How long does it take to become a U.S. citizen?
The national average processing time for naturalization (citizenship) applications is a little over 8 months, as of May 31, 2020. But that’s just the application processing wait time (see “Understanding USCIS Processing Times” below). The overall naturalization process involves more steps and a longer timeline.
Here’s a brief summary of how long the naturalization process takes — from application filing to the swearing-in ceremony (with helpful details on what to expect in each step further below):
- Step 1. Processing your Application for Naturalization (Form N-400 processing time): 8 months (average)
- Step 2. Attending your biometrics appointment: 0 months additional
- Step 3. Attending your citizenship interview and exam: 4 months additional (average)
- Step 4. Receiving a decision on your application: 0–4 months additional
- Step 5. Taking the Oath of Allegiance and receiving your Certificate of Naturalization: 0–1.5 months
- Total time to naturalize: 12 months (1 year) to 17.5 months (1.5 years)
It’s important to note that the wait and processing times in this guide are official averages and estimates only and do not reflect possible delays (discussed in more detail below). In practice, the naturalization process may be shorter (one year, for example), depending on where the applicant lives. This is because some U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) field offices handle applications much faster than others (see “Understanding USCIS Processing Times” below).
Completing your application right the first time — and getting started on the process as early as possible — is also crucial to a successful naturalization process. A recent USCIS policy change (effective September 11, 2018) now leaves little room for error in a U.S. citizenship application, among other types of immigration forms. (For more details, please see this immigration policy alert from Boundless.)
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Filing your Application for Naturalization (Form N-400)
The first step of the process takes slightly more than 10 months, on average, but can be faster or slower depending on your location. Note that the processing time for an N-400 application is from receipt through the oath ceremony, not approval of the application.
Sending your U.S. citizenship application and supporting documents to USCIS kicks off the process. The faster you can collect supporting documentation — for example, a photocopy of your green card (Form I-551, officially called the “Permanent Resident Card”) — the sooner you can send these to USCIS, which can then begin to review your application.
It’s important to make sure that your application is complete, your answers are correct, and your supporting documents are in the format and order the U.S. government prefers. If any of your documents is written in a language other than English, you must obtain a certified English translation of that document, as well — so be mindful of these extra steps, which can take additional time to complete. Any missing information or documentation will likely slow down the process.
IMPORTANT: Make sure to notify USCIS any time you move or change your mailing address to avoid missing official notices.
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Attending your biometrics appointment
“Biometrics” is just a technical term for your fingerprints, plus photos and/or signature. USCIS typically schedules the required biometrics appointment about one month after they receive your U.S. citizenship application. You’ll receive an appointment letter (Form I-797C, officially called the “Notice of Action”) from USCIS specifying when and where your fingerprints, photos, and signature will be collected. These will be used to verify your identity. USCIS will also forward your fingerprints to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to conduct a background check.
In order to avoid needing to return for a second biometrics appointment, it’s important to bring all required documentation with you the first time. These documents include your appointment letter, Permanent Resident Card (your “green card”), and second form of ID with your photo (driver’s license, passport, or state ID).
Sometimes, however, a second biometrics appointment is necessary for other reasons. In the relatively unlikely event that the FBI rejects your fingerprints, for instance, USCIS will send you a new appointment letter to take a second set of fingerprints. If the FBI rejects the second set, you’ll need to obtain a police clearance certificate from the police department at each of the places where you’ve lived in the past five years and send these to the FBI. If necessary, it’s best to start gathering these certificates quickly after receiving instructions from the FBI, as police departments handle such requests at different speeds.
During this stage of the process, it’s also possible to receive a notice from USCIS requesting additional information or materials, which will be specified in a letter (officially called a “Request for Evidence,” or RFE). These documents could be court or police records (if USCIS discovers information during the background check that needs clarification or substantiation, for instance). There could also be other required documents listed in this checklist from USCIS. Make sure to send these to USCIS as soon as possible to minimize the delay.
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Attending your citizenship interview and exam
The citizenship interview usually takes place about 14 months, on average, after USCIS receives your naturalization application (sooner or later for some applicants). USCIS will send you a letter — only once — with the date and location of your interview, as well as a list of any documents that you must bring.
For a successful interview, make sure that you:
- Update your mailing address (if it’s changed since you filed your application) to avoid missing your appointment.
- Don’t leave behind any of the requested paperwork (specified in an RFE you received earlier, if any) on the day of your interview.
- Prepare adequately for the interview.
If you can’t attend on the date that USCIS has scheduled, you can request to reschedule the appointment by writing to the office where your interview is to take place. You will then receive a new letter with a revised date and time, but this could be several months in the future, which underscores the importance of showing up on the original date.
In most cases, the citizenship exam is scheduled on the same day as your interview. It’s a good idea to adequately prepare for both components of the exam (English language skills and civics) to avoid needing to retake the test.
If you do not pass, you’ll need to retake the appropriate portion of the exam in order to move on to the next step of the process. You will be asked to return to the appointment location about 60 to 90 days following the initial date of your exam.
IMPORTANT: You must notify USCIS before your appointment date if you anticipate not being able to attend. Otherwise, USCIS will pause (“administratively close”) the naturalization process. If you let a year go by without contacting USCIS after they pause your application, you will be denied. If this happens, you will need to start the process all over again and pay the fees a second time.
RapidVisa — our citizenship partner — is with you until the finish line, helping you respond to government questions and prepare for your citizenship interview.
Receiving a decision on your application
If all goes well and you’ve provided all the paperwork that USCIS needs to make a decision, your naturalization application may be approved on the same day as your citizenship interview and exam. Otherwise, USCIS will have 120 days (four months) from the date of your citizenship interview and exam to send you its decision in writing. More specifically, you’ll receive Form N-652 (officially called the “Notice of Examination Results”).
You can expect one of three outcomes:
1. Your application is approved, in which case you can move on to Step 5 below.
2. Your application is continued, meaning USCIS will place it on hold for one of these reasons:
- You did not pass your citizenship exam (or a portion of it): In this case, you must return for a second interview and retake the necessary portion of the exam. If you do not pass the exam a second time, your application will be denied.
- You did not provide the appropriate documentation or information: In this case, you must wait to receive a Form N-14, explaining what, where, and how to send the required information/documentation to USCIS. You will have 30 days to respond. If you do not fulfill this request within the deadline, your application may be denied.
3. Your application is denied, in which case you will receive a letter from USCIS stating this decision and your options. If you believe you deserved to be approved for U.S. citizenship, you may file an appeal (request a hearing with a USCIS officer) within 30 days of receiving the denial letter. USCIS will then schedule a hearing within 180 days. If the USCIS officer denies your application after the hearing and you still believe you deserve approval, you can request to have a U.S. district court review your case.
To prevent this process from dragging on (and your application from being denied), it’s important to adequately prepare for the citizenship interview and exam. It’s also critical to provide all of the information that USCIS needs in a timely fashion.
Our naturalization partner RapidVisa can help you stay on top of interview preparation, follow-on forms, and every other important milestone along the way.
Taking the Oath of Allegiance and receiving your Certificate of Naturalization
In many cases, your Oath of Allegiance ceremony will also take place on the same day as your interview and exam, assuming your application is approved. Otherwise, USCIS will schedule it about two to six weeks later. You’ll receive a letter (Form N-445, officially called the “Notice of Naturalization Oath Ceremony”) with the date, time, and location of the next available ceremony. You’ll receive your Certificate of Naturalization — and in some cases be able to register to vote — at the same location after taking the Oath.
If you can’t make it to your Oath of Allegiance ceremony, you must return the notice to your local USCIS office, along with a letter requesting a new date and explaining why you cannot make it on the original date. Failing to appear more than once for your naturalization ceremony may lead to a denial of your application.
Remember: You are not yet a U.S. citizen until you’ve taken the Oath of Allegiance, so it’s important that you show up for the ceremony on the dates that you’re scheduled or rescheduled to appear.
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If you’ve made it this far, congratulations! You can begin enjoying your life as a U.S. citizen.
Although you will officially be an American upon taking the Oath of Allegiance, there are important steps to take as soon as possible after naturalizing:
These are not part of the official process but are necessary as a new U.S. citizen.
USCIS is the government agency responsible for processing naturalization applications (and other immigration forms). In order to handle the enormous volume of applications it receives, USCIS is supported by field offices across the United States.
Each applicant is assigned a field office based on their ZIP code, and therefore each field office also receives a different number of applications that directly affects its processing speed compared with other offices. USCIS publishes the processing wait times at each field office and updates the figures once per month.
The processing times are presented as a range between two numbers. For example, the processing time range for naturalization applications (Form N400) at the Seattle, WA field office was 15 to 16.5 months, as of September 12, 2018. The first number reflects “the time it takes to complete 50% of cases (the median),” while the second number refers to the completion time for 93% of cases.
The “national average processing time” referenced at the beginning of this guide actually reflects the first number in the range (the median) averaged across all USCIS field offices in the United States (as of June 30, 2018, the most recent update at the time this guide was published), according to USCIS. This calculation of the national average resets every September.
It’s important to be aware that the backlog of pending U.S. citizenship applications has also grown more than 87% between 2015 and 2017, while wait times have been steadily rising — to 20 months in some cases. This underscores the importance of applying sooner than later if you’re eligible now. (The full details are available in this NBC News report.)
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