Who Can Apply for U.S. Citizenship

Find out who is eligible for U.S. citizenship and how to apply to naturalize.

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

U.S. citizenship gives a person as many rights as the United States has to offer; for example, the right to vote in U.S. state and federal elections, petition for family members to immigrate to the United States, and live in another country without losing the right to return. For these reasons, naturalized U.S. citizenship is not easy to obtain. (For the law on who is eligible, see 8 U.S.C. § 1427.)

Unless you are among the lucky few foreign nationals who qualify automatically for U.S. Citizenship by Birth or Through Parents, you will need to apply to become a U.S. citizen, through a process known as naturalization. Before turning in your N-400 application to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), however, you must first have had a green card (lawful permanent residence) for a number of years and meet other eligibility requirements, as we discuss below.

Basic Eligibility Criteria for Naturalized U.S. Citizenship

If you are a green card holder who is interested in applying for U.S. citizenship, first make sure that all of the following apply to you:

    cautionApplying for naturalized U.S. citizenship opens your whole immigration history up to review. This is not a risk-free process. USCIS will take your fingerprints and carefully investigate your background. If it discovers something wrong—for example, that you used fraud to get your green card in the first place, or you abandoned your U.S. residency by making your home outside the United States—it can send you to deportation (removal) proceedings, where a judge can strip you of your green card and send you out of the country.

    Tests You'll Need to Pass to Become a Naturalized U.S. Citizen

    After submitting your citizenship application (as described below), you will also need to be ready to pass two exams. These will be held during your citizenship interview, at a USCIS office. They are meant to test whether:

    If you don't pass one or both of these tests the first time, you will normally get one more chance to appear for a USCIS interview and try again. This second interview will typically be scheduled for a date within 60 to 90 days of the first interview.

    Summary of the Application Process for Naturalized U.S. Citizenship

    In order to apply for naturalized citizenship, you will need to complete an application on USCIS Form N-400 (see Filling Out USCIS Form N-400) and send it in with a copy of your green card and the appropriate fee (or else a request for a fee waiver). After filing your N-400 application, you will probably wait many months, depending on backlogs at your local USCIS office. First, you will be called in for a fingerprint (biometrics) appointment, and later an interview appointment.

    At the citizenship interview, a USCIS officer will test your English language ability (unless you fit within an exception) as well as your knowledge of U.S. history and government. Normally this means you will have to study a list of 100 questions and be ready to answer at least six out of ten of them. However, there's a shorter list of possible questions if you are 65 or older and you have been a permanent resident of the U.S. for at least 20 years.

    Applicants who are disabled can ask for accommodations at the interview, such as a sign language interpreter or wheelchair accessibility. In order to make advance arrangements, you'll contact USCIS in accordance with its online instructions.

    If all goes well at the naturalization interview, you will receive an appointment for your swearing-in (oath) ceremony. This might be held at the USCIS office (which tends to be a faster option) or in a courtroom or at a large ceremony. At that time, you actually become a U.S. citizen, and receive a certificate of naturalization to prove it.

    As a U.S. citizen, you can petition to have close family members join you in the United States. For details, see Green Cards for Your Family: Sponsorship Rules.

    Further Resources About U.S. Citizenship

    For more on the naturalization eligibility and application requirements, including important exceptions, the rights of senior citizens or disabled persons, and the details of how to prepare and submit your application and get ready for the interview, see, Becoming a U.S. Citizen: A Guide to the Law, Exam & Interview, by Ilona Bray (Nolo).

    And if you think you might want professional help, or are worried about complications in your case, also see When Do You Need an Immigration Lawyer?.

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