Age-Related Exceptions to the U.S. Citizenship (Naturalization) Exam Requirements

It's possible to take an easier version of the naturalization exam or have your interview conducted in English if you are age 50 or older and have spent a certain amount of time in the United States.

By , J.D. · University of Washington School of Law

The older one gets, the harder it can be to learn a new language or memorize detailed factual material. That can cause stress for an elder lawful permanent resident (green card holder) who is hoping to submit an N-400 naturalization application and sit through an interview and exam for U.S. citizenship. Normally, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) would expect the applicant to not only meet the basic eligibility requirements, but conduct their entire in-person interview at a USCIS office in English, write a sentence in English, and be ready to answer several questions correctly out of a list of 100 possibilities.

In light of the possible difficulties with these requirements, U.S. immigration law (found in the federal statutes at I.N.A. § 312) allows senior citizen applicants for naturalization to request easier versions of both the English and civics exams than required of most applicants. Below are the details, including:

  • an easier version of the exam for applicants who are 65 or over and have at least 20 years of U.S. permanent residence at the time of filing Form N-400, and
  • a lifting of the English requirement (allowing use of an interpreter) for applicants who are age 50 or over and have at least 20 years of U.S. permanent residence at the time of filing Form N-400 as well as applicants ages 56 and up with at least 15 years of U.S. permanent residence at the time of filing.

This article does not discuss how to request waivers of the naturalization requirements based on disability, which is also possible. It does, however, requires a doctor's examination and report (on Form N-648). Learn more in Does Your Parent or Relative Qualify for a Disability Exception to the Citizenship Test?.

Naturalization Civics Test "65/20 " Exception for Elder Applicants

Green card holders who are age 65 or older and who have lived in the U.S. as permanent residents for at least 20 years (not necessarily continuously) can take an easier version of the U.S. history and government (civics) exam that is required of naturalization applicants. This is commonly referred to as the "65/20 exception."

A person who fits this category will have to study only 20 questions rather than the much longer (100-question) list that most applicants face. The applicant will be asked 10 of these 20 questions and will need to answer 6 correctly in order to pass.

See the Study for the Test page of the USCIS website to find these questions and various means of studying them. (USCIS provides the questions in different languages too.) You can look at the full list of questions on this website—but then will need to identify the questions with a star or asterisk (*) next to them, which are the only ones that may be asked of someone who qualifies for the 65/20 exception. Or, this pdf contains only the questions for 65/20 applicants.

Naturalization English Requirement "50/20" and "55/15" Exceptions for Advanced Age

In order to become a naturalized U.S. citizen, most applicants need to show that they can speak, read, and write in English. These English skills will be tested at the citizenship interview. The USCIS officer who interviews the applicant will normally speak to them in English and watch how well they answers question and responds to instructions (such as "please stand up"). The officer will also ask the applicant to read a short piece of text out loud, and to write a sentence that the officer says out loud (dictates).

However, two separate rules allow older people to avoid the English requirement entirely, and to instead have the interview done with the help of their foreign language interpreter. Note that this does not mean you can avoid the civics exam as well—you will still need to take it (or the shortened version, if you also qualify for the 65/20 exception)—but you will be able to take it in your native language, with the help of an interpreter.

The 50/20 waiver. If you are age 50 or older and you have lived in the United States as a green card holder (permanent resident) for at least 20 years, you can have the U.S. citizenship interview conducted in your native language. This is commonly referred to as the "50/20" waiver. These 20 years of permanent residence do not need to have been continuous. If you have been outside the United States for short periods of time (fewer than six months at a stretch, to be safe), that is okay, so long as all your time living in the United States totals up to 20 years.

The 55/15 waiver. The second rule is known as the "55/15" waiver. It says that if you are age 55 or older and you have lived in the United States as a green card holder for at least 15 years, you can have the U.S. citizenship interview and exam conducted in your native language. Again, the 15 years spent in the United States do not need to have been continuous.

Do You Need to Request an Exemption of the Citizenship Exam Requirements in Advance?

In its latest version of Form N-400, USCIS removed questions in which people could advise it of their qualification for an exemption. This suggests it should be no problem to request the relevant exemption at the time of the interview. Simply let the officer who interviews you know; they already have sufficient information to confirm your age and length of time spent in the United States.

It is advisable, however, to write a cover letter to accompany your Form N-400. This is a good place to alert USCIS to your request. See Sample Cover Letter to Include With Form N-400 Application for Citizenship.

Bring an Interpreter If Asking to Do the Citizenship Interview in Your Own Language

If requesting an English-language exception, you must bring a foreign-language interpreter with you to the interview. This is true even if it is a common language, such as Spanish.

The interpreter can be a friend or relative rather than a paid professional. Be sure, however, that the person is truly fluent in your language and in English. Live foreign-language interpreting is harder than it looks, and if the interpreter causes confusion, it could result in your U.S. citizenship application being denied. (Learn more about the rules to follow when bringing someone to interpret between English and your own language at a USCIS immigration interview.)

Getting Legal Help

An experienced attorney can assist with the task of figuring out whether you are eligible for U.S. citizenship or for one of the waivers of the English language or civics exam requirements. The attorney can also help prepare the paperwork and keep your naturalization case on track.

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