In addition to holding their green cards for a 3-year or 5-year minimum, lawful permanent residents of the United States must also meet specific requirements to naturalize as U.S. citizens. This article spells out each requirement for naturalization in detail, how to meet it as a naturalization applicant, and any exemptions that may apply.
What are the requirements for naturalization?
To qualify for the naturalization process, you must meet various eligibility requirements. These naturalization requirements include:
- Minimum age requirement
- Physical presence requirement
- Continuous residence requirement
- Residency requirement
- Good moral character requirement
- English proficiency and U.S. civil service requirement
- Selective Service registration requirement
- Attachment to the Constitution requirement
If you qualify for all of these, you can become a naturalized citizen!
The minimum age requirement
The minimum age requirement is one of the many naturalization requirements required by the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). The INA is the central immigration law of the United States. In order to apply for naturalization, you need to be at least 18 years old. This requirement doesn’t hold if you apply based on any period of wartime military service. In that case, you can naturalize as a U.S. citizen at any age.
The physical presence and continuous residence requirement
You need to have physically lived in the United States for at least half of five years, or 913 days for your U.S. citizenship application. If you are married to a U.S. citizen, you need to have physically been in the United States for at least half of three years, or 548 days. If you travel abroad, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) counts the days you left and returned to the United States as days you were physically present here. For example, if you left on January 1 and returned on July 1, both days count for your “physical presence” in the United States. However, even though you can meet the physical presence requirement even after taking trips outside the United States, you need to keep the “continuous residence” requirement in mind.
How to prove continuous residence
You need to have continuously lived in the United States for at least five years as a green card or permanent resident card holder. If you have a U.S. citizen spouse, you need to have continuously lived in the United States for three years with permanent resident status.
Continuous residence means any trips you took outside of the United States during the 3-5 required years were not for longer than six months. It also means that during the period when USCIS processes your U.S. citizenship application, you do not take any trips abroad that are longer than six months.
If you leave the United States for more than six months, USCIS considers you to have abandoned your permanent residence. They will deny your citizenship application. Even if you did not leave for over six months, the USCIS officer could reject your application for other reasons, such as frequent trips abroad. The decision is ultimately up to the USCIS officer’s discretion and can be arbitrary.
However, even if you were abroad for an extended period of time, you still have a chance of success. It depends on how long you stayed abroad, your reason for not returning, and the discretion of the USCIS officer who evaluates your application.
Here’s what to do if you did stay abroad for more than six months:
Suppose you stayed abroad for 181 to 364 days. In that case, you need to convince the USCIS officer that you didn’t intend to abandon your permanent residence during your absence from the United States. You need to prove that you maintained strong ties to the United States. For example, you could do this by showing that:
- You kept your job in the United States and didn’t seek out another one while abroad
- You have immediate family members who stayed in the United States
- You kept your home in the United States
- You still enrolled your children in a U.S. school
But if you stayed abroad for one year or longer, USCIS automatically assumes you abandoned your permanent residence. They will deny your citizenship application, and you have to wait before reapplying. If you had to wait for five years to apply for citizenship, you need to wait at least four years and one day after returning from your trip abroad to reapply. If you had to wait three years to apply for citizenship, you need to wait for at least two years and one day after returning from your trip to reapply.
How to avoid disrupting continuous residence
To avoid breaking continuous residence, you should take these precautions before leaving the United States:
- Apply for a re-entry permit.
If you think you will need to remain abroad for at least one year, you need to apply for a “re-entry permit” with Form I-131 before leaving the United States.
Form I-131 is also the application for a typical travel permit. But a re-entry permit and a travel permit are not the same. A travel permit is for green card applicants, and a re-entry permit is for green card holders.
You can ask to pick up your re-entry permit from the U.S. embassy or U.S. consulate in the country you are visiting. But you will need to provide biometrics while in the United States. The re-entry permit is valid for only two years, and you cannot extend it. If you stay abroad for longer than two years, you most likely cannot re-enter the United States as a permanent resident.
- Apply for the “preservation” of your permanent residence.
According to immigration law, you can keep permanent resident status if you stay abroad for one year or longer because of your job. However, it must be for a specific type of work approved by USCIS. To apply for the “preservation” of your permanent resident status, you must submit Form N-470 to USCIS and apply for a re-entry permit.
- Apply for a “returning resident visa.”
If you didn’t anticipate staying abroad for over a year for unforeseen circumstances, like a medical emergency, and you didn’t apply for a re-entry permit, you need to apply for a returning resident visa. You should contact your nearest U.S. embassy or consulate at least three months before you plan to return to the United States and follow their instructions. Usually, you’ll have to complete Form DS-117 and an interview with a consular officer.
The residency requirement
This requirement is separate from the physical presence and continuous residence requirements noted earlier. For this requirement, you need to have been a resident of the state or USCIS district where you plan to apply for citizenship for at least three months before applying for naturalization.
For this requirement, the “state” also includes the following:
- The District of Columbia
- Puerto Rico
- The U.S. Virgin Islands
- The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands
“USCIS district” is the geographical area that a specific USCIS field office serves. The “current physical address” you provide on your application must be where you established residency (for example, where you pay taxes or registered to vote), but there are exceptions. For example, if you are a student and depend on your parents for financial support, you can apply for naturalization from where you attend school or from your family’s home.
If you move after you file Form N-400 or Application for Naturalization, you need to alert USCIS within ten days of relocating to your new home. USCIS will forward your naturalization file to the appropriate field office for your new home.
Even if you apply for naturalization 90 days early, your residency is the location you name as your “current physical address” on Form N-400.
The good moral character requirement
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) defines “good moral character” as character that matches the standard for average citizens. The government decides this on a case by case basis, but generally, it means:
- You did not commit certain crimes within three or five years from before you applied for naturalization to when you will take the Oath of Allegiance. These crimes include murder, illegal gambling, or defrauding the government for immigration purposes. A USCIS officer can also consider your criminal record before that period and compare it to your current character to see if it has improved.
- You did not lie to a USCIS officer during your naturalization interview.
- You did not receive two or more DUI convictions in the three or five years before applying for naturalization and in the time up to taking the Oath of Allegiance. However, if you can demonstrate you had good moral character when you committed the offense, this may not count against you.
Usually, USCIS determines if you are a person of good moral character based on the original criminal sentence and not post-sentencing charges.
The English proficiency and U.S. civil knowledge requirement
You need to pass two parts of a naturalization test to become a U.S. citizen. This test includes:
- An English language test that determines your reading, writing, and speaking skills. The English component includes your naturalization interview and your reading and writing tests. The USCIS officer will ask you questions about your citizenship application. They will also say simple sentences that you may need to read and write.
- A civics test that determines your knowledge of U.S. history and government. You need to study 20 or 100 questions for the civics test, depending on your age and how long you were a green card holder.
The Selective Service registration requirement
If the United States ever asks you to serve in the U.S. military or perform other civil services, you must be willing to do so. If you are male and of a certain age, you need to enroll in the Selective Service System. This program collects information about individuals who may serve in the U.S. armed forces if there is a draft.
Who must register?
You need to register if you are a male who has lived in the United States or received your green card and are between 18 and 26. You usually need to register within 30 days of turning 18 but not after 26.
Who’s exempt from registering?
You don’t need to register if:
- You are not male
- You are older than 26 years of age.
- You did not live in the United States between 18 and 26.
- You lived in the United States between 18 and 26 but with a lawful status other than “green card holder” for the entire period.
- You were born after March 29, 1957, and before December 31, 1959 (Selective Service was inactive during the time men born in these years turned 18)
How to register for the Selective Service if you haven’t already
If you are not yet 26 and haven’t yet registered for the Selective Service, it’s essential to do so before applying for naturalization. Otherwise, USCIS will likely deny your naturalization application.
You can register online, at your local post office, or by completing and returning a Selective Service registration card you received in the mail. You can check your registration online or call (847) 688-6888. After you register, Selective Service will send you a “registration acknowledgment card” by mail as proof.
Sometimes USCIS sends your information to Selective Service when applying for a green card. However, sometimes this registration isn’t complete. To check if you have already registered, you can request a “status information letter” from Selective Service.
What happens if you don’t register for the Selective Service as you should?
If you didn’t register before turning 26, you no longer can. However, what to do moving forward depends on how old you are when applying for naturalization.
If you apply for naturalization between 26 to 31 years old, you need to convince USCIS of the following:
- You weren’t required to register;
- You were exempt from registering;
- You didn’t know you needed to register; or
- You registered, but USCIS or Selective Service failed to complete the registration for you.
If you weren’t required to register or were exempt, you need to request a “status information letter” from Selective Service to prove this and send a copy to USCIS.
If you didn’t know you were supposed to register, you need to send the following to USCIS, along with the status information letter:
- A notarized personal affidavit, or sworn statement, from yourself, where you explain in detail that you didn’t know to register (for example, if your high school did not inform you of this requirement or you thought only U.S. citizens had to register)
- Notarized personal affidavits from other people who knew you and can verify your claim
If you intentionally did not register because you refused or ignored this requirement, USCIS may deny your citizenship application, but they may also consider your age at the time of your application:
- If you are between ages 26 and 31, USCIS will likely give you an opportunity to prove you weren’t required or were exempt before making a decision on your application.
- If you have already turned 31, or if you are married to a U.S. citizen and have already turned 29, it may not matter. However, this could indicate not having “good moral character.”
The U.S. government requires you to register for Selective Service if you haven’t yet turned 26 during the three or five-year wait period before applying for naturalization. However, if you are past 26, USCIS may consider other factors, such as years of demonstrating “good moral character.”
If you demonstrated this for three or five years before applying for naturalization, USCIS might overlook your lack of registration. Some applicants wait to file for naturalization until they turn 31 or 29 if they satisfy all other naturalization requirements.
The attachment to the Constitution requirement
You will need to demonstrate your “attachment” to the U.S. constitution. This means you believe, support, and will defend the constitution. It also means you agree to support the democratic process and obey the law.
You will attend a public ceremony to recite the Oath of Allegiance. This is the final step in the naturalization process. During the ceremony, the official will verify that you understand the following:
- You are taking the Oath of Allegiance voluntarily.
- You give your total allegiance to the United States by renouncing your commitment to all other countries where you claim citizenship.
- You accept all responsibilities of a U.S. citizen, including military and civil service duty. You have no intention of not fulfilling these duties.
This ceremony is the final step of the process and the final requirement to meet for naturalization.