If you are a legal permanent resident (LPR) and eligible for citizenship, now is a good time to give serious thought to becoming a U.S. citizen. Procrastination, cost, and an emotional bond to your home country may encourage you to remain in LPR status. That is understandable, but only for so long. The immigration system is in flux and though LPRs are afforded the same constitutional protections as citizens, permanent resident status is something that can be lost. Crime, abandonment, fraud, and other violations can result in a revocation of LPR status and subsequent removal from the country. If you are a citizen, however, you cannot be removed or deported. So, now you know you should apply for U.S. citizenship, but how do you do apply?
Determine if you’re eligible. To apply for citizenship, you have to be: (1) at least 18 years of age or older; (2) a permanent resident (green card holder) for at least 5 years (three years if married and living with a U.S. citizen) and actual physical presence in the U.S. for half of that time; (3) living within a state for at least three months prior to filing the application; (4) a person of good moral character; and (5) able to read, write, and speak basic English.
Two eligibility issues seem to cause the most concern for potential applicants: how much travel outside of the U.S. is permitted and the meaning of good moral character. First, since many applicants for citizenship frequently travel abroad, capturing all time out of the country seems onerous. It need not be. Look through your old passports for entry stamps and compare them to your online I-94. Make a list of travel times. Start with estimates. If you have sufficient time in the U.S., estimates even on the application can be okay.
Second, the meaning of good moral character for U.S. citizenship covers a wide variety of behavior. Many applicants are concerned about applying if they have had any law violation. They should be. But, some violations don’t count. For example, minor traffic infractions don’t disqualify someone from citizenship, but they should be listed on the application. And, an arrest may not delay the filing of for citizenship, but being on probation can. Some people simply can’t remember or never fully understood what happened many years ago. If you are unsure of your criminal history, request an FBI criminal background check and obtain a copy of your record.
If you have had any criminal arrest or encounter, consult with an immigration lawyer before applying for citizenship even if you plan to prepare and file the application on your own. The point of filing for citizenship is to keep you in the country, not contribute to your removal.
Get the Documents You Need and File. If you have a straightforward case, you can do it on your own. You will need the following minimum documents in order to file for U.S. citizenship: (1) Form N-400 (available online); (2) a copy of both sides of your permanent resident card; (3) a check or money order made payable to “U.S. Department of Homeland Security” for the filing fee. The current fee is $725 but always double check the fee on the USCIS website because the fee changes and it must be correct.
Other documents must be submitted if the application is based on marriage and residence with a U.S. citizen after three years; special rules apply if naturalization is based on military service. Before you submit your application, make sure you have made a complete copy of everything for your personal reference.
Three to four weeks after USCIS receives your application, you will receive a biometrics appointment notice instructing you to go to your local Application Support Center and have your digital fingerprints, photo and signature taken. Yes, the fingerprints are for a criminal background check, and USCIS will know everything even if the incident happened 20 years ago. Again, if you have any convictions talk to an immigration attorney first.
Attend Your Interview and Take the English and Civic Tests. Within about five or six months after filing your N-400 application, you will receive an interview notice informing you of the date and time of your interview. The USCIS officer will review your application with you. The officer also will administer your English and civic tests. The tests consist of: (1) reading and writing a sentence in English; (2) an oral examination of 10 random questions you studied from the 100 or so questions in your civics questions. You need to get 6 out of 10 correct in order to pass. The USCIS website contains the necessary study materials. If you do not pass the first time, you get another chance a couple of months later (for free — you don’t have to pay or apply again).
Swearing-In and Become a Naturalized U.S. Citizen. Finally, some fun. At this time, you receive a notice in the mail informing you of your swearing-in — the point at which you will actually become a U.S. citizen. Each jurisdiction does it differently. At the swearing-in ceremony, you must advise the officials of any changes between the time you had your interview and the date you are being sworn-in. And, you must bring the relevant documents. So, if you got married, bring your marriage certificate; if you get a speeding ticket, bring the certified disposition; if you traveled out of the country, bring your foreign passport. The ceremony itself is exciting and very momentous. Most applicants cry! After the ceremony, you’ll obtain a certificate of naturalization, and you can now apply for a U.S. passport.
Becoming a U.S. citizen is not only more meaningful than many people imagine but it protects lawful permanent residents from some of the most draconian provisions in immigration law. And, it permits those individuals who already call America their home to become full participants in American society. Oh yeah. And now you can vote for President.