4 Ways to Become a U.S. Citizen

Immigrants around the world have visions of the American dream. Arriving at the land of opportunity is only the first step in a long journey to citizenship. Most immigrants stay in the United States legally by getting a green card (becoming a legal permanent resident).

If you are an immigrant, there are four basic paths to citizenship in the United States: citizenship through naturalization, citizenship through marriage, citizenship through birth, and citizenship through military service. 

statue of liberty in new york city
The Statue of Liberty in New York City. This historical landmark is a reassuring sight to immigrants wishing to become U.S. citizens.

What Is the Easiest Way to Become a US Citizen?

Applying for a green card is the most common way most people begin the process of becoming a United States citizen. Citizenship through naturalization is traditionally how most immigrants become U.S. citizens. 

This list of the four main ways to obtain U.S. citizenship will help you determine which route is the best choice for your situation:

Citizenship Through Naturalization

Citizenship Through Marriage

Citizenship Through Parents

Citizenship Through the Military

Is It Hard to Become a U.S. Citizen Now?

Navigating U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) can be an extremely stressful and complex process. No matter which one of the four paths to citizenship you take, you can expect it to be costly and time-consuming. 

One of the most difficult aspects of becoming a U.S. citizen is the fact that if you make one small mistake on your application, you can quickly end up back at square one. 

When it comes to the immigration process, it’s always best to seek out the help of experienced professionals when you’re completing your application. Having an expert on your side can help you avoid mistakes that could make the process take months or even years longer. You can get started by taking a quick eligibility quiz.

What Are the U.S. Citizenship Requirements for Naturalization?

There are different paths to citizenship by naturalization, but there are some general requirements that apply in most situations. If you want to qualify to be a U.S. citizen, in the majority of cases, you will need to meet these basic qualifications:

  • With certain exceptions based on an applicant’s age, you need to be able to demonstrate that you can speak, read, and write using basic English.
  • You must show that you are a person of good moral character and that you have been for at least five years prior to the date when you filed Form N-400.
  • You must be at least 18 years old when you submit Form N-400.
  • You must be able to prove that you were a lawfully admitted and continuous U.S. resident for at least five years before you applied for citizenship.
  • You must prove that you were physically present in the U.S. for at least 30 months during that time.
  • You must prove that you lived for at least three months in the same state or USCIS district. Depending on where you live, your application may go to either the Nebraska or Texas service centers.
  • You must show that you know and understand how the U.S. government works and the fundamentals of our history.
  • You must demonstrate that you have a personal attachment to these fundamentals, which involves showing that you accept our democratic process and will obey our laws.
  • You must take an Oath of Allegiance to the United States.

Citizenship Process #1: Gaining Citizenship Through Naturalization

A green card is key to becoming a naturalized citizen. Having a green card technically means you are a legal permanent resident of the United States. You can live and work freely throughout the country.

You may be able to get a green card:

  • If you already have a relative living legally in the United States: Your relative can sponsor you. A U.S. citizen can immediately sponsor a spouse, unmarried children under 21 years of age, and parents. The wait time these relatives have for a green card is minimal. U.S. citizens can also sponsor siblings, unmarried children over 21 years of age and married adult children. These relatives will have to wait several years to obtain a green card.
  • If you have a qualifying job offer: If you are moving to the United States for a permanent job offer, your employer can petition you for a green card. Immigrants who demonstrate exceptional ability do not need a sponsor and can petition themselves.
  • If you are legally in the United States as a refugee or asylee: If you are in either of these categories and have lived in the United States for a year, you may petition for a green card.

Residency Requirements

There are a variety of residency requirements to become a U.S. citizen through naturalization. The residency requirements set by the USCIS ensure that you have lived in the country while holding a green card.

You must prove that you’ve had a permanent home in the United States for at least five years immediately before the date you applied for naturalization. So if you want to apply for naturalization in May of 2022, you must have been a green card holder since May 2017.

You will need to prove you have been physically present in the United States for two and a half years of those five years. This means you will have to prove you were physically in the country for two and a half years. You also need to prove you’ve lived in the same state or USCIS district for at least 30 months.

Personal Requirements

The personal requirements for U.S. citizenship cover your knowledge of the U.S. and its history. Personal requirements for naturalization ensure you are old enough, are a good person, and understand the language and the U.S. government.

  • You need to be at least 18 years old the day you file your application for naturalization.
  • Your knowledge of reading, writing, and speaking English will be evaluated during the citizenship test.
  • You will also need to know the basics of the U.S. government and U.S. history.
  • Lastly, you must be a person of good moral character. This means you are a law-abiding person who will be a contributing member of society.

Complete Your Naturalization Application

The USCIS form you need to complete is Form N-400, Application for Naturalization. The application can be completed online using FileRight’s software. The program simplifies the application, makes it easy to understand, and checks your answers for common errors as you complete it. Keep in mind that:

  • Your application will include supporting evidence. Essentially that means you must prove certain answers you gave on your application. For example, to prove you are a legal permanent resident you will need to provide a copy of your green card. FileRight will break down exactly what documents you’ll need.
  • As of August 2021, the filing fee is $640 but could increase. You will also have to pay a biometric fee of $85. Payments by check need to be made out to “U.S. Department of Homeland Security”. If you do not copy that exactly it could lead to a rejection of your application.

After completing your application, FileRight will provide you a filing packet that will include personalized instructions on how to properly assemble your application.

The Biometrics Appointment

Biometrics simply refers to information about you. The majority of citizenship applicants will have to take a photograph, submit an electronic signature, and submit fingerprints during the biometrics appointment.

The information is used to conduct a background check and to ensure you are the person you say you are.

Prepare for the Citizenship Test

Part of the citizenship interview includes the test. The USCIS officer will ask you about your application and your background. This is also the time you will take the English and civics test. This is the last step before a final decision is made regarding your citizenship so being prepared is important.

FileRight does offer a citizenship test preparation course plus plenty of information for you to know exactly how to get ready for this test.

The Citizenship Interview

After your biometrics appointment, you will receive a letter telling you the time and date of your citizenship interview. You’ll take the English and citizenship tests at the interview.

Along with the date and time of the interview, you will also receive a checklist of documents to bring to the interview. Do not forget them.

Take the Oath of Allegiance

This is the final step of the naturalization process. You’ll receive your invitation to a naturalization ceremony in the mail. On the back of that Form 455, you will have to answer the questions and review them with an officer during the naturalization ceremony.

After taking the Oath of Allegiance and completing the naturalization ceremony, you will receive your naturalization certificate.

It’s very important to keep this document in a safe place because it is your proof of citizenship.

Citizenship Process #2: Gaining Citizenship Through Marriage

Petitioning a relative for a green card requires a lot of paperwork but FileRight can simplify it all.

If you’re married to a U.S. citizen, you can apply for a green card by submitting Form I-130, Petition for an Alien Relative

Form I-130 establishes a relationship between you and your spouse. You will need to prove the marriage by submitting documents such as a marriage certificate.

  • If an immigrant spouse is already living with a U.S. citizen legally in the United States, they can adjust status at the same time as filing Form I-130. The other form that needs to be completed is Form I-485, Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status. Both forms can be submitted together.
  • If an immigrant spouse is outside the United States, they have to wait for a visa to be available and then attend an interview at an embassy or consulate. Once the immigrant spouse is admitted to the United States, they can file to adjust status by filing Form I-485.

The Marriage Interview

You’ll need to discuss your marriage with an interviewing officer. The U.S. government does everything it can to prevent marriage fraud. The marriage interview consists of an officer asking personal questions to determine if your marriage is real or not. You can expect questions about:

  • Your relationship history
  • Questions about who is responsible for bills or cooking
  • Personal information like birthdays
  • Detailed questions about your wedding

Residency Requirements

An immigrant spouse will not be able to apply for naturalization immediately after receiving a green card. There are residency requirements you must first complete.

  • You must have a green card for at least three years before applying for naturalization.
  • During those three years, you must be a continuous resident of the United States and prove you were physically present in the country for at least a year and a half.
  • Your spouse must have been a U.S. citizen for those three years and you must have lived as a married couple the entire time.
  • You must also live for three months in the state or USCIS district that will be handling your application.

Personal Requirements

Personal requirements for U.S. citizenship include knowing English as well as U.S. civics. These requirements are similar to the requirements most immigrants must meet in order to become naturalized citizens, which include:

  • Be at least 18 years old.
  • Speak, read, and write English.
  • You must have entered the United States legally. Undocumented immigrants who marry U.S. citizens cannot apply for citizenship as easily.
  • You must be a person of good moral character. This means you’re generally a good person, who pays taxes and child support, and hasn’t broken any serious laws.

Apply for Naturalization

Filling out your Form N-400 Application for Naturalization can be done online. The day you satisfy all the requirements listed above is the day you are eligible to apply for naturalization. You’ll have to complete Form N-400, Application for Naturalization. FileRight can simplify the citizenship process.

  • Your application will include supporting evidence. Essentially that means you must prove certain answers you gave on your application. For example, to prove you are a legal permanent resident you will need to provide a copy of your green card. FileRight will break down exactly what documents you’ll need.
  • As of August 2021, the filing fee is $640 but could increase. You will also have to pay a biometric fee of $85. Payments by check need to be made out to the “U.S. Department of Homeland Security.” If you do not copy that exactly it could lead to a rejection of your application.
  • After completing your application, FileRight will provide you with a filing packet that will include personalized instructions on how to assemble your application and where to mail it.

Biometrics Appointment

During a biometrics appointment, the USCIS will collect personal information about you. The government will send you a letter telling you where you must attend your biometrics appointment. 

Fingerprints, photographs, and an electronic signature will be collected. The information will be used for a background check and to make sure you are the person you say you are.

The Citizenship Interview

You’ll need to attend your citizenship interview. The citizenship interview is one of the final steps before a decision is made regarding your citizenship. Immigration officials will ask you about your background and your N-400 application.

You’ll receive a checklist of documents you must bring for your interview. Do not forget these documents. As part of your interview:

  • You will take your citizenship test during the interview. That means you will need to prepare for the English and Civics portions of the test.
  • You will be asked to read and write in English. You will also be asked basic questions about U.S. history and how the government works.

Take the Oath of Allegiance

The final step in this long process is taking the Oath of Allegiance at your naturalization ceremony. You will receive Form 455 in the mail and it will tell you when and where your naturalization ceremony will be. 

Once you’ve completed this ceremony you’ll receive your naturalization certificate. It’s important to keep this document safe because it is proof of your citizenship.

Citizenship Process #3: Obtaining Citizenship Through Parents

You may become a U.S. citizen through your parents if you are a child of a U.S. citizen. The requirements are different depending on whether one or both parents are citizens, and if you were adopted.

U.S. Citizenship by Birth

According to the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution, “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” 

If both of your parents are U.S. citizens and married, you become a U.S. citizen even if you were born outside of the United States. One of your parents must have lived in the United States before your birth. If you qualify, you may apply for a Certificate of Citizenship.

One Parent Is a U.S. Citizen

If only one parent is a U.S. citizen, you can still acquire U.S. citizenship. To qualify, the parents of the child must be married to each other. The U.S. citizen parent must also have physically been in a territory or state for at least five years prior to the child being born.

  • Two of those years must have been after the U.S. citizen parent was 14 years old.
  • The child’s birth date must be on or after November 14, 1986.
  • The U.S. citizen parent may still qualify if they spent time outside the United States to serve in the armed forces, work for the U.S. government, or were employed by certain international organizations.

Unmarried Parents

If the parents are unmarried, a child could still gain citizenship through the following scenarios, according to the USCIS:

  • The child’s mother was a U.S. citizen when the child was born and she was physically in the U.S. for at least one year.
  • The child’s genetic father was a U.S. citizen at the time of birth. The father must have clear evidence of being the child’s biological father. The father must have also spent 5 years in the United States with two of those years being after the father was 14 years old. The father must also promise to provide financial support, in writing, until the child is 18 years of age.

Citizenship After Birth

You can earn citizenship after birth. If a child was born after Feb 27, 2001, they can become a U.S. citizen if they meet these criteria:

  • One parent is a U.S. citizen.
  • The child must be under 18 years old.
  • The U.S. citizen parent must have legal and physical custody of the child.
  • The child must live in the United States.

Different criteria are placed on children that were born prior to Feb 27, 2001.

Citizenship Through Adoption

Some children become U.S. citizens through adoption. Parents who adopt children and want them to become citizens must have legal and physical custody of the child. The child can become a U.S. citizen if one of the following requirements is met:

  • They’ve lived with the child legally in the United States for at least two years and the parents adopted the child before the child turned 16 years old.
  • The child must have been admitted into the United States as an orphan (IR-4) or Convention adoptee (IH-4) who arrived to be adopted. The parents must have adopted the child before the child turned 18 years old.
  • The child was adopted outside the United States before the child turned 18 years old and was admitted to the United States as an orphan (IR-3) or Convention adoptee (IH-3).

Citizenship Through Birth in U.S. Territories 

Even if you weren’t born in the United States, you might be able to gain citizenship through birth if you were born in U.S. territories like the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, Puerto Rico, or the Northern Mariana Islands. 

There is one exception to this rule. Even if you were born in a U.S. territory, you cannot gain citizenship through birth if your parents are members of a sovereign Native American tribe or foreign diplomats.

Citizenship Process #4: Through the Military

U.S. Citizenship can be gained through the military. If you served honorably in the armed forces, you could be eligible to apply for naturalization. 

Personal Requirements

The personal requirements for naturalization through military services are very similar to those of a five-year green cardholder.

  • You must be a person of good moral character. That means you have not been convicted of serious crimes, and you’re a person who pays their taxes and child support and is generally seen as a positive member of the community.
  • You must be at least 18 years old.
  • You must speak, read, and write English.
  • You must have a basic understanding of U.S. history and government.

Serving During Period of Hostility

There are different requirements if you served in the military during peacetime or times of hostility. The United States has been in a period of hostility since September 11, 2001.

  • A person serving during a period of hostility may apply for naturalization right away.
  • Must complete their military service honorably.
  • Residency requirements may not apply.

Serving During Peacetime

For those serving during peacetime, the requirements are different. You can apply for naturalization if you:

  • Served honorably for at least one year.
  • Obtained a green card.
  • Filed the application while you were still in the service or within six months of separation.

Complete your Application

Most military installations will have a contact person to ask about naturalization. You will need to complete Form N-400 Application for Naturalization and Form N-426 Request for Certification of Military or Naval Service. Form N-426, in part, proves you served honorably in the armed forces.

  • Your filing fee will be waived.
  • You can ask the USCIS questions about military service and naturalization by phone at 1-877-247-4645.
  • You can also email the USCIS at militaryinfo.nsc@dhs.gov.

Swear the Oath of Allegiance

Anyone wishing to become a U.S. citizen must show their attachment to the U.S. Constitution by swearing the oath of allegiance. Once that is complete, you will be given a naturalization certificate. That document is very important because it proves your status as a U.S. citizen.

When Can You Apply for Citizenship?

You can apply for citizenship as soon as you meet the eligibility requirements, many of which are time-related. Generally, you can apply for citizenship through naturalization when:

  • You are 18 years old (or under 18 if applying through parents)
  • You have been a permanent resident for 5 years
  • You have been physically present in the United States for at least 30 months out of the 5 years immediately preceding the date of filing Form N-400

Are the U.S. Citizen Tests Difficult?

To become a U.S. citizen, most applicants must pass an English language test and a U.S. civics test. These tests are not too difficult but you can prepare ahead of time.

The English Test

The English test requires you to speak, read, and write basic English. The speaking test will occur throughout your immigration interview. 

The immigration officer will judge your speaking ability by how well you answer questions. The reading portion requires you to read aloud one of three sentences correctly. The writing portion requires you to write one out of three sentences correctly.

The Civics Test

There are 100 questions on the civics test. During your interview, you will be asked up to 10 questions and you must answer six correctly. The USCIS makes all civics questions and answers available for study.

How Long Does It Take to Become a U.S. Citizen?

How long will it take you to become a United States citizen will largely depend on which path to citizenship you take. The most common route is citizenship through naturalization. After you file Form N-400, it may take at least six months to process but you may take as long as 8-14 months.

You could be required to supply further documentation or retake the exam. Once USCIS has made a decision, they may either immediately grant or deny you citizenship. If your application is approved, you will attend a ceremony to take the Oath of Allegiance and complete your long journey to becoming a U.S. citizen. 

If you wish to obtain a U.S. passport, vote in elections and ensure that your children possess all the rights and privileges of citizens, you should begin on your path to naturalization today. Keep in mind that backlogs and other delays can occur, so the sooner you begin, the better.

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