If your name appears incorrectly on your past immigration paperwork (such as refugee processing documents, an I-94, or a birth certificate produced by an unreliable source, such as in a refugee camp), the process of becoming a U.S. citizen – whether through naturalization or derivation through parents -- offers some ways to fix the problem. If that doesn’t work, another option is to do a legal name change through the U.S. court system. This article describes these various options.
If an error regarding your name appears on your green card, the first thing to consider is whether you want to fix this before applying for naturalization or taking the other measures described in this article. It’s possible to have a green card reissued with a corrected name by using Form I-90 and requesting a correction. Depending on the cause of the error, however, you may have to pay for the correction. Therefore, if you are eligible for naturalization, it might be easier to correct your name during this process rather than separately paying fees to correct your green card first.
Assuming you have not yet become a U.S. citizen, you may be able to deal with a previously misspelled or wrong name when you apply for naturalization. Instructions on how to fill out Form N-400 and include your name change preference are found in Nolo's article, “Filling Out USCIS Form N-400 Application for Naturalization.”
If you have already submitted your Form N-400 and did not indicate a name change preference, it’s not too late. At your interview, you can ask U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to let you complete a Petition for Name Change.
If you are approved for citizenship, and if naturalization swearing-in ceremonies are conducted by a court in your area, then you will be able to change your name legally at the ceremony. Your name change will take effect immediately after the ceremony has ended. The new name that you choose will be shown on your Certificate of Naturalization, you should receive a separate piece of paper that indicates you had a legal name change, and you will be able to use the separate paper as proof of your new name.
If, on the other hand, your naturalization ceremony is not conducted in a court or by a judge, you cannot get a legal name change through USCIS, because USCIS does not have the jurisdiction to bring this about. USCIS could issue you a Certificate of Naturalization with your chosen name, but you will not have a court order showing proof that you have a legal name change.
A request for a Certificate of Citizenship can be filed by a person (most likely a minor) who has already derived citizenship automatically, through a U.S. citizen parent. You may be able to have errors, such as those found on a birth certificate or refugee processing documents, corrected on the Certificate of Citizenship, without having to get your name legally changed in court.
USCIS does not offer the option of a name change with the Certificate of Citizenship. Therefore, your changes will be limited to correcting actual errors rather than choosing a new name for yourself.
You’ll need to ask for the correction at the same time that you submit the USCIS Form N-600 that is used to request the citizenship certificate. Fill the form out with your current name, even if the name is misspelled. Request the correction in a cover letter that you write and include with the application. Also submit an affidavit from your parent, if possible, explaining the error and correction. Provide as much evidence as possible to support your contention that your name was written incorrectly on the birth certificate or other documents.
Expect that you will have to correspond several times with USCIS before it agrees to make the correction. USCIS has been known to accept certain name corrections but not others, so it is okay to list several alternatives in order of your preference. You might receive several letters from USCIS before your name correction is clarified, and the agency might not, ultimately, grant you your first choice.
For example, USCIS may be willing to add a space or remove a space in between two names, yet refuse to change the spelling. To illustrate, say the full name on a girl’s birth certificate was “Jane Doa,” but she considered her true name to be “Janedoe Maxwell.” USCIS would probably approve a correction to “Janedoa Maxwell” if the father’s last name on the birth certificate was Maxwell. If the father’s name was absent, or the father’s name was misspelled as “Mixwell” and no proof of this error exists, she might get a letter from USCIS asking if she wants her name corrected to “Janedoa Mixwell.” Whether or not you get all the changes you want to make is going to depend on the particular errors made and the forms of proof you can show indicating what the name should have been.
If another family member, such as a parent, has had a legal name change in order to fix errors made on immigration processing documents, and you believe your correct name should have included the correct spelling of the family member’s name (such as in the above example where “Mixwell” should have been “Maxwell”), include the proof of that person’s legal name change to help demonstrate that an error occurred. If “Janedoa Mixwell” in the above example had been able to send in proof that her father had his name corrected to “Maxwell,” USCIS would have been much more likely to agree that her correct name was “Janedoa Maxwell.”
If the errors on your paperwork can’t be fixed through the citizenship or naturalization process, a legal, court-ordered name change may be the only remaining option. In the U.S., adults can change their legal names in a state or local court.
There are a few restrictions about what you can choose for your new name –read about the rules in Nolo’s “Name Change FAQ.”
Many states have a self-service legal center where you can get instruction on how to represent yourself in asking the court for a name change.
The U.S. State Department is responsible for issuing passports, and it is not willing to correct prior errors found in documents like birth certificates or refugee processing documents. If your documents contain errors such as those described in this article, and you apply for a U.S. passport without correcting them beforehand, your passport will be issued with the same errors.
Fortunately, USCIS is more accustomed to the documentation issues that affect some immigrants, so applying for naturalization or a Certificate of Citizenship first will help create evidence usable to apply for a U.S. passport.