If you are a foreign national and you want to become a US citizen, you must go through a process called naturalization. Once you become a naturalized citizen, you have the permanent right to live and work in the US, and the right to vote in US elections. There are different factors that determine whether you are eligible for naturalization.
Special rules apply to certain categories of applicants. The following rules apply to the most common category of applicants: lawful permanent residents who are over age 18. If you fall into that category, you are eligible to become a naturalized citizen if you can meet all of the following requirements.
You have been a lawful permanent resident of the US for at least five years. However, if you have been married to a US citizen for at least three years, and your spouse has been a US citizen during that entire period, you only need three years of lawful permanent residence to meet this requirement.
You must have continuously resided in the US during your required period of lawful permanent resident status. This means that you made the US your home, and that the US was the primary place where you lived. Traveling abroad during this period is fine, although any trips out of the US that last longer than six months will constitute a break in your continuous residence period.
You must be a person of good moral character. "Good moral character" generally means that you have not done anything that would be considered fraudulent or dishonest. If you have committed certain kinds of crimes, you may be found to have bad moral character. Minor crimes may be an obstacle to a finding of good moral character, but they won't necessarily prevent you from satisfying the requirement. If you have a criminal record but still wish to apply for citizenship, you should consult with an experienced immigration attorney to get a better understanding of how your record might impact your application.
You must have been physically present in the US for at least half of the required residence period. This is different from the continuous residence requirement, which requires you to maintain a residence in the US. The physical presence requirement means that you must have been actually present in the US for more than 50% of the residence period.
You must take a test that demonstrates that you have a basic understanding of English, and can read, write, and speak simple English words and phrases. This requirement may be waived (not required as part of your application) if you have certain physical or developmental disabilities, or if you are more than 55 years old and have been a lawful permanent resident in the US for a long time.
You must pass a test to show that you understand the basic history, principles, and functions of the US government. This requirement can be waived for people with certain physical and developmental disabilities. Depending on your circumstances, you may be allowed to take the test in your native language.
You must be willing to take an oath of allegiance (a solemn promise to be faithful and loyal) to the United States.
If you meet all of these requirements, you are probably eligible to apply for naturalization. The path to citizenship is very complicated, and it can be difficult to understand all of the steps you'll need to take in order to complete the process successfully. It's very important to find an experienced immigration attorney who can help you navigate this difficult area of law.
These articles are part of our ongoing "Immigration 101" series, in which we break down topics in US immigration law.**