Naturalization is the process by which a U.S. permanent resident becomes a U.S. citizen. To qualify for naturalization, an applicant must first meet the following eligibility requirements:
• Be at least 18 years old.
• Be and have been a U.S. lawful permanent resident for at least five years.
• Be a person of good moral character.
• Have continuously resided in the U.S. as a lawful permanent resident for at least five years prior to applying for naturalization, with no single absence from the United States of more than one year. The applicant must also continuously reside in the U.S. from the time of filing the application until the time of admission to citizenship. An absence from the U.S. for an extended period of time can break the continuous residence in the U.S. as noted below.
• Have been physically present in the U.S. for an aggregate period of at least two years and six months out of the five years immediately preceding the filing of the naturalization application.
• Have lived within the state, or USCIS district with jurisdiction over the applicant's place of residence, for at least three months prior to the date of filing the application.
• Be able to read, write and speak English.
• Have a basic knowledge and understanding of U.S. history and government.
Notably, there are special programs that allow for certain waivers and/or exceptions to one or more of the above eligibility requirements. For example, certain individuals are exempt from being able to read, write and speak English, specifically if the applicant is at least 55 years old and has been a permanent resident for at least 15 years; or if the applicant is at least 50 years old and has been a permanent resident for at least 20 years; or if the applicant has a permanent physical or mental impairment that makes the individual unable to fulfill these requirements.
An applicant files Form N-400, Application for Naturalization with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). USCIS will then schedule the applicant for an interview to evaluate his or her eligibility for naturalization, and to test the applicant's knowledge of English and U.S. government and history. Following the interview and upon the approval of the naturalization application, USCIS will schedule the applicant to attend a formal naturalization ceremony, during which the applicant will take the Oath of Allegiance to the United States. A person becomes a naturalized U.S. citizen upon taking this oath. USCIS will then issue the applicant a Certificate of Naturalization, which is proof that the applicant is a U.S. citizen.
Special Issues Regarding “Continuous Residence”
A. Marriage to a U.S. Citizen
An applicant who is and has been married to a U.S. citizen for three years, must still meet all of the eligibility requirements mentioned above before he or she can apply for naturalization. However, the general five year eligibility period is reduced to three years. The eligibility period is reduced to three years only if the U.S. citizen spouse has been a U.S. citizen for at least three years, and the applicant and U.S. citizen spouse have been living in marital union for at least three years. Specifically, an applicant who is and has been married to a U.S. citizen for at least three years must:
• Be and have been a U.S. lawful permanent resident for at least three years.
• Have continuously resided in the U.S. as a lawful permanent resident for at least three years prior to applying for naturalization.
• Have been physically present in the U.S. for at least one year and six months out of the three years immediately preceding the filing of the naturalization application.
B. Overseas Travel
It may be difficult for an applicant to meet the continuous residence requirement of either “five years” or “three years” as applicable. This is particularly true if the applicant must depart the U.S. for an extended period of time on a foreign business assignment. The “continuous residence” requirement is separate and distinct from the “physical presence” requirement.
An absence from the U.S. of six months or more may break the continuity of the applicant’s permanent residence in the U.S. for naturalization purposes. However, that same absence may not affect the applicant’s ability to maintain his or her status as a lawful permanent resident or the ability to return to the U.S. as a permanent resident following such absence. Maintaining continuity of residence for naturalization purposes presents a different requirement or issue from maintaining permanent resident status. Again, for naturalization purposes the following guidelines apply:
• A single absence of less than six months does not break the applicant’s continuity of residence in the U.S.
• A single absence of six months or more, but less than one year, breaks the continuity of the applicant’s residence for naturalization purposes unless the applicant can provide a reasonable explanation for the extended absence.
• A single absence from the U.S. of one year or more automatically breaks the continuity of the applicant’s residence, unless the applicant takes steps to preserve his or her continuity of residence prior to the expiration of the one year abroad.
If an applicant is considered to have broken his or her continuous residence in the U.S., then he or she is not eligible to apply for naturalization. Rather, the applicant must reestablish continuous residence in the U.S. upon his or her return to the U.S. and following the extended absence.
Under limited circumstances, an applicant may preserve his or her continuous residence in the U.S. for naturalization purposes, notwithstanding an extended absence from the U.S. To qualify for this limited exception, an applicant must:
• Have been physically present and residing in the U.S. as a lawful permanent resident for an uninterrupted period of one year prior to departing the U.S. for an extended absence.
• Be employed abroad by or under contract with the U.S. government, U.S. research institute, U.S. corporation or majority owned subsidiary of a U.S. corporation engaged in the development of foreign trade and commerce, or international organization of which the U.S. is a member (and for which the permanent resident was not employed prior to becoming a permanent resident).
• File Form N-470, Application to Preserve Residence for Naturalization Purposes with USCIS, prior to being absent from the U.S. for one year or more.
• Provide proof that the extended absence is in furtherance of his or her overseas employment.
Upon the approval of Form N-470, a lawful permanent resident can maintain “continuous residence” in the U.S. during the period that he or she is abroad for naturalization purposes, and can include that time period in calculating the aggregate period of continuous residence. However, that same period may not be counted towards the physical presence requirement. In such circumstances, an applicant must still show that during the five year period immediately preceding the filing of the naturalization application, he or she was physically present in the U. S. for at least two years and six months. If the applicant is and has been married to a U.S. citizen for at least three years, he or she must show that during the three year period immediately preceding the filing of the naturalization application, he or she was physically present in the U.S. for at least one year and six months.