out your options, contact your local USCIS field office – the one that will be conducting your interview -- and ask whether a judge performs the ceremony. Or, you can wait until your receive notification of your USCIS interview date, and ask the officer reviewing your case whether a judge will preside over your swearing-in. (Unfortunately, you cannot pick and choose which USCIS office to attend your interview at -- USCIS makes this decision for you.) If you are in luck, and are approved for citizenship at the interview, the officer will have you fill out a form called a Petition for Name Change during your interview.
Note that there are legal restrictions on what you can change your name to. The judge will not approve your name change request in the following types of circumstance:
For more information on the law concerning name changes, see the Name Change page of Nolo’s website.
If you're still in the planning stages, check out our section on U.S. Citizenship to find free, accurate, and up-to-date legal information on every step of the process. For the whole scoop on getting American citizenship, see the book, Becoming a U.S. Citizen: A Guide to the Law, Exam & Interview, by Ilona Bray (Nolo).