For individuals who are not born U.S. citizens, obtaining citizenship (also known as naturalization) is a five-step process. Before beginning this process, it is important to be aware of the U.S. citizenship requirements, as failure to meet any of these requirements will result in disqualification from naturalization until the deficiency has been resolved.
The federal Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) outlines seven basic requirements for naturalization:
- Minimum age
- Continuous physical presence
- “Good moral character”
- Basic English proficiency and U.S. knowledge
- Military service registration
- Oath of Allegiance
1. Minimum Age
For the vast majority of individuals seeking U.S. citizenship, the minimum age for eligibility is 18 years. The only exception is for individuals who are applying for naturalization based upon wartime military service, including (but not limited to) service during the U.S. War on Terrorism that began on September 11, 2001.
2. Continuous Physical Presence
Before you can apply for U.S. citizenship, you must first obtain a green card and live in the United States as a lawful permanent resident continuously for a period of three or five years. Most individuals seeking citizenship must live in the U.S. continuously for five years—the three-year period applies only if you are married to a U.S. citizen.
However, to maintain a “continuous presence” in the United States, it is not necessary to remain on U.S. soil the entire time. If you have lived in the U.S. for three or five years (depending upon your grounds for seeking citizenship), then you will be eligible as long as you did not stay outside of the U.S. for more than six months at any one time. Additionally, even if you left the U.S. for longer than six months (but not longer than one year), you could still retain your eligibility for citizenship if you are able to present a compelling reason and continued strong ties the United States to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Examples of “strong ties” to the U.S. include:
- Maintaining your address and residence in the United States
- Having other family members located in the United States
- Remaining employed by a company located in the United States
If you must leave the United States for a year or longer (or if you find yourself needing to stay in another country for more than a year after leaving the U.S.), then you must take additional steps in order to preserve your green card (permanent residence). Depending upon the circumstances involved, these steps may include:
- Applying for a re-entry permit using Form I-131
- Applying for a returning resident visa using Form DS-117
While you can preserve your green card through these measures, absences of a year or longer break the required continuity for citizenship. Generally, you can reestablish your continuity by returning to the U.S. and residing here for 4 years and 1 day (or 2 years and 1 day if you are subject to the 3 year requirement).
Some applicants may be able to preserve their residence for naturalization by engaging in qualifying employment abroad (qualifying criteria can be found here). These applicants can file Form N-470, Application to Preserve Residence for Naturalization.
If you have been (or plan to be) outside the U.S. for more than a year, it is important to talk to an immigration attorney who can can evaluate your trips and develop a strategy tailored to your needs.
In addition to establishing a continuous physical presence in the United States, the citizenship requirements also require you to establish “residence.” At the time that you apply for citizenship, you must be able to prove that you have been a resident of one of the following for at least the last three months:
- Any state or Washington D.C.
- Northern Mariana Islands
- Puerto Rico
- S. Virgin Islands
Documents you may need to establish residency include your voter registration, tax returns, and state ID or driver’s license. You can move to a new residence once you apply for citizenship; however, you must notify USCIS within 10 days in order to have your application processed at the appropriate location.
4. Good Moral Character
As part of the citizenship application process, you must be able to demonstrate that you are of “good moral character.” In broad terms, “good moral character” means that: (i) you have not lied during the naturalization application process, and (ii) you have not committed certain types of criminal offenses.
With regard to criminal offenses, the INA recognizes certain offenses that serve as permanent bars to citizenship (such as murder or defrauding the U.S. government), and other offenses that constitute “conditional bars to good moral character.” Examples of these conditional bars include:
- Any two or more offenses with an aggregate sentence of five years or more
- Drug crimes (other than possession of 30 grams or less of marijuana)
- Providing false testimony under oath in relation to any immigration proceeding
- Certain gambling and prostitution-related offenses
- Failure to pay child support
- Reckless violent crimes, theft, forgery and other “crimes involving moral turpitude”
If you are subject to a conditional bar, you are still eligible to apply for citizenship, and the USCIS officer examining your citizenship application will consider the nature of the conditional bar and the relevant factual and legal history in determining whether or not to approve your application. For all applications, good moral character is determined on a “case-by-case” basis.
5. Basic English Proficiency and U.S. Knowledge
Unless you qualify for an exemption, in order to become a U.S. citizen you must successfully complete a basic English proficiency test and a civics exam that tests your knowledge of U.S. history and government. The English proficiency test involves answering specific questions as well as writing and reading English-language sentences. The civics exam involves answering either 20 or 100 questions about U.S. history and government depending upon your age and the length of time you have lived in the U.S. as a lawful permanent resident.
Grounds for seeking an exemption from the English proficiency test or the civics exam include:
- Age – If you are 50 or older and have lived in the U.S. as a lawful permanent resident for at least 20 years, or if you are 55 or older and have lived in the U.S. as a lawful permanent resident for at least 15 years, then you do not have to take the English proficiency test.
- Disability – Individuals who have a qualifying physical, developmental or mental disability may seek exemption from the English proficiency test and the civics exam.
6. Military Service Registration
If you are a male between the ages of 18 and 26, then in order to become a U.S. citizen you must register for military service through the Selective Service System. However, there are exceptions, and determining whether you need to register for military service is a matter you should discuss with your immigration attorney during the citizenship application process.
7. Oath of Allegiance
Finally, before you will be granted U.S. Citizenship, you must take the Oath of Allegiance. This final step is performed during the public “swearing in” ceremony at the end of the application process. Before reciting the oath, you will be asked to acknowledge that you are taking the Oath of Allegiance voluntarily, that you are giving your full allegiance to the United States and that you accept all of the responsibilities of U.S. citizenship.
Do you have questions about applying for U.S. citizenship? Are you unsure if you meet the requirements for naturalization? If so, an experienced immigration attorney can help. Browse our lawyers and connect with a high quality immigration attorney today.
*The content and materials available via Ask Ellis are for informational purposes only and do not constitute legal advice.