American citizenship comes with numerous benefits: the right to vote, access to social security, eligibility for federal jobs, ability to run for public office, and petition family members for legal status in America.
As with most good things in life, U.S. citizenship is not easily obtained. There are many restrictions on eligibility, and the naturalization process has many steps that can be time consuming and costly.
Not everyone is eligible for U.S. citizenship.
Simply because an immigrant is legally present in the United States, by way of a visa or green card, does not mean that they are eligible to become a U.S. citizen.
Who is Eligible For U.S. Citizenship?
Generally, to be eligible to apply for citizenship you must be at least 18 years old and have been a permanent resident for 5 years.
In some cases, permanent residents can apply after 3 years of permanent residency.
Permanent residents do not have to apply for citizenship when their green card expires.
Instead, permanent residents can renew their permanent residency before their status expires if they do not wish to become a citizen of the United States at that time.
Waiting Period: 5 Years of Permanent Residency
The age old rule applies to naturalization as well—good things come to those who wait.
In addition to waiting, permanent residents of 5 years or more must meet certain requirements.
- Lived within the state or district you are applying from for at least the 3 prior months
- Have been physically present in the United States for at least 30 months out of the 5 years, have not been out of the United States for more than 6 months at a time.
- Reside continuously for 90 days in the United States before date of applying for naturalization
- Be able to write, speak and read English with a basic understanding of U.S. history and civics
- Be a person of good moral character and respect for American law.
- Be willing to renounce citizenship and allegiance to any other country and take Oath of Allegiance to the United States
Specifically, you are eligible to apply for citizenship after 3 years as permanent residency if:
- You meet the above requirements and,
- You obtained your permanent residency through marriage* to a U.S. citizen OR
- You obtained your permanent residency through a VAWA petition
*Note that the clock starts running when you attained permanent residency, not when you married your U.S. citizen spouse.
You must also demonstrate that you have lived with your U.S. citizen spouse for the duration of the 3 years.
General Exceptions to Requirements of Eligiblity
- If you are over 65 years old and have been a permanent resident for at least 20 years, you do not need to be proficient in English or be tested on the basic history of the United States
- If you are over 55 years old and have been a permanent resident for at least 15 years, you do not need to be proficient in English but you need to have basic understanding of United States history.
- If you have a developmental or physical disability that interferes with your ability to learn a new language, you may be exempt from taking the naturalization tests in English. To qualify, you must submit form N-648 Medical Certification for Disability Exception
- Additionally, your disability may qualify you for test-taking accommodations. Your disability must be noted on your original N-400, in the space provided.
*Those who take the citizenship test in their native language are required to bring an interpreter with them to the testing and interview.
- If your employment requires you to frequently travel abroad, you may be eligible for an exception to the continuous residency requirement for naturalization
Military Service and Eligibility for Naturalization
Naturalization requirements are different for immigrants that are enlisted in U.S. military service.
An immigrant in the U.S. Armed Forces is eligible for naturalization once they have served honorably in the military for at least one year and obtained permanent residency.
Immigrants who became U.S. citizens through military service may have their citizenship revoked if they are dishonorably discharged from the military.
Forms for Military
Military applicants for naturalization do not have to pay the filing fee (currently $595) to submit the N-400, Application for Naturalization.
They do need to submit an additional form though, N-426 Request for Certification of Military or Naval Service.
Service in Wartime
During wartime, an immigrant who enlists in the military is able to apply for naturalization immediately.
Permanent residency is not a requirement nor the one year minimum service time.
This rule applies retroactively to previous wars.
If you served in Vietnam, you are eligible to apply for naturalization.
The physical presence and age requirements are waived for these applicants.
Citizenship Services on Base
Every U.S. military installation is equipped with a point of contact for USCIS.
For qualifying applicants, those enlisted in the military as non-citizens may opt to become naturalized upon graduation from basic training for Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps.
For those who apply after basic graduation, immigration and citizenship services can be reached through a Judge Advocate General’s on base.
Even when deployed abroad, service members will have access to the USCIS to begin or continue the naturalization process.
Military Spouses and Family Members
Children and spouses of naturalized U.S. service members may be eligible for expedited or overseas naturalization.
Generally, the family must be living with the service member abroad to be eligible of this type of naturalization.
Family members of naturalized service members may apply for citizenship if the service member died as a result of military service.
If a minor has at least one birth parent that is a U.S. citizen, the minor is likely already a U.S. citizen.
If a person under the age of 18 is not a U.S. citizen, their biological or adoptive U.S. citizen parent can file a N-600, Application for Certificate of Citizenship.
A child that lives abroad but has U.S. citizen parents may be eligible for naturalization.
One parents must file the N-600K, Application for Certificate of Citizenship under §322 of the INA.
Adopted children of U.S. citizens may become U.S. citizens on their 18th birthday if they were adopted before the age of 16 and have remained in the United States as a permanent resident since adoption.
Test Your Knowledge
The naturalization process is not easy to navigate.
It is advised that applicants consult a competent immigration attorney to help them in their path to naturalization.
Please use the questions below to test your knowledge of citizenship eligibility.
Question: Is Rita eligible for U.S. citizenship?
Rita is a 56 year old woman from Lithuiana who has resided in America on a green card since 1980. Her husband is a U.S. citizen who sponsored her for permanent residency.
Rita may file the N-400, Application for Naturalization with USCIS. Due to her age and time spent in the United States (20 years), she may not have to take the citizenship test in English but in her native language.
Since Rita’s green card is through her marriage to a U.S. citizen, she would have been eligible to apply for citizenship in 1983—three years after she obtained permanent residency.
Question: Is Sasha eligible for citizenship?
Sasha is a 21 year old private in the U.S. Army. He enlisted in 2012 and has been deployed to Afghanistan. Sasha has been a permanent resident for only two years.
Since Sasha enlisted during wartime, he is eligible for citizenship immediately.
Sasha did not need to wait the one-year minimum or become a permanent resident before applying for naturalization.