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Citizenship Basics

Becoming a U.S. citizen requires a series of steps to complete the application process. In each case, various factors come into play. The process is a lot like putting together a puzzle. Each piece is different and important in creating the whole picture.

If you or your family member is thinking of becoming a U.S. citizen, it is crucial to learn the pieces that you have to obtain for your case. You also have to learn how each piece fits in the application process.

This article outlines the basics of citizenship application and the essential points to know if you are applying.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), an agency of the Department of Homeland Security, is one of the central government agencies that processes citizenship.

Basis for Citizenship

A person may acquire U.S. citizenship by birth, blood, or naturalization. Under the provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), those born in the United States are automatically U.S. citizens. An exception to this is the children of foreign diplomats.

In addition, those born outside of the U.S. to U.S. citizen parents may also acquire U.S. citizenship. But only if they fulfill certain conditions. These conditions may vary depending on the year of birth, the citizenship status of the child's parents, and whether the parents were married at the time the child was born. This process is called derivative citizenship or “acquisition of U.S. Citizenship by a child born abroad." You can learn more about this topic from the U.S. Department of State.

People living in the United States may have varying immigration statuses, which can be either of the following:

  • U.S. citizen
  • Noncitizens
  • Non-immigrant visa holders
  • Lawful permanent residents (LPR) or Green Card holders
  • Asylees
  • Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients
  • Temporary protected status (TPS) beneficiaries
  • Naturalized citizens

Eligibility Requirements to Apply for Citizenship

When applying for U.S. citizenship, it is essential to understand that there are eligibility requirements that you must qualify for. Included among them are the following:

  • You already have a green card.
  • You are at least 18 years of age.
  • You have lived in the U.S. lawfully as a permanent resident for at least five years unless you fit an exception.
  • During those five years, you have been physically present in the U.S. for at least half the time.
  • You have not spent more than one year at a time outside the U.S.
  • You have not established a primary home in another country.
  • You have lived in the state or district where you are filing your Form N-400 naturalization application for at least three months.
  • You have "good moral character."
  • You can read, write, and speak English.
  • You can pass a civics test about U.S. history and government.
  • You will swear the oath of allegiance, affirming that you believe in the principles of the U.S. Constitution and will be loyal to the U.S.

As part of the immigration process, you must give your biometrics. This process will gather your biologically unique information, such as your fingerprints. Facial recognition and iris scans are also gathered in this process. This information is used to verify the identity of individuals or check them on other entries in the U.S. database.

Waivers, Exceptions, and Special Cases in Immigration Law

Special rules also apply to some people, which can make things a bit easier. In most cases, it applies to applicants who have lived in the U.S. for at least five years before applying for U.S. Citizenship.

For instance, if a noncitizen permanent resident is married to a U.S. citizen, they only have to live in the U.S. for three years before they can apply for citizenship. However, the noncitizen must be married to the same U.S. citizen for three years. The noncitizen must also reside in the U.S. continuously as a lawful permanent resident for three years before applying.

But the continuous U.S. residency does not necessarily apply if the U.S. citizen spouse works for a U.S. company or U.S. government office stationed abroad. The same goes for those whose U.S. citizen spouse works for a U.S. religious organization, U.S. research institute, or U.S. organization based internationally.

Finally, if you are a noncitizen but have served in the U.S. military, you can also apply for citizenship after you've served for one year. And if a U.S. service member died in action, their children and spouse can apply for U.S. citizenship immediately.

Some applicants with disabilities need not take the civics test and the English language test requirement. Some people can skip the English language test if they meet particular residency and age conditions. For example:

  • If the noncitizen is 50 years old or older at the time of application and has a resident status or an LPR for 20 years, they have what is commonly known as the “50/20 exception."
  • If the noncitizen is 55 years old or older at the time of application and has a resident status or LPR for 15 years, they have what is known as the “55/15 exception."
  • Finally, if the noncitizen is 65 or older and has LPR status for at least 20 years, they are exempted from the English language requirement and get a simplified version of the civics test.

Family members or LPRs can also sponsor their family members to obtain family-based visas. U.S. employers can also provide employment-based visas to noncitizen employees.

Other Ways to Acquire Legal Immigration Status

Other than the standard naturalization process, there are also other ways to acquire legal immigration status in the U.S. Included among them is the Diversity Visa Lottery program.

This program, managed by the Department of State, gives up to 50,000 applicants a chance to have immigrant visas. The applicants provided with visas are randomly selected from an entry of individuals from countries with low immigration rates to the U.S.

The U.S. citizenship application can also start overseas through a U.S. embassy or consulate. This citizenship process is called consular processing. The immigrant living abroad may apply for an immigrant visa through the consulate board of the U.S. Department of State. When immigration authorities approve the petition, they can provide an immigrant visa. The noncitizen will be admitted to the U.S. as a permanent resident.

It is equally important to remember that deportation or removal proceedings may come into play if the noncitizen commits certain crimes or violates their visa term. These proceedings are serious matters. The applicant can be removed from the U.S. This Deportation and Removal article provides more information about this topic.

Learn More From an Experienced Immigration Law Attorney

The journey to U.S. citizenship can be complicated and intimidating. Some rules are hard to comprehend, and the overall naturalization process can be scary. But you do not have to go through this journey alone.

If you or your family member is looking at applying for U.S. citizenship, it is recommended that you speak with an experienced immigration law attorney near you. They can help you understand the federal government's rules and guide you through the process. They can help assess your eligibility, prepare your Form N-400, and assist with your biometrics and U.S. citizenship interview.

They also can clarify any confusion and inform you of your rights. Because of their experience, it will be easier for them to understand the exceptions that may apply to your case.

If you want to learn more about immigration law, you can visit uscis.gov. FindLaw also has easy-to-understand articles about immigration law that you can access for free.

Learn About Citizenship Basics

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