Naturalization: A guide

Learn the steps to go from a lawful permanent resident to a U.S. citizen.

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What's Inside

What's Inside

Many noncitizens living in the United States as lawful permanent residents (LPRs) wish to eventually become citizens. To do so, they must go through the naturalization process. 

Naturalization is the final step on the green card to citizenship path. When you naturalize, you gain the rights and responsibilities of being a U.S. citizen and leave your days of relying on United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) behind. 

This article explores the naturalization process, including who’s eligible to naturalize, what to submit with your application, how to prepare for your interview and what happens after the interview.

The steps in the naturalization process

The naturalization process follows several specific steps:

1. Submit an N-400, Application for Naturalization, to USCIS

2. Attend a naturalization interview

3. Pass a U.S. citizenship test at your naturalization interview

4. Attend a naturalization ceremony, where you swear an Oath of Allegiance to the U.S.

5. Receive your Certificate of Naturalization

Who’s eligible to naturalize?

Generally, to apply for naturalization, you must hold a valid green card and meet set criteria. Noncitizens married to U.S. citizens and those naturalizing based on military service may naturalize on an accelerated timeline. 

Naturalization after three years as an LPR

If you’re applying to naturalize based on your marriage to a U.S. citizen, you must:

  • Be 18 or older
  • Have been an LPR for at least three years
  • Have lived with your U.S. citizen spouse as a married couple for the last three years and continue to do so while the application is pending
  • Have continuously resided in the U.S. for the last three years
  • Have been physically present in the U.S. for at least 18 months during the last three years
  • Have resided in your state or district for at least three months
  • Remain in the U.S. while your application is pending

Additionally, your spouse must have been a U.S. citizen for at least three years.

Naturalization based on military service

If you’re applying to naturalize based on military service, you must:

  • Be 18 or older
  • Have served honorably in the U.S. military for at least one year
  • Be an LPR at the time of your interview
  • Meet residence and physical presence requirements

If you served during a period of hostility, including the time since September 11, 2001, you can naturalize at any age if you’re an LPR or if you were physically present in one of the following places at the time of enlistment, reenlistment or extension of service or induction into the U.S. armed forces: 

  • The U.S.
  • The Canal Zone
  • American Samoa
  • Swains Island
  • A public vessel owned or operated by the U.S. for noncommercial service

Naturalization after five years as an LPR

In all other circumstances, to naturalize, you must:

  • Be 18 or older
  • Have been an LPR for at least five years
  • Have continuously resided in the U.S. for the last five years
  • Have been physically present in the U.S. for at least 30 months during the last five years 
  • Have resided in your state or district for at least three months

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How do you qualify to naturalize?

To naturalize, you must show that you:

  • Are a person of “good moral character” (GMC)
  • Can read, write and speak English
  • Understand the fundamentals of U.S. history and the U.S. government
  • Understand and will uphold the U.S. Constitution

While the government decides GMC based on complex laws, you prove the rest of this by completing a U.S. citizenship test.

What’s “good moral character”?

For the most part, GMC is tied to your criminal history. USCIS officers evaluate GMC on a case-by-case basis. If you have any criminal convictions on your record, you may find it helpful to consult an immigration lawyer if you want to naturalize.

Permanent bars to GMC

Several acts can permanently keep you from showing GMC, forever preventing you from naturalizing. These acts include:

  • Murder
  • An aggravated felony
  • Genocide
  • Torture
  • Extrajudicial killing
  • Severe violations of other people’s religious freedom

Conditional bars to GMC

Other acts can conditionally bar you, preventing you from naturalizing until enough time has passed. Some offenses that result in conditional bars overlap substantially with crimes that result in permanent bars, making the precise details of any incident vital to establishing GMC.

You must wait to show GMC after conviction of:

  • A crime involving moral turpitude (CIMT; broadly, this includes crimes against others, crimes against property, sexual and family crimes, counterfeiting and bribing a government official)
  • A controlled substance offense, except possessing 30 grams or less of marijuana
  • Any crime or crimes resulting in incarceration for 180 days or more
  • Two or more driving under the influence (DUI) offenses

You may also be unable to show GMC if, among other things, you:

  • Gave false testimony to get an immigration benefit
  • Smuggled your spouse, child or parent into the U.S.
  • Committed other violations of a criminal or civil law that reflects on GMC

Proving your knowledge

The naturalization process also involves a civics test. Administered by a USCIS officer, this oral test quizzes your knowledge of U.S. history and how the U.S. government works. The USCIS officer also evaluates your English proficiency.

If you have a physical or developmental disability or mental impairment preventing you from meeting the civics and English requirements, you may apply for a disability exception to exempt you from both tests.

Everyone else must complete the civics test. However, you may be exempt from the English requirements if:

You are…And you’ve been an LPR and resided in the U.S. for…
50+20 years
55+15 years
65+20 years

How do noncitizens who are under 18 become U.S. citizens?

If you have a child under 18 and you become a U.S. citizen, as long as the child is an LPR, lives in the U.S. and is in your custody, they automatically become a U.S. citizen too. You can request proof of their citizenship by filing Form N-600, Application for Certificate of Citizenship.

Children who live outside the U.S. and have at least one U.S. citizen parent can apply for citizenship. They should submit Form N-600K, Application for Citizenship and Issuance of Certificate Under Section 322. The child must be living in the U.S. in lawful status when the application is approved and when they become a citizen. 

Applying to naturalize

Form N-400 is the first step of the naturalization process. It requires you to provide details about the last five years of your life. You’ll have to gather many documents, especially those proving your identity and U.S. immigration history.

Once you complete the form, you may apply online or by mailing your documents to the appropriate USCIS location. Generally, you also submit an application fee (currently $640) and a biometric fee (currently $85) for fingerprints and photos. Military applicants and applicants 75 and older don’t need to pay the biometric fee.

N-400s currently take USCIS approximately six to 12 months to process. That processing time includes your naturalization interview, where USCIS tells you whether you’ve qualified for naturalization.

While the N-400 is processing

Unless you’re exempt, USCIS will send you a biometrics notice while it processes your N-400. The biometrics notice specifies a date and time for you to travel to your USCIS office to have your fingerprints taken. 

If USCIS has questions or concerns about your application that could mean you’re ineligible to naturalize, it may send you a Request for Evidence (RFE). You usually have 84 days to respond, but the RFE may specify a different timeline. Follow the timeline USCIS provides in the RFE strictly. Your application may be denied if you don’t respond in time or don’t respond to every question included in the RFE.

If USCIS concludes you’re likely unable to naturalize, it may send you a Notice of Intent to Deny (NOID). USCIS issues NOIDs when there’s a chance you may have evidence that would allow USCIS to conclude you’re eligible to naturalize despite the reasons provided in the NOID. You generally have up to 30 days to respond. 

USCIS may also deny your N-400 outright if it concludes something in your application affirmatively proves you’re ineligible to naturalize. It will send you a notice explaining its reasoning. If you believe USCIS is wrong, you may appeal the denial. 

After you provide your fingerprints and respond to any RFEs or NOIDs, USCIS determines if you’re legally qualified to naturalize. If you are, the next step is a naturalization interview. USCIS sends an interview notice informing you of the date and time for this.

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The naturalization interview

You take the U.S. citizenship test at your naturalization interview. Many people use the time between submitting the application and attending the interview to study.

At the interview, a USCIS officer will ask you to answer 10 questions from a list of 100 questions USCIS provides online. If you correctly answer six questions, you pass. Since the test is oral, one of the best ways to prepare is by practicing out loud with another person.

The USCIS officer will evaluate your ability to speak English throughout the interview. You’ll also be asked to read and write three English sentences. To pass, you need to correctly read one and correctly write one.

The officer should be able to tell you whether you passed right away. If you don’t pass, you may schedule a retest 60 to 90 days after the interview date. If you pass, you’ll be ready to take your Oath of Allegiance.

The Oath of Allegiance

To officially become a U.S. citizen, you take the Oath of Allegiance, promising to support and defend the U.S., at a naturalization ceremony. You may be able to attend a naturalization ceremony on the same day you complete your interview or at a later date. 

If you don’t attend a ceremony on the day of your interview, USCIS sends you a notice scheduling you for a ceremony. The notice tells you the date, time and location of the ceremony. Depending on where you live, these ceremonies may happen more or less often. The ceremony is a celebration, so feel free to invite your friends, family and anyone else.

How a lawyer may help

You’re probably used to dealing with USCIS by the time you apply for naturalization, but having an experienced immigration lawyer by your side may make the process smoother. Your lawyer can help you:

  • Prepare your N-400
  • Ensure you include everything in it
  • Preemptively address any concerns USCIS may have about your history
  • Stay on top of deadlines
  • Prepare for your interview
  • Respond to notices from USCIS

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Frequently asked questions

Can you apply for citizenship online?

Yes, you can apply for citizenship online by submitting your Form N-400 on the USCIS website.

How long does it take to become a U.S. citizen?

How long it takes to become a U.S. citizen depends on whether you’re in the U.S. military or married to a U.S. citizen. If you’re married to a U.S. citizen, you can apply to naturalize after three years as an LPR. Military service members can sometimes apply even sooner. All others must be an LPR for five years before applying. The processing time of your application depends on how complex it is. However, you can use the USCIS tool at to check current processing times at various USCIS offices.

What is the purpose of the naturalization process?

The naturalization process is how a noncitizen becomes a U.S. citizen. The government uses the process to ensure you understand the rights and responsibilities of U.S. citizenship.

Disclaimer: This article is provided as general information, not legal advice, and may not reflect the current laws in your state. It does not create an attorney-client relationship and is not a substitute for seeking legal counsel based on the facts of your circumstance. No reader should act based on this article without seeking legal advice from a lawyer licensed in their state.

This page includes links to third party websites. The inclusion of third party websites is not an endorsement of their services.

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