This article is primarily excerpted from Becoming a U.S. Citizen, by Ilona Bray (Nolo).
U.S. citizenship is definitely an improvement over permanent resident status. At the very least, you won’t have to renew your green card every ten years—or even carry the card around. But wait, there’s more! As a U.S. citizen you get:
Green card holders cannot vote in any U.S. election, be it local, state, or federal. (If you did vote, see an immigration lawyer immediately—this could result in denial of your application for citizenship.)
Once you receive U.S. citizenship, however, you can make your voice heard in local and national elections. Politicians are increasingly aware of the voting bloc power of immigrants—and are offering meaningful choices and reforms to immigrant voters as a result.
(The exact requirements and deadlines for registration vary by state. For details in your state, check the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC)'s Register & Vote in Your State page.)
In addition to voting, U.S. citizenship will open the door to many federal job opportunities. The federal government is a huge employer, offering good salaries and job stability. You may not realize how many U.S. government branch offices are in your community—the Social Security Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and more. Many U.S. Foreign Service jobs also require U.S. citizenship.
If you’ve got political aspirations, you can run for elected office—although you’ll never be able to run for U.S. President or Vice President. (You must be born in the U.S.A. to qualify for either of these jobs.)
U.S. sentiment toward immigrants has its ups and downs, but sometimes you can’t open the newspaper without seeing a proposed change toughening up the federal immigration laws. These new laws primarily affect people who are here illegally or don’t have green cards—but even legal immigrants with green cards aren’t immune. Individual U.S. states are, more than ever before, experimenting with legislation to discourage undocumented immigrants from living there. And the U.S. Congress—limited only by Constitutional guarantees like free speech and equal protection—can change the rights of green card holders at any time.
A dramatic example of this occurred in the late 1990s, when Congress decided to make green card holders ineligible for various federal benefits such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI). Thousands of elderly and disabled immigrants with low financial resources were suddenly cut off from their lifeline of cash support and medical or nursing home care. Congress subsequently softened this law, but tight restrictions remain. For example, immigrants who entered the United States after August 22, 1996, can qualify for SSI only if they’ve had a green card for five years and have worked 40 quarters (ten years) in the United States—or fall into one of a few similarly narrow categories.
Then after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 Congress responded to U.S. security concerns by requiring that all airport baggage and passenger screeners be U.S. citizens.
And after the election of Donald Trump, he used his executive power to issue numerous orders restricting U.S. entry for people from mostly Muslim countries, even if they held U.S. permanent residence.
As a U.S. citizen, you can, for the most part, stop worrying about Congress’s or the President's latest idea. You’ll have the same basic rights as any other U.S. citizen.
Although most green card holders can live in the United States for years without problems, an unfortunate number become removable and lose their green cards. Others may become inadmissible, and therefore ineligible to return to the United States once they’ve left.
With U.S. citizenship, the specter of removal is eliminated. The grounds of removal do not apply to U.S. citizens. However, USCIS -- although it rarely does so -- can take away your citizenship if it finds you lied when seeking your green card or citizenship.
A green card holder who spends more than six months abroad, or shows signs of resettling elsewhere, can lose permanent residence rights. Ironically, becoming a U.S. citizen allows you to spend less time in the United States—even to make your home elsewhere if you wish. No one will take away your citizenship as a result. In addition, and unlike U.S. permanent residents, you will be allowed to continue receiving any retirement or other benefits you’ve earned from Social Security while living abroad.
Even if you want to retain your primary home inside the United States, gaining citizenship will be a huge help if you travel a great deal or have close family members or other obligations outside the United States. If family emergencies arise, you’ll be able to attend to them, confident of your easy return to the United States.
If you enjoy visiting other countries, you’ll find your U.S. passport helpful. Many countries lighten their visa requirements and restrictions for citizens of the United States and other developed nations. You’ll also enjoy the protection of the U.S. State Department while you’re traveling. The State Department takes very seriously its role in protecting U.S. citizens abroad. If you are injured, robbed, or run into other problems beyond your control, you’ll get help from the local U.S. consulate, such as arranging your care and transportation home.
If you’re arrested abroad, the State Department will help you find an attorney and see that you’re treated humanely. (However, if you’ve actually committed a crime, don’t count on the State Department to pressure the foreign state to stop your punishment. The degree of help you get depends on the seriousness of your crime and the relations between the United States and the foreign government.)
For a fuller picture of these services see the Travel page of the State Department’s website.
Remember those long lines for green card holders that you stood in when you last entered the United States? The lines are much shorter for U.S. citizens. You’ll still have to pass border patrol officials, but at least they won’t be asking questions designed to see whether they should take away your green card. You will no longer be subject to inadmissibility rules when you reenter the United States.
Green card holders must meet admissibility standards when they enter the United States after a long trip (180 continuous days or more), and failing to meet these standards can result in being barred from entry and from citizenship.
As a U.S. citizen, your existing children with green cards, any children you adopt, and any children born to you after you receive your citizenship automatically (well, almost automatically, depending on the circumstances) become U.S. citizens. For more on passing citizenship to your children, see Nolo’s articles on Acquiring or Deriving Citizenship Through Parents.
In addition, you can submit a petition to sponsor certain other family members for U.S. green cards (but not citizenship—they’ll have to wait a few years just like you did). You’ll be able to submit petitions for your parents, your children, your spouse, and your brothers and sisters.
Unfortunately, not every petition results in your family member getting a green card right away. If your children are older than 21 or are married, they’ll be put on a waiting list that usually lasts several years.
Your brothers and sisters will also be put on a waiting list that averages at least ten years in length. Without your citizenship, however, the same family members would either wait much longer or have no rights to immigrate at all.
If your life takes a difficult turn and you discover you can’t pay for your own food or medical care, you’ll have a much easier time qualifying for government help if you’re a U.S. citizen. You will be permitted to apply for SSI (if you’re disabled and have a low income), federal food stamps, general assistance (cash support), nonemergency medical services, and a variety of state assistance programs—all of which are off limits or severely restricted while you’re a permanent resident.
Even if you never plan to rely on government help, knowing it’s available in an emergency can be reassuring.