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United States Citizenship Requirements

To qualify for naturalization to the U.S., you must show the U.S. government evidence that you:

  • are at least 18 years old,
  • lived as a legal immigrant in the U.S. for a specific period of time,
  • lived for a specific period of time in the state or U.S. territory from where you are applying,
  • have “good moral character” and have not been convicted of certain crimes,
  • can speak, read and write in English,
  • know the basics of U.S. history, government and civics,
  • understand and have an attachment to the U.S. Constitution.

The requirements related to residency and time spent away from the U.S. can become obstacles if you’ve moved a lot. There are some allowances given for active duty military personnel or students who attend school away from their home state. Use the government’s Naturalization Eligibility Worksheet, also known as Form M-480, to see if you meet the requirements for citizenship.

A permanent resident may apply for U.S. citizenship after living in the country continuously for a specific period of time. The spouse of an American citizen, for example, must have been a lawful permanent resident for at least three years and have lived in the U.S. for more than half of that time. A refugee granted asylum, on the other hand, must wait until four years after being granted permanent residence and must have resided in the country for more than half of that time before seeking citizenship.

Generally, an applicant must have lived in the U.S. as a lawful permanent resident for five years and have lived more than half of that time in the U.S. The applicant must show that he or she was physically in the U.S. for at least 30 months during that five-year period. The spouse of a U.S. citizen, however, needs to show presence in the U.S. only for 18 months and one day of the required three-year residency period.

An applicant must have lived in one of the 50 states or U.S. territories (Puerto Rico, Guam and the Virgin Islands) for at least three months before submitting a naturalization application to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Applying for United States Citizenship

When applying for naturalized citizenship, you must send the following to the USCIS office nearest to your home:

  • Form N-400,
  • two glossy passport photos of yourself,
  • a photocopy of the front and back of your permanent resident ID card,
  • a money order for the filing fee and cost of fingerprinting.

You may submit your application 90 days before the day you will meet the residency requirement.

Children and United States Citizenship

When you become a naturalized citizen, your children who are lawful permanent residents automatically become citizens. This applies also to children still abroad who plan to live in the U.S. before turning 18. To be covered by this provision, include your children on your naturalization application.

After you are sworn in as a new citizen, submit Form N-600 to USCIS, which will then send you a record of your children’s U.S. citizenship. Next, you may request a U.S. passport for your children and yourself. These documents will serve as proof of your children’s citizenship but will not be issued until you ask for them.

United States Citizenship 'Good Moral Character' Test

To become a naturalized citizen, you must demonstrate “good moral character.” You also may be asked to provide records showing that you have not been convicted of certain crimes in the past five years. If you lie during the interview or act in a way that does not show good moral character, your application could be rejected.

Questionable behaviors that could hurt your petition for citizenship are:

  • habitual drinking, drunk driving, illegal gambling or prostitution
  • neglecting to pay court-ordered child support
  • persecuting others for their race, religion, gender, political beliefs or social class

A criminal record also affects your ability to become a citizen. If you have committed certain crimes, such as using illegal drugs, you could be barred from applying for citizenship for five years. You will be barred from citizenship permanently if you have been convicted of crimes the government considers serious, including sexual abuse of a child, murder, rape, and smuggling of people, drugs or weapons.

Last update: Sept. 24, 2008

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