Becoming a United States citizen provides rights and privileges such as voting, traveling with a U.S. Passport, bringing family members permanently to the United States, sponsoring citizenship for children born abroad and obtaining government benefits.
Since applications for citizenship are currently taking up to two years, it is important that eligible immigrants submit their petitions as soon as they meet the requirements, immigration advocates say.
The process often requires help from an immigration attorney, but some legal permanent residents try to obtain U.S. citizenship through naturalization on their own.
The recently relaunched U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) website contains numerous resources to guide foreign nationals throughout the naturalization process.
The immigration agency outlines the following 10 steps to naturalization:
Citizenship through U.S. parents
According to USCIS, “There are two general ways to obtain citizenship through U.S. citizen parents: at birth, and after birth but before the age of 18.”
▪ Children of U.S. citizens residing in the U.S.
▪ Children of U.S. citizens residing outside the U.S.
Immigrants eligible for U.S. citizenship
Immigrants sometimes make mistakes when they submit naturalization petitions but don’t meet the requirements, which include the following:
An applicant must:
▪ Be at least 18 years old at the time of filing.
▪ Live in the United States as a permanent legal resident for five continuous years, or three if he or she got a green card through a U.S. citizen spouse.
▪ Show physical presence in the United States for at least 30 months during the last five years, or 18 months if married to an American citizen.
▪ Show good moral character. This means a clean criminal record for the previous five years, and not submitting false information as part of any immigration form or procedure. (A person with an aggravated felony is ineligible for naturalization.)
▪ Be able to read, write and speak basic English, and show knowledge of U.S. history and government.
▪ Be willing to support and defend the United States and the U.S. Constitution.
Filling the Application for Naturalization
Form N-400 is the request form used by legal permanent residents to apply for citizenship through naturalization.
It must be filled in legibly, in black ink, and all the questions must be answered in a complete and precise way. Avoid some of the worst mistakes immigrants make applying for legal papers, such as cross outs or writing outside the spaces provided. And don’t forget to write the petitioner’s A Number on the upper right corner of each page.
Here is a link to USCIS Instructions for Application for Naturalization.
Submitting Form N-400
Immigrants can create an online account to submit Form N-400 electronically, which allows petitioners to to track the status of an immigration application, receive notifications and updates and see estimates for the date of process completion.
Biometric services appointment
Once the application has been submitted, USCIS will schedule an appointment for the biometric services — to take fingerprints, photo and signature. The information is later sent to law enforcement agencies for criminal and security checks.
The procedure, in a local USCIS Application Support Center, normally takes 15 to 20 minutes. It is important to show up on time because there are new restrictions in place due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Applicants must bring with them the following:
▪ Notification of the appointment, Form I-797C.
▪ Valid photo IDs such as passport, green card or driver’s license.
▪ Any other documents specifically requested in the notification. USCIS also recommends to print a copy of the completed application.
Interview with a USCIS official
This is probably the most feared moment of the naturalization process: the Naturalization interview and test.
Immigrants must prove they can read, write and speak basic English, and have essential knowledge of U.S. history and government. The USCIS officer conducting the interview will ask the candidate questions about his or her application and background in English.
According to government instructions, immigrants must bring:
▪ Notification for the appointment.
▪ Permanent resident card or green card.
▪ Any identification cards issued by the state, passports and travel documents.
▪ Proof of current civil status, divorce decrees and changes of name.
USCIS decision on the application
USCIS will send applicants a notification of its decision. There are three possible scenarios: approval, continuation —which means the candidate will be required to submit additional evidence or documents— and denial, most likely based on ineligibility.
Immigrants whose cases are denied can request a hearing before an immigration officer.
Notification for a naturalization ceremony
If USCIS approves the application, the candidate might participate in a naturalization ceremony the same day of the interview, according to the agency’s website.
Otherwise, immigration authorities will mail the petitioner the Notice of Naturalization Oath Ceremony (Form N-445) with the date, time and location.
Taking the oath to complete the process of becoming a U.S. citizen
Taking the Oath of Allegiance during the naturalization ceremony is a memorable moment. But because of the pandemic, the ceremonies are now limited only to the naturalization participant — without guests attending — and to people who provide assistance to candidates with disabilities.
Immigrants first turn in their green cards, then swear loyalty to the Constitution and at the end receive their Naturalization Certificates, which is official proof of U.S. citizenship. Authorities recommend that new citizens also obtain U.S. passports through the Department of State Bureau of Consular Affairs.
Before leaving the ceremony, authorities also suggest checking over the certificate and notifying USCIS employees if there are errors.
Afterward, new citizens are encouraged to register to vote and update their Social Security records.
Understanding the meaning of being an American citizen
Naturalized citizens are an important part of the social fabric of the nation. Citizenship carries with it benefits and requires an equally important moral commitment, USCIS stresses.
Benefits and obligations, such as:
▪ The right to U.S. government protection.
▪ The right to vote.
▪ The right to work.
▪ The right to live permanently in the United States.
▪ The obligation to obey all federal, state and local laws.
▪ The obligation to report income to the IRS.
▪ The obligation to register with the military Selective Service, for males aged 18 to 25.
Daniel Shoer Roth is a journalist covering immigration law who does not offer legal advice or individual assistance to applicants. Follow him on Twitter @DanielShoerRoth. The contents of this story do not constitute legal advice.
Read this Story in Spanish at el Nuevo Herald.