When Can a Green Card Holder Become a U.S. Citizen After Fewer Than Five Years?

For some people who hold a green card (lawful permanent residence), it's possible to apply for naturalized U.S. citizenship after three years rather than the usual five. This article will take a closer look at who might be eligible for this.

by Lawrence Gruner, California Attorney

You might have heard that, for some people who hold a green card (lawful permanent residence), it's possible to apply for naturalized U.S. citizenship after three years rather than the usual five. This article will take a closer look at who might be eligible for this.

Exceptions Allowing Citizenship After Fewer Than Five Years

Again, most lawful permanent residents must wait a full five years before applying for U.S. citizenship. Here are the main exceptions.

  • If you are married to a U.S. citizen, you might qualify to apply for naturalization after three years. This assumes the following: you are currently married to and living with a U.S. citizen; you have been married to and living with that same U.S. citizen for the past three years; and your spouse has, in fact, been a U.S. citizen for those past three years.
  • 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).
  • If you are a refugee, 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. You are expected to apply for a green card one year after entering the U.S. as a refugee, but even if you wait longer, your time in refugee status will count as if it were lawful permanent resident status.
  • If you are a current or former military member or spouse of a military members who died during active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces, other special rules apply, 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.

    How Continuous Residence Requirement Might Affect Counting Your Years as a Permanent Resident

    Special rules apply if you have taken trips outside of the United States of six months or longer. In these cases, you might 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 might still be eligible to successfully apply for naturalization at a later time. Speak to an immigration attorney to review the facts and circumstances of your case.

    How U.S. Physical Presence Requirement Might Affect Counting Your Years as a Permanent Resident

    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 before submitting your naturalization application. 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 married to a U.S. citizen. (Again, 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.)

    There are many other eligibility requirements that you must satisfy, besides those listed above, in order to qualify to become a naturalized United States citizen. (See 8 U.S.C. § 1427.) 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 applying for naturalization.

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