When an Asylee or Refugee Can Apply for U.S. Citizenship

You may count at least one year of your time as a refugee or asylee toward your required five years of permanent residence for naturalization purposes.

By , J.D. ● University of Washington School of Law
Updated 5/01/2024

Nearly everyone wishing to apply for U.S. citizenship (naturalization) must prove that they have first held U.S. lawful permanent residence (a green card) for a minimum number of years. The required number is usually five. However, if you got your green card based on having had asylum or refugee status in the United States first, you will want to understand:

  • when you can take the first step and become a U.S. lawful permanent resident, and then
  • how your years as an asylee or refugee count toward the required five total years of lawful permanent residence.

The news is good, as this article will explain.

(For a review of the general eligibility requirements for U.S. citizenship, see Who Can Apply for U.S. Citizenship. Also review these Cautions for Former Asylees Seeking Naturalized U.S. Citizenship.)

When Can Asylees and Refugees Apply for Lawful Permanent Residence?

After either entering the United States as a refugee or being granted asylum status in the United States, you can be approved for permanent residence after one year's physical presence in the United States.

In fact, refugees are expected to apply for a green card one year after their date of entry as a refugee or accrual of one year's physical presence. (See 8 CFR Section 209.1.) This is required by law, though not every refugee follows it. If you travel outside the United States within your first year living there as a refugee, you will need to subtract that time when counting up your one year of required residence. (See also Applying for Permanent Residence as a Refugee.)

The law is less strict for asylees. They can wait many years before applying for a green card. Nevertheless, they would be taking a risk by doing so, because at the time their adjustment of status application is reviewed by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) they must continue to meet the definition of a refugee. (In other words, they must continue to reasonably fear persecution in their home country.) This can be tough to do if the situation in their home country has changed, for example due to new legislation or peace accords. (Also see How to Apply for Permanent Residence (a Green Card) as an Asylee.)

One interesting twist to the "one year" minimum is that, as of 2023, USCIS policy is to count both asylees' and refugees' one year of physical presence ending on the date the agency makes a decision on their adjustment of status application, rather than on the date they file it. The result is that you could potentially file your application a bit early. However, you'd need to do your research and ideally talk to an attorney to make sure that USCIS isn't likely to get confused and refuse to accept your application or to call you in too early.

"Rollback" Lets Asylees and Refugees Apply to Naturalize Sooner Than They Might Have Thought

Part of your time as an asylee or refugee can be counted as permanent residence, based on a concept known as "rollback." The result is that you might be able to apply to naturalize sooner than you thought. We will explain the details below.

When Refugees Can Apply to Naturalize

If you were granted refugee status (which customarily happens while in another country) and then entered the United States as a refugee, you can count your date of U.S. entry as the beginning of your permanent residence for purposes of applying for citizenship. (That assumes, of course, that you eventually succeeded in becoming a U.S. permanent resident.) Put another way, all your years as a refugee in the United States will count toward the required five years of permanent residence for naturalization eligibility purposes. (See the Code of Federal Regulations at 8 C.F.R. § 209.1(e).)

So, for instance, if you were to spend five years as a refugee living in the United States before finally getting around to applying for a green card (through the procedure known as adjustment of status), you would have fulfilled the five-year requirement already. Thus you can apply for naturalized U.S. citizenship as soon as U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) approves you for permanent residence.

When Asylees Can Apply to Naturalize

If you were granted asylum in the United States, a maximum of one year of your time in asylee status counts as permanent residence. If you waited longer than a year to apply for your green card (adjustment of status), that extra time will not do you any good—you will still need to wait another four years after your green card approval before applying for naturalized U.S. citizenship.

When LRIFA Beneficiaries Can Apply to Naturalize

Liberians who obtained green cards through the Liberian Refugee Immigration Fairness program (LRIF) will also benefit from rollback. Your green card will show the date that USCIS considers you to have become a U.S. permanent resident for citizenship purposes.

Don't Be Confused by the Date Shown on Your Green Card

In recognition of the rollback doctrine, USCIS will "back date" your green card—that is, actually put your date of U.S. entry (if you were a refugee) or the date one year before your green card approval (if you were an asylee) on your green card, in the space for the date you became a permanent resident. (See 8 C.F.R. § 209.2(f ).)

So, whatever you do, do not look at the date on your card and expect to be apply to apply for U.S. citizenship four years later. The date placed there should make it convenient for you to count forward the required five years before you submit an N-400 application for U.S. citizenship.

The 90-Day Early Application Rule for Naturalization

One more helpful bit of guidance, if you're eager to apply for U.S. citizenship: You can turn in your citizenship application (USCIS Form N-400) 90 days before your required years of permanent residence have passed. This 90-day period compensates for the fact that USCIS might not act on your application (call you in for a naturalization interview) for at least that amount of time.

Getting Additional Help

If you have any further questions about your eligibility for U.S. citizenship, see the How to Become a U.S. Citizen section of Nolo's website or consult an experienced immigration attorney. The attorney can also help your prepare the N-400 application, troubleshoot any potential issues, make sure you're also submitting the appropriate documents and fee, and if you wish, accompany you to the USCIS interview.

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