Who Is Eligible to Become a Naturalized U.S. Citizen?

Make sure you fit the various criteria for U.S. citizenship before you apply, for example that you've held a green card the required number of years and can pass the English and civics exams.

By , J.D.

The highest status a person can receive under U.S. immigration law is to become a citizen of the United States. Citizenship comes with many side benefits. For this reason, becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen is open only to certain people, most of whom have already held a U.S. green card for some years, learned English, have good moral character, and can meet various other criteria, as discussed in this article.

WARNING: If you received your green card through fraud or a mistake, applying for citizenship is a major risk. USCIS will have an opportunity to review your entire immigration file and possibly not only deny you citizenship, but place you in removal proceedings for deportation. Consult an attorney if you have reason for concern about this possibility.

Criteria for U.S. Citizenship Through Naturalization

If you meet all of the following criteria (from 8 U.S.C. § 1427), you are eligible to apply for naturalized U.S. citizenship:

You have held U.S. permanent residence (a green card) for the required number of years.

This is usually five years, but fewer for certain categories of applicants.

For example, people who might be allowed to apply to naturalize sooner include:

  • the spouse of a U.S. citizen who has been married and living together for three years
  • the battered spouse of a U.S. citizen, even if divorced or separated
  • a refugee or political asylee (both of whom benefit from something called "rollback," in which at least a year of their time before getting a green card counts as if they were already green card holders)
  • a U.S. military members or a military widow or widower, and
  • a spouse of a U.S. citizen in certain types of overseas job.

Note also that you can turn in your citizenship application (Form N-400) a whole 90 days before your required years of permanent residence have passed, to compensate for the fact that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) might not act on your application (call you in for an interview) for at least that amount of time.

You have been "physically present"—that is, lived in the United States, for at least half your required years of permanent residence.

This is usually two and a half out of the required five years. Or if you qualify after three years based on marriage to a U.S. citizen, it would be one and a half years.

You have been "continuously present" in the United States.

That means you have not spent long stretches of time (six months or more) overseas while you held a green card. People who have not only spent a long time out of the U.S. but appear to have abandoned their U.S. residence for a home elsewhere might not only be denied citizenship but have their green card cancelled and be deported.

You have lived in the same U.S. state or USCIS district for three months before applying to the USCIS there.

This is an easy requirement to deal with. If you don't meet it yet, wait a few months so that you will have lived there longer! The definition of "state," for this purpose, includes Washington DC, Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI).

You are at least 18 years old at the time of filing the N-400 application.

In other words, children may not apply. Note, however, that children may in some cases gain citizenship through their naturalized U.S. citizen parents.

You have demonstrated good moral character in the years leading up to your application for citizenship.

Showing good moral character doesn't mean one has to be better than average. But it helps to, for example, be able to say or prove that you have paid your taxes and child support and not committed any crimes, and have otherwise been a responsible member of the community.

You can speak, read, and write English.

You will be tested on your English skills during the naturalization interview at a USCIS office, mostly by the USCIS officer talking to you and asking you to write a sentence that the officer dictates.

You can pass a brief oral test covering U.S. history and government.

You will also be tested on U.S. civics during the naturalization interview at a USCIS office. Fortunately, all the possible questions are available from USCIS for you to study in advance. There are 100 questions on the list, regarding everything from names of current U.S. leaders to major holidays to past wars. The USCIS examiner will, at the interview, ask you up to 12 of these questions, and you'll need to answer six correctly in order to pass this particular exam.

You are willing to affirm loyalty to the United States and serve in its military if necessary

Once you pass the naturalization interview, you will attend a swearing-in ceremony, where you will take the Oath of Allegiance. If you are a conscientious objectors or your religion forbids taking an oath, you'll need to document your beliefs in advance, and request an oath waiver or to take a modified version.

Getting Legal Help

See our section on Citizenship and Naturalization for information on the various options to become an American citizen.

If you are in doubt about your eligibility, think you might qualify for an exception allowing you to apply early, or want some help in preparing the application, or accompaniment to the interview, hire an experienced U.S. immigration attorney.

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