Naturalization Eligibility for Men Who Failed to Register With the Selective Service

Failing to register for potential military service can ruin your showing of good moral character for U.S. naturalization purposes.

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

If you are a man who lived in the U.S. or got your green card at any time between the ages of 18 and 26, you were probably expected to register with the U.S. Selective Service System. The Selective Service collects the names of young men who are available to be called up in a military draft. (See 50 U.S. Code Ch. 49.)

Registering for Selective Service does not mean that you have to actually become a member of the U.S. armed forces. However, you are expected to be ready to join if a large-scale war or similar emergency arises.

If you knew about the registration requirement and refused to put your name in, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) can deny your application for naturalized citizenship. It's a matter of not only meeting the good moral character requirement, but proving that you are attached to the principles of the U.S. Constitution.

But not all cases are so clear-cut. This article will discuss:

  • whether you fit into an exception and need not have registered
  • how to check whether you are registered, and
  • what happens if you aren't registered for Selective Service.

Exceptions to Selective Service Requirement

In case it isn't obvious, women need not register for the Selective Service. For these purposes, your gender is the one assigned to you at birth, so a transgender person whose birth record shows them as female would not need to register.

As for men (per the gender stated on your records at birth), the main exceptions likely to help you, if you are sure you haven't registered, include:

  • If your entire time in the U.S. between ages 18 and 26 was covered by an unexpired nonimmigrant visa (for example, a student, visitor, or diplomatic visa). But if there was a time when you fell out of status, or overstayed your visa, you would have needed to register.
  • If you were on active duty with the U.S. military (not including the national guard or reserve) for the entire age-18-to-26 time period.
  • If you were hospitalized (including in a nursing home, long-term care facility, or mental institution or homebound and requiring medical assistance to leave) for the entire period starting 30 days before you turned 18 and ending when you turned 26. If you were released for any period of 30 days or more during that time, you were expected to register.
  • If you were incarcerated (in prison) for the entire period starting 30 days before you turned 18 and ending when you turned 26. If you were released for any period of 30 days or more during that time, you were expected to register.
  • If you were born between March 29, 1957, and December 31, 1959, and therefore were never under any obligation to register.

Notice that no exception is made for undocumented or illegal aliens, conscientious objectors, or disabled persons. They are expected to register, though whether they'll actually be called to serve is another matter. The Selective Service office states that it does not share address or other information about undocumented persons with U.S. immigration authorities.

For more information on these exceptions and more, see the Selective Service website, in particular its FAQs.

Checking Whether You've Registered With Selective Service

Many young men find out when they fill out Form I-485 in order to adjust status and get a green card, because the form authorizes USCIS to provide your registration information to the Selective Service System. No one can assume, however, that USCIS actually took care of registering you.

To check, go to the Selective Service website's Verify Registration page and enter your information. The system will confirm whether or not you are registered (and you can print out proof, if you like).

Is It Too Late to Register for Selective Service Now?

If you are getting ready to apply for U.S. citizenship and you did not register for the Selective Service and are not yet age 26, it's not too late. You can still register online or by mail or pick up the registration form at a U.S. post office, fill it out, and mail it in.

But if you're already 26 years old, this won't work.

Proving Good Moral Character If It's Too Late to Register

If you've passed age 26, it's too late for you to register for the Selective Service. Your chances of qualifying for U.S. citizenship depend on how many years have passed since you were supposed to register and how many years of good moral character you need to show in order to meet the naturalization eligibility requirements. If you need to show five years of good moral character, then the easiest thing might be to wait until you are age 31 to apply for citizenship.

Or, if you need to show only three years of good moral character (because you can apply early, having been married to and living with a U.S. citizen all that time), you should wait until you are 29 years of age to submit your N-400 citizenship application.

Proving That You Didn't Know You Were Supposed to Register

If you are eager to apply for citizenship before you turn 29 or 31 (as applicable), you might be able to show USCIS that you had no idea that registering was expected of you, and that you therefore didn't "willfully" fail to register, by submitting these along with your naturalization application:

  • a Status Information Letter from the Selective Service System
  • your sworn declaration, and
  • sworn declarations from people who knew you.

Obtaining a Status Information Letter

A Status Information Letter from the Selective Service simply states that you are over-age and therefore no longer required to register. However, you need to get one, because USCIS will refuse to look at the rest of your materials without it.

You can request the Status Information Letter from the Selective Service System website or by calling 847-688-6888.

Drafting a Sworn Declaration Explaining Your Failure to Register

Your sworn statement should offer reasons why you failed to learn about the Selective Service registration requirement.

If you attended high school in the U.S., you were probably sent a letter about this requirement, and will need to additionally explain why the information did not cause you to register. (For example, perhaps you heard about the requirement but believed it applied only to U.S. citizens.)

You will also have trouble claiming ignorance of the registration requirement if you got your green card either through the amnesty program in the 1980s or more recently, during or after the year 2001. In both cases, people were alerted to their registration obligations.

If possible, get letters from other people who knew you, particularly people in positions of authority, such as a high school teacher. The letters should support your explanation of what happened to result in your not knowing you were supposed to register.

For More Information

For in-depth discussion of the process of applying for U.S. citizenship, see Becoming a U.S. Citizen: A Guide to the Law, Exam & Interview, by Ilona Bray (Nolo). Or, consider hiring an attorney to help with the application process and strategy.

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