With more than 1.2 million legal and illegal immigrants settling in the United States each year, there were 692,000 green card-holders who became U.S. citizens in 2011. Citizenship is commonly based on a process known as naturalization, by which countries grant citizenship to people who have immigrated to that state and have resided there for the given number of years. Sometimes aspiring citizens may have to pass a test, swear allegiance to their new state and renounce their prior citizenship.The naturalization process is both arduous and rewarding, so here are some basics you need to keep in mind when considering U.S. citizenship.
A permanent resident means that the ‘alien’ is authorized to live and work in the United States of America on a permanent basis. This authorization, informally known as a green card, serves as proof that its holder, a lawful permanent resident, has been officially granted immigration benefits, which include permission to reside and take employment in the United States. Subsequently, the holder must maintain permanent resident status, and can be removed from the United States if certain conditions of this status are not met. Permanent residents of the United States eighteen years of age or older must carry their valid physical green card itself at all times. In most cases, you must be a permanent resident to apply for citizenship in the United States. Citizenship entails many more rights than permanent residency, including the right to vote.
According to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services office (USCIS), there are several general requirements an alien must meet to be eligible for naturalization:
- Be 18 years or older
- Be a permanent resident for 5 years (can be less for some individuals)
- Be a person of good moral character
- Have a basic knowledge of U.S. history and government in order to pass the corresponding tests. Applicants for citizenship are asked ten questions, and must answer at least six with the expected answers.
- Have a period of continuous residence and physical presence in the U.S.: They must have been physically present for at least 30 months of 60 months prior to the date of filing their application. If at any point during those 60 months the legal permanent resident was outside of the U.S. for a continuous period of 6 months or more, they are disqualified from naturalizing.
- Be able to read, write, and speak basic English. There are exceptions to this rule if the person is 55 years old (or older) and has been a permanent resident for at least 15 years, is 50 years old and has been a permanent resident for at least 20 years, or has a permanent physical or mental impairment that makes the individual unable to fulfil the above requirements.
If you are a permanent resident looking to apply for citizenship over age 18, you may apply after 5 years of permanent residency in the U.S or if you have been, and continue to be, married to a U.S. citizen for 3 years. Any permanent residents over 18 who currently serve honorably in the U.S. military, with over 1 year of service, may apply for citizenship while in the military or within 6 months of discharge. There are some exceptions to these requirements that allow certain individuals (i.e. those who served in the military in a past war) to file for naturalization sooner than noted above.
The Application Process
Those seeking to apply for U.S. citizenship must file a Form N-400 “Application for Naturalization”. The USCIS also provides many resources to persons seeking naturalization; see Manual M-476 “A Guide to Naturalization”, or if your are in the military, see Manual M-599, “Naturalization Information for Military Personnel”. The USCIS website hosts educational materials and resources to help applicants prepare for the English, U.S. history, and U.S. government tests. An applicant will also be required to submit to an in-person interview.
There are several government websites and phone numbers listed below should you require more information. Immigration law attorneys can also answer any questions you may have throughout your application and citizenship process.
- USAgov.gov, 1-800-333-4636 – General Information
- WelcomeToUSA.gov – For New Immigrants
- U.S. Department of State, 1-202-647-6575
- USCIS Customer Service, 1-800-375-5283