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Becoming a U.S. Citizen - Immigration Processes

  • Becoming a Citizen Can be Effortless or Become a Process that Takes Many Years

    You may be a U.S. citizen even though it took no effort or planning. If you aren’t a citizen but want to become one, you may face a long and difficult process, depending on a number of factors. You may need to see gaining citizenship as a long-term project that will require an investment of time, energy and money. Whether the investment is worth it is up to you.

    If you’re interested in becoming a U.S. citizen you’re not alone.

    • About 783,000 citizenship applications were filed with the federal government in fiscal year 2015, and that increased to almost one million the next fiscal year.
    • As of 2015 there were 19.8 million naturalized citizens in the U.S., whose population is about 326 million.
    • More than 653,000 immigrants became citizens in fiscal year 2014.

    Born in the Right Place or with the Right Parent

    Thanks to the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, you can become a citizen simply by the fact that you were born in the U.S., even though one or both of your parents weren’t authorized to be in the country at the time. There are 195 recognized countries in the world, and 33 allow this type of citizenship.

    If you were born outside the country, you could still be a citizen if at least one of your parents was a U.S. citizen and that parent meets certain residence or physical presence requirements in the U.S. or an outlying possession prior to your birth, in accordance with applicable law.

    Naturalization Process

    If you’re not a citizen by birth, you face a more difficult path. You need to apply for it and be accepted.

    Citizenship through naturalization is the process where a non-citizen voluntarily becomes an American citizen. To file a request to become a U.S. citizen you must have had a Permanent Resident (Green) Card for at least five years or at least three years if you’re married to a U.S. citizen. If you want to apply for naturalization less than six months before your Green Card expires, or do not apply for naturalization until it’s expired, you must renew your permanent residence first.

    You must meet eligibility requirements, which include:

    • Being at least 18 years old at the time of your filing,
    • Being able to read, write and speak basic English,
    • Establishing you’re a person of good moral character,
    • Showing that you’ve had continuous residence in the U.S. for at least five years immediately before the date you file for citizenship with a Form N-400,
    • Establishing that you’ve been physically present in the country for at least 30 months out of those five years,
    • Showing you’ve lived for at least three months in the state or U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service district where you apply,
    • Showing you have an attachment to the principles and ideals of the U.S. Constitution,
    • Having a basic understanding of U.S. history and government,
    • Taking an oath of allegiance to the United States, and
    • Going through the ten-step naturalization process, which includes passing the U.S. Naturalization Test and a personal interview.

    Marriage Can Impact the Process

    You can become a citizen if you marry a U.S. citizen residing in the U.S.

    • You must have continuously resided in the U.S. after becoming a legal permanent resident for at least three years immediately before the date of filing your naturalization application, and
    • You must have been married to your citizen spouse for at least those three years.

    To qualify you must also meet the requirements listed in the section above, with the following differences:

    • Be 18 years old or older when you file for citizenship,
    • Be a legal permanent resident when you file for application,
    • Continue to be married to the spouse of the U.S. citizen up to taking the Oath of Allegiance,
    • Live in marital union with the citizen spouse for at least three years before filing the naturalization application, and the citizen spouse must have been a U.S. citizen for those three years,
    • Have continuous residence in the country as a legal permanent resident for at least three years before filing for citizenship and up to the time of naturalization, and
    • Be physically present in the U.S. for at least 18 months of the three years immediately before filing the application.

    Special Rules for Military Service Members and Their Families

    Military service members, certain veterans of the U.S. armed forces and certain military family members may be eligible to become citizens under special provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), including expedited and overseas processing.

    If you served honorably in the U.S. Armed Forces for at least one year, you can apply for citizenship as soon as you get your green card. The green card requirement doesn’t apply if you seek U.S. citizenship after you served honorably on active duty during one of six wars or conflicts. You could potentially go from being an undocumented immigrant to applying for and receiving U.S. citizenship.

    The periods of residence and physical presence in the U.S. required for naturalization may not apply to military members and certain military family members. Qualifying children of military members also may not need to be present in the U.S. to obtain citizenship. The entire process may also be completed overseas.

    Is Citizenship Right for You?

    Not everyone wants to be a U.S. citizen. Many immigrants, especially those from Mexico and Latin America, after obtaining permanent legal residency, decide not to file for citizenship. It’s a personal choice based on individual wants and needs.

    If it’s something you want but you’re not yet a legal permanent resident, it’s a process that will take years. But this is the United States, a land of opportunity, and if this is your dream it can be one that may come true.