Are you a current or former member of the U.S. military? By this we mean a service person who is or has been on active or reserve duty with the U.S. Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, or Coast Guard, or in a National Guard unit while the unit was federally recognized as a reserve component of the U.S. Armed Forces. (This definition comes from the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations at 8 C.F.R section 328.1.)
If you fit one of these descriptions, and are thinking of applying for U.S. citizenship, you'll first want to understand the general requirements for citizenship described in Nolo's article U.S. Citizenship Through Naturalization: Who Is Eligible and How to Apply. Most of these rules will apply to you as a military member -- for example, you'll need to learn English and prepare for the exam on U.S. history and government. If you're more comfortable reading in Spanish, start with Nolo's article Ciudadania y Naturalizacion.
However, you'll also want to look into some important exceptions to the usual naturalization application rules. These exceptions may ease the process and allow you to become a U.S. citizen faster than civilians can. For example, while most people must wait five years after getting their green card to apply for U.S. citizenship, the exceptions described below allow certain military service people or veterans to apply sooner -- or even without having obtained a green card at all.
Immediate Right to Apply for Citizenship After One Year's Military Service
If you served honorably in the U.S. Armed Forces for at least one year in total (even if the year was broken up into different time periods) you can apply for citizenship just as soon as you get your green card. It doesn't matter whether the United States was at war during your service, which is why you'll sometimes hear this exception called "peacetime naturalization."
You'll need to be age 18 or older to apply, and you'll need to meet the other standard criteria for naturalization. However, you won't have to pay the usual N-400 application fee. But you will have to complete and file an additional form -- USCIS Form N-426, Request for Certification of Military or Naval Service. This form will require input and a signature from a U.S. military official.
If you have already been discharged from the military, the discharge must have been honorable, and you'll need to hurry to use this exception: If more than six months pass after your discharge and before you file your application for naturalization, you'll be back to following the five-year rule that applies to civilian applicants. But see the next section of this article, which may help you if you served during wartime.
(The above exception comes from the Immigration and Nationality Act at I.N.A. section 328 or 8 U.S.C. section 1439.)
Immediate Right to Apply for Citizenship for Military Personnel Who Performed Active Duty
You don't even need a green card (permanent residence) to apply for U.S. citizenship if you served honorably and on active duty with the U.S. Armed Forces during one of the wars or conflicts named below. You can go straight from being an undocumented or illegal immigrant to applying for and receiving U.S. citizenship. Of course, if you already have a green card, you can also use this section to avoid the five-year period that most people must wait before applying for naturalization. (See I.N.A. section 329, 8 U.S.C. section 1440.)
You must, however, have enlisted (signed up) while you were still on U.S. territory. The recognized U.S. territories include the Canal Zone, American Samoa, Swains Island, and a noncommercial U.S. ship.
Here are the conflicts that qualify you for immediate U.S. citizenship:
- World War I (April 6, 1917 to November 11, 1918)
- World War II (September 1, 1939 to December 31, 1946)
- the Korean hostilities (June 25, 1950 to July 1, 1955)
- the Vietnam hostilities (February 28, 1961 to October 15, 1978)
- the Persian Gulf War (August 2, 1990 to April 11, 1991)
- "Operation Enduring Freedom" (also called the "War on Terrorism" or "Iraq Hostilities", which began September 11, 2001 and will end when the U.S. President issues an order so stating).
If you enlisted during one of the times of war listed above, you will be allowed to apply for naturalization after only one day of military service, and you can apply while you're overseas (or in the United States).
Most of the usual requirements for naturalization will apply to you. However, unlike ordinary applicants you can be approved without regard to your age or how much time you have recently spent physically present in the United States, and in the state in which your application will be processed.
In addition, you won't have to pay the usual N-400 application fee. But you will have to file an additional form -- USCIS Form N-426, Request for Certification of Military or Naval Service. This form will require input and a signature from a U.S. military official.
For anyone who thinks they've spotted a loophole allowing someone to sign up for the U.S. military, serve for only a day or two, and walk away as a U.S. citizen, we've got bad news. For one thing, USCIS will wait until the new recruit is done with basic training to complete the citizenship application process. More importantly, you'll need to honorably complete your term of military service in order to hold onto U.S. citizenship gained in this way. If you don't, your U.S. citizenship will be taken away.
Posthumous Immigration Benefits for Soldiers Killed in Action -- and Their Families
You may, if you're still serving with the military, be worried about what would happen to your family members if you were to be killed in the line of duty. Fortunately, the law contains provisions to help your family, whether or not you are a U.S. citizen.
If you are a U.S. citizen, your spouse, parents, and children would, upon your death during active duty with the U.S. Armed Forces, be eligible to apply for green cards or, if they already have green cards, to apply for immediate U.S. citizenship.
If you are not a U.S. citizen, and you die from injury or disease caused during active duty with the U.S. Armed Forces during one of the periods of military hostilities listed above, your next of kin would be able to apply for citizenship for you. The closest relative should be the one to file the application, using USCIS Form N-644. That person must apply within two years of the military person's death. (See I.N.A. section 329, 8 U.S.C. section 1440.)
Then, based on your having become a citizen, your immediate family members (spouse, parents, unmarried children under 21) would be able to apply for green cards, as described in Nolo's article U.S. Immigration Rules for Military Family Members.
Where to File Your Naturalization Application
Current USCIS policy is to have all members of the military, regardless of where they live and whether they are filing from within the United States or overseas, file the application for naturalization with the USCIS Nebraska Service Center. You'll find the address on the USCIS website, together with the instructions for Form N-400.
If you're currently serving in the military, talk to the designated point of contact (POC) at your military installation and see the USCIS Web page on Citizenship for Military Personnel & Family Members.
For details on the procedures for applying for naturalization, see Becoming a U.S. Citizen: A Guide to the Law, Exam, & Interview, by Ilona Bray (Nolo). And if you'd like a personal analysis of your situation or help with the application process, consult an experienced immigration attorney. You can see profiles of attorneys in your area on the Nolo Lawyer Directory.