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What Does It Take To Become a Naturalized U.S. Citizen?

Understanding the path to earning U.S. citizenship can be overwhelming. But don't let the process intimidate you. Just like any other journey, it starts with a single step. Each step will bring you closer to your goal—becoming a U.S. citizen.

Remember that you are not alone in this journey. You can always seek help from an immigration attorney. Plus, there are numerous resources that you can find about immigration law that will help you better understand the process.

Naturalization Basics

A foreign national can become a U.S. citizen through naturalization. The term "naturalization" refers to the process where the U.S. Congress grants citizenship to a person after they meet the requirements provided in the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA).

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) plays a vital role in managing the immigration system in the country. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) (a component of the DHS) administers the process. The functions of the DHS were formerly lodged at the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). However, on March 1, 2003, INS ceased to exist. Since then, the DHS and its components have handled immigration and naturalization services.

The foreign national submits the required documents, attends the naturalization interview, and takes an oath of allegiance to the United States. The foreign national will gain citizenship in return and receive the same rights and protections as that of a U.S. citizen.

Many lawful permanent residents choose to formalize their relationship with the United States each year through naturalization. Their motivation is often rooted in the benefits they could receive as citizens of the United States.

Each applicant may have different eligibility requirements for citizenship. The process can be complicated. At worst, deportation could arise if the applicant violates USCIS policy and immigration laws. Thus, it is recommended to hire an immigration attorney to assist foreign nationals in processing their U.S. citizenship.

Bases for Citizenship: Birth, Blood, or Naturalization

The U.S. government recognizes citizenship according to two fundamental principles: jus soli (right of birthplace) and jus sanguinis (right of blood). Under jus soli, a person receives American citizenship by being born in the United States. The Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees the "right of birthplace."

By contrast, jus sanguinis confers citizenship on those born to at least one U.S. citizen parent anywhere in the world. A family member who doesn't qualify under either of these principles may seek U.S. citizenship through naturalization.

Requirements for Naturalization

If an individual does not gain U.S. citizenship through birth or descent, they may achieve citizenship through naturalization. Naturalization involves the acquisition of citizen status through specialized legal processes.

The process often starts by submitting an Application for Naturalization (form N-400). After submission, an applicant will receive a receipt of the filing. The USCIS will then schedule you for a biometrics appointment. After the applicant completes all the preliminary processes, a naturalization interview follows. A USCIS officer conducts the interview at a USCIS office.

A person applying for U.S. citizenship must meet the following requirements.

Entry, Residence, and Physical Presence

According to the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), the U.S. Citizen applicant must lawfully enter the country and gain a lawful permanent residency (green card) status. After becoming a legal resident, a foreign national must live in the United States continuously for five years (or three years for spouses of U.S. citizens). The rules may vary for those who are members of the armed forces.

During that period, they must be physically present in the country for at least fifty percent of the time. This "probationary" period fully allows the foreign national to acclimate to American life and systems. This will also allow them to take part in the national community as citizens.

Age

A naturalization applicant must be at least 18 years old. The parents or adoptive parents can file naturalization applications for children under 18. Most children receive derivative citizenship from their parents and need not meet the five-year residence rule.

The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) may also have special provisions for children. DACA allows children to have temporary relief from deportation. However, note that DACA does not provide a path to lawful permanent residency. The DACA temporary relief also needs renewal every two years. In 2017, the Trump administration attempted to stop the DACA program and took the matter to court. Then in June 2020, the Supreme Court ruled that the attempt to stop the DACA program was unlawful. The most recent action on DACA was October 31, 2022. Effective as of 2023, no new applications for DACA will be processed (though USCIS will still accept the applications). If an applicant already has DACA status, they can continue renewing this status.

Literacy and Education

The applicant must have the ability to understand, speak, read, and write basic English. Older applicants may be exempt from taking the English language test — particularly when they have met the continuous residency requirement for their age bracket.

Applicants must also show knowledge of U.S. history, politics, and government, generally called the "civics test." The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) administers the examination. U.S. citizen applicants must pass this examination to complete the naturalization process. If needed, they may take the exam more than once.

Moral Character

Applicants must show good moral character. They must also show that they sustained this good moral character standard throughout their stay in the United States. While this standard is hard to define, courts have found habitual drunkenness, adultery, polygamy, gambling, and perjury inconsistent with good moral character.

Attachment to Constitutional Principles

Applicants must show they're attached to the principles of the U.S. Constitution. They must also show that they are well-disposed to the good order and happiness of the United States. This rule ensures that new citizens generally agree with the philosophical foundation of the community. Attachment to the Constitution includes a commitment to the Bill of Rights and a belief in representative democracy. Individuals well-disposed to good order and happiness can show they like the U.S. and believe in its political systems.

Oath of Allegiance to the United States

The applicant will pledge allegiance to the United States to complete the naturalization process. This process could possibly renounce any dual nationality or dual citizenship. The oath of allegiance happens at the naturalization ceremony. The pledge includes an obligation to support the Constitution. It also includes an obligation to bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law and the U.S. government.

After completing the naturalization process, a certificate of naturalization is given to the applicant. This certificate reaffirms that person's naturalization status. It should be noted that certain exemptions may allow for a waiver of some naturalization requirements. But these are decided on a case-by-case basis.

Benefits of Citizenship

U.S. citizens may enjoy privileges, rights, and benefits unavailable to non-citizen immigrants. Some of these privileges include:

  • Voting
  • Holding public office
  • Traveling with a U.S. passport
  • Extending U.S. citizenship to their children

Voting

This includes the privilege to participate in government by electing those who create, debate, and enforce the law.

Holding Public Office

This includes the privilege to be elected and to serve in most public offices, but naturalized citizens cannot hold the office of the Vice-President or the President of the United States. These offices are only open to natural-born citizens.

Traveling

This includes the privilege of having a U.S. passport. It allows the freedom to travel and receive government protection and assistance when traveling abroad.

Extending Citizenship to Your Children

Permanent resident children under 18, who are residing in the United States in the legal and physical custody of their U.S. citizen parent(s), automatically become U.S. citizens when their parents are naturalized. These children would be eligible to file an N-600, an application that would provide them with a certificate of citizenship. Children born after naturalization also receive citizenship through jus sanguinis.

Reuniting Families

The privilege of petitioning for immediate relatives (spouses, parents, and unmarried children under 21) to immigrate to the U.S.

Responsibilities of Citizenship

Along with the rights and privileges of citizenship come specific responsibilities. The responsibilities of being a U.S. citizen include:

  • Giving up prior allegiances to other countries
  • Supporting and defending the Constitution and the laws of the United States
  • Swearing allegiance to the United States
  • Serving the United States (e.g., in military service) when required

Get Legal Help With Your U.S. Citizenship and Naturalization Questions

The path to earning a Certificate of Naturalization can be complicated. An applicant has to submit various requirements. On top of that, the process may vary depending on each case. With the complex criteria for eligibility, it is best to talk to an immigration attorney. They can assist you with processing your U.S. citizenship, making it more manageable and less overwhelming.

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