The older you get, the harder it can be to learn a new language or memorize factual material. For this reason, U.S. immigration law allows older applicants for naturalization (U.S. citizenship) to request easier versions of the English and civics exams than required of most applicants. Here are the details.
Green card holders who are age 65 or older and have lived in the U.S. as permanent residents for at least 20 years (not necessarily continuously) can take an easier version of the history and government (civics) exam that is required of naturalization applicants. This is commonly referred to as the “65/20 exception.”
A person who fits this category will have to study only 20 questions rather than the 100 that most applicants face. The applicant will be asked ten of the questions and will need to answer six correctly in order to pass.
See the Study Materials for the Civics Test page of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) website to find these questions and various means of studying them. (USCIS provides these questions in different languages too.) You can look at the list of 100 question on this website—but then will need to identify the questions with a star or asterisk (*) next to them, which are the only ones that may be asked of someone who qualifies for the 65/20 exception. Or, this pdf has only the questions for 65/20 applicants.
In order to become a naturalized U.S. citizen, most applicants need to show that they can speak, read, and write in English. These English skills will be tested at the citizenship interview. The USCIS officer who interviews the person will normally speak to him or her in English and watch how well the applicant answers questions and responds to instructions. The officer will also ask the applicant to read a short piece of text out loud, and to write a sentence that the officer says aloud (dictates).
However, two separate rules allow older people to avoid the English requirement entirely, and instead have the interview done with the help of a foreign language interpreter. Note that this doesn’t mean you can avoid the civics exam as well—you will still need to take it (or the shortened version, if you also qualify for the 65/20 exception)—but you will be able to take it in your native language, with the help of an interpeter.
If you are age 50 or older and have lived in the U.S. as a green card holder (permanent resident) for at least 20 years, you can have the citizenship interview conducted in your native language. This is commonly referred to as the “50/20” waiver. These 20 years of permanent residence do not need to have been continuous. If you have been outside the U.S. for short periods of time (fewer than six months at a stretch, to be safe), that is okay, so long as all your time living in the U.S. totals 20 years.
The second rule is known as the “55/15” waiver. It says that if you are age 55 or older and have lived in the U.S. as a green card holder for at least 15 years, you can have the citizenship interview and exam conducted in your native language. Again, the 15 years do not need to have been continuous.
If you need one of these age-related exceptions, be sure to let USCIS know in advance. Otherwise, the USCIS interviewer may get frustrated trying to speak to you in English, or may give you the more difficult version of the citizenship exam.
Form N-400, the citizenship application form, does not have a space to request these exceptions. It is best to write a cover letter to USCIS (to be sent with your N-400) alerting the agency to the request for an exception. Also write the name of the appropriate exception in red letters on the top of Form N-400; either “65/20,” “55/15, or “50/20;” or a combination of these, if you’re applying for both an exam exception and an English-language exception.
If you will be requesting an English-language exception, you must bring an interpreter with you to the interview. This can be a friend or relative rather than a paid professional. Be sure, however, that the person is truly fluent in your own language and in English. Interpreting is harder than it looks, and if the interpreter causes confusion, it may result in your citizenship being denied.