How a Green Card Holder Becomes a U.S. Citizen

Immigration Simplified

Requirements to Qualify for Naturalization

Becoming a United States citizen is the goal of many green card holders. The distinction bestows the beneficiary the same inalienable rights and privileges as their colleagues, including the right to vote in our country’s elections.

Obtaining a green card is only one step in the protracted naturalization process, one that lasts multiple years even in the most expedient circumstances. You must meet numerous, sometimes confusing conditions to qualify for United States citizenship before filing Form N-400 with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Below, we break down these citizenship requirements to help green card holders understand what is required.

Reach Legal Adulthood

In most cases, you must be a legal adult, at least 18 years of age, to qualify for U.S. citizenship. Exceptions exist for those with wartime military service, in which cases some minors are still able to qualify.

Establish “Continuous Presence”

This requirement, along with “physical presence” (discussed next), tends to take the most time to meet by default. To establish “continuous presence,” you must have lived in the United States as a green card holder for a continuous 5 years. If you are married to a U.S. citizen, you must only have lived in the country for a continuous 3 years.

The word “continuous” presumes you have not taken a trip outside the United States for a period equal to or greater than 6 months. You can take vacations or travel abroad, but to remain in good standing with the USCIS, you should return before hitting the 6-month mark.

If you remain abroad for 6 months or longer but under a year (365 calendar days), the USCIS may assume you abandoned your permanent residence in the U.S., giving them a reason to reject your application for citizenship. It is possible to dispute this presumption, but you will have to offer substantive evidence supporting your relationship to the country, and there are no guarantees the USCIS will grant your appeal.

If you left the country for 1 year or more, the USCIS automatically assumes you have abandoned your permanent residency and issues penalties against your efforts to pursue citizenship. No appeals can be made. If your status required 5 years of continuous presence, you will have to wait 4 years and 1 day before reapplying. If you were married to a U.S. citizen and only required 3 years, you will have to wait 2 years and 1 day before you may reapply.

It is possible to travel abroad for a period longer than 1 year and not face penalties. Some of the solutions available to you include:

  • Re-entry permits: The most reliable and proactive option, a 2-year, nonrenewable re-entry permit (Form I-131) should be filed in anticipation of extended travel prior to leaving the country.
  • Preserving permanent residence: Using Form N-470 in conjunction with a re-entry permit, you can potentially protect your status if work requires you to travel abroad for extended periods. Note that this only applies to certain USCIS-approved employer categories.
  • Returning resident visa: If unforeseen circumstances forced you to stay abroad longer than you had planned, this process can serve as a last resort. You will be required to contact a relevant U.S. embassy a minimum of three months before returning to the country. Procedures can vary, but you will typically be required to present evidence attesting to the reasons for your unanticipated time out of the country in an interview with a consular officer.

Finally, note that certain military service members are exempt from the “continuous presence” requirement. They may often travel abroad with fewer restrictions.

You do not have to wait until you hit your 3- or 5-year mark to formally submit your application for citizenship. The USCIS allows green card holders to submit their naturalization application once they are 90 days from meeting the threshold.

Establish “Physical Presence”

Physical and continuous presence may sound like similar concepts, and while they are interrelated, they have distinct definitions. You might also believe that you can take an unlimited number of trips abroad so long as you return within 6 months. This is not so.

To establish sufficient “physical presence,” you must have physically lived in the United States for 548 days (over half of a 3-year period) if married to a U.S. citizen or 913 days (over half of a 5-year period) if you are not. Although this means you are able to leave the country while pursuing citizenship, there are indeed limits to how long you can remain abroad.

Establish Residency

Again, “physical presence” and “residency” can sound like identical concepts, but to the USCIS, they mean different things. Establishing residency means you must be a resident of the state or USCIS district for a minimum 3 months prior to formally applying for naturalization.

A USCIS district refers to the area in which a USCIS field office serves. Your physical address’s postal zip code determines your district, which should be consistent with where you file taxes, vote, and hold identification documents. Exceptions to this requirement exist for military service members and students, among others.

Also note that “state” does not only refer to the 50 states. In this case, “state” also encompasses:

  • Puerto Rico
  • Guam
  • District of Columbia (Washington D.C.)
  • The U.S. Virgin Islands
  • The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands

Prove “Good Moral Character”

“Good Moral Character” might sound like a nebulous term, but the USCIS defines it as living up to the standards of the average United States citizen. An applicant is evaluated on a case-by-case basis, but generally speaking, meeting this distinction requires you to not have been convicted of serious crimes from the time you begin accumulating your continuous presence to your taking the Oath of Allegiance (discussed more below). If you committed crimes before this period, the USCIS may compare your present behavior to your previous record.

Crimes that might disqualify someone from having “good moral character” include:

  • Murder
  • Controlled substance violations
  • Prostitution
  • Gambling offenses
  • Two or more driving under the influence (DUI) convictions

The full list of applicable disqualifying crimes is broad. Though this should not come as a surprise, you can also be rejected if you are found to have lied during any part of the naturalization process.

Pass a Naturalization Test

Green card holders must pass a two-part exam in order to become U.S. citizens. The first component involves a naturalization interview and an English language competency evaluation, while the second component consists of a civics test.

The naturalization interview involves a USCIS official asking you questions about information provided on your citizenship application. They will also ask you to read and write basic sentences in the English language. If you are over the age of 50 and have been a green card holder for 20 years or over the age of 55 and a green card holder for 15 years, you are exempt from the English portion of the test.

For the civics exam, you must study 100 provided questions relating to United States history and government. Only 10 will be asked on the actual test, and to pass, you must correctly answer 6. You will be able to reschedule a retest with different questions should you fail on your first attempt. Additionally, if you are over the age of 65, you will only have to study from a pool of 20 questions.

Register for the Selective Service

Males who received their green cards between the ages of 18 and 26 must register for the United States Selective Service System and thereby serve in the U.S. Military or perform other civil services if called upon. Failure to register can result in the USCIS denying your application for citizenship.

Declare Allegiance to the United States

The final step in the naturalization process is the undertaking of the Oath of Allegiance, a ceremony that proves your “attachment” to the United States Constitution. As the name would imply, you will voluntarily pledge your allegiance to the United States and renounce any former allegiances to countries in which you hold citizenship as part of a public ceremony. You will also formally accept the responsibilities of citizenship, completing the naturalization process.

Questions or Concerns About Pursuing Citizenship?

Even if you already have a green card, the road to United States citizenship can be long, arduous, and confusing. We at Immigration Simplified have made it our mission to help immigrants throughout the country navigate the challenges of the naturalization process.

Successful resolutions require meticulous care, and our attorneys are ready to see if we can give you excellent assistance at an affordable price. Dial (312) 883-9944 or contact us online for a free consultation.