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How to Become a U.S. Citizen
Updated:
3.20.23

How to Become a U.S. Citizen

U.S. citizenship opens up more doors than permanent residence does. Thousands of people each year immigrate to the United States and seek citizenship, a valuable status that benefits not just the new citizens but also their families.

If you are not a natural-born U.S. citizen, you have three other paths to citizenship: derivation, acquisition, and naturalization. Naturalization is by far the most common method, with an application rate of about 1 million people each year.

Four Paths to U.S. Citizenship

The legal team at SimVisa can help you learn more about how to become a U.S. citizen, working with you to navigate the complicated process of obtaining citizenship. There are four paths to becoming a U.S. citizen. 

1. U.S. Citizenship by Birth

Any person born within the U.S., including both the states and territories of the United States, automatically receives U.S. citizenship. This right is guaranteed by the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

2. U.S. Citizenship Acquisition

Children born outside U.S. territory can acquire citizenship if at least one parent was a U.S. citizen at the time of the birth. To attain citizenship in this manner, the citizen's parents must file the Application for Certificate of Citizenship, Form N-600, with the USCIS.

3. U.S. Citizenship Derivation

In some cases, children under 18 can obtain citizenship under the concept of the derivation of citizenship through parents. These children can become U.S. citizens after at least one parent completes the naturalization process and gains citizen status.

4. U.S. Naturalization 

Naturalization is the process of voluntarily becoming a U.S. citizen. After a certain period of time as a lawful permanent resident of the U.S., a foreign-born adult may apply to become an American citizen. Along with the residence requirement, they must also be able to speak basic English and pass a civics test.

Benefits of Becoming a U.S. Citizen

Once a foreign-born individual receives their Certificate of Naturalization, they receive all the benefits of being a naturalized U.S. citizen. These include benefits that permanent residents or visa holders may not have access to, such as:

  • The right to vote in elections and run for public office
  • No more need to renew a visa or update immigration paperwork,
  • Greater employment opportunities, such as working for the federal government
  • Eligibility for more government assistance programs
  • Protection from deportation (being forcibly removed from the U.S.)
  • The ability to sponsor relatives who are seeking immigration status
  • The right for their children to automatically get citizenship
  • The right to hold a U.S. passport

Right to Vote and Run for Office

As a U.S. citizen, you gain the right to vote in state and federal elections. You will also be able to run for public office. Most public offices are limited to people who are U.S. citizens.

No Visa Renewals

Once you become a citizen, you no longer need to file immigration forms with the USCIS. You won't have to apply for green card renewals and replacements.

Best Employment Opportunities

Per U.S. law, only citizens may work for the federal government. A job with a federal agency may be more lucrative or have better benefits than similar jobs in the private sector.

Government Assistance

Green card holders have limited access to programs like Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security. However, once you become a full U.S. citizen, you may be eligible for these programs, along with federal financial assistance for college.

No More Deportations

The only way you could be deported after naturalization in the USA is if your citizenship is revoked. This is very rare; it usually only happens when a citizenship application is found to be fraudulent.

Sponsor Your Family for Immigrant Status

Naturalized citizens can sponsor a family member who is applying for a green card, such as their parents, siblings, or adult children.

Citizenship for Children

The minor children of naturalized citizens also become U.S. citizens through their relationship with the citizen parent — even if the children were not born in the United States.

U.S. Passport Benefits

After you become a citizen, you can apply for a passport, which gives you visa access to almost 200 countries worldwide.

Do you need more information about how to get U.S. citizenship or advice on navigating the application process? We can help! Contact SimVisa today for professional legal assistance and guidance through the naturalization process.

What Is Naturalization?

Naturalization is the path that foreign-born U.S. residents follow when becoming a U.S. citizen. It is open to foreign nationals who have been permanent residents for three to five years or who meet military service requirements. If you aren’t sure whether you qualify for naturalization, you can check your eligibility with SimVisa. There are numerous advantages to being a full citizen instead of simply a permanent resident, although civic obligations also go along with citizenship.

Are You Eligible for U.S. Naturalization? 

Some of the eligibility requirements for U.S. naturalization include: 

You Are a… You Have Lived in the U.S. for… You May Apply to Be a Naturalized U.S. Citizen
Green card holder with no conditions 30 months After 5 years of residency
Green card holder in a valid marriage with a U.S. citizen 18 months After 3 years of residency
Widow(er) of a U.S. citizen who served honorably in the military No requirement Anytime
Green card holder who has served at least one year of peacetime military service No requirement While on active duty or 6 months after an honorable discharge
Green card holder with less than one year of peacetime military service 30 months After 5 years
Green card holder with one year of peacetime military service and honorably discharged at least 6 months ago 30 months After 5 years
Military member or veteran who served during wartime No requirement Anytime

Green card holders with no special circumstances on their cards may apply for U.S. citizenship at least five years after they receive their first permanent resident card. Applicants must have physically lived in the U.S. for at least 30 months out of those five years.

Spouses of U.S. citizens can apply for citizenship after three years. They are eligible for becoming a U.S. citizen as long as they have lived with their spouse during the entire three years and have lived in the U.S. for at least 18 months of those three years.

A widow or widower of a U.S. military veteran who died while honorably serving in the military can apply for citizenship at any time, as long as they were living with the serving spouse at the time of their death. The green card and residency requirements are waived.

U.S. Armed Forces members who served for at least one year during peacetime may apply for citizenship while on active duty or within six months of an honorable discharge from the military. The green card and residency requirements are waived.

Military members who have served less than one year during peacetime can apply for citizenship five years after receiving their green cards. They must have lived in the U.S. for at least two and a half out of those five years.

Military members who served at least one year during peacetime and are applying for citizenship more than six months after an honorable discharge must wait at least five years after receiving their first green card to qualify for naturalization.

Any military member who served during wartime may apply for citizenship at any time. They do not need to hold a green card nor have a certain length of residency in the U.S. to qualify.

U.S. Naturalization Requirements

Besides certain residency qualifications, military service qualifications, or marriage eligibility, there are other U.S. citizenship requirements that people becoming a U.S. citizen must meet.

Minimum Age

You must be at least 18 years old to apply for U.S. naturalization. Children born abroad who are under 18 years of age can become citizens after a parent is naturalized.

Continuous and Physical Presence

Continuous physical presence in the U.S. means that you have lived there for at least five years (green card holders) or three years (people married to U.S. citizens). During this period, you can take trips outside of the U.S. However, you cannot leave the country for more than six months at a time. You can file your application for citizenship 90 days before the end of the three- or five-year residency period.

If you leave the country for longer than six months, your citizenship application will be denied because you were not physically present in the country. Exceptions to this rule depend on:

  • How long you stayed out of the country
  • How compelling the reason was for not coming back within six months
  • Whether you took frequent shorter trips outside the U.S.

If you are applying for citizenship based on military service, you do not need to meet the continuous presence stipulation.

If your trip abroad lasted between 181 and 364 days, you will need to submit convincing proof to the USCIS that you did not abandon permanent residence and that you still maintain strong ties to the U.S. Convincing proof might include:

  • Keeping your job in the U.S. and not seeking employment in another country
  • Having immediate family members remain in the U.S. while you are gone
  • Maintaining your home in the U.S., whether owned or rented

When children of a green card holder are enrolled in school in the U.S., this is another indicator of strong ties to the country.

If you stay outside of the country for more than 365 consecutive days, the USCIS considers your permanent resident status abandoned. You will have to reapply for your green card, and your naturalization application will be denied.

What Is “Continuous Presence”?

Continuous presence means maintaining continued ties to the U.S., even when traveling abroad.

What Is “Physical Presence”?

Physical presence involves you being bodily present in the United States for at least half of the days in the waiting period required before you can apply for citizenship.

Residency 

Residency is not the same thing as being physically and continuously present in the U.S. A knowledgeable immigration lawyer can help you understand the difference and tell you how to provide proof of both. To fulfill the residency requirement, you must be a resident of the state where you plan to apply for citizenship for at least three months immediately before submitting your application.

In this case, the word "state" is not limited to the 50 U.S. states. It also includes other U.S. districts and territories, such as:

  • Guam
  • The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands
  • The District of Columbia (Washington, D.C.)
  • Puerto Rico
  • The U.S. Virgin Islands

The district for this requirement is based on the physical zip code for your residence and can be substantiated by presenting a valid driver’s license, lease, or mortgage. If you move during this time, you must notify the USCIS within 10 days and provide your new address on Form N-400.

Good Moral Character

How to demonstrate good moral character is determined on a case-by-case basis. The broad definition of this requirement is that your character should measure up to that exhibited by average citizens. These are common examples of how to get U.S. citizenship by demonstrating you have good moral character:

  • You have not committed certain crimes, like murder, fraud, or illegal gambling
  • Your character has improved in the last three to five years
  • You were honest in the interview with the USCIS officer
  • You were not convicted of more than two DUI/DWI charges in the last three to five years

The USCIS will consider any criminal conviction before the naturalization process begins and compare it to your character and behavior now. A criminal record might not automatically disqualify you from seeking U.S. citizenship. The legal team at SimVisa can answer questions about how your background may impact the naturalization process.

English Proficiency and Civics Quiz

People seeking to become U.S. citizens must pass a two-part test. The English language portion tests your ability to read, write, and communicate in basic English, while the civics portion tests your knowledge of U.S. laws, government, and history. As part of the testing process, you’ll be asked in English about the information you provided on the naturalization application. You will also have to read and write some simple sentences.

Some applicants are exempt from one or both tests. However, if you have to take the tests, study packets are available to help you learn about the topics you will be asked about.

Military and Civic Service Registration

Those who wish to become U.S. citizens must be willing to serve in the military (if they are eligible to register for Selective Service, also known as the draft) and civil service, such as serving on a jury.

Males between 18 and 26 who are legal residents of the U.S., including green card holders, are required to register with the Selective Service System. You don’t have to register for the draft if you are older than 26, didn’t live in the U.S. between 18 and 26, or were born during a time when the Selective Service didn’t exist. Your naturalization application may be denied if you were obligated to register for the draft but didn't.

The Pledge of Allegiance

The final step to becoming a U.S. citizen is demonstrating an attachment to the U.S. Constitution. You must affirm that you believe in and support the principles set forth by the constitution, accept the democratic process, and intend to obey U.S. laws.

This attachment is demonstrated by participating in a public swearing-in ceremony in which you recite the Oath of Allegiance to the United States. You will be asked to confirm:

  • You are taking the Oath of Allegiance of your own free will
  • You renounce your allegiance to other countries in which you may claim citizenship
  • You accept all responsibilities expected of a United States citizen, including military and civil service obligations, and will fulfill these duties

The swearing-in ceremony is a public declaration of your new allegiance and loyalty to the United States, and it is the last step before you become a U.S. citizen.

Special Considerations for Getting U.S. Citizenship

The essential requirements for U.S. naturalization are:

  • Previous citizenship renouncement
  • Mandatory military service
  • Need to serve on a jury
  • File U.S. income tax returns
  • Criminal history check

Certain other special considerations to become a naturalized U.S. citizen may apply to your situation.

You may have to renounce citizenship of other nations. Depending on whether your home country permits dual citizenship, you may need to give up your original citizenship. The U.S. allows residents to have dual citizenship, but you must use your U.S. passport when traveling in and out of the country.

Mandatory military service enforced by a draft into the military stopped in 1973, but males between the ages of 18 and 26 are still required to register with the Selective Service System.

United States citizens also have civic responsibilities. You may be selected to serve on a jury. This service is mandatory for registered voters who are selected. However, some people are exempt from jury duty, such as active-duty military members, first responders, and some teachers. There may be other state or local exemptions, which you can explore if you think you qualify.

You will also have to file an income tax return each year if you earn over a certain amount through gainful employment. Even if you move abroad after securing U.S. citizenship, you are still required to file tax returns.

It’s important to obey the laws of the country and the state that you live in. Penalties for some crimes could include revocation of your U.S. naturalization citizenship status, and you could be deported. For example, being convicted of immigration fraud could result in you losing your U.S. citizenship.

How to Apply for U.S. Citizenship through Naturalization

The average time it takes between filing the initial application to get U.S. citizenship and the application being processed is about 14 to 15 months. However, the process for becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen takes even longer, as there are certain steps that you have to follow after you apply.

1. Application for Naturalization

The first step is to submit Form N-400 and all required supporting documents to the USCIS for review. The documents should be in the order and form expected by the U.S. government; if certain documents are not written in English, you will have to include a certified English translation of the document with your application.

2. Biometrics Appointment

During your biometrics appointment, your fingerprints, photo, and signature will be obtained to verify your identity. Your fingerprints will be given to the FBI for a background check. This appointment is usually about a month after the USCIS receives your application, and you’ll be notified of the date, time, and location via a mailed notice, the Notice of Action, or Form I-797C.

You may be asked to provide additional information via a Request for Evidence notification, such as if a criminal record or other information uncovered in your background check requires an explanation.

3. Citizenship Interview and Exam

Your interview will take place about 14 to 15 months after the receipt of your citizenship application. Bring any required paperwork with you to the interview, and make sure you are prepared. SimVisa offers citizenship interview preparation services to help you understand the questions you’ll be asked and learn how to phrase your answers so that you communicate clearly.

If you don’t pass the first time, you will be permitted to retake the test. You can try again about 60 to 90 days after the first test.

4. Oath of Allegiance

If you pass the exam and the interview is successful, you could take the Oath of Allegiance the same day! If you don't, you should receive a notice by mail, Form N-445, for your swearing-in ceremony. The naturalization ceremony is usually two to six weeks after the interview and exam. Once you complete the Oath, you receive your Certificate of Naturalization and can register to vote.

Even if you pass your exams and the interview, you are not a U.S. citizen until you take the Oath of Allegiance, so it’s critical that you attend this ceremony.

Naturalization in the U.S.: How Long Does It Take? 

The entire process, from filing your citizenship application to taking the Oath of Allegiance, can take between 18 and 24 months. SimVisa offers professional guidance on how to get U.S. citizenship and works alongside you at each stage of the process to expedite it as quickly as possible.

How Much Does U.S. Naturalization Cost? 

The filing fee for U.S. naturalization is $724, which includes the $640 processing fee and an $85 fee for biometrics services. If you are a member of the U.S. military, you are exempt from both fees. And if you are 75 or older, you are exempt from the biometrics fee. However, these fees and exemptions are subject to change, so check with SimVisa for updated costs and requirements.

FAQs about U.S. Naturalization

If you have particular questions about how to get U.S. citizenship, consult the professionals at SimVisa.

What is the difference between citizenship and naturalization?

Naturalization is how a foreign-born individual becomes a U.S. citizen. This process requires applicants to meet certain requirements, but it is open to anyone who demonstrates that they have met the standards.

How to get U.S. citizenship after a green card?

Most foreign-born residents apply for citizenship after they receive their green card. Becoming a green card holder is the most common route for petitioning for U.S. citizenship. People who hold green cards are permitted to apply for citizenship after three to five years.

How to get U.S. citizenship through marriage?

If you are in a valid, legitimate marriage with a U.S. citizen, you may apply for a conditional green card. After two years, you can apply for the conditions to be removed from your green card and begin the citizenship application process.

Easiest Way to Become a U.S. Citizen with SimVisa

Do you need help with becoming a U.S. citizen? SimVisa helps you get U.S. citizenship with fast, simple, and affordable advice. We are a legal firm of experienced citizenship lawyers dedicated to helping people who wish to convert their permanent residence in the U.S. to full citizenship. We answer your questions, help you avoid common legal pitfalls, and ensure that all required forms and paperwork are submitted correctly, completely, and on time.

Apply for U.S. citizenship today with the help of SimVisa! Contact us!

How to Become a U.S. Citizen
SohYoon Atac
Founding Attorney and Partner

Sohyoon is the founder of Atom Law Group and heads the immigration practice for SimVisa. She has over 15 years of immigration specific experience and as an immigrant herself, fully understands the daunting nature of navigating the immigration process.

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