U.S. citizenship gives a person as many rights as the U.S. has to offer; for example, the right to vote, petition for family members to immigrate, and live abroad without losing the right to return. For these reasons, citizenship is not easily obtained.
To become a U.S. citizen through the process known as naturalization, you must first have a green card (permanent residence) and then meet other requirements, listed below. There are only a few rare exceptions in which a person goes straight from having no U.S. status to getting U.S. citizenship; some are discussed in Nolo's article "U.S. Citizenship by Birth or Through Parents."
The Eligibility Criteria
If you are interested in applying for U.S. citizenship, first make sure that all of the following apply to you:
- you have lived in the United States as a lawful permanent resident for at least five years (with exceptions for refugees, people who get their green card through asylum, spouses of U.S. citizens, and U.S. military personnel)
- you have been physically present in the United States for at least half of the last five years
- you have lived in the district or state where you are filing your application for at least three months
- you have not spent more than a year outside the United States
- you have not made your primary home in another country
- you are at least 18 years old
- you have good moral character
- you are able to speak, read, and write in English
- you are able to pass a test covering U.S. history and government (based on questions provided by USCIS), and
- you are willing to swear that you believe in the principles of the U.S. Constitution and will be loyal to the United States.
Applying for citizenship opens your whole immigration history to review. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will carefully investigate your background. If it discovers something wrong -- for example, that you used fraud to get your green card or abandoned your residency by making your home outside the United States -- it can strip you of your green card and send you out of the country.
The Application Process
You'll need to complete a citizenship application on USCIS Form N-400 (see Nolo's article on "Filling Out USCIS Form N-400") and send it in with a copy of your green card, the required photos, and the appropriate fee. After filing your application, you will probably wait for many months, depending on your local USCIS office. Then you will be called in for a fingerprint appointment, and later an interview appointment.
At the interview, a USCIS officer will test your English language ability (unless you are over 50 and fit within an exception) and your knowledge of U.S. history and government (though with a shorter list of possible question if you are 65 or older and have been a permanent resident of the U.S. for at least 20 years). Applicants who are disabled can ask for accommodations at the interview, such as a sign language interpreter or wheelchair accessibility.
If all goes well at the interview, you'll receive an appointment for your swearing-in ceremony. At that time, you actually become a citizen, and receive a certificate of naturalization to prove it. As a citizen, you can petition to have close family members join you in the United States. For details, see Nolo's article "Green Cards for Your Family: Sponsorship Rules."
For more on the eligibility and application requirements for citizenship, including important exceptions, the rights of disabled persons, and the details of how to apply, see the book, Becoming a U.S. Citizen: A Guide to the Law, Exam & Interview, by Ilona Bray (Nolo).