Requirements of U.S. Citizenship
Summary of Requirements for Naturalization
The general requirements, with certain exceptions, to filing for naturalization are as follows:
- Must be a lawful permanent resident (LPR) of the U.S. (conditional permanent residents can apply in certain situations)
- Be age 18 or older
- Meeting Continuous Residence & Physical Presence Requirements, as applicable
- Be of Good Moral Character
- Pass English Language & Civics Test
Must be a lawful permanent resident (LPR) of the U.S.
An applicant for naturalization must be a lawful permanent resident of the United States. This includes both lawful permanent residents and conditional permanent residents. See INA §318.
Be age 18 or older
A general requirement for naturalization is that the applicant be age 18 or older at the time of application. See INA §334(b).
Lawful permanent residents under age 18 may already be eligible for a Certificate of Citizenship (under INA §301, INA §320 or INA §322) if their parent(s) are already U.S. citizens (either by birth or naturalization).
Additionally, this general age requirement if an applicant is applying for naturalization due to military service pursuant to INA § 329.
Meeting Continuous Residence & Physical Presence Requirements, as applicable
Perhaps one of the most difficult requirements for naturalization applicants to satisfy are the continuous residence and physical presence requirements.
Continuous Residence – Defined, Length Requirement
Under the INA, residence is defined as a place of abode, which means the actual dwelling place in fact, without regard to intent. The concept of domicile, which considers intent rather than where the applicant actually lives, is not relevant for naturalization purposes. See INA §101(a)(33).
Continuous residence does not mean that an applicant cannot be absent whatsoever from the United States. Therefore, brief vacations, employment trips abroad, etc. would normally not interrupt the applicant’s continuous residence.
Nevertheless, a continuous absence of more than six months and less than a year shall raise a rebuttable presumption that the applicant has abandoned their continuous residence in the United States. The naturalization applicant can rebut the presumption by establishing that he/she did not terminate his/her employment, the applicant’s immediate family remained in the U.S., the applicant retained full access to his or her U.S. residence, and/or the applicant did not obtain employment while abroad. See 8 C.F.R. § 316.5(c)(1)(i).
However, a continuous absence of one year or more shall disrupt the applicant’s continuous residence and they must restart their continuous residence after they re-establish their residence in the United States. See 8 C.F.R. § 316.5(c)(1)(ii).
In addition, if the naturalization applicant did not previously obtain a reentry permit to remain outside the U.S. for more than one year, it is likely that they may not be able to use their green card to reenter the United States. However, while the reentry permit will help the lawful permanent resident establish their intention to not abandon their lawful permanent resident status, it does not preserve their continuous residence for naturalization purposes. In certain situations, a lawful permanent resident may also be able to file an Form N-470, Application to Preserve Residence for Naturalization Purposes while they are residing abroad, if they meet the necessary qualifications.
For most naturalization applicants, they must have continuously resided in the United States (or its outlying possessions) for five years immediately preceding the date of filing the application. See INA §316(a). For naturalization applicant’s married to U.S. citizens, the continuous residency requirement is reduced to three years, if the U.S. citizen spouse has been a U.S. citizen and the parties have been living in “marital union” for the three years immediately preceding filing of the naturalization application. See INA §319(a). Therefore, divorce, legal separation, expatriation or death would break the “marital union” requirement. See 8 C.F.R. § 319.1(b)(2)(i).
If a naturalization applicant has interrupted their period of continuous residence, they may only apply for naturalization after four years and one day following the date they have reestablished their residence in the United States (if subject to the five year continuous residence requirement). For those applicants subject to the three year continuous residence requirement, they may apply for naturalization after two years and one day after they reestablish their residence in the United States.
Continuous Residence – Jurisdiction Requirement
In addition to continuously residing in the United States for the requisite time period, the naturalization applicant is further required to have resided at least three months within the state in which the application is being filed. See INA §§ 316(a)(1), 319(a). This avoids having naturalization applicants engage in forum shopping among the different USCIS offices.
Physical Presence Requirement – Defined, Length
Physical presence means actual physical time spent in the United States (and/or its outlying possessions). Naturalization applicants must be physically present in the United States for at least half the amount of time that they are required to have continuously resided in the United States. Therefore, for those naturalization applicants requiring five years of continuous residence, they must also establish two and a half years of physical presence in the United States. For those naturalization applicants requiring three years of continuous residence, they must also establish one and a half years of physical presence in the United States.
Classes of Naturalization Applicants Exempt From Continuous Residence and/or Physical Presence Requirement
Certain classes of naturalization applicants are exempt from the continuous residence and/or physical presence requirements or may constructively establish their continuous residence and/or physical presence requirements. Some examples are:
Lawful Permanent Resident Spouse of a U.S. Citizen in the (1) Employment of the U.S. Government; (2) Employment of an American Institution of Research; or (3) Employment of an American Firm or Corporation Engaged in the Development of Foreign Trade and Commerce of the United States, or a Subsidiary Thereof
Under INA §319(b), the Lawful Permanent Resident (LPR) spouse of a United States Citizen (USC) working abroad can have the physical presence and residence requirements waived if the USC spouse is employed abroad by: U.S. Government, American Institution of Research, or American corporation engaged in the development of foreign trade and U.S. commerce. Additionally, the USC employee must have at least one year left at the overseas post at the time the naturalization process will be completed (which can take 4-6 months to complete depending on the adjudicating office). The LPR must, however, declare a good faith intention to take up residence in the United States upon the termination of the U.S. citizen spouse’s employment abroad.
Service on Certain U.S. Vessels
Under INA §330, any time a lawful permanent resident spends in qualifying service aboard a U.S. vessel or U.S.-based vessel “shall be deemed … continuous residence within the United States within the meaning of section 316(a) of this title.”
Be of Good Moral Character
An applicant for naturalization must be a person of good moral character for the same amount of time period that they must establish their continuous residence. For most applicants, this is a five year time period, with lesser time periods for spouses of U.S. citizens, those individuals who obtained their lawful permanent resident status as a result of abuse/battery, etc. The applicant must maintain the good moral character for the past requisite period, at the time of application, while the application is pending, and until they are sworn in and admitted to U.S. citizenship. See INA §§ 316(a)(3), 319(a)(1).
An obvious issue that would raise good moral character issues are any criminal and/or immigration violations after the applicant became a lawful permanent resident. Other non-obvious issues relating to good moral character include, but are not limited to, non-payment of taxes (federal or state), non-payment of child support, failure to register for Selective Service (if required to do so), voting in an election or falsely claiming to be a U.S. citizen, engaging in bigamy, and having affiliations or providing financial support to certain designated organizations.
Be Attached to the Principles of the U.S. Constitution
The naturalization applicant must be attached to the principles of the U.S. Constitution and be well disposed to the good order and happiness of the U.S. See INA §316(a)(3).
The applicant must be willing to “(A) bear arms on behalf of the U.S. when required by law, or B) to perform noncombat service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by law, or C) to perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law.” See INA § 337(a)(5)(A)-(C). However, a person may oppose to bear arms based on “religious training and belief.” This term means “an individual’s belief in relation to a Supreme Being involving duties superior to those arising from any human relation, but does not include essentially political, sociological, or philosophical views or a merely personal moral code.” See INA §337(a)(c).
The applicant must not be a subversive (INA §313,§316(f)); member of the communist party (INA §313(a)), unless it was involuntary or otherwise excusable under INA § 313(d)); convicted deserter (INA §314); an alien who has removal proceedings pending or an outstanding order of deportation, (INA §318); or an alien who has applied for and received relief from the Selective Service System based on his alienage (INA §315(a)).
Pass English Language & Civics Test, as applicable
The naturalization applicant must demonstrate an elementary level of reading, writing and understanding of the English language. See INA § 312(a)(1). However, the English language requirement shall not apply to (1) persons who are over 50 and living in the U.S. for 20 years subsequent to LPR status; or (2) persons who are over 55 years of age and living in U.S. for 15 years subsequent to LPR status. See INA § 312(b)(2)(A) & (B).
The naturalization applicant must also demonstrate a knowledge and understanding of the fundamentals of the history and government of the U.S. See INA § 312(a)(2). However, USCIS will give special consideration to persons over 65 with 20 years as an LPR with respect to their knowledge of history and government. See INA § 312(b)(3).
For those naturalization applicants possessing a physical/developmental disability or mental impairment, the English language and history/government requirements are waived completely. See INA § 312(a)(2).
INA §312, §316, §319, §337
8 CFR §316 – §319
Revised by Nisha V. Fontaine, Esq. on December 26, 2011
1. Every male USC or LPR resident (except those on nonimmigrant visas) must register for selective service between 18 and 26 years of age. Failure to comply with this selective service registration requirement is a ground for denial based on a lack of good moral character if the person knowingly or willfully failed to register.