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How to become a U.S. citizen
ABOUT MEXICAN CITIZENSHIP ONLY: To learn about the new Mexican citizenship law, which provides for limited dual citizenship and enables Mexicans to retain legal rights to property in Mexico after becoming U.S. citizens, CLICK HERE.
By BOYD F. CAMPBELL
Attorney and Civil Law Notary
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 born to U.S.
citizen parents overseas.
There are only two ways to become a U.S. citizen: 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 or parents overseas, and your birth was not recorded as a birth to U.S. citizens at a U.S. consulate overseas. Please consult a qualified immigration lawyer if the latter situation applies to you.
If you are not a U.S. citizen, then you may 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 become a naturalized U.S. citizen unless you:
at least 18 years old and a lawful permanent resident ("green card" holder);
2. 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
3. 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;
4. Have resided continuously in the United States at all times after your application to the time and date of your admission for citizenship;
5. Have, during all periods of time referred to above, been and still are a person of good moral character;
6. Have no outstanding deportation or removal order and no pending deportation or removal proceeding;
7. Have the ability to read, write, speak, and understand simple words and phrases in English;
8. Have knowledge and understanding of the fundamentals of U.S. history and government;
9. Are attached to, and can support, the principles of the U.S. Constitution and can swear allegiance to the United States.
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 U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS, formerly
the INS) of the Department of Homeland Security for your absence by filing
Form N-470 with a USCIS Service Center before leaving the United States
for an extended stay outside the United States. A break in residence
of more than one year, without advance approval of Form N-470, means you
must start a five-year term of physical presence in the United States
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 and is more involved and complicated than is suitable for this article. Please consult a qualified immigration lawyer.
You may file your application for citizenship (USCIS Form N-400, please see our "Forms Download" page on our main web site page near the bottom) up to three months before you meet the residence eligibility requirements referred to above. The USCIS filing fee is a whopping $595, unless you are qualified through active-duty U.S. military service, in which case there is no fee.
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, were charged with domestic violence or spousal abuse, or failed to register for Selective Service if you are between the ages of 18 and 25. USCIS has paid greater attention to the offense of driving under the influence of alcohol or other substances, particularly to multiple offense by the same applicant where the latest offense is considered a felony by state law, and is scrutinizing domestic violence or spousal abuse cases very carefully. This is certainly not meant to be an exhaustive list of things that can cause problems with the naturalization process. If any of the above apply to you, or you are concerned that an arrest for a particular offense might subject you to denial of U.S. citizenship, please consult a qualified immigration lawyer.
You will be required to take a literacy test to assess your knowledge of the English language, unless you are:
to comply due to a documented disability;
2. Are more than 50 years old and have lived in the United States for 20 years or more as a permanent resident alien;
3. 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:
1. Unable to comply due to a documented disability;
2. Are 65 years old or older and have been a permanent resident alien for more than 20 years.
If you are age 65 or older and
have been a permanent resident of the US for 20 years you can take a simplified
civics test in your language.
Applicants with a physical or developmental disability or a mental impairment so severe that it prevents acquiring or demonstrating the required knowledge of English and civics, may be eligible for an exception to these requirements. To request this exception, you must file a Medical Certification for Disability Exceptions, Form N-648.
USCIS provides accommodations or modifications for applicants with physical or mental impairments that make it difficult for them to complete the naturalization process. In order for USCIS to have enough advance notice to respond to accommodation requests, applicants are encouraged to state their needs on the place provided in the Application for Naturalization, Form N-400.
fail the tests, you will be given a second opportunity to pass the tests within
90 days. If you fail a
second time, USCIS may prohibit you from re-applying for naturalization for a period
of one year.
USCIS officers are required to make a decision concerning your naturalization within 120 days after your interview, or the examining officer may ask you to sign a waiver of this requirement. Most will. If your application is denied, you may appeal to another USCIS officer within the same district office. The new USCIS officer 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 officer’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 USCIS does not make a decision within 120 days.
Naturalization of members of the armed services
Members of the
U.S. armed forces may apply for naturalization under a streamlined process
established by sections 328 and 329 of the Immigration and Nationality
Act (INA). Under section 328, if the servicemember has served honorably
for one or more years, is a lawful permanent resident, and is filing an
application for naturalization while still in service or within six months
of being discharged, he or she is eligible for U.S. citizenship.
Under section 329, if the servicemember has served during an "authorized
period of conflict", he or she is eligible to apply for naturalization
if the servicemember has served honorably during the authorized period
of conflict; after enlistment, was lawfully admitted as a permanent resident
OR at the time of enlistment, re-enlistment or induction was physically
present in the United States or a qualifying territory. Authorized
conflicts include World War One, Sept. 1, 1939 to Dec. 31, 1946; June 25,
1950 to July 1, 1955; Feb. 28, 1961 to Oct. 5, 1978; and Sept. 11, 2001
and after. No fees are charged for these naturalization processes and the
process is available overseas at U.S. embassies, consulates and at certain
military installations. All naturalization applications (Form N-400,
Form G-325A, and certified N-426) involving a member of the armed services
in the United States should be filed with the Nebraska Service Center until
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. Military applicants must also have continuously resided in the United States for at least five years and have been physically present in the United States for at least 30 months out of the 5 years immediately preceding the date of filing the application, unless the applicant has filed an application while still in the service or within six (6) months of separation. In the latter case, the applicant is not required to meet these residence and physical presence requirements, and there is no filing fee.
Naturalization of children on application of citizen parent
The naturalization of children in the
United States is administered by USCIS. A U.S. citizen parent who is
unable to transmit U.S. citizenship to a child born abroad 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")
USCIS procedures should be as follows:
applicant forwards the N-600 application for certificate of citizenship,
along with supporting documents, to INS field office in the United States
that has jurisdiction over the U.S. citizen parent's or U.S. citizen grandparent's
2. CIS determines whether the applicant is eligible, approves application, and then forwards a letter and naturalization appointment date to applicant.
3. The applicant presents CIS approval and appointment letter to U.S. consular post in his or her home country.
4. 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:
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
2. 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.
In 1994, Congress provided for the expeditious naturalization of children and for restoration of U.S. citizenship for those who did not fulfill retention requirements. Those laws became effective March 1, 1995.
Former citizens of the United States regaining United States 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
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
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.
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 citizen to elect one citizenship of one country over another, the oath of allegiance that every U.S. citizen must take upon naturalization may expatriate the dual citizen, depending upon the other country’s nationality law. Dual citizenship usually arises as a matter of law and does not require action on the part of the dual citizen, e.g., citizens of Canada, the United Kingdom, and Northern Ireland.
HERE IS OUR WARNING AGAIN: Your future in the United States is too important to trust to just anyone. 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. If you do not know an immigration lawyer, go to www.ailalawyer.com or email the lawyer referral service of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA): CLICK HERE . AILA's lawyer referral service will put you in touch with a qualified immigration lawyer in your area.
Boyd F. Campbell has practiced immigration and nationality law in Montgomery, Alabama, since 1988. He is a member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association and is past Chair of the Immigration Law Committee of the American Bar Association’s General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Lawyers Section. He is a founder and was Chair of the Iternational Law Section of the Alabama State Bar from 2001 to 2002. From 1994 to 1998, he served on the ABA's Coordinating Committee on Immigration Law. He is a civil law notary, having been appointed by the Alabama Secretary of State to this official position in August, 2001. CLICK HERE to learn more about civil law notaries. In 2006 he became General Counsel of the Alabama Center for Foreign Investment, L.L.C., a federally approved regional center that participates in the EB-5 immigrant investor program. Following an expansion of the regional center in October 2009, ACFI has been re-branded as America's Center for Foreign Investment, L.L.C. He is included in The Best Lawyers in America in the field of immigration law. For more information about Mr. Campbell, CLICK HERE.
Questions and comments about this
article may be directed to:
Immigration Law Center, L.L.C.
P.O. Box 11032
Montgomery, Alabama 36111-0032 U.S.A.
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