Gaining U.S. citizenship can provide many opportunities for a lawful resident of the United States. Among these are access to a U.S. passport, the right to vote in public elections, and protection from deportation (removal).
However, becoming an American citizen requires taking a number of steps, from figuring out your eligibility to actually filing your N-400 application, getting fingerprinted at a biometrics appointment, attending an interview at an office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), passing tests of your knowledge of English and of U.S. civics, and once approved, attending an oath ceremony. We'll detail those steps below.
The first question regarding U.S. citizenship eligibility is whether you have a U.S. green card (lawful permanent residence). With few exceptions, you must obtain a green card before you become eligible to apply for naturalized citizenship. So if you haven't yet reached this point, learn about your eligibility by reading Can You Get a U.S. Green Card?.
As a lawful permanent resident, you must meet additional requirements in order to be eligible for U.S. citizenship. These concern the length of time you've spent in the U.S. as a green card holder, your good moral character, your ability to pass a test in English and on U.S. history and government, and more.
To check on whether you are eligible, see Who Is Eligible to Become a Naturalized U.S. Citizen?
Now would also be a good time to begin improving your English language skills, if need be, and to study the possible questions that appear on the exam. There are 100 total questions the USCIS examiner can draw from, and you'll need to be able to answer six out of 12 correctly in order to pass.
After initial research into eligibility, you might discover that you are not eligible to become a U.S. citizen just now. Perhaps you can't show good moral character because you committed a minor crime (though not a major enough one to make you deportable). Or perhaps you broke the continuity of your residence by spending too long outside the United States.
It might be that simply waiting longer will make you eligible for citizenship, or you might need to take other steps to make you eligible. In the worst case, it might be that you were granted lawful permanent residence when you shouldn't have been, in which case applying for citizenship could risk having USCIS discover this an take steps to remove you. Consult an immigration attorney for a full analysis.
See On What Grounds Can I Be Denied U.S. Citizenship? for common reasons your citizenship would be refused.
Once you have established your eligibility, you need to file some paperwork with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). The N-400 is the form to get the process started. As of 2022, it costs $640 to file the application for naturalization, plus an $85 biometrics (fingerprinting) fee in most cases; but USCIS regularly hikes the fees.
If you can't afford to pay the N-400 fee, it's possible to qualify for a reduced fee or request a waiver of the entire fee.
You will also need to attach a photocopy of your green card to your application, and any documents showing that you warrant an exception to one of the normal requirements.
See our tips for filing the N-400 to find out what to expect.
In order to process your N-400 naturalization application, a background check will have to be performed. Soon after your application has been accepted, you will be mailed a date for your biometrics appointment. You will be given a date and address to a local office, where you will be fingerprinted.
Your fingerprints will later be run through the FBI and related databases for a background check. The purpose, of course, is to check for crimes that would make you ineligible for U.S. citizenship.
Some weeks after your biometrics appointment, you should receive an appointment date and address for an interview with a UCSIC officer at the USCIS office serving your area. This is likely to be in a major nearby city.
During this interview, the USCIS officer will go through your Form N-400 and confirm your answers to all the questions and your basic eligibility. The officer will also review your immigration file, looking for past issues. The officer will then test your knowledge of English and of U.S. civics. For tips, read Preparing for the Naturalization Interview.
If you are approved for citizenship at (or soon after) your USCIS interview, congratulations, but you are not a citizen quite yet. First off, you must maintain your eligibility to naturalize. If, for example, you were to be arrested for a serious crime before the oath ceremony, or move to another country, you might lose eligibility.
You will be called in for a large public ceremony, at which you and others will be given the oath by which you swear loyalty to the United States. Then you will be given a certificate of naturalization, showing that you are a U.S. citizen.
You don't necessarily need to hire a lawyer to apply for U.S. citizenship, unless you have some troublesome items in your background. If you're ready to take on the task yourself, see Becoming a U.S. Citizen, A Guide to the Law, Exam & Interview, by Ilona Bray (Nolo).