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Naturalization is the process by which eligible legal immigrants become U.S. citizens.  Through the naturalization process, immigrants display a willingness to become full members of our society.  The process is not an easy one.  It requires that immigrants live in the U.S. for a certain number of years, learn our language, study our history and government, show that they are of "good moral character" and have not committed serious crimes and, finally, swear allegiance to the United States.  Over time, most immigrants become citizens.

The Naturalization Process

Eligibility: An applicant for citizenship must be at least 18 years of age, and must have resided continuously in the U.S. as a Legal Permanent Resident for at least five years prior to filing.  Permanent residents who have been married to a U.S. citizen for three years are eligible to apply for citizenship.  There are special expedited provisions for immigrants serving in the armed forces during a designated period of armed conflict.  Children who are adopted from another country automatically have U.S. citizenship conferred to them as long as one or both parents are U.S. citizens, the child is under 18, and the child is legally residing in the U.S. with the U.S. citizen parent or parents.

Immigrants must be of "good moral character," usually determined by checking with the FBI for any record of a criminal background.  A person must also demonstrate an ability to speak, read, and write ordinary English and have a general understanding of U.S. government and history.  Long-time older permanent residents are exempt from the English requirement if they are 50 years or older and have been living in the U.S. for at least 20 years, or if they are 55 years or older and have been living in the U.S. for at least 15 years.  These immigrants must still demonstrate knowledge of U.S. history and government, but they may do so in their native language.  Certain persons with disabilities are exempt from the requirement to demonstrate knowledge of U.S. history and government.

Interview: After submitting an application and fee to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), an appointment is made with the applicant to take his or her fingerprints, which are checked by the FBI.  An interview is then scheduled with the applicant, during which an immigration examiner reviews the application and determines if the applicant meets the requirements for U.S. citizenship.  To demonstrate English proficiency and knowledge of U.S. history and government, the applicant must be prepared to answer several history and civics questions.  They may also be asked to read a sentence or brief passage from a USCIS textbook, and to write a sentence dictated by the examiner.

Oath and Swearing-In: Approved candidates for citizenship must take an Oath of Renunciation and Allegiance, giving up foreign allegiances and titles and swearing to support and defend the Constitution and laws of the U.S.  If the person has a severe disability preventing him or her from understanding, or communicating an understanding of, the meaning of the Oath, the person may obtain a waiver of the Oath requirement.  The final step in the naturalization process is the swearing-in ceremony, which can take place before a judge or in an administrative ceremony.

Rights and Responsibilities of New Citizens

When an immigrant becomes a citizen, he or she acquires new rights and responsibilities.  These include the right to:

  • Vote, hold elected office, and sit on a jury;
  • Apply for and hold certain government and private jobs requiring a security clearance;
  • Bring spouses, minor unmarried children, and parents to the U.S. without long waits;
  • Travel abroad for unrestricted periods of time; and
  • Access restricted federal programs.

Revised January 2005