When can you apply to become a U.S. citizen and how long does the process take from start to finish?
Before you even think about becoming a U.S. citizen, you must first become a green card holder, which can look like the following: Marrying a U.S. citizen or a permanent resident, having an immediate family member sponsor you, getting your employer to sponsor you, filing for asylum, winning the diversity visa lottery, making a big investment in the United States, applying through VAWA, or through any number of ways. And only after you get a green card through one of these manners can you then become eligible to apply to naturalize and start the journey of becoming a U.S. citizen.
But regardless of whether you have a green card or not, you still need to understand when you can apply for citizenship, the step-by-step process to becoming a citizen, and how much time it will take. So let's get started.
Once you have your green card, how long do you need to wait to file for citizenship?
Well, that depends. There are requirements that you have to meet and these are the requirements that will determine when you can actually file. For example, the first requirement is usually that you have to have become a green card holder at least five years ago, and have held green card status for five years. Because USCIS wants to make sure that you are committed to living inside the United States before giving you the chance to become a U.S. citizen. They want to make sure that you are serious about making this country your home, and that you won't have any trouble integrating into U.S. society.
They require that you remain a green card holder, also called legal permanent residence, for at least five years before you can even apply. This is the requirement if you got your green card in any way other than through marriage to a U.S. citizen. If you did get your green card by marrying a U.S. citizen, then your wait time can drop from five to three years. And not only that, the two years that you hold as a conditional resident also can be used to apply and count towards this three-year residency rule. So by the time you get your 10-year card, after you file your I-751 you're just one year away from filing for citizenship.
An important thing to note is that this is only for immigrants who have been married to U.S. citizens. If you are married to a green card holder, then unfortunately you still need to wait five years before you can apply to become a citizen. Also keep in mind that the start date for the five-year window and the three-year window is the resident since date on your card. It's very important that you use this date to track how much time you may have left before you can apply for citizenship. Applying earlier than this can cause your application to get denied.
The next requirement is the physical presence rule. Depending on when and how you can satisfy this rule, it will actually change the date on which you can apply. This rule states that those with the five-year window must be physically present in the United States for at least 30 months or 913 days. And those with the three-year window to file must be physically present for at least 18 months or 548 days. To be on the safe side, I always like to add in a few days on top of these dates. Why? Again, USCIS wants to make sure that you have a strong connection to the United States and that you intend to make this your home.
In fact, they are being so serious about this rule that even if you are off by one day for meeting the physical presence requirement, you will be disqualified from filing for citizenship. That means that if you have the five-year window period but you have only been present in the United States for 911 days instead of 912 days during this time period, then you do not meet the physical presence requirement.
There are exceptions for some government employees and for those in the military, but generally speaking, the requirement for physical presence is very strict and cannot be bent. So how does this affect when you can apply for citizenship? Well, if you have not spent enough time inside the United States, depending on whether you have a three-year window or a five-year window means that you do not yet qualify for citizenship. You would need to then wait until you have enough physical presence during your look-back period before applying, which can cause your timeline to shift by several years into the future. Next is the biggest requirement of them all, which is the continuous residence requirement.
The continuous residence requirement says that you cannot spend more than 180 days outside of the country each year. Otherwise, USCIS will consider you to have abandoned your residency. However, there are two important rules to note. The first rule is that when your trip outside of the U.S. is more than 180 days but less than one year, then you can have something called a "rebuttable presumption of abandonment," which means that you can actually fight back and tell USCIS and show them evidence that you did not actually abandon your residency.
However, if you are out of the country for more than 365 days, aka one calendar year, then there is a absolute break in the continuity of your residency. So, try not to leave the U.S. for more than six months at a time. A lot of immigrants will ask if they can take several short trips throughout the year that can add up to six months, and I do want to point out that yes, you can do that. However, even if you take multiple trips out of the U.S. throughout the course of a year, you still have to, number one, maintain 180 days presence on U.S. soil per year. Plus, also, you have to make sure that no one trip is more than 180 days. And don't think that you can trick USCIS.
They will absolutely have access to all travel logs and all airline records. If you violate this requirement of continuous residency, then your look-back period will actually reset by a total of four years and your citizenship application can be delayed by four years or two years into the future. And if you think that's scary, then the next requirement could make it so that you never apply for citizenship.
The good moral character requirement means that certain crimes can lead to a permanent bar to naturalization, such as murder, rape, or an aggravated felony. Not only that, certain non-criminal behaviors can also count against you, such as failing to pay child support or failing to pay taxes. Adultery is also one of those non-criminal acts that can be used against you to say that you do not have good moral character. And USCIS does not only look at your behavior inside the United States, it can also look abroad to see if you have picked up any criminal charges or convictions in other countries. And while they tend to focus on the past five years, they are still allowed to look at the conduct outside of your look-back period and determine if in the totality, whether you have good moral character or not.
Perhaps the most frightening thing is not only can certain criminal activities prevent you from becoming a citizen, but discovery of these convictions during your naturalization process can sometimes also lead to a revocation of your green card status, and cause you to be placed in removal proceedings. It is not unheard of for USCIS to accidentally overlook criminal history when issuing a green card, only then to catch it later when you apply for naturalization. So if you have a criminal history that you don't want USCIS finding out about, my advice is that you may want to put off applying for citizenship. At the very least, make sure you speak with an immigration attorney before submitting your application.
Coming up, I'm going to share the step-by-step process for how to apply for citizenship along with the timeline for each step. Before we move on, my name is Moumita Rahman and I am an immigration attorney who has been practicing immigration law for the past 14 years.
If you would like my help on your case, call us at 212-248-7907 to schedule a case evaluation. I am based in New York, but I work with clients all over the United States.
What is the step-by-step process for applying for citizenship and how long does each step take?
Step one is to submit an N-400, which is the official form for naturalization. You can print out this form and fill it out or you can fill it out online. Whichever way you fill it out, make sure you keep a copy and make sure you double check everything and take your time to be thorough. Immigrants often can make simple mistakes such as failing to fill out every part of the application, reporting incorrect information, forgetting to sign the form, or not including all of the pages.
These mistakes can be some of the top reasons why applications get rejected, causing further delay to your process. Once you have completed your N-400, submit it with a photocopy of both sides of your permanent resident card along with a check for the application and biometrics fees. The application fee is currently $640 and the biometrics is $85, which means that your total filing fee as of the date of this video is $725.
Also, depending on your situation, you may need to submit additional evidence and documentation to prove your eligibility for naturalization. I'll include a link to the N-400 instructions in the description below. Please be sure you read these instructions thoroughly before submitting your application.
So when exactly can you submit your application?
Most people don't actually need to wait the full three years or the full five years to submit their applications. There is an early filing rule that allows immigrants to file the N-400 90 days prior to the passing of their window period. And according to this rule, if you have a five-year window, then you can submit your application at four years and nine months after achieving your residency for that time. And if you have a three-year window, you can submit your application two year and nine months before reaching your three-year residency requirement. Note this is 90 days and not three months for each situation. If you send your application in too early, there's a good chance it can get denied. So count your days carefully. USCIS even has an early filing calculator online that you can use to make sure you do not accidentally apply too early. I'll include a link to that in the description below so you can double check your dates.
Also note that you need to have been living in the same state where you apply for at least 90 days prior to submitting your application. USCIS has this rule in order to prevent people from trying to send applications to the service centers with the lowest estimated filing time. If you attempt to do this, you will be penalized. They will take your money and give you a receipt and then later deny your case. So don't try to beat the system!
Step two is attending your biometrics appointment. This appointment is usually scheduled four to six weeks after filing your N-400, and it only takes about half an hour to complete. You'll receive a notice in the mail with your appointment date and location, and this will be typically at the nearest USCIS application support center. During your appointment, they will collect your fingerprints, take a picture, and have you sign your name, and sometimes collect other information. These are then used to run background checks on you for your name search, your criminal history, FBI reports, and any other searches that USCIS likes to conduct for all of their immigration applications. The photograph may also be the same one used on your certificate of naturalization once your case gets approved.
In order to avoid delays, make sure you bring your original biometrics appointment notice and make sure you don't miss your appointment. Step three is your citizenship interview and exam, which can typically take between three months to nine months to be scheduled by USCIS after your biometrics appointment. This interview will include questions about your application, background, travel history, as well as any other issues that need to be vetted by the immigration officer to approve you for naturalization.
You'll also have to explain any issues with paying taxes or child support that may impact your case. And also, if you are a male who received a residency between the ages of 18 through 26, you were actually required to have registered for the draft aka selective service and you would have to provide proof of that at this appointment as well. Note that you can have your case denied at the interview if the officer catches you lying or misrepresenting information so make sure you know what's in your application, make sure you know your facts and make sure you're well prepared to answer the tough questions that may be asked. And if you got your green card through marriage, then the officer is allowed to ask you about your marriage and may even ask for documentation that you have maintained a bonafide marriage, especially if you are applying based upon the three-year look back period.
If you will be taking advantage of this rule, then please rest assured that you will need to bring some proof that you are still living together with your spouse for the past three years, because living together with your U.S. citizen spouse is actually a requirement if you are planning to utilize the three-year residency rule. Next it is during this interview where you will actually have your citizenship test which is comprised of three different parts.
The first part of this is called the English test, and what will happen is that you will be asked to read aloud a sentence either on a piece of paper or on an iPad to test your ability to read. The second part will be the writing English exam, and you will do something very similar which is you will write down a sentence in English that the officer will dictate to you verbally, and you will either write this down on a piece of paper or on the same iPad that may have been in front of you. The last part is the one that everyone talks about when it comes to the citizenship interview and that is the civics test. The civics test is comprised of 10 different questions from a list of 100 questions on U.S. history, government, and politics and asked out loud to you by the officer. You must get at least six questions on the civics test correct before you can be considered to have passed the test.
If you fail any of these three parts during your interview then what would happen is that you would not pass, however you would be given one opportunity to retake the test. Typically this second interview is scheduled 60 to 90 days after the date of your first interview. At the conclusion of your interview, the officer will hand you a results notice that will inform you whether you are being recommended for approval or whether your case is going to be held for review. Step four is getting your decision. This part can take an unknowable amount of time especially if there were any issues in your case. USCIS has a policy that they will mail you a letter of their decision within 120 days so hopefully you will get your decision during this time frame.
If your case gets denied then you will be allowed the opportunity to appeal the decision by filing the form N336 and typically the deadline for this is usually within 30 days. In case you're curious the top reasons why naturalization cases get denied are because of criminal issues, continuous residency issues, physical presence requirements, and also for a lack of good moral character.
Finally step five the last step is the oath of allegiance. You are not considered a U.S. citizen until you actually take the oath and then you would be issued a certificate of naturalization, which deems you to be a U.S. citizen at that time. The timing on when you can have this ceremony can vary from state to state and location to location, but in many locations throughout the country there are USCIS offices that do offer same day oath ceremonies. If you are lucky enough to have same day naturalization, then you can possibly walk out the same day as your interview as a U.S. citizen. But if you're not fortunate enough for that, then after your interview you will be mailed a notice of the time date and location of your oath ceremony, and typically I would say that this comes within 30 to 60 days after your interview.
This form also has a questionnaire that you would need to fill out prior to coming to your ceremony, and you would submit this along with sometimes your green card at the ceremony itself. When you attend this ceremony you will first give the oath of allegiance and then receive your certificate of naturalization, which you should immediately check to make sure there are no errors. And at that point you're done, you are finally a U.S. citizen!
Altogether I would say that the naturalization process takes between 12 to 24 months depending on where you live in the country, how fast your office is processing applications, and whether or not you have any complicating factors in your case such as criminal histories, requests for evidence, or name change issues. There are some people who get approved in four months or less but I would not say that this is the typical timeline for everywhere in the U.S.
We've covered a lot of grounds and I'm sure you have a lot of questions so leave them in the comments below. And if you recently became a U.S. citizen or are in the process of applying, let us know where you are in your journey and any difficulties that you are encountering. Also let us know how long everything is taking so that you can keep each other informed. It helps those who are about to start their citizenship journey. And before you start applying for citizenship, make sure whether you should first even do so! Most immigrants assume that becoming a U.S. citizen is the best thing in the world and that this will solve all problems. However there can be certain drawbacks to becoming a citizen as well as the pros that are associated with it.
So watch my latest video to find out why you may want to think twice before filing for citizenship. Click here and I'll see you there.