If you're a U.S. permanent resident (with a green card) who has spent the required number of years in the U.S. and meets the other eligibility requirements for U.S. citizenship, the first step in the application process is to fill out USCIS Form N-400. It is important to fill out the N-400 completely and correctly in order to avoid mistakes that may result in delays or a denial.
The form itself can be downloaded for free from the N-400, Application for Naturalization page of the USCIS website. (But there will be a non-refundable fee to file it.)
Here are some tips to help you fill out the form.
Many of the questions on Form N-400 are self-explanatory. However, let's look into some that people are sometimes confused by (referring to the version of the form published 09/17/19, due to expire 09/30/2022):
Gather all the documents you will need before you start filling out Form N-400. These might include your passport and all prior addresses and employment information, including addresses and phone numbers. If you have made any trips outside the United States, it will help to gather documents showing the exact dates. The form will be easier to fill out if you have the information at your fingertips.
Do not guess at any answer to any questions on Form N-400. If you are not sure about an answer, either find the correct information before answering, say "unknown," or offer an explanation as to why you cannot answer it.
If you believe an honest answer might hurt your chances of approval, consult an immigration lawyer before answering. Lying on a N-400 form, or any immigration documents, can lead to removal from the United States, and you could eventually lose your U.S. citizenship even if it is granted. See Denial of Citizenship for Lies or False Statements.
USCIS offers detailed instructions for filling out Form N-400 on the same Web page as you download the form from. Print the instructions out, and as you work through each question on the instruction sheet, cross off the question and move on to the next.
The instruction sheet will help you determine what documents you need to submit, as well.
If you're not using an attorney, then when you've completed the Form N-400 application for naturalization, have a family member or friend look it over to make sure every question is answered. Any errors or missing information could result in a delay of your naturalization process, which will already be several months long (depending on how backed up your local USCIS office is; you can check USCIS processing times online). Someone else looking over your application before you file it is more likely to find errors you don't see.
For further help in figuring out whether you are eligible for citizenship, filling out form N-400, preparing for the citizenship exam, and more, see the book Becoming a U.S. Citizen: A Guide to the Law, Exam & Interview, by Ilona Bray, J.D. (Nolo).
If you send your N-400 before you should, it will either get sent back to you or you'll go to your interview only to discover you weren't really eligible yet. You'll need to consider the following timing issues:
We'll cover these in more detail below.
You must be at least 18 years of age in order to apply for naturalized U.S. citizenship. (However, there are situations in which younger people can obtain U.S. citizenship automatically, through their parents.)
You are required to have lived in the United States as a lawful permanent resident for at least five years before applying to naturalize—though exceptions exist, as described next.
If you got your U.S. residence as a refugees or asylee, you will benefit from something called "rollback," which allows you to count some of the time before you actually applied for your green card as if you already had permanent residence. If you entered the U.S. as a refugee, you can count all the time starting on your day of entry in the U.S., no matter how long it took you to apply for your green card. If you received asylum within the U.S., you can count one year of your asylum status toward your permanent residence. (Note: In either case, your green card will show the rolled-back date, so you'll still need to count five years from that date.)
Spouses of U.S. citizens, who have been married and living with the citizen for the last three years, can apply to naturalize after three, rather than five years with a green card.
And battered spouses who got their green cards based on marriage to a U.S. citizen, but who filed independently based on a law called VAWA (using Form I-360) due to the abuse, can also use this three-year exception.
U.S. military personnel and their spouses (or widows and widowers) can also make use of various exceptions. For example, those who have served honorably for one year and got an honorable discharge can apply to naturalize without waiting beyond the date they get their green card—but must apply within six months of discharge. And people who served in certain conflicts (including all the major wars in the last century) can apply for U.S. citizenship even without getting a green card first.
You must have lived in the United States for at least half of your five years of permanent residence. Or, if an exception allows you to apply to naturalize in less time, you must have lived in the U.S. for half that amount of time—18 months for spouses of U.S. citizens, for example.
You'll need to have not only lived and been "physically present" in the United States for a certain number of years, but not have broken up your residency with any long absences. An absence of six months or more will raise a presumption that you've broken your continuous presence by living in another country. In the worst case, U.S. immigration authorities could decide that you abandoned your U.S. residence altogether, and thus effectively gave up your right to a green card (in which case you'd be placed in removal proceedings, in immigration court).
Three months is the minimum time in which you need to have lived in a particular state within the United States, or particular USCIS service district, before submitting an application to naturalize. That's because, although your application is initially sent to a central processing center, it will ultimately be reviewed by the nearest USCIS (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services) office to you, and you'll attend your interview there.
If you move to a new state that's close to where you lived before, you might find that you get lucky and remain within the same "service district" over which one USCIS office has jurisdiction. (This is more likely to happen in the Northeast, where states are small and one USCIS office might serve a large area.) The easiest way to check your service district is to enter your new and old zip codes into USCIS's field office locator, and see if the same USCIS office serves both.
Also, if you live in the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, or the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), those fall within the definition of a "state" for purposes of this naturalization requirement.
You must submit the completed Form N-400 either online or to the USCIS service center having jurisdiction over your place of residence in the United States. (USCIS's N-400 page will give you the exact address.) Because USCIS tends to be quite delayed, you're allowed to submit the application up to 90 days before you've actually reached your five years (or fewer years, if you fall into an exception).
There's no upper limit on how long you can wait to submit Form N-400. Many permanent residents live in the U.S. for decades before deciding to become citizens.