Becoming a United States citizen gives you many advantages over being a lawful permanent resident. For example, you may be able to pass your citizenship onto your children. Like everything else with immigration, to become a U.S. citizen, you must fill out a form and pay a fee. Ultimately, your best chance at success will be through the help of an experienced immigration attorney.
Background Image: Shawl, Mexico
Citizenship Application Overview
Benefits of Becoming a U.S. Citizen
Everyone has their own reasons for remaining a lawful permanent resident, but if you become a U.S. citizen, you can:
Basic Requirements for United States Citizenship
1. You must be at least 18 years old to apply for citizenship.
Children cannot apply for citizenship. You must be at least 18 on the day you file your application for citizenship. Literally, if you are 17 years and 364 days old when you apply, Immigration will take your $725.00 payment and deny your application. Your payment will not be refunded.
2. You must live in the area or district where you will apply for citizenship for at least three months beforehand.
If you just moved to Milwaukee from another state, for example, you will have to live here for three months before you can apply for citizenship. This is because different offices have authority, or jurisdiction, over different areas. If you have a home in more than one state, you should apply in the state where you file your federal income taxes.
There are some special rules for some people who might live in more than one place. For example, students can apply either where they attend school, or where they consider to be their permanent residence. There are also some special rules for military members and their spouses.
IMPORTANT NOTE: If you move while your citizenship application is pending you must notify Immigration immediately so that they can send your file to your new location. You should also let your lawyer know right away.
3. You have to be a lawful permanent resident for a certain amount of time.
In other words, you cannot apply for citizenship immediately after receiving your green card.
Most people have to be lawful permanent residents for five years before applying for United States citizenship. Additionally, you can submit your application 90 days before your waiting period is completed. But be careful to count out 90 days exactly before you send in your application. If Immigration receives it more than 90 days early, they will keep your money and deny your application. However, you can submit your application fewer than 90 days early. Talk to your immigration attorney if you have any questions about this rule.
Married to a U.S. Citizen
If you are a lawful permanent resident married to (and living with) a United States citizen, you only have to wait three years before you can apply.
VAWA self-petitioner or VAWA cancellation of removal
If you received lawful permanent residency through a VAWA as the spouse of a United States citizen, you only have to wait three years before applying for U.S. citizenship. If you received lawful permanent residency through a VAWA as the spouse of a lawful permanent resident, you have to wait five years before applying for U.S. citizenship.
Conditional Residents who are Domestic Violence Victims
If you lift the conditions of your residency based on the domestic violence of a United States citizen, you only have to wait three years before you can apply.
If you are a refugee, you must be a lawful permanent resident for five years before you are eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship. However, there is a different rule for refugees. When a refugee receives a green card, the green card is backdated to the date when they entered the United States. For example, Rose enters the United States as a refugee in 1999, but then waits twenty years, and applies for her green card in 2019. When her card comes, it will state that she received it in 1999 because it is backdated to when she first came here instead of when her status changed. Because of this backdated time on her green card, Rose can immediately apply for citizenship. Catholic Charities has worked with many clients for whom this was the case.
Asylees must wait five years before they can apply for U.S. citizenship. Like refugees, their cards are backdated. However, their cards are only backdated for a maximum of one year.
4. Continuous residence requirement: you must spend a certain amount of time inside of the United States.
This requirement is commonly called the continuous residence requirement. USCIS requires that you have remained in the United States for at least 50% of your time as a lawful permanent resident.
Five year (60 month) waiting time:
Before you can apply to become a U.S. citizen, you must have remained inside the United States for a minimum of two and a half years (30 months) within the past five years.
Three year (36 month) waiting time:
Before you can apply to become a U.S. citizen, you must have remained inside the United States for a minimum of one and a half years (18 months) within the past five years.
If you are unsure whether or not you meet your continuous residence requirement, please speak with a competent attorney.
IMPORTANT NOTE: There are two timeframes that can break your continuous residence and force you to start all over again:
- If you leave the United States for more than six months, Immigration will assume that you have broken your continuous residence.
You can convince them that you did not break your continuous residence if you can prove that you still really live in the United States. You can show them, for example, that you did not quit your job, that you filed your income taxes, that you kept your home, and that your close family members are still here. You might also want to explain why you were gone for so long. For example, you might have gone on a study abroad program, left to care for a sick relative, or became sick yourself while traveling. If you have left for more than six months, please speak to a competent attorney before submitting your application.
- If you leave the United States for more than a year, you will break your required continuous residency and have to start all over again.
If you are a religious worker or left for work reasons there may be an exemption for you. Please speak to a competent attorney before submitting your application.
5. You have to be a person of good moral character.
Immigration requires that you demonstrate good moral character during the time you are waiting to apply to become a U.S. citizen (three or five years depending on your circumstances – see continuous residence requirement directly above). Although the law does not specify what constitutes good moral character, it does highlight what stops you from having good moral character. Learn more on our Good Moral Character blog post.
6. You must have a basic understanding of how to read and write in English.
This does not mean that you write long and complicated sentences with lots of fancy words. Immigration has a list of words that you need to know for reading and another list for writing. You will need to show your vocabulary by reading one sentence out loud and then writing one sentence. Usually, the immigration officer will ask you to read a sentence in the form of a question. When you write your sentence, it is usually the answer to the question. For example, the officer might ask you to read, “Where is the White House?” Then the officer would ask you to write, “The White House is in Washington D.C.”
Your English language skills will be tested further because you have to complete your entire citizenship interview in English. You must be able to understand and answer all of the questions on a long form in English.
7. You must have a basic understanding of United States history and civics.
During your naturalization interview, you will be tested on U.S. history and civics. The immigration officer will ask you a question and you have to answer. It is not a multiple choice test, and no one will give you any hints.
You will be asked 10 questions from the list of 100, and you have to get 6 right. Once you answer 6 correctly, the USCIS officer will stop asking the questions.
You will pay a fee to apply for citizenship. Some people can get a fee waiver, meaning they do not have to pay. Learn more about fee waivers in the “Exceptions and Waivers” section below.
You will also fill out a 20-page form which requires a lot of personal information to complete, including:
- Where you have worked for the past five years and the dates that you worked at each place
- Where you have lived for the past five years and the dates that you lived at each address
- The names and addresses of all of you children, and information about your parents, and
- The travel dates for every trip that lasted over 24 hours that you have taken outside of the United States within the past five years
Many of the questions you will be asked can seem pretty insulting, but these questions are meant to detect any reasons that the United States will not give someone citizenship. For example, Immigration will ask if you are a prostitute, if you drink too much alcohol, and if you have sexually assaulted someone. The immigration officer has to ask you these questions. It does not mean that the officer thinks that you are any of these things.
During your citizenship interview, the officer might pick out specific words on your application and ask you if you know what they mean. The reason is that you are swearing to these things under oath and if you swear under oath, you have to know what you are saying. They want to be sure that you fully understand what you are promising to uphold. At Catholic Charities Milwaukee, we give our clients a vocabulary list to help them better understand the words on the citizenship application.
Children who were born outside the United States but now live in the United States will acquire citizenship from a parent when all of the following conditions have been met on or after Feb. 27, 2001:
- The child has at least one parent, including an adoptive parent, who is a U.S. citizen by birth or through naturalization;
- The child is under 18 years of age;
- The child is a lawful permanent resident (green card holder); and
- The child is residing in the United States in the legal and physical custody of the U.S. citizen parent.
Wait Until You Are Ready
Practice Enough English
You really should wait to fill out the citizenship application until you are ready to take the citizenship test, or until your doctor has given you a form saying that you do not have to take it. You might be able to memorize 100 civics and history questions, but you will need more time to learn English. Remember, without waivers, both the citizenship test and interview are done entirely in English.
What to Expect
Mailing In Your Application
After you mail in your application, Immigration will process it. First, they will process your fee, or fee waiver, and send you a receipt notice. This notice will have a number on it that you can use to check the progress of your application online.
After you receive your fee receipt, you will get something called a biometrics notice. This will direct you to the correct immigration office you need to visit. If you live in the Catholic Charities Milwaukee service area, you will go to 310 E. Knapp Street, Milwaukee, WI 53202. For more information, read our Biometrics Appointment blog post.
Next you will receive a notice to come to your citizenship interview. Just like your biometrics appointment, if there is a reason you cannot go, you must inform Immigration in writing that you need a different appointment and why you need to reschedule. You should mail this letter at the post office using a service called return receipt requested so you can prove that you mailed in the letter. Also, you should make a copy of your appointment notice to keep for your records, but you must mail the original with your letter to Immigration.
What You Should Bring
*For example, if you sent in copies of certified dispositions with your application, such as birth or marriage certificates, you should take the originals with you to your interview.
If you are in the Catholic Charities Milwaukee service area, you will go to 310 E. Knapp Street again. Check in on the second floor; the security guards can show you the way. You will need your driver’s license or state identification to check in.
Remember that you have to live in the area where you are applying for three months before you can send in your citizenship application. Immigration looks at your driver’s license or state identification to make sure that you live in their service area.
The only people who are allowed to attend your citizenship interview are your attorney and, if you are authorized to have one, an interpreter. Absolutely no one else can come with you, including family, friends, or any personal tutors.
After you check in, you will wait for an officer to call you into the interview. The officer gives you an oath as soon as you walk in and before you sit down. The officer will ask if you promise to tell the truth during the interview. Then the officer will have you sit down and they will ask for your passports and green card. If you have an interpreter, the interpreter will sit next to you. If you have a lawyer, he or she will sit behind you.
Some officers will give you the citizenship test first and others will go through your application first. But either way, each officer will go through your entire citizenship application to make sure that all the information is correct. The officer will update anything such as new addresses, phone numbers or jobs. If there are corrections, the officer will ask you to authorize those changes.
If you do not pass, do not panic. You get two chances to take the test with each application. If your application is missing something, the officer might ask for more information when you take the test. It is really important to remember that the English portion of the citizenship test requires doing the whole citizenship interview in English.
The officer usually asks the civics and history questions first. The officer will ask the question and wait for you to answer. The officer will not help you answer any questions and will not give you any hints. Then the officer will ask you to read a sentence and to write a sentence. If you pass, the officer will give you a sheet of paper saying that you passed. If you did not pass, the officer will give you a sheet of paper saying you did not pass, and which part of the test that you did not pass. For example, you can pass the civics portion but not the English portion.
The officer might tell you that you have been recommended for approval or that a decision cannot be made on your case right now.
The officer will decide if you do or do not have to take the test at the interview. No one will decide before you go to the interview. That is why it is really, really important to make sure that this form is filled out correctly before you go to your interview.
Receiving a Decision
You should receive a notification in the mail within 60-90 days. If Immigration approves your citizenship application, you will get a notice to come to your swearing in ceremony.
The ceremonies are often at our federal courthouse. Your letter will give you the address and what time to be there. Additionally, there will be a form included which you must fill out and bring to the ceremony. This last form is just looking to update all the information. You must bring your green card and any passport to the ceremony. When you leave, you will get your certificate of naturalization. Immigration will keep your naturalization certificate in their office and your green card, since you are no longer a lawful permanent resident. And, congratulations! You are finally a United States citizen!
If Immigration denies your application, they will send a letter saying why. You can appeal a denial by filling out a form and paying a fee.
You must appeal within 30 days, or 33 if the denial is mailed to you. You should keep in mind, that the appeal is almost as expensive as the application for citizenship and takes as long, or longer, to process.
If the citizenship denial is your fault, don’t appeal. For example, if you received a request for more information but just never got around to responding, or if you got your interview notice but did not go to your interview without asking for another interview date, there is no point in appealing. You might be better off just filling out a new application and starting all over again.
Exceptions and Waivers
Waiver to Paying the Application Fee
Citizenship is expensive, but not having money should never stand between you and becoming a United States Citizen. Some people can get their citizenship without paying the application fee. Immigration divides people who do not have to pay into three categories. You may qualify for a waiver if you are:
If you or your spouse is getting a public benefit such as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, Badgercare or food stamps, you should be able to get your citizenship without paying any fee.
Each year the United States government decides how much money someone has to earn to live. The government publishes a chart which shows how much a household would have to earn based on its number of members. If you and your family are at or below 150% on that chart, you can ask to get your United States citizenship without paying the $725.00 fee. View the 2019 chart here.
To receive the fee waiver, you will need to prove that you are low income. You can use a letter from social security disability, your federal income taxes or your food stamp letter.
Perhaps you lost your job or are buried in medical bills. If you can show some real hardship, you can become a citizen without paying the $725.00 fee. You will need to show proof, and mail it in with your application.
You can apply under every category that you think you might fall under; you don’t have to choose just one. Most people who ask for a fee waiver use a form call an I-912. Please note, this form is challenging to complete.
Waiver to the English Requirement
You can take the citizenship test in your native language, if:
- You are at least 50 years old and have been a lawful permanent resident for at least 20 years, or
- You are at least 55 years old and have been a lawful permanent resident for at least 15 years
You still have to take the civics and history test, but you can bring an interpreter to your citizenship interview and take the test in your native language. You will not have to read or write a sentence in English. The citizenship questions are available in many languages at USCIS.gov.
- If you are 65 years or older, and have been a lawful permanent resident for at least 20 years, not only can you take the test in your native language, but you also have fewer questions to learn.
People who are 65 years old and have been a lawful permanent resident for 20 years only have to learn questions which have an asterisk next to it at USCIS.gov. If you look at the list, you will see that some questions have an asterisk. These are the only questions that you need to learn.
Waiver to Taking the Citizenship Test
Some people cannot learn the information on the citizenship test because of an illness or disability. You do not have to take the test if your medical doctor or your clinical psychologist fills out a form telling Immigration exactly what your illness is, and why it stops you from being able to learn what you need to learn to take the citizenship test. But it must be an illness. It cannot just be that learning the information is really hard or that you lack formal schooling.
For example, if your psychologist or medical doctor says that you have severe depression, post traumatic stress disorder, or memory loss, then you might not have to take the civics test.
On the other hand, if your psychologist or medical doctor writes that you are 90 years old or never had any schooling, you will still have to take the test.
If your medical doctor or psychologist note is accepted, you will still have to appear at a citizenship interview, but you do not have to take the test. However, you still must meet all the other citizenship requirements such as good moral character and physical presence. You should have your doctor’s note reviewed by your immigration attorney to make sure the form has been properly completed.
Seek the Help of a Good Lawyer
We Can't Stress This Enough
These pages are intended to help you understand what you are looking for – not to help you complete any of these applications alone. Immigration law is detailed and complicated, and we urge you to rely on a well-trained lawyer for help. A lawyer can help you prepare for every step along the way.
Frequently Asked Questions
The United States makes dual citizenship complicated. However, the United States can only control your status as a U.S. citizen. The United States cannot make your home country take away your citizenship back home. However, to make your life easier, when you travel back to the United States, use your U.S. passport.
NOTE: If you get U.S. citizenship, some countries will take away your citizenship of birth. This does not mean that you should not get U.S. citizenship, but know that it is a possibility, and research whether or not your home country will support your dual citizenship with the United States.
Yes! Immigration does not require that your green card be current to apply for citizenship. However, you should always have a valid green card; try not to let it expire. Learn more about renewing your green card.
Yes! It is important that you tell the truth on your citizenship application. If Immigration finds out that you lied or committed fraud on your form, they can rescind your citizenship and deport you.
To show U.S. Immigration that you have good moral character you must present a case that you are an upstanding person, but more importantly, you need to know how to defend any potential problems on your personal record.
Some immigration applications require you to go to a biometrics appointment. Also known as an ASC (Application Support Center) appointment, the main purpose is for Immigration to take your picture and fingerprints for their records.
Catholic Charities Milwaukee offers free programs to help refugees and immigrants understand American culture, prepare for citizenship, learn English, and more.