What is naturalization?
Naturalization is the process whereby an immigrant may become a U.S. citizen. You must be either a permanent resident (who has lived in the United States for 3 to 5 years) or a member of the U.S. Armed Forces in order to apply for U.S. citizenship. In this article, we will provide a broad overview of the naturalization process, as it applies to current and former members of the U.S. military.
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While the government fee to naturalize is $640 (in addition to the $85 biometrics fee), members of the military are exempt from these costs. This means, applying for U.S. citizenship costs $0 for members of the U.S. military.
This excludes any incidental expenses that might arise during the process (such as those for travel).
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Form N-400 (officially called the “Application for Naturalization”) generally takes around 14 months to process. After taking into account the interview, the decision, and the Oath of Allegiance, the total processing time can be anywhere from 18.5 to 24 months. Some beneficiaries, such as spouses of U.S. service members, may be eligible for an expedited naturalization.
For an updated look at Form N-400 processing times, check out the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) processing times tool. For a more granular breakdown, you can read our in-depth guide on the naturalization timeline.
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As per sections 328 and 329 of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), there are two ways a U.S. military service member may obtain naturalization. The first (INA 328) applies to those who have served for at least 1 year, while the second (INA 329) refers to those who have been in active service during hostile times. We’ll touch on both in this section.
At Least 1 Year
Anyone having served honorably, at any time, for a period of 1 year — be they active members or veterans — may apply for “peacetime naturalization.” To successfully obtain citizenship, the applicant must satisfy certain requirements. These are:
- Must be 18 or older
- Must be a lawful permanent resident at the time of naturalization interview
- Must show good moral character for a minimum of 5 years before applying — up to the moment of naturalization
- Must have served as a member of the U.S. Armed Forces for a total of one year — though the year doesn’t have to be continuous
- Must understand, speak, read, and write English
- Must show that they have knowledge of U.S. history and government
- Must be committed to the overall well-being of the country
- Must support the ideas stated in the Constitution
Note: depending on the circumstances, the applicant may not need to fulfill all the criteria.
A person’s service is deemed “honorable” if their particular branch of the U.S. Armed Forces has specifically designated them as such. The term, U.S. Armed Forces, includes any of the following: U.S. Navy, Army, Space Force, Marines, Coast Guard, or Air Force. An applicant may serve with a unit in the National Guard, as long as the unit is determined at the federal level to be a “reserve component” of the U.S. Armed Forces.
It’s important to note that if the applicant has been discharged, both their discharge and their active service must have been honorable. This means they must have received designations such as “Honorable” or “General-Under Honorable Conditions.” The “Other Than Honorable” designation will not suffice.
If the applicant filed for naturalization 6 months or more after their discharge, they must have lived in the United States on a continual basis for at least 5 years, and they must have been physically present for no less than 30 months during the 5-year period leading up to the filing date. If the applicant served honorably during the 5 years leading up to the filing date, they may count this time toward the physical presence and residence requirements. This is true even if they’ve been deployed abroad.
Important: Those who file while serving in the military — or during the 6-month period following their honorable discharge — can bypass the physical presence and residence requirements altogether.
If the applicant served honorably in the U.S. Armed Services during a “period of hostility” — including the period extending from September 11, 2001, to the present — they may apply to become a U.S. citizen. They must satisfy the requirements below:
- Can be any age
- Must be able to understand, speak, read, and write English
- Must be a permanent resident or, alternatively, be physically present in the United States (including in the Canal Zone, Swains Island, American Samoa, or on a public vessel owned by the United States) at the time of enlistment, re-enlistment, induction, or extension of service in the U.S. Armed Services
- Must have served during a period of hostility (see below)
- Must have demonstrably good moral character for the year leading up to the filing date
- Must show knowledge of U.S. history and government
- Must support the U.S. Constitution
- Must be committed to the well-being of the United States
Having served during hostile times, the applicant need not satisfy the residency or physical presence requirements. The applicant must have served honorably in active duty service or in the Selected Reserve of the Ready Reserve of the U.S. Armed Forces — including the Navy, Army, Marines, Space Force, Air Force, National Guard, or Coast Guard. The same standards mentioned in the previous section regarding the “honorable” designation, apply here.
Below are the designated periods of hostility:
- World War I — April 6th, 1917 to November 11th, 1918
- World War II — September 1st, 1939 to December 31st, 1946
- Korean Conflict — June 25th, 1950 to July 1st, 1955
- Vietnam Hostilities — February 28, 1961 to October 15, 1978
- Persian Gulf Conflict — August 2nd, 1990 to April 11th, 1991
- War on Terrorism — September 11th, 2001 to Present Day
Certain individuals might be eligible under the Military Accessions Vital to National Interest (MAVNI) program, which is a recruitment program for noncitizens with skills that could be useful to the U.S. military. To see whether you’re eligible for the MAVNI program, check out this U.S. Department of Defense fact sheet.
First, it’s important to note that the military often provides an assistant to help file paperwork, so it’s always a good idea to inquire about this service via the chain of command. The application process involves two forms: Form N-400 and Form N-426, both of which we’ll touch on below.
When filling out the initial application, the beneficiary should be sure to follow the instructions, as provided by USCIS. Specifically, they should be sure to select the option indicating that they’re seeking naturalization based on their military service. The applicant can, if they prefer, submit the application online by creating an account.
To learn which documents you need for Form N-400, read our article on the subject.
Form N-426 confirms that the applicant actually served honorably in the U.S. Armed Forces. The form must be certified and signed by a military official within 6 months after filing Form N-400.
If the beneficiary was already discharged when they filed Form N-400, they can submit Form N-426 without certification. Discharged applicants will need to submit one of the following:
- Copy of National Guard Report of Separation and Record of Service (NGB Form 22)
- Copy of Certificate of Release or Discharge from Active Duty (DD Form 214)
- Any other discharge paperwork, as long as it contains the type of separation and service
After receiving the application, USCIS will do a background check and get fingerprints, which can be done in a number of ways. The beneficiary may, for instance:
- Use fingerprints from past immigration applications
- Submit fingerprints through the military police
- Submit fingerprints at a local USCIS field office
Once USCIS has reviewed the application, the agency will send it to a field office, where the applicant will need to attend an interview to demonstrate their grasp of the English language and their knowledge of U.S. civics. If the interview goes well, the applicant will be given a time and location for their Oath of Allegiance, which they must take to become a U.S. citizen.
To better prepare for the interview process, read our article on the topic.
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Are relatives of service members eligible for naturalization?
Yes. Spouses and children of service members who are U.S. citizens may apply for naturalization. If the U.S. citizen partner has been, or will be, stationed abroad for at least a year, their spouse may be eligible for expedited naturalization, and in some cases, they may forgo the physical presence and residence requirements altogether. If the spouse or children live with the service member abroad, they may be able to apply for naturalization while living outside the United States — though they must abide by the “official orders” allowing them to live with the service member.
Can a deceased service member obtain citizenship posthumously?
Yes. An individual who served honorably during their lifetime and who lost their life due to an injury incurred as a result of their service, may be eligible for naturalization. The spouse and children of a deceased U.S. citizen service member may also be eligible for naturalization.
To apply for posthumous citizenship, the next of kin must submit Form N-644 (officially called the “Application for Posthumous Citizenship”) during the 2-year period following the death of the service member.
Can a service member’s naturalization be revoked?
Yes. If an individual obtains citizenship — using their military status – on or after November 24th, 2003, and if prior to serving honorably for a total of 5 years, they were discharged under conditions deemed “Other Than Honorable,” they may have their naturalization revoked.