At What Point in the Naturalization (Citizenship) Process Can I Vote in a U.S. Election?

Only after taking the oath of allegiance as a citizen can you register to vote in the United States.

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

Non-citizens (including legal permanent residents, with a green card) are strictly forbidden from voting in federal elections in the United States. Being convicted of illegally voting in a federal election can result in fines, imprisonment, and serious immigration consequences including removal (deportation).

Because of these serious consequences, it is important to be aware of when you are legally authorized to vote and to register to vote in the United States; particularly if you are a green card holder who might one day apply for naturalized U.S. citizenship. At the same time, voting is one of the greatest benefits of citizenship and many new Americans will want to register to vote as soon as possible to have their voices heard by their elected officials.

When Can I Naturalize in the United States?

This is not a quick process. If you are hoping to vote in an election that is months rather than years away, it's probably too late, both because of eligibility requirements are processing times.

You are eligible for naturalization after you have been a legal permanent resident for five years in most cases. That time reduces to three years if you are married to, and living with, a U.S. citizen spouse for the entire time period between becoming a permanent resident and being sworn in for U.S. citizenship. Certain other lawful permanent residents are also eligible to naturalize in less than five years. Also, you can send your application (Form N-400) to United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) 90 days before you are eligible to naturalize (based on the assumption that USCIS will not getting around to holding your citizenship interview until well after those 90 days have passed).

You must be sure that you meet all naturalization requirements including physical presence and moral character requirements before submitting your N-400 application. If you are not sure whether you meet the requirements, it is a good idea to consult an immigration attorney, because certain factors (especially past criminal convictions) that are revealed during the naturalization process can lead to denial of your application and/or removal from the United States.

Several months after you send in your naturalization application you will receive notice of your biometrics (fingerprinting) appointment and later be scheduled for an interview at a USCIS office. The interviewer will test your knowledge of U.S. government and history and your English language ability. Various outcomes are possible, for instance:

  • Perhaps your application for naturalization will be approved at your interview, in which case you will be given a notice to attend your oath ceremony; or in some USCIS offices, be able to take the oath of allegiance that day.
  • Perhaps you will fail the English or the civics exam, in which case USCIS will let you retake it at a second interview, to be scheduled within the subsequent 90 days.
  • Perhaps USCIS will send you home with a request for more information, to be submitted by mail, and then make its decision after it receives your submission.

In any case, you are not officially considered a U.S. citizen until you have not only been approved by a USCIS officer but taken the oath of allegiance to the United States at this ceremony. How long it takes to schedule this varies by region.

Upon successful completion of the oath ceremony you will be given your naturalization certificate and you will be a citizen of the United States.

Is There No Way to Hurry This Process Up? I Really Want to Vote!

Unfortunately, U.S. citizenship is not among the applications that USCIS allows people to pay an extra fee for and then receive speedy or "premium" processing. USCIS will expedite an N-400 citizenship application only in unusual situations, usually emergencies. For more on this, see Can I Ask USCIS to Make a Quick Decision on My Citizenship Application?.

When Can I Register to Vote in the United States?

Once you have taken the oath of allegiance, have your naturalization certificate, and are officially a U.S. citizen, you may register to vote in all federal, state, and local elections. You may not register to vote or vote before this (with a few minor exceptions for certain local elections). In fact, doing so could result in your application for naturalization being denied and your removal from the United States.

How Can I Register to Vote in the United States?

You will be given voter registration information at your naturalization ceremony by USCIS or by a USCIS-approved nonpartisan voter registration group. Voter registration groups can submit voter registration forms on your behalf after your oath ceremony.

If you do not wish to register to vote at the oath ceremony you can register to vote any time after at approved locations including the post office or the department of motor vehicles. For more information, see the U.S. government's How to register to vote webpage.

Getting Legal Help

If you are eager to naturalize and vote, your best bet to get through the application process smoothly and without delays is to hire an experienced immigration attorney. See How to Find a Good Immigration Lawyer For Your Case.

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