To be eligible to apply for naturalization to become a United States citizen, a person must be at least 18 years of age, and must be lawfully admitted as a Permanent Resident.
Regular N-400 applicants for naturalization must meet all of these requirements:
- Must have maintained continuous residence in the U.S. for at least 5 years prior to filing the application.
- Must have been physically present in the U.S. for at least half that period.
- Must have resided continuously in the same state for at least 3 months prior to filing the application.
- Must be a person of good moral character for the entire five-year period.
Each applicant for naturalization will be questioned in person under oath at an interview by an immigration officer, to determine if the applicant can demonstrate:
- Competency in written and spoken English.
- Knowledge of the fundamentals of U.S. history and government.
- Attachment to the principles of the Constitution and to the good order and happiness of the United States.
There is a separate provision allowing application for naturalization after three years for lawful permanent residents who are married to, and living in marital union with, a U.S. citizen spouse. In this scenario, all the timing requirements are adjusted proportionally to a three-year period, except residence in the same state for at least three months before filing. An applicant must document that he or she has been living in marital union with the U.S. citizen spouse continuously for the entire three years.
There are separate eligibility rules and filing requirements for active duty U.S. military personnel who have served honorably for a year or more, and for military veterans who served honorably for five years or more in a designated period of conflict. There are also separate rules for spouses of U.S. citizens regularly stationed abroad in the employment of the U.S. government or a U.S. company or research institution, who live abroad with the citizen spouse.
All types of applicants for naturalization must demonstrate good moral character.
Your whole immigration history is reviewed when you apply for naturalization. Here are a few common red flags indicating that you should consult a naturalization attorney before filing:
- Any misstatements or omissions during the green card process, no matter how long ago.
- Any lengthy absences from the United States, including use of a Re-Entry Permit, having a primary residence abroad, or taking a job abroad.
- Any arrest history.
- Filing of U.S. income tax returns as a non-resident, or failure to file tax returns.
- Failure to pay child support.
- Failure of male applicants to register for Selective Service if they were in the U.S. between age 18 and 25.
When to seek legal assistance: Naturalization is when your entire history comes up for a careful review by USCIS to check if anything in their records and your application does not add up, and a denial of naturalization may also endanger your green card. It is crucial to consult an attorney before filing an N-400 application in any of these situations:
- If you have been arrested at any time since becoming a Lawful Permanent Resident. Many crimes that are only misdemeanors under state criminal law may be treated as “aggravated felonies” under immigration law, and can lead to removal (deportation).
- 2. If you have served in any branch of the U.S. military, and received any kind of discharge other than Honorable.
- If you are planning to apply at the three-year mark based on marriage to a U.S. citizen, and have been or are currently living apart from your U.S. citizen spouse, or if you have had a child by someone else during the marriage.
- If you have worked abroad since you became a Lawful Permanent Resident, if you have used a ReEntry Permit, or if you have come close to spending half of your time outside the United States in the past five years, you should consult with an attorney to understand the impact of travel, and the distinction between the Continuous Residence and Cumulative Physical Presence requirements.
- If you have been working anywhere (even outside the U.S.) and earned more than the standard deduction, and have not filed a U.S. tax return in any year since you became a Lawful Permanent Resident, or if you filed a tax return using an inappropriate filing status (e.g., you have no children, but filed as a Head of Household).
- If you have ever failed to pay taxes, you owe or court-ordered child support.
- If you are male, and lived in the United States between ages 18 and 25, but did not register for Selective Service.
- If you have applied for naturalization before, and your application was denied.
This is NOT an exhaustive list: the areas that a naturalization examiner may look into under Good Moral Character are extensive and complex, so the list above includes only some of the most common reasons you should seek assistance of counsel when planning to apply to become a naturalized U.S. citizen. If any of these apply to you, contact Karin Wolman to make an appointment for a consultation.