Conditional Resident Awaiting I-751 Approval? Consider Filing N-400 for Naturalization

Why you might not need to wait for your permanent green card before submitting your U.S. citizenship application.

By , J.D.

Noncitizens who are granted a green card based on marriage to a U.S. citizen, but whose marriage was less than two years old when they were approved receive a "conditional" green card, which is valid for only two years. These conditional residents must apply to have the conditions on their green card removed before it expires. To do so, they must submit Form I-751 (Petition to Remove Conditions on Residence) 90 days before their expiration date, at the earliest.

In the past, this process was relatively quick, especially if the spouses were still married and filing jointly. But it's been taking longer and longer. In fact, United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) processing times for Form I-751 are frequently known to take longer than a year, and two or more years was common in many parts of the U.S. in late 2021.

Why Lengthy USCIS Processing Times Are a Concern Conditional Residents

The long wait for a USCIS decision can raise many issues for I-751 applicants. That's because, after three years of residency in the U.S., green card holders living with their U.S. citizen spouses are eligible for naturalization. Thus, many people will be eligible to naturalize before they know whether the conditions have been removed from their green card and they have thus been approved for permanent residence. Yet one of the basic requirements for U.S. citizenship is that one have a permanent U.S. green card.

Fortunately, during USCIS processing, you don't have to worry about being deported. Conditional residents are still considered to be in lawful status and can maintain work and travel authorization. Their receipt notice from USCIS will prove this, by showing its own expiration date. (The normal validity period shown on the receipt notice is 18 months, though this was extended to 24 months during the pandemic in light of USCIS processing delays.)

If, however, your I-751 is still pending at USCIS and you need to show your status for work or travel purposes, you will need to get a stamp from a local USCIS office to use as proof of your continued authorization. This is what's called an I-551 stamp, and it goes in your passport. Call the USCIS Contact Center to make an appointment to go to a USCIS office and get this evidence of status. It normally lasts for a year.

Confirm You Are Eligible for Naturalization

Conditional residents with a pending I-751 will first want to confirm that they are eligible for naturalization beyond simply meeting the three-year residency requirement. Additional requirements include "good moral character" for the past three years, being able to read, speak, and write English, being able to pass a U.S. civics and history test, and being willing to declare an oath of allegiance to the United States.

For people who have ever been convicted of, or arrested for, a crime, it is especially important to consult an immigration attorney before applying for naturalization. Many crimes can lead to removal from the U.S., even for legal residents. And the list of types of crimes that will bar someone from naturalized citizenship is even longer.

Conditional residents who are divorced from, or no longer living with, their U.S. citizen spouses are not eligible to apply for naturalization in three years (instead of the usual five), even though they might still qualify to have the conditions removed from their green cards with a waiver.

Complete Form N-400 and File With Your I-751 Receipt

People who qualify for naturalization should complete USCIS Form N-400 (Application for Naturalization). With the N-400, they should include their I-751 receipt and also a cover letter explaining that they want to naturalize under "I.N.A.Section 319(a)." This section of the Immigration and Nationality Act (I.N.A.) allows people who have been residing with a U.S. citizen spouse for three years to apply for naturalization.

The letter should also state that you wish to have USCIS adjudicate (make a decision on) your I-751 and N-400 together at your naturalization interview.

It is important to include evidence that you have been physically living with your U.S. citizen spouse for the past three years as well, including copies of your home lease or mortgage, utility and other bills, bank account statements, family photos, and any other relevant documents.

When you are scheduled for your naturalization interview, USCIS will first make a decision on your I-751 and, if it is approved, next make a decision on your N-400. Your spouse should accompany you to your interview, as he or she is jointly filing the I-751 with you, and also to verify that you qualify for naturalization in three years because you are living with your spouse.

Possible Problems With Filing Forms I-751 and N-400 Together

There is a possibility that USCIS will not transfer your I-751 to the office that has your N-400 application. In this case, when you appear for your naturalization interview, you will not be able to go forward until your I-751 application is transferred. That's because you will not be eligible for naturalization until the conditions are removed from your residency. This can be a complex process, so it's worth getting a lawyer's help if possible.

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