FAQs About Meeting Good Moral Character Requirement for Naturalized U.S. Citizenship

Will issues like drinking and failing to pay child support, which the N-400 citizenship application asks about, create problems in your application for U.S. citizenship?

By , J.D. University of Washington School of Law
Updated 10/31/2023

One of the biggest hurdles in successfully applying for naturalized U.S. citizenship is proving one's good moral character. Here are some commonly asked questions about this critical requirement.

Question: If I haven't paid child support, can I get U.S. citizenship?

I have a green card, but I lost my job last year and haven't been able to pay my court-ordered child support since then. Sometimes I do odd jobs, and then pay my ex-wife what I can. What will happen if I apply for U.S. citizenship? I see that Form N-400 asks whether I have failed to support my dependents or pay alimony.

Answer: Refusal or willful failure to pay child support is a bar to naturalizing

If you have "refused" to pay court-ordered child support, or "willfully failed" to do so, you are barred from receiving U.S. citizenship on moral character grounds and should consult with a lawyer before applying. (See the government regulations at 8 C.F.R. § 316.10.) Even if there wasn't a court order, or even if your children are overseas, the USCIS offer can look into the matter and decide on a discretionary basis that failure to support your children indicates a lack of good moral character.

However, the language of the USCIS regulations refers to situations where the applicant was acting intentionally in not paying child support. The implication is that the person could have done so, but wouldn't. That leaves room to show (ideally with the help of an experienced immigration lawyer) that you didn't really "refuse" or "willfully fail" to pay, but simply could not pay, for reasons beyond your control.

Showing that you made diligent, sincere efforts to support your children will increase your chances at approval for U.S. citizenship. For example, perhaps your ex-wife would be willing to sign a statement explaining your good-faith efforts to pay when possible, and detailing other special efforts you've made to ensure that your children are well-cared for.

Another possibility (more appropriate if any concern exists that your failure will be found willful) is to show USCIS that the good side of your character outweighs the bad. In that case, however, you will have to wait for the same amount of time that you are required to have been a permanent resident before applying for citizenship (five years for most people). The clock will not start ticking until the date of your last failure to send a child support check.

It goes without saying that, if you become financially able to pay the child support at some point, do so as soon as possible, and hang onto the documentation of having done so. This will help your naturalization case.

Question: Does social drinking make me a "habitual drunkard" and ineligible for U.S. citizenship?

I've been a lawful permanent resident for over five years and am fluent in English. One of the questions on Form N-400 asks whether I am a "habitual drunkard." What does this mean? I am not an alcoholic, but I enjoy a wine or beer with dinner, and like to meet friends at the local bar Friday nights.

Answer: Social drinking doesn't make someone a habitual drunkard

The phrase "habitual drunkard" has an old-fashioned sound to it, for good reason. It comes from an old section of the Immigration and Nationality Act (I.N.A.) saying that no one can be found to have good moral character who "during the period for which good moral character is required to be established, is or was a habitual drunkard." (See I.N.A. § 101(f).)

That is usually taken to mean someone who is an alcoholic, or drinks to excess in ways that get them into trouble; for example, by being arrested for public drunkenness, disorderly conduct due to alcohol abuse, or driving while under the influence (DUI or DWI). In fact, such arrests on a person's record are a common way in which USCIS finds out about the alcohol problem.

A social drinker who is not addicted to alcohol and does not drink to the point of getting into trouble with the law is not likely to be considered a "habitual drunkard" by USCIS, and thus should not be barred from U.S. citizenship on good moral character grounds.

Question: Can a recovering alcoholic be approved for U.S. citizenship?

I was once a heavy drinker, but after counseling and support, have been sober for four years. I'm also a permanent resident (through my wife), and I'd like to apply for U.S. citizenship. But Form N-400 asks whether I have ever been a "habitual drunkard." I need to check "Yes" to this question, don't I? And since this is one of the questions about "good moral character," does that mean I will be denied citizenship?

Answer: Waiting to apply might be a good idea

By your description, it sounds like you do indeed need to check "Yes" to this question on the Form N-400 application. This question is generally applied to chronic alcoholics. However, that does not necessarily mean that your U.S. citizenship will be denied forever.

USCIS focuses on whether applicants prove their good moral character during the required number of years they were supposed to have held lawful permanent residence before applying for naturalization. For most people, it's five years. However, spouses of U.S. citizens can often apply for citizenship after three years. (For details see When Can I Apply for U.S. Citizenship?.)

If you don't meet the criteria for applying after three years, then your required statutory period is likely five years, and you should probably wait another year before applying for citizenship. That way, you will have been sober for five years, the entire period that USCIS takes a close look at.

Because of having to check "Yes" to the habitual drunkard question, you should also prepare materials to accompany your application or to bring with you to your citizenship interview, showing the steps you've taken to seek treatment, and ideally including statements from counselors or group leaders attesting to your currently sober and responsible behavior.

Getting Legal Help

See an experienced immigration attorney for a full personal analysis of your eligibility for U.S. citizenship and to check whether applying will put you at risk of deportation; and, if you wish, for help with the paperwork and interview. And for more information on the citizenship application process, see Nolo's articles on How to Become a U.S. Citizen.

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