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Becoming a U.S. Citizen – The Naturalization Process
Applying for U.S. Citizenship / Naturalization
Permanent residents may apply to become U.S. citizens through a process called naturalization. Naturalization is the last step in the U.S. immigration process and usually the last time the Bureau of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will review your immigration file not only to see whether you are eligible for citizenship but also to make sure you are eligible to stay in the United States.
Permanent residents should strongly consider applying for U.S. citizenship. U.S. citizenship gives a person many rights and privileges, including the right to vote, the ability to travel freely outside the United States for long periods of time and return, the right to apply for special government jobs, and eligibility for public benefits not available to non-citizens. Perhaps most importantly, U.S. citizens cannot be removed or deported from the United States.
It is not always a good idea for a permanent resident to apply for U.S. citizenship. When you apply for U.S. citizenship, you must give the government a lot of information. Some of this information could lead to the government starting removal (deportation) proceedings against you. For example, when you apply for U.S. citizenship, you must disclose detailed information about all of your trips outside the United States since the date you became a permanent resident. If you were outside the United States for long periods of time, you may have abandoned your permanent residency without knowing it. In addition to your citizenship application being denied, it is possible the government may argue that you are no longer allowed to be a permanent resident. Another case in which you would definitely not want to apply for U.S. citizenship is if you have a criminal history that makes you deportable from the United States. You should always consult with an Austin Immigration Attorney before applying for citizenship.
Eligibility for U.S. Citizenship / Naturalization
Generally before you apply for U.S. citizenship, you must:
- be at least 18 years old;
- have continuously resided in the United States as a permanent resident for at least five years;
- have been physically present in the United States for at least two and a half years out of the last five years; and
- reside in the state or the district in which your citizenship application will be filed for at least three months before you apply.
Meeting these eligibility requirements does not mean that you will be allowed to become a naturalized U.S. citizen. You must also show that you have “good moral character,” pass the English literacy and civics test, and promise that you agree with the principles of the U.S. constitution by taking the Oath of Allegiance.
“Good moral character” Requirement for U.S. Citizenship / Naturalization
Becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen requires that the government must find that you were a person of “good moral character” for the five years before you apply for citizenship.
There are two exceptions to this rule:
- If you were convicted of an “aggravated felony” after November 29, 1990, you are not allowed to show that you are a person of “good moral character,” even if you were convicted before the five years before the date of your citizenship application.
- Lots of different kinds of crimes qualify as an “aggravated felony” under U.S. immigration law. Even some state law misdemeanors are aggravated felonies according to U.S. immigration law. If you have any sort of criminal history or have ever been in trouble with the police, you should consult with an Austin Immigration Attorney before you apply for U.S. citizenship.
- Even if you were not convicted of an aggravated felony, the government may look at your life before the five years of if doing so would help it determine whether you otherwise lack “good moral character.”
U.S. Citizenship Exam / Naturalization Test
In order to become a naturalized U.S. citizen, you must show a basic understanding of English and pass a test on the history and government of the United States. If you are physically unable to comply, developmentally disabled, or mentally impaired, you may be exempt from both the English test and the U.S. civics and history test.
If you fail the English and U.S. civics and history test on your first try, you will be given a second chance to pass either one or both tests within 90 days. If you fail the second time, your citizenship application will be denied.
To meet the English requirement, you must show that you can “read and write simple works phrases.”
The immigration officer will also make sure that you have the ability to speak and understand English. Certain groups of people are exempt from the English requirement. For example, if you are fifty years or older and have been a permanent resident for more than twenty years, you are exempt. If you are over fifty-five years old and have been a permanent resident for more than fifteen years, you are also exempt.
U.S. Civics and History Test
In addition to the English requirement, you must show “a knowledge and understanding of the fundamentals of the history, and of the principles and form of government, of the United States.”
The immigration officer will test your knowledge of U.S. history and government from a standard list of 100 questions. You will probably only be asked six to ten questions, and you must get at least six questions right to pass the test. USCIS has made available Study Materials for the Naturalization Test as well as Scoring Guidelines for the Naturalization Test (PDF).
Five-year Continuous Residency Requirement for U.S. Citizenship / Naturalization
To become a naturalized U.S. citizen, you must have five years of continuous residence sicne becoming a permanent resident.
Your five years of residence before the date of your citizenship application must be continuous. Absences of less than six months do not break the continuous residency requirement. But any absence from the United States between six months and one year creates a presumption that you violated the continuous residency requirement. You can overcome this presumption by providing evidence that you had no intention of giving up your residence in the United States during your absence.
If you are outside the United States for more than one year, you have broken the continuous residency requirement. Generally before becoming eligible for U.S. citizenship, you will had five years of continuous residency from the date you returned to the United States.
If you are outside the United States for more than one year, there is a presumption that you have abandoned your permanent residency in the United States. To prevent this from happening, if you know you will be absent from the United States for more than a year and want to keep your permanent resident status, you should apply for a Re-Entry Permit before you leave the United States.