Three-Year Rule for Naturalization Eligibility After Marriage to a U.S. Citizen

If you're a foreign-born person married to a U.S. citizen, you enjoy an unusual benefit: Instead of spending five years as a lawful permanent resident before applying to naturalize, you need to spend only three years; so long as you were married to, and living with the U.S. citizen for the entire time.

By , J.D. · University of Washington School of Law

Foreign-born persons married to U.S. citizens enjoy an unusual benefit: Instead of spending five years as lawful permanent residents before applying to naturalize, they need to hold a green card for only three years. The condition is that they remain married to and living with the U.S. citizen for the entire three years. There is no requirement that the immigrant have obtained the green card through this marriage. (See I.N.A. § 319(a), 8 U.S.C. § 1430(a).)

Meeting the Naturalization Requirement of Three Years as a Lawful Permanent Resident

As you might know, immigrants with lawful permanent residence must be able to satisfy certain eligibility criteria before applying for U.S. citizenship through the process known as naturalization. (This process involves filing Form N-400, Application for Naturalization).

The eligibility criteria include things like being a person of good moral character, being able to speak, read, and write English, passing a test in U.S. history and government, and more.

Of greater importance for this discussion, the eligibility criteria require that you have been a permanent resident for at least a certain amount of time before submitting your N-400. For most people, that's five years from the date of becoming a lawful permanent resident. (Literally speaking, applicants must count forward from the date they were either approved for a green card in the United States through the "adjustment of status" process" or entered the United States for the first time with an immigrant visa.)

However, the foreign-born spouse of a U.S. citizen can apply to naturalize a mere three years after having become a lawful permanent resident.

It's important to be aware of the condition within U.S. immigration law that you have been both married to and living with the U.S. citizen for the entire three years. If, for example, you and your U.S. citizen spouse have separated, divorced, or merely started living in different cities though you remain legally married, then you are no longer eligible to use this exception.

Similarly, if your spouse was a permanent resident at the beginning of those three years and only recently became a U.S. citizen, you must wait until your spouse has been a citizen for a full three years before making use of this exception.

Meeting the Physical Presence Requirements for Naturalization

Another requirement for U.S. citizenship is that you have spent half of your required time as a permanent resident actually living within the United States. For people who must spend five years as a permanent resident before applying, that means they must fill a physical presence requirement of two and a half years, or 30 months.

In keeping with the three-year rule, however, the amount of time that you must be physically present in the United States before applying to naturalize is one half of three years, or 18 months.

Counting Years as a Conditional Resident Toward the Three-Year Requirement

If you were married for less than two years when you first got approved for the green card, then you were probably given conditional rather than permanent residence at first. Conditional residence can expire after two years if the holder doesn't take steps to renew it. You would have needed to submit Form I-751 to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) in the 90 days before the expiration date in order to convert from conditional to permanent residence.

Assuming you did this successfully, your two years as a conditional resident count as if it were permanent residence. You would be able to apply for U.S. citizenship three years from the original approval date of your conditional residence.

Do I Need an Immigration Attorney?

If you have more questions concerning your citizenship eligibility or the application process, please consult with an experienced U.S. immigration attorney. The attorney can help assess your personal situation, prepare the N-400 and other paperwork, and even accompany you to your naturalization interview.

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