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Citizenship through Naturalization

Learn more about the particular paths to Citizenship through Naturalization:

General Path to Citizenship | Spouses of U.S. Citizens | Qualifying Service in the U.S. Armed Forces

General Path to Citizenship

While the vast majority of American citizens obtain U.S. citizenship by virtue of having been born in the United States, hundreds of thousands of foreign nationals become U.S. citizens each year through the naturalization process. In most cases, an applicant for naturalization must be a U.S. lawful permanent resident (green card holder) before applying for citizenship. In addition, most naturalization applicants must fulfill the following requirements:

  • • Age – Applicants must be at least 18 years of age in order to submit an application for naturalization.
  • • Continuous residence – Most applicants must have been a U.S. permanent resident for five years without leaving the United States for trips of six (6) months or longer prior to filing an application for naturalization. Absences from the United States of over six months, but less than one year, during the five-year period prior to filing an application for naturalization break the continuity of residence, unless the applicant can prove that residence was not abandoned. Absences of more than one year break the period of required continuous residence where the applicant does not obtain prior approval of an application to preserve residence from the U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS). Although travel abroad is permitted after applying for citizenship, applicants must maintain a U.S. residence between filing for naturalization and obtaining citizenship.
  • • Physical presence – In most cases, applicants must have been physically present in the U.S. for at least 30 months of the 5 years immediately preceding the date of filing the application. This time may be counted in the aggregate.
  • • Filing location – Most applicants must be a resident of the state of the local USCIS district where they are applying for U.S. citizenship for at least three months prior to filing the application for naturalization.
  • • Good moral character – All applicants for naturalization must demonstrate good moral character. Good moral character is determined not only by an examination of the applicant’s police records, but also general conduct. Certain criminal arrests or convictions, lying to gain immigration benefits, failure to pay taxes, failure to register for the selective service (if required), certain driving offenses, habitual drunkenness, and other background characteristics can affect an applicant’s good moral character determination.
  • • Knowledge of English and basic U.S. history and government (civics)- To be eligible for naturalization, applicants must be able to read, write, and speak basic English. They must also have a basic knowledge of U.S. history and government (also known as “civics”). Certain applicants, because of age and time as a permanent resident, or others because of a disability, have different English and civics requirements. The following individuals are exempt from the English requirement based on their age and time as a permanent resident:
    (1) Individuals over the age of 50 who have lived in the U.S. as a permanent resident for an aggregate period of 20 years.
    (2) Individuals over the age of 55 who have lived in the U.S. as a permanent resident for an aggregate period of 15 years.

Applicants who have a physical or developmental disability or a mental impairment may be eligible for an exception to the English and civics knowledge requirements. To request an exception, a licensed medical or osteopathic doctor or licensed clinical psychologist will need to complete and sign a Medical Exception as part of their naturalization application.

There are special procedures that apply to military veterans and individuals currently serving in the U.S. Armed Forces and they may be exempt from some of the general requirements listed above. In addition, while the requirements above generally apply to spouses of U.S. citizens as well, the continuous residence and physical presence requirements for those individuals are shorter.

Applications for citizenship may be filed no more than 90 days before the applicant’s fifth anniversary date as a permanent resident.  Once an application for naturalization has been approved, applicants are required to take an Oath of Allegiance to the United States, stating that they are willing to support and defend the United States and its Constitution. This requirement can be waived for those applicants who are physically, developmentally or mentally impaired.

Spouses of U.S. Citizens 

In most cases, a spouse of a U.S. citizen can qualify for naturalization if the spouse has been a permanent resident (green card holder) for at least three (3) years, has been living in marital union with the same U.S. citizen spouse during that time, and meets all other eligibility requirements listed below. In certain cases, spouses of U.S. citizens employed abroad may qualify for naturalization even if they have not been a permanent resident for three years.

To be eligible for naturalization as the spouse of a U.S. citizen, applicants must meet the following requirements:

  • • Age – Applicants must be at least 18 years of age in order to submit an application for naturalization.
  • • Marital union – Applicants must have been living in marital union with the U.S. citizen spouse, who has been a U.S. citizen during all of such period, during the three years immediately preceding the date of filing the application.
  • • Continuous residence – Applicants must have been a U.S. permanent resident for three years without leaving the United States for trips of six (6) months or longer prior to filing an application for naturalization. Absences from the United States of over six months, but less than one year, during the three-year period prior to filing an application for naturalization break the continuity of residence, unless the applicant can prove that residence was not abandoned. Absences of more than one year break the period of required continuous residence where the applicant does not obtain prior approval of an application to preserve residence from the U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS). Although travel abroad is permitted after applying for citizenship, applicants must maintain a U.S. residence between filing for naturalization and obtaining citizenship.
  • • Physical presence – Applicants must have been physically present in the U.S. for at least 18 months of the 3 years immediately preceding the date of filing the application. This time may be counted in the aggregate.
  • • Filing location – Applicants must be a resident of the state of the local USCIS district where they are applying for U.S. citizenship for at least three months prior to filing the application for naturalization.
  • Good moral character – All applicants for naturalization must demonstrate good moral character. Good moral character is determined not only by an examination of the applicant’s police records, but also general conduct. Certain criminal arrests or convictions, lying to gain immigration benefits, failure to pay taxes, failure to register for the selective service (if required), certain driving offenses, habitual drunkenness, and other background characteristics can affect an applicant’s good moral character determination.
  • • Knowledge of English and basic U.S. history and government (civics) – To be eligible for naturalization, applicants must be able to read, write, and speak basic English. They must also have a basic knowledge of U.S. history and government (also known as “civics”). Applicants who have a physical or developmental disability or a mental impairment may be eligible for an exception to the English and civics knowledge requirements. To request an exception, a licensed medical or osteopathic doctor or licensed clinical psychologist will need to complete and sign a Medical Exception as part of their naturalization application.

Spouses of U.S. Citizens Employed Abroad 

Generally, permanent residents whose U.S. citizen spouse is employed abroad by the U.S. government, including the military, or other qualifying employer for at least one (1) year, may be eligible for naturalization. Section 319(b) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) provides expedited eligibility for naturalization to these permanent residents.

In most cases, the spouse of a U.S. citizen employed abroad must be present in the United States pursuant to a lawful admission for permanent residence at the time of examination on the naturalization application and at the time of naturalization, and meet of all other eligibility requirements. However, the continuous residence and physical presence requirements are waived. This means that the permanent resident spouse does not need to be a permanent resident for a specific amount of time prior to filing an application for naturalization.  No specific period of continuous residence or physical presence in the U.S. is required and no specific period of marital union is required; however, the spouses must be living in marital union. In addition, the permanent resident spouse does not need to be resident for at least three months in the state in which the application is filed.

It is important to note that in order to receive this benefit, the applicants must also establish that they will depart the U.S. immediately after naturalization and that they intend to reside in the U.S. immediately upon the termination of the U.S. citizen spouse’s employment abroad.

Qualifying Service in the U.S. Armed Forces 

Members and veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces and their dependents may be eligible for special naturalization provisions, including expedited and overseas processing, under Sections 328 and 329 of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). The U.S. Armed Forces includes the following branches: Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, Coast Guard, certain reserve components of the National Guard, and Selected Reserve of the Ready Reserve. Current members of the U.S. armed forces who qualify for naturalization under Sections 328 or 329 of the INA can proceed with their naturalization application either in the United States or overseas. There is no USCIS filing fee for service members.

Naturalization through One Year of Qualifying Service During “Peacetime” 

Section 328 of the INA allows a lawful permanent resident who has served honorably in the U.S. Armed Forces for at least one year to apply for naturalization while still in the service or within six months of departing the service without requiring the usual continuous residency and physical presence prerequisites. Persons who apply for naturalization more than six months after departing the service will be subject to the continuous residence and physical presence requirements. The military community sometimes refers to this as “peacetime naturalization.”

In general, an applicant for naturalization under Section 328 of the INA must meet the following requirements:

  • • Age – Applicants must be at least 18 years of age in order to submit an application for naturalization.
  • • Honorable service in the U.S. Armed Forces – Applicants must have served honorably in the U.S. armed forces for at least one (1) year and, if discharged from the U.S. armed forces, have been discharged honorably.
  • Permanent Residence – Applicants must be a permanent resident at the time of examination on the naturalization application.
  • • Continuous residence and physical presence – Applicants must have continuously resided in the United States for at least five years and have been physically present in the United States for at least 30 months out of the 5 years immediately preceding the date of filing the application, UNLESS an applicant files an application while still in the service or within 6 months of separation. In the latter case, the applicant is not required to meet these residence and physical presence requirements.
  • • Good moral character – All applicants for naturalization must demonstrate good moral character.  Good moral character is determined not only by an examination of the applicant’s police records, but also general conduct.  Certain criminal arrests or convictions, lying to gain immigration benefits, failure to pay taxes, failure to register for the selective service (if required), certain driving offenses, habitual drunkenness, and other background characteristics can affect an applicant’s good moral character determination.
  • • Knowledge of English and basic U.S. history and government (civics) – To be eligible for naturalization, applicants must be able to read, write, and speak basic English.  They must also have a basic knowledge of U.S. history and government (also known as “civics”).

Naturalization through Qualifying Service during Periods of Hostilities

Section 329 of the INA allows members of the U.S. Armed Forces who serve honorably for any period of time (even one day) during specifically designated periods of hostilities to apply for naturalization. Similar to Section 328, the continuous residency and physical presence requirements for becoming a U.S. citizen do not apply in this case. The period of military hostilities must be designated by Executive Order. The Expedited Naturalization Executive Order of 2002 designates September 11, 2001 to the present as a qualifying period of hostilities. The current designated period of hostilities starting on September 11, 2001, will terminate when the President issues an Executive Order terminating the period.

In general, an applicant for naturalization under Section 329 of the INA must meet the following requirements:

  • • Honorable service in the U.S. Armed Forces – Applicants must have served honorably in active-duty status, or as a member of the Selected Reserve of the Ready Reserve, for any amount of time during a designated period of hostilities and, if discharged from the U.S. armed forces, have been discharged honorably.
  • • Permanent Residence – Applicants must have been lawfully admitted as a permanent resident at any time after enlistment or induction, OR have been physically present in the United States or certain territories at the time of enlistment or induction (regardless of whether they were admitted as a permanent resident).
  • • Good moral character – All applicants for naturalization must demonstrate good moral character. Good moral character is determined not only by an examination of the applicant’s police records, but also general conduct. Certain criminal arrests or convictions, lying to gain immigration benefits, failure to pay taxes, failure to register for the selective service (if required), certain driving offenses, habitual drunkenness, and other background characteristics can affect an applicant’s good moral character determination.
  • • Knowledge of English and basic U.S. history and government (civics) – To be eligible for naturalization, applicants must be able to read, write, and speak basic English. They must also have a basic knowledge of U.S. history and government (also known as “civics”).

There is no minimum age requirement for an applicant under this section.