Whether you will find it easy or hard to become a U.S. citizen will depend on too many factors to discuss in this short article, but I will discuss eligibility requirements, age, disability, and relatively new laws governing children of U.S. citizen parents born overseas.

There are only two ways to become a U.S. citizen: either by law, or by birth.

If you are a citizen by birth, no action on your part is generally required (for example, if you were born in a state or territory of the United States), unless you were born to a U.S. citizen parent overseas, and your birth was not recorded as a U.S. citizen birth at a U.S. consulate overseas.

If you are not, then you will probably seek to become one by naturalization, an administrative process that requires you to take some action and which is strictly governed by the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA).

Generally – very generally – you may not be naturalized unless you:

  • Are at least 18 years old and a lawful permanent resident (“green card” holder);
  • Have resided continuously in the United States, having been lawfully admitted for permanent residence, for five years immediately preceding the date you filed your application for naturalization, or
  • Have, after having been removed from conditional permanent resident status, based upon your marriage to a U.S. citizen, having resided in the United States for one year after the date the condition was removed;
  • Have resided continuously in the United States at all times after your application to the time and date of your admission for citizenship;
  • Have, during all periods of time referred to above, been and still are a person of good moral character;
  • Have no outstanding deportation or removal order and no pending deportation or removal proceeding;
  • Have the ability to read, write, speak, and understand simple words and phrases in English;
  • Have knowledge and understanding of the fundamentals of U.S. history and government;
  • Are attached to, and can support, the principles of the U.S. Constitution and can swear allegiance to the United States.

You can maintain “continuous presence” in the United States and preserve your permanent resident status by not remaining outside the United States for more than one year, or by obtaining advance approval from the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (BCIS) for your absence by filing Form N-470 with the BCIS before leaving. A break in residence of more than one year, without advance approval of Form N-470, means you must start your five-year term of physical presence in the United States again.

Minors with at least one U.S. citizen parent may be naturalized upon the application of the U.S. citizen parent. INA § 322, 8 U.S.C. § 1433. This includes adopted children.

You may file your application for citizenship (BCIS Form N-400) up to three months before you meet the residence eligibility requirements referred to above.

You may be found not to possess “good moral character” if you were convicted of murder, an “aggravated felony,” as defined by federal immigration law, a crime of “moral turpitude,” a controlled substance crime (but not for simple possession of 30 grams or less of marijuana), if you gave false testimony to obtain immigration benefits, failed to provide child support, committed adultery or were involved in prostitution, or failed to register for Selective Service if you are between the ages of 18 and 25. This is certainly not meant to be an exhaustive list of things that can cause problems with the naturalization processes of the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (BCIS).

You will be required to take a literacy test to assess your knowledge of the English language, unless you are:

  • Unable to comply due to a documented disability;
  • Are more than 50 years old and have lived in the United States for 20 years or more as a permanent resident alien;
  • Are more than 55 years old and have lived in the United States for 15 years or more as a permanent resident alien.

You will be required to take a test of your knowledge of U.S. history and government unless you are:

  • Unable to comply due to a documented disability;
  • Are 65 years old or older and have been a permanent resident alien for more than 20 years.

If you fail the tests, you will be given a second opportunity to pass the tests within 90 days.

BCIS examiners are required to make a decision concerning your naturalization within 120 days after your interview, or the examiner may ask you to sign a waiver of this requirement. Most will. If you application is denied, you may appeal to another BCIS examiner within the same district office. The new BCIS examiner will have 180 days from the date of the filing of your appeal to make a decision. If you application is again denied, or if there is no decision within the 180 days, you may seek review of the examiner’s decision in U.S. district court where you live. You may also seek review in federal court if you did not waive the 120-day rule, and BCIS does not make a decision within 120 days.

Members of the U.S. armed forces may apply for naturalization upon completion of three years of honorable service and must be lawful permanent residents of the United States before they may file an application. Neither residence nor physical presence in the United States are required. All naturalization applications (BCIS Form N-400) involving a member of the armed services should be filed with the Nebraska Service Center until further notice by the BCIS.

Special naturalization procedures apply to those who served on active duty on behalf of the U.S. armed forces during certain military hostilities defined by law. Surviving spouse of U.S. citizens who died during periods of honorable service on active duty are also eligible.

In 1994, Congress provided for the expeditious naturalization of children and for restoration of U.S. citizenship for those who did not fulfil retention requirements. These new laws became effective on March 1, 1995.

Naturalization of children on application of citizen parent

The naturalization of children in the United States is administered by the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (BCIS). A U.S. citizen parent who is unable to transmit U.S. citizenship to a child born aboard as a result of an inability to satisfy the transmission period requirement, may apply for the expeditious naturalization of that child. One of two prerequisites must be satisfied: Either 1) the child must be residing permanently in the U.S. with the citizen parent pursuant to a lawful admission, or 2) for a child residing abroad, a citizen parent or the child’s U.S. citizen grandparent must have been physically present in the United States or in its outlying possessions for a period or periods totaling not less than five years, at least two of which periods were after the child attained the age of 14 years. The U.S. citizen grandparent’s physical presence in the U.S. allows for the expeditious naturalization of a child without permanent resident (“green card”) status.

BCIS’s procedure should be as follows:

  • The applicant forwards the N-600 application for certificate of citizenship, along with supporting documents, to BCIS field office in the United States that has jurisdiction over the U.S. citizen parent’s or U.S. citizen grandparent’s residence.
  • The BCIS determines whether the applicant is eligible, approves application, and then forwards a letter and naturalization appointment date to applicant.
  • The applicant presents the BCIS approval and appointment letter to U.S. consular post in his or her home country.
  • The U.S. consular post issues a B-2 visitor visa to the applicant.

This process will allow parents to make a one-stop visit to the United States for purposes of naturalizing their child as a U.S. citizen. The law also provides that the illegitimate child of a U.S. citizen parent may be naturalized. An illegitimate child is considered eligible to become a U.S. citizen if:

  • The child was born after December 23, 1952, and the mother was a U.S. citizen at the time of the child’s birth and had been physically present in the United States for a continuous period of one year prior to the child’s birth, or
  • The father is a U.S. citizen and:
  • a. The child was born on or after November 15, 1968;
  • b. A parent-child relationship was established on or after November 14, 1986;
  • c. Blood relationship is established by clear and convincing evidence;
  • d. The father was a U.S. citizen at the time of the child’s birth; the father, unless deceased, agrees in writing to support the child until he or she reaches the age of 18;
  • e. Before the child reaches 18, the child is legitimized under the law of the child’s residence or domicile, the father acknowledges paternity of the child in writing under oath, or the child’s paternity is established by adjudication of a competent court.

Former citizens of the United States regaining United States citizenship

U.S. citizenship may be restored to former U.S. citizens who lost their nationality because they failed to comply with the former retention requirements of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). American citizens born abroad to one U.S. citizen parent and one alien parent between May 24, 1934, and October 10, 1952, were subject to varying retention requirements in order to keep their U.S. citizenship.

They were required to reside or be physically present in the United States for specific periods in order to keep U.S. citizenship acquired at birth. Those who failed to comply with the requirements ceased to be U.S. citizens. Although the retention requirements were repealed on October 10, 1978, the repeal was prospective, not retroactive, and American citizens born during this period me fell victim to the residency-physical presence requirements, unless affirmative defenses to failing to retain (unawareness, impossibility of performance, or official misinformation) were present to support a conclusion that constructive compliance had occurred.

Today, someone who lost U.S. citizenship because of failure to meet the retention requirements, may regain his citizenship upon application and upon taking the oath of allegiance, provided he is not excluded because he advocates totalitarian forms of government. This amendment does not restore citizenship retroactively; therefore, these persons would be unable to transmit citizenship to their children born during the period between their loss of and restoration to U.S. citizenship.

Upon presentation of documentation supporting a claim to U.S. citizenship, the applicant should fill out and sign a statement in the presence of a U.S. consular officer.

Intent to reside permanently in the U.S. after naturalization

An immigration law section that provided a means for a court to revoke a naturalized person’s U.S. citizenship, if it were determined that the individual had taken up permanent residence abroad within one year of the date of naturalization, has been repealed.

The new amendments remove the following language from naturalization certificates: “intends to reside permanently in the United States.” Those judicially denaturalized will not be affected. Denaturalization is a judicial procedure and loss of citizenship is an administrative action.

Dual citizenship

A bit too complicated for this article, dual citizenship, generally, wherein a person may be a citizen of two countries, is not favored by U.S. law. Although U.S. law does not require a dual national to elect one nationality over another, the oath of allegiance that every U.S. citizen must take upon naturalization may expatriate the dual national, depending upon the other country’s nationality law. Dual nationality usually arises as a matter of law and does not require action on the part of the dual citizen.

Naturalization does not normally require the help of an immigration lawyer, but many other immigration procedures could better be handled by a lawyer trained in immigration and nationality law and procedures. If you need help, you should find and hire a qualified immigration lawyer to guide you and help you with a change in visa status, an immigrant visa application, or an application for naturalization if there is any question about federal law as it is applicable to your situation or that of a loved one.

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See also…

Naturalization and Citizenship