So, you just received your marriage-based green card? Congratulations, that’s a huge achievement! Now it’s time to start thinking about how and when to apply for U.S. citizenship through naturalization. Becoming a U.S. citizen means being able to vote in all elections, freedom to travel and live outside of the United States for as long as you want, eligibility for federal jobs, and permanent protection from deportation.
When you have a U.S. spouse, you can apply for U.S. citizenship in three years instead of the normal five years. This shorter timeline can be incredibly helpful but also requires careful planning to get all the necessary documents and fill out the necessary forms. So the best approach is to start planning right away!
In this guide, we’ll cover:
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Why Should You Get Citizenship?
Becoming a U.S. citizen is something many green card holders aspire to — not just because it is something that will proudly connect you to the United States, but also because it provides real, tangible benefits not available to green card holders. Some of these benefits include:
- You can no longer be deported — the United States will now be your home and even if you commit a crime after you naturalize, you will be able to stay here (note: The Trump administration is stepping up efforts to revoke citizenship from those who have committed certain crimes such as terrorism or fraudulently obtaining citizenship).
- You will have one of the most powerful passports in the world, opening travel to more than 180 destinations for short-term trips without a visa.
- Federal benefits only to U.S. citizens will be available to you, such as federal college assistance. Your children automatically become U.S. citizens — even if they’re born outside of the United States.
- You can apply for jobs with the U.S. government and vote in any U.S. election; you can even run for elected office (excluding holding office as President or Vice President of the United States).
Who Qualifies For Citizenship?
All green card holders, as long as they meet key conditions, can apply for U.S. citizenship after five years (known as the “five-year rule”) — but those with a U.S. spouse and a green card through marriage can apply after only three years (known as the “three-year rule”).
IMPORTANT: This means three or five years of continuous living in the United States. If you leave for long periods of time, or applied and received a reentry permit, that time will be deducted.
A key condition for applying under the three-year rule versus the five-year rule is that you must have been “living in marital union,” meaning you have to have been living together with your U.S. spouse for at least 3 years before filing for naturalization. The five-year rule does not require this “living in marital union” portion. Importantly, you and your U.S. spouse must remain married until the time the applicant naturalizes but “living in marital union” requirement is only required until the time of filing.
If you divorce your U.S. spouse before three years, you will no longer be eligible for the three-year rule and then have to apply under the five-year rule. While this might seem like a set back, it still presents a pathway to citizenship, even if your marriage has ended.
What Are the Other Requirements?
There are some other requirements for applying for U.S. citizenship. First and foremost: pay your taxes! You must submit federal tax returns for either three or five years, depending under which rule you are applying. Your application will not be considered without them, so make sure you are up-to-date with your taxes.
Secondly, never register to vote or claim to be a U.S. citizen on any paperwork before being naturalized. This is critical, as USCIS takes these acts incredibly seriously and it will create a lengthy delay or possible denial of your application. You could face deportation proceedings. The first three questions on the naturalization form are about voting and registering to vote. If you answer yes to any of these, you should seek immediate legal advice before applying for citizenship.
Another requirement is that men between the ages of 18 and 26 must register for the Selective Service and provide proof when naturalizing as a U.S. citizen. Selective Service is a government agency that maintains information on those potentially subject to future military conscription. Failing to register can create a significant problem for male green card holders wanting to become U.S. citizens. Those who became green card holders after their 26th birthday do not have to undertake this requirement.
Finally, stay out of trouble! Green card holders may hold permanent residency in the United States but are not safe from deportation if they commit certain crimes. The same is true when applying for U.S. citizenship — you must answer a series of questions truthfully and provide documented evidence if any of them apply to you.
All this means that it pays to be prepared and have all documentation ready to hand before starting the naturalization process.
What Is the Process for Getting Citizenship?
So, you’ve checked eligibility, printed out your tax returns, and started to think about applying for U.S. citizenship.
The first step is to download, fill out, and submit Form N-400 (officially called the “Application for Naturalization”) along with all required additional documentation. You will also have to pay a fee of $725, which includes $640 for application processing and $85for biometrics services.
The second step will be attending a biometrics appointment where USCIS will process your fingerprints, photo, and signature.
After this, you will receive a notice with a date, time, and location for your U.S. citizenship interview. At your interview, you will be placed under oath and asked to take an English and civics test (unless you qualify for an exemption or waiver). You can see what to study here and even take a free practice test here!
As part of the interview, the USCIS officer will be asking you questions about your application and determining your eligibility for U.S. citizenship. If applying under the three-year rule, you may face questions and scrutiny over whether you have a bona fide marriage and genuinely “lived in marital union.”
Normally, the USCIS will tell you at the end of the interview whether or not your application has been successful.
The final step on your citizenship journey is taking the Oath of Allegiance. In some locations the oath is administered on the same day as your interview, but usually you have to make an appointment to come back for it at a later stage to a USCIS field office.
Once you’ve taken the oath, you will receive a certificate of naturalization and will then be fully able to apply for a U.S. passport and vote! Congratulations, this is a huge achievement!