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Naturalization and U.S. Citizenship


What is naturalization?

Naturalization is the process by which U.S. citizenship is conferred upon a foreign national after he or she fulfills the requirements established by Congress in the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). The general requirements for administrative naturalization include:

  •  Admission as a Lawful Permanent Resident for the required period of time (the “statutory period”);
  •  A period of continuous residence and physical presence in the United States;
  •  residence in a particular U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) District for at least three months prior to filing;
  •  the ability to read, write, and speak English;
  •  knowledge and understanding of U.S. history and government;
  •  good moral character for the required statutory period;
  •  attachment to the principles of the U.S. Constitution; and,
  •  favorable disposition toward the United States.

What is the U.S. residence requirement?

In most cases, an applicant for naturalization must have been a permanent resident (US green card holder) of the US for at least five years (three years for residents who acquired status through a U.S. citizen spouse) and also meet certain requirements dealing with the time physically spent in the US.

During the five years (or three years in the case of lawful permanent residents married to U.S. citizens who have lived and continue to live in continuous marital union with his or her U.S. citizen spouse) immediately preceding the application, the naturalization applicant must have resided in the U.S., with half of that time physically spent in the U.S.  During the three months preceding the application, the applicant must have resided in the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) district where the application will be filed.  Between the filing of the naturalization application and the granting of citizenship, the applicant must continue to reside in the U.S.  Residence is defined as a person's place of general abode.

Absences from the US during these periods do not automatically terminate the period of physical presence.  However, absences of between six months and one year create a presumption of abandonment, which breaks the period of continuous residence.  In some cases, this presumption may be overcome by demonstrating that the applicant did not abandon their U.S. residence.  Evidence that can be used in this regard includes continuing work in the U.S., family in the U.S., maintaining a home in the U.S., and not obtaining employment abroad.

Absences of more than one year will terminate continuous residence unless the applicant complies with the following requirements.  First, the applicant must have been physically present in the U.S. for one continuous year following admission as a permanent resident.  Any absence from the US, however brief, is not allowed during this period.  Second, the applicant must be employed by one of the following:

  •  The US government
  •  A US research institution recognized by the Attorney General
  •  A US business engaged in the development of foreign trade and commerce
  •  A public international organization of which the US is a member

Before the one-year period outside the U.S. is up, the applicant must demonstrate that he or she is employed by one of the organizations listed above.  The applicant must then prove again that his or her absence from the U.S. was because of employment.  Even when these requirements are met, it is important to remember that the requirement that half of the five years prior to filing the naturalization application be spent in the U.S. still applies.  The only exception to this requirement is for time outside of the US, during which a person is considered to be “constructively present” in the U.S. The most common example of this is overseas military service.

How are applicants tested on the English language requirement?

Applicants for naturalization are tested on his or her ability to read and write in the English language via a test administered during the naturalization interview.  In addition, the applicant must be able to understand all questions on the N-400, which is determined in the course of the naturalization interview.  There are a few categories of applicants who are exempt from this requirement.  Those exempt are people who, because of a physical disability are unable to learn English, those with a mental handicap that makes it impossible to learn English, people over age fifty who have lived in the US as permanent residents for at least twenty years, and people over age fifty-five who have been permanent residents for at least fifteen years.

The USCIS has adopted definitions of physical and mental disabilities that are similar to the definitions used by federal agencies that run disability programs.  The impairment must be “medically determinable,” which means that it must be based on an anatomical, physiological or psychological condition that can be shown by accepted medical techniques to render the person unable to learn English.  If reasonable steps could be taken to learn English, for example, a blind person using Braille, or a deaf person using sign language, the disability waiver is not available. Even if the disability waiver is granted, most applicants must still demonstrate that they understand and agree with the oath of allegiance. Under a law passed late last year, however, a waiver of the oath is provided for people who cannot understand it because of a disability.

Are applicants tested on their knowledge of U.S. history and civics?

Yes. Naturalization applicants must also demonstrate a knowledge and understanding of the history and government of the US.  This is done by asking the applicant a number of questions from a standard list of 100 questions.  Generally, people who are exempt from the English language requirement are not exempt from this requirement.  These individuals, however, may use an interpreter during the examination.  Those exempt from the civics requirement include those, who are physically or mentally unable to comply.  Also, applicants who are over age sixty-five and have been permanent residents for at least 20 years are given an easier test, having to answer only six questions correctly from a list of 25.

What is meant by the good moral character requirement?

The five years (or three years for applicants living in continuous marital union with a U.S. citizen spouse) immediately preceding the application are closely examined, and certain criminal offenses or unlawful acts during this period will automatically preclude a finding of good moral character.  The applicant's entire life can also be examined.

Do I have to register for the Selective Service?

You may be required to register with Selective Service to be eligible for citizenship.  The following link will lead you to more information about whether you are required to register.  Click here to get more information

Are there other helpful links provided by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to which I may be directed?  Are there special provisions for children?

Yes. The INA provides information on children and citizenship (including for those adopted abroad) in §320 and §322.

Additionally, many people adopt children from outside the U.S. Information on this is found at the State Department's International Adoption page. (More information for U.S. citizens abroad is on the State Department's website.)

In the year 2000, The US Congress passed the Child Citizenship Act, which significantly impacts the laws relating to children and citizenship. The following titles will link you to information about this Act and to other relevant documents.

 Child Citizenship Act Program Update, January 2004
 Information for Parents of Foreign-Born Children Residing Abroad, January 2004
 Information for Adoptive Parents of Foreign-Born Orphans Residing in the U.S., January 2004
 Information for Parents of Foreign-Born Biological Children Residing in the U.S., January 2004

Are there other useful U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Services (USCIS) titles worth reviewing?

Yes. For your convenience we have provided useful links to the USCIS website.

A Guide to Naturalization : A comprehensive booklet which provides information on the benefits and responsibilities of citizenship, an overview of the naturalization process and eligibility requirements.  U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Services (USCIS) now offers this publication in several languages.

Naturalization Application Procedures : From this page, you can download Form N-400, Application for Naturalization, and link to information on where to file your application, the fingerprint process, and fee waiver policies.

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