United States citizenship grants you the right to vote, travel with a U.S. passport, take government jobs, and even sponsor your family members to immigrate into the U.S. Sometimes, citizenship can seem like a far-off dream—but it may be more attainable than you think. In order for an immigrant to become a U.S. citizen, they must undergo a process called naturalization.
Eligibility Requirements for Naturalization and Citizenship
Before you can apply for citizenship, the first step is to determine if you meet the eligibility requirements for naturalization. To qualify, you must:
- Be a lawful permanent resident (green card holder) for 5 years, or 3 years if you are married to a U.S. citizen
- Be physically present in the U.S. for at least half of that time
- Be 18 years old or older
- Have “good moral character”
- Be able to speak, write, and read English
- Be able to pass a test about American history and the U.S. government
- Be willing to take an oath of allegiance to the United States
If you are unsure whether you are eligible to apply, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) offers a Naturalization Eligibility Worksheet that will help you decide.
Barriers to Naturalization and Citizenship
Just as there are factors that qualify you to enter the naturalization process, there are also situations that may complicate your naturalization application or disqualify you completely. If you believe any of these situations may apply to you, it is best to consult with an experienced naturalization lawyer before you apply for citizenship.
For example, past arrests and criminal convictions can seriously complicate naturalization, even if those arrests happened in a different country or have since been expunged from your record. If you have a past criminal conviction that could, in theory, trigger a deportation, it will be risky to apply for citizenship.
To apply for naturalization, you have to demonstrate that you have had good moral character for five years. If your marriage has been rocky, take note: cheating on your spouse could be taken as proof of having bad moral character. USCIS officials may deny your application if they find evidence that you have had an extramarital affair.
The naturalization application specifically asks whether you have paid the taxes that you owe. To the government, not paying your taxes demonstrates bad moral character. Owing taxes does not immediately disqualify you, but you will likely be asked to prove that you have a payment plan in place and are working to repay what you owe.
Owing Child Support or Alimony
As with tax debt, owing child or spousal support is a red flag in the naturalization application process. The U.S. government considers parents to have a moral and legal obligation to support their families, and a willful failure to do so demonstrates poor moral character.
Required Documentation for Naturalization or Citizenship
In order to submit your application for citizenship, you will first need to collect certain documents and information. The documentation requirements for the naturalization process are:
- Birth certificate
- Green card
- Employment history for the last 5 years
- Residence history for the last 5 years
- International travel history for the last 5 years
- Two photos against a white background, that meet passport photo requirements
- If you are applying as a result of marrying a U.S. citizen, your marriage certificate
The Naturalization/Citizenship Process
USCIS breaks down the naturalization process into 10 steps. They are:
- Determine if you are already a U.S. citizen. Believe it or not, we see clients from time to time who are already citizens and don’t realize it. If you were under the age of 18 when your parents naturalized, for example, you are probably already a citizen.
- Determine if you are eligible to apply to become a U.S. citizen. Using the Naturalization Eligibility Worksheet can help you decide.
- Prepare your application. You will use Form N-400, Application for Naturalization. You will also need to collect all necessary supporting documentation.
- Submit your application. You will need to pay a filing fee of $640, plus an $85 biometric fee.
- Go to your biometrics appointment. USCIS will take your photo, fingerprints, and signature.
- Go to your interview. At the interview, a USCIS officer will ask you questions about your background. You will also have to take two exams that test your knowledge of the English language and American history and government.
- Receive your decision. USCIS will issue their decision in writing. Your application can be Granted, Denied, or Continued (if they need further information).
- Schedule your naturalization ceremony. This may be on the same day as your interview, or it may be scheduled for a time in the future.
- Take the Oath of Allegiance. At your naturalization ceremony, you will pledge your allegiance to the U.S. in order to finalize your citizenship.
- Understand your rights and responsibilities as an American citizen.
Naturalization Based on Military Service
If you have served in the U.S. armed forces, you may receive special consideration in the naturalization process. As an active duty member or veteran of the military, you are exempt from having to pay naturalization filing fees and from certain other requirements, such as being physically present in the U.S. prior to applying. To learn more about expedited naturalization through military service, speak with your designated USCIS liaison or an experienced naturalization attorney.
Is Naturalization Permanent?
Citizenship through naturalization is permanent. It never expires or requires renewal. However, it could be revoked if the citizen commits a crime.
Take the Next Step Toward Citizenship
Although the process of applying for citizenship can seem complex, working with an experienced Peoria immigration lawyer can help ease the burden of collecting paperwork, filling out forms, and carefully preparing for interviews. If you have any questionable items in your past, speaking with an attorney is crucial. To learn more about how Schierer & Ritchie can help you with the U.S. citizenship and naturalization process, please contact us to schedule a free and confidential initial consultation.