Nearly everyone wishing to apply for U.S. citizenship (naturalization) must prove that he or she has had permanent residence (a green card) for a minimum number of years. The required number is usually five.
However, if you got your green card based on having had asylum or refugee status first, you will want to understand how your years as an asylee or refugee count toward those required five years. Part of that time will be counted as permanent residence, based on a concept known as “rollback.” The result is that you may be able to apply to naturalize sooner than you thought.
(For a review of the eligibility requirements for U.S. citizenship, see “Who Can Apply for U.S. Citizenship.” )
When Refugees Can Apply to Naturalize
If you were granted refugee status while in another country, and then entered the U.S. as a refugee, you can count your date of U.S. entry as the beginning of your permanent residence – assuming, of course, that you eventually succeed in becoming a permanent resident. All your years as a refugee in the U.S. will count toward the required five years of permanent residence for naturalization eligibility purposes. (See the Code of Federal Regulations at 8 C.F.R. § 209.1(e).)
So, for instance, if you spend five years as a refugee in the U.S. before finally getting around to applying for a green card, you have fulfilled the five-year requirement already, and can apply for citizenship as soon as U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) approves you for permanent residence. (You should, however, have applied for a green card one year after your date of entry as a refugee, as is required by law.)
When Asylees Can Apply to Naturalize
If you were granted asylum in the United States, a maximum of one year of your time in asylee status counts as permanent residence. If you waited longer than a year to apply for your green card, that extra time will not do you any good – you will still need to wait another four years after your green card approval before applying for U.S. citizenship.
Don’t Be Confused by the Date on Your Green Card
In recognition of the rollback doctrine, USCIS will "back date" your green card -- that is, actually put your date of U.S. entry (if you were a refugee) or the date one year before your green card approval (if you were an asylee) on your green card, in the space for the date you became a permanent resident. (See 8 C.F.R. § 209.2(f ).)
So, whatever you do, do not look at the date on your card and expect to be apply to apply for U.S. citizenship four years later. The date placed there should make it convenient for you to count forward the required five years before you submit an application for U.S. citizenship.
The 90-Day Early Application Rule
One more helpful bit of guidance, if you’re eager to apply for U.S. citizenship: You can turn in your citizenship application (USCIS Form N-400) 90 days before your required years of permanent residence have passed. This 90-day period compensates for the fact that USCIS may not act on your application (call you in for an interview) for at least that amount of time.
If you have any further questions about your eligibility for U.S. citizenship, see the “How to Become a U.S. Citizen” section of Nolo’s website or consult an experienced immigration attorney.