Last updated on October 3rd, 2017
The Naturalization Process: Becoming a United States Citizen
For many people around the world, becoming a citizen of the United States will be one of the most important and impactful events in their lives.
Becoming a United States citizen affords individuals a number of rights and protections under the constitution, such as the right to freely practice one’s religion, the right to free speech, and the right to a fair and speedy trial. Citizenship also brings with it several significant responsibilities, such as the obligation to serve on a jury, and to take up arms to defend the country if called upon.
An individual can obtain citizenship, and its accompanying rights and responsibilities, in one of two ways.
First, you can become a citizen by birth, usually if you were born in the territory of the United States, or born to United States citizens living abroad.[i]
Second, you can become a citizen by going through the naturalization process, in which nationals of foreign countries are legally made citizens of the United States.[ii]
This article will discuss the process of naturalization as an avenue for obtaining citizenship, and assumes that you are not already a citizenship by way of birth. There are several steps involved in the naturalization process, and we will walk through each of them.
It is important to bear in mind that this can be a time-consuming process, and it is important to be careful and thorough at each stage in the process, as a mistake or omission can severely delay your bid for citizenship.
Step One: Evaluate Your Eligibility for Citizenship
Before beginning the application process in earnest, it is important to first evaluate the facts of your situation and determine whether you are eligible to be naturalized as a United States citizen in the first place. In order to qualify for naturalization, you’ll need to be able to demonstrate that
- you’re currently at least 18 years of age,
- have been a lawful permanent resident of the United States for at least the past five years,
- have been actually physically present in the United States for the past five years as of the time you submit your application, and
- are of good moral character.[iii]
Step Two: Prepare and Submit Your Naturalization Application
Form N-400, Application for Naturalization
Assuming that you’re otherwise eligible to be naturalized as a United States citizen, the process itself begins when you prepare and submit Form N-400, the Application for Naturalization. This form can be obtained on the website of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) by following this link.
It is important that you answer all the questions in the application fully and honestly, as a failure to do so can result in your application being delayed or denied. Make sure to retain a copy of your application for your records.
In addition to filling out Form N-400, you’ll need to attach two color, passport-style photographs of yourself.[iv] These photographs must have been taken within the past 30 days, and show your full face against a white background.
You’ll also need to submit several additional documents in support of your application for naturalization that will serve as evidence of the claims you’ve made in the application.
If you’re currently a lawful permanent resident of the United States, as most applicants will be, you’ll need to submit a copy of your Permanent Resident Card (your “green card”).
Depending on your factual situation, a number of other documents may be required in order to process your application. A checklist of required documents that may apply to you can be found here.
For example, if you’re applying for naturalization because you’ve married a United States citizen, you’ll need to submit copies of your marriage license, proof that any previous marriages have terminated (perhaps a death or divorce certificate), and proof that your new spouse is in fact a United States citizen.
If your application is incomplete because additional documents are needed, USCIS will send you a letter directing you to supply the needed information, specifying what documents are needed, and where to send them. Failure to submit all required documents will likely not result in your application being denied in the first instance, but it will substantially delay the process, so it’s important to get it right the first time.
Step Three: Submit Your Application for Naturalization
Once you’ve completed your Form N-400 and compiled all the required supporting documentation, you’ll need to send in your application package to the correct office, and pay the associated fees.
Where to send the application package
The address to which you’ll send your application package will depend on your present geographic location within the United States. Residents of states in the western part of the country will send their application the USCIS lockbox facility in Phoenix, Arizona, while those in the eastern states will address their application to the lockbox facility in Dallas, Texas.
A precise breakdown of which states will use which mailing address can be found here.
Include the naturalization and biometric fees
In order for your application to be processed, you’ll need to also submit the naturalization and biometric (fingerprinting) fees along with your application. Currently, the naturalization fee is $595.[v]
Additionally, you’ll need to pay the associated biometric fee that goes towards your fingerprinting, unless you’re over 75 years of age and thus exempt from the fingerprinting requirement. This fee is currently $85.[vi]
The total of these two required fees is $680. These fees should be paid with a check. Do not send cash, as it will not be accepted.
Step Four: Get Fingerprinted
After you’re successfully submitted your naturalization application to the appropriate address and paid the fees, the next step is to get your fingerprints taken. USCIS will send you a notice letter directing you to appear at a certain location at a given time. Take this letter, along with two forms of identification, with you to the fingerprinting appointment. When you arrive for your appointment, your fingerprints will be taken electronically.
This will allow the FBI to conduct a background check on you to make sure you’re not ineligible for citizenship.
If you’re over 75 years of age at the time of your application, you’re exempt from the fingerprinting requirement.
Step Five: The Interview
Once you’ve been fingerprinted, you’ve passed the background check, and your application is in order, USCIS will send you a letter scheduling you for an interview appointment. It will tell you when and where you’ll need to appear. Make sure to bring your scheduling letter with you to the interview.
It is very important that you make your interview appointment at the first time of asking. Failure to appear for the interview can result in your application being dismissed.[vii]
If you cannot make your appointment and must reschedule, write to USCIS explaining your reason for needing a different date. This should not be done unless absolutely necessary, as rescheduling can result in the process being delayed for potentially several months.
Because USCIS will only send you one notice with your interview date, it is vital that you notify USCIS if your mailing address changes at any point following your submission of the application.
To change your address, file Form AR-11, which can be done online here.
What to bring to the interview
You’ll need to make sure that you bring several identifying instruments with you to your naturalization interview. These include your permanent resident card (your green card), your passport, and any reentry permits that you may have.
If USCIS notifies you that you need to bring other additional documents to the interview, make sure that you have these documents with you. Otherwise, your application could be delayed.
What to expect at the interview
At the interview, you’ll meet with a USCIS officer, who will ask you several questions about your naturalization application, and about your background.[viii] These questions will be aimed at assessing the strength of the evidence supporting your application, your commitment to the United States and its laws, and your overall moral character.
It is important that you answer these questions honestly and sincerely. You’ll also need to be prepared to explain any differences between what you’ve said in your application, and what the supporting documents and evidence suggest.
Step Six: Take the English Test
After you’ve finished your interview with the USCIS officer, your next task will be to complete a test designed to assess your ability to speak, write, read, and understand the English language.[ix]
In order to demonstrate that you can read English, you’ll be asked to read one of three sentences to the USCIS officer.
To show that you can write English, you’ll have to write one of three sentences to the officer’s satisfaction.
Your ability to speak and understand English will be evaluated during the course of your conversation with the USCIS officer during the interview.
USCIS has helpfully supplied study materials that you can use to help prepare for the English exam, including flash cards and interactive practice tests. These materials can be found here.
If you’re over 50 years old and have been living lawfully in the United States for at least 20 years, or over 55 and have been lawfully residing in the country for at least 15 years, you may be exempt from the English test requirement.[x]
Step Seven: Take the Civics Test
In addition to testing your English abilities, USCIS will also test your knowledge of United States history and civics.[xi] This step is designed to evaluate your commitment and general attachment to the United States.
In order to pass the test, you’ll need to correctly answer six out of ten questions. The USCIS officer will ask you these questions orally.
Similar to the English exam, study materials are available on USCIS’s website. Additionally, all of the 100 civics questions that you could potentially be asked have been released, and are available, along with the correct answers, here.
Receive a result
After you’ve completed the interview and taken the tests, you’ll be given the result of your interview. If you’re denied, you’ll get a written notice explaining why. If you’re approved, USCIS will give you a notice that you’re application’s been granted, and direct you to attend an oath ceremony.
If your case has been continued, this means a decision could not be reached at the time. This may be because USCIS needs additional information and documents from you, or because you’ve failed the English and/or civics exams.
If you’ve failed one or both of the tests, you’ll generally be given a second chance to take them, and will be rescheduled for an appointment at which to do so. You’ll only have one chance to retake the tests, and a second failing result will cause your application to be denied.
Step Eight: Attend the Oath Ceremony
Once you’ve successfully completed the interview process and passed the tests, and your application has been granted, the final step in the naturalization process is to attend a ceremony at which you’ll take the Oath of Allegiance, officially and legally making you a United States citizen. USCIS will tell you when and where to attend the oath ceremony by sending you Form N-445, Notice of Naturalization Oath Ceremony.
It’s also possible that you’ll be able to take the oath the same day as your interview. If you cannot make your scheduled ceremony, you’ll need to return Form N-445 to USCIS, along with a letter explaining your reason for being unable to attend.
You should make sure to arrive at the oath ceremony at least 30 minutes before it’s scheduled to start. When you arrive, you’ll need to check in with USCIS to let them know that you’re there.
When you check in, you’ll need to return your Permanent Resident Card (your green card), so make sure you bring it with you to the ceremony. Additionally, when you check in you’ll be asked a series of questions about what you’ve been doing during the time between your naturalization interview and the oath ceremony.
Finally, you’ll be asked to take Oath of Allegiance to the United States before an official, often a judge in the jurisdiction in which you reside.[xii] This is a formal oath, and your attire should reflect the magnitude of the occasion. The Oath of Allegiance will require you to renounce all loyalty to any country of which you may previously have been a citizen, to support the constitution, and to defend the nation if called upon.[xiii]
Following your recital of the oath, you’ll receive your Certificate of Naturalization, which will serve as proof of your United States citizenship.[xiv] This certificate will allow you to pursue and apply for all the benefits to which you’re now entitled by virtue of your citizenship.
Becoming a citizen of the United States is a momentous occasion, and will significantly impact the course of your and your family’s life. The process of naturalization, through which a foreigner becomes a United States citizen, can be a long and sometimes frustrating road to follow. However, the rewards, both tangible and intangible, are many.
[i] 8 U.S.C. § 1401.
[ii] See 8 U.S.C. § 1421.
[iii] 8 U.S.C. § 1427.
[iv] See 8 C.F.R. § 333.1.
[v] 8 C.F.R. § 103.7(b)(XX).
[vi] 8 C.F.R. § 103.7(b)(C).
[vii] See 8 C.F.R. § 335.6(a).
[viii] See 8 C.F.R. § 335.2(a).
[ix] See 8 C.F.R. § 321.1(a).
[x] 8 C.F.R. § 321.1(b)(1)–(2).
[xi] See 8 C.F.R. § 321.2(a).
[xii] See 8 U.S.C. § 1421(b)(1).
[xiii] See 8 U.S.C. § 1448(a).
[xiv] See 8 U.S.C. § 1421(b)(4).