In order to become a U.S. citizen, you will not only need to satisfy the various other requirements described in the article “Who Can Apply for U.S. Citizenship,” but to pass tests on your knowledge and understanding of:
- the fundamentals of history and of the principles and form of government of the United States, and
- the English language, as it is spoken, written, and read.
Although those requirements sound very broad, you won’t really have to learn all there is to know about the U.S. and its primary language. Let’s look more closely at what you will, in fact, have to study and learn.
Preparing for the U.S. Civics Exam
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has prepared 100 potential questions for the history and government exam. These, with their answers, are published in advance, for anyone to see. You will have to memorize the answers to these questions – ideally all 100 of them, but you will really need to answer only six out of ten questions correctly in order to pass.
The trouble is, you can’t know in advance which ten questions you’ll be asked – the USCIS official who interviews you gets to choose.
See the “Study Materials for the Civics Test” page of the USCIS website to find these questions and various means of studying them.
There are some people who, for reasons of age or disability, will find it nearly impossible to learn the answers to these questions. Some exceptions can be made in these cases.
Civics Test Exception for Elder Applicants
If you are at least age 65 and have lived in the United States as a permanent resident for at least 20 years (these don’t need to be continuous years) you can take an easier version of the history and government exam. This is commonly referred to as the “65/20 exception.” You will have to study only 20 questions. You’ll be asked ten of the questions and will need to answer six correctly in order to pass.
Civics Test Exception for Disabled Applicants
If you have a physical or mental disability that prevents you from learning the required concepts of U.S. history and government, you may qualify for a waiver. As we explained for people seeking to avoid the English requirement, you’ll need to have your doctor fill out a form (N-648) explaining exactly what your disability is and why it prevents you from learning concepts of U.S. civics and government.
Preparing for the English Exam
You will need to show that you can speak and read in English. You will need to demonstrate your English skills at your citizenship interview. The USCIS officer who interviews you will of course address you in English, and observe how well you respond to questions and instructions. The officer will also ask you to read a short passage, and to write a sentence that he or she says aloud (dictates) to you.
To focus on the key vocabulary, see the “Study Materials for the English Test” page of the USCIS website.
If you aren’t already comfortable with the English language, taking a class at a local adult school may help.
English Requirement Exception for Advanced Age
Two separate rules allow older people to avoid the English requirement. If you are at least age 50 and have lived in the U.S. as a green card holder for at least 20 years, you can have the entire citizenship interview conducted in your native language. (This is commonly known as the “50/20” waiver.) Your 20 years of residence do not need to have been continuous. If you have been away for short periods (fewer than six months at a time, to be safe), that is acceptable, so long as your total time living in the United States reaches 20 years.
The second rule, known as “55/15” waiver, applies as follows. If you are at least age 55 and have lived in the United States as a green card holder for at least 15 years, you can have the citizenship interview and exam conducted in your native language. Your 15 years do not need to have been continuous.
English Requirement Exception for Disability
If you have a physical or mental disability that prevents you from learning English — for example, an illness that requires regular medication that makes you severely drowsy, a developmental disability, or deafness -- you may qualify for a waiver of the English requirement. In such a case, you would be allowed to have the citizenship interview done in your native language.
You can’t just request this waiver; a doctor must fill out a form (N-648) explaining your disability and why it prevents you from learning English.
For more information on naturalizing in the U.S., see “Becoming a U.S. Citizen; A Guide to the Law, Exam, and Interview,” by attorney Ilona Bray.