Guide to US Citizenship and Naturalization

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U.S. citizenship is either granted through birth (or relatives) or through the naturalization process. U.S. citizens are protected by the U.S. Constitution and are guaranteed protection of pursuit of life, liberty and happiness.  No state can enforce laws that interfere with those pursuits.  A U.S. citizen is guaranteed legal representation in criminal matters if he cannot afford to hire one.  A U.S. citizen cannot be deported and a U.S. citizen can bring immediate family members to the U.S.

How the Naturalization Process Works

An immigrant who wishes to become a U.S. citizen goes through the naturalization process.  It involves meeting initial eligibility requirements, two tests, an interview, and ends with an oath.  Each step is briefly explained below.

Step 1: Determine Eligibility

There are eligibility requirements which must be met before a person can even start the United States naturalization process. 

Step 2: File Application

Once an immigrant determines s/he meets the eligibility requirements, s/he can submit the N400 form

Step 3: Interview with USCIS Agent

The USCIS will schedule an interview at the USCIS office closest to your residence. 

Step 4: Oath Ceremony

The oath declares your allegiance to the United States and your support of the United States constitution. The oath can be taken at the USCIS office or at a special ceremony with others becoming U.S. citizens at the same time.

Requirements for Naturalization

All people seeking to apply for naturalization must be at least 18 years old. Below is a list of the general requirements and what they mean.

Living Continuously in United States

Some paths require living “continuously” in the United States for a number of years.  That means that while you may have traveled outside the United States, you have not been out of the country for more than 6 months. The time you spend outside of the country does not count toward your required time in the U.S. The exception to that rule is that time military personnel spend in service outside of the United States counts as time spent in the United States.

Specific Requirements Regarding Residence:

  • Has resided continuously as a lawful permanent resident in the U.S. for at least 5 years prior to filing with no single absence from the United States of more than one year;
  • Time spent serving in the U.S. military outside of the United States counts as time spent in the U.S. for the continuous residence requirement
  • Has been physically present in the United States for at least 30 months out of the previous five years (absences of more than six months but less than one year shall disrupt the applicant's continuity of residence unless the applicant can establish that he or she did not abandon his or her residence during such period)
  • Has resided within a state or district for at least three months 
  • Exceptions to the five year residence requirement are available to spouses of U.S. citizens.  A spouse of a U.S. citizen may only need to be a residence for three years if married to a U.S. citizen for those three years.  A spouse of a U.S. citizen who is a member of the U.S. military, certain U.S. government employees, or employees of research institutions and religious organizations may not have to meet the residence requirement.

Good Moral Character

All people seeking to become U.S. citizens must prove they have “good moral character”. The application for naturalization has many questions regarding crimes.  Criminal activity can be a factor in determining that you do not have good moral character.  For example, if you have been convicted of murder, or any other aggravated felony, you will be found to NOT have good moral character. Lying on immigration documents would also show you lack good moral character.  Simple traffic fines under $500 alone will not hurt your finding of good moral character. It is always best to be honest in your answers on applications, petitions, etc.  If you have a criminal record which may hurt your chances of becoming a U.S. citizen, it is best to consult an immigration attorney for help with the application process.

English and Civics Test

In the citizenship process, all people naturalizing must be able to show they can read, write, and speak basic English. There are exceptions to the English requirement for applicants who are over 50 years old and have been residents of the United States for 20 or more years or over 55 years old and residents for 15 or more years.

All applicants must also demonstrate knowledge of U.S. history and government (also known as “civics”) by taking the naturalization exam. A new test has been created by the USCIS and has just been given to applicants starting in 2009.  Anyone who files a naturalization application Form N400 on or after October 1, 2008 will take a new naturalization exam.  The new exam was created to be fair and to create a more consistent experience for all applicants. The new test emphasizes the basic concepts of American democracy.  The citizenship test, sometimes known as a citizenship quiz, also focuses on the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.  Applicants also learn about the basic values of Americans in preparation for the citizenship test.

Attachment to the Constitution

All applicants must claim “attachment to the constitution of the United States” which means they will live by, defend and support the principles stated in the constitution. A person is not a U.S. citizen until s/he takes the Oath according to citizenship law.  Attachment to the constitution is part of the oath.  Also as part of the citizenship oath, which occurs during the citizenship oath ceremony, the applicant states s/he will renounce foreign alliances and either fight for the United States in times of war/conflict, or serve the United States in a non-combat position when called upon to do so.

Application Process

Once an immigrant determines s/he meets the eligibility requirements, s/he can submit the N-400 form.  The N-400 form is the application for naturalization.  The form consists of many questions regarding the personal history and criminal record of the applicant.  The form will list all necessary documents which are required to be submitted with the application (birth certificate, passport, marriage records, etc.).The form asks for detailed historical information and it is best to gather your documents before you sit down to answer all the questions.  The process will go more smoothly, and more quickly, if you have your answers at your fingertips when you begin actually filling out the form.  The form can be completed on paper and mailed or it can be completed and submitted online.

Processing Fees

There are fees for most immigration filings and the naturalization fee is the second highest behind the fee for adjustment of status to permanent resident.  An immigrant is usually required to become a permanent resident for a number of years before applying for naturalization.  The fee for adjustment of status is $1,410.  Application for naturalization is $595 plus a biometrics fee of $80; the fee total is $675. Applicants 75 years of age or older are not charged a biometric fee so their total is $595.

The fees cover the cost of the process and the people who must be hired by the U.S. to manage the workload.  Many think the high fee creates an unfair barrier to many immigrants with low income who would apply for naturalization if the fees were not so high.  Fee waivers are available in some circumstances, but not many are granted.

After the Application is Filed

Once the application is filed, there will be a personal interview, a medical examination, biometric information will be processed (photo and fingerprints) and the naturalization exam.  The final step in the process is the taking of the oath.  The naturalization process is not complete until the oath is taken. Some will take the oath individually at the office where their naturalization was approved, but most will participate in a swearing in ceremony where many naturalized citizens take the oath together.  A swearing in ceremony is a momentous event with inspirational speeches, music and many supporters cheering on the new citizens.

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