What is naturalization?
Naturalization is the process through which an immigrant to the United States of America can become a U.S. citizen. Only certain immigrants are eligible: those who either have been green card holders (permanent residents) for 3–5 years or meet various military service requirements.
What is citizenship?
Citizenship is the status granted to someone born to U.S. citizens, or at the end of a successful naturalization process.
Becoming an American citizen comes with many advantages, and it also means taking on new responsibilities.
In this guide you will learn about:
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What is the current naturalization wait time?
The naturalization processing time, from the time you file your citizenship application to when you attend the Oath of Allegiance ceremony, is currently 8-14 months . Boundless has prepared a detailed guide about the steps in the naturalization process and how long each takes.
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How much does it cost to apply for naturalization?
The current government filing fee for naturalization applications is $725, including $640 for processing and $85 for biometrics services. Military applicants are exempt from both the application filing fee and the biometrics fee. Applicants aged 75 and older are exempt from the biometrics fee (see our detailed guide to naturalization costs).
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Eligibility for Naturalization
Who is eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship through naturalization?
Eligibility for naturalization generally depends on a number of factors:
- How long you’ve had your green card
- How long you’ve physically lived in the United States
- Whether you’ve served in the U.S. military (and if so, whether your service was during “peacetime” or “wartime” — see FAQs below for an explanation of these terms)
The following table summarizes the most common groups of individuals who are eligible for naturalization and when they can apply, followed by a more detailed explanation below:
|Who can apply for U.S. citizenship and when?|
|If you are a…||And you’ve physically lived in the U.S. for at least…*||You can apply for naturalization…|
|Green card holder with no special circumstances||30 months (2.5 years)||After 5 years|
|Green card holder who is married to a U.S. citizen||18 months (1.5 years)||After 3 years|
|Widow or widower of a U.S. citizen who died while honorably serving in the military**||Not required||Anytime|
|Green card holder with at least 1 year of peacetime military service||Not required||While in active duty or within 6 months of honorably separating from the military**|
|Green card holder with less than 1 year of peacetime military service||30 months (2.5 years)||After 5 years|
|Green card holder with at least 1 year of peacetime military service and honorably discharged more than 6 months ago**||30 months (2.5 years)||After 5 years|
|Member of the military with any period of wartime service (with or without a green card)||Not required||Anytime|
* Consecutive or otherwise; any period of military service counts as having physically lived in the United States.
** A discharge designated “General-Under Honorable Conditions” is considered “honorable” discharge for naturalization purposes.
If you’re a green card holder with no special circumstances, you can apply for United States citizenship at least five years after obtaining your green card. You also must have physically lived in the U.S. for at least 30 months (two-and-a-half years) out of those five years.
If you’ve been married to a U.S. citizen for at least three years and lived with your spouse that entire time, you can apply to become a United States citizen at least three years after obtaining your green card. You also must have physically lived in the United States for at least 18 months (one-and-a-half years) out of those three years, and your spouse must have been a U.S. citizen for at least three years.
If you’re the widow or widower of a U.S. citizen who died while honorably serving in the U.S. military (and you were living with them at the time of their death), you can apply for U.S. citizenship at any time — as long as you’re a green card holder at the time of your citizenship interview. You need not have held a green card for a certain number of years or have physically lived in the United States for any number of months prior to applying.
If you’ve served in the U.S. military for at least one year during peacetime, you can apply while in active duty or within six months of separating honorably from the military. You need not have held a green card for a certain number of years or have physically lived in the United States for any number of months prior to applying to become a naturalized citizen.
If you’ve served in the U.S. military for less than one year during peacetime, you can apply for U.S. citizenship five years after obtaining your green card (honorable service within this five-year period can count toward that required time, as well). You also must have physically lived in the United States for at least 30 months (or two-and-a-half years) out of those five years.
If you’ve served in the U.S. military for at least one year during peacetime and are filing after six months of separating honorably from the military, you can apply to become a United States citizen five years after obtaining your green card (honorable service within this five-year period can count toward that required time, as well). You also must have physically lived in the United States for at least 30 months (two-and-a-half years) out of those five years.
If you’ve served in the U.S. military for any period during wartime, you can apply anytime and need not be a green card holder. You (or your military spouse) must only have been physically present in the United States (including U.S. territories) or aboard a U.S. vessel when you enlisted, re-enlisted, extended your service, or were inducted into the military. You need not have held a green card for a certain number of years (if you have one) or have physically lived in the United States for any number of months prior to applying for citizenship.
In addition to waiting three or five years after getting your green card (unless you’re applying based on qualifying military service), you must also satisfy the following requirements to proceed with the naturalization process to become a United States citizen:
- You must be at least 18 years old.
- You must not have taken any trips of six months or longer outside of the United States during the three- or five-year wait period.
- You must have been a resident of the state where you plan to apply for citizenship for at least three months.
- You must have “good moral character,” broadly defined as character that measures up to the standards of average citizens in your community. More specifically, however, it means you did not have certain types of crimes — such as murder, illegal gambling, or intentionally lying to the U.S. government in order to gain immigration benefits — on your record at any time before filing, and you did not lie during your naturalization interview. Whether an applicant meets this requirement is decided by the government on a case-by-case basis.
- You must pass a two-part naturalization test: the first is an English language test (covering reading, writing, and speaking skills) and the second a civics test (covering knowledge of U.S. history and government).
- You must be willing to serve in the U.S. military or perform civilian service for the United States if called upon to do so.
- You must register with the Selective Service System if you are male and have lived in the United States between the ages of 18 and 25.
- You must be willing to defend the U.S. Constitution.
Exceptions based on age and disability
|Exception||Exempt from English test?||Exempt from Civics test?|
|Applicants aged 50 and older and have lived in the U.S. as a green card holder for at least 20 years||Yes||No|
|Applicants aged 55 and older and have lived in the U.S. as a green card holder for at least 15 years||Yes||No|
|Applicants aged 65 and older and have lived in the U.S. as a green card holder for at least 20 years||Yes||No*|
|Applicants with medical disabilities that have lasted, or are expected to last, at least 12 months||Yes (with approved waiver)||Yes (with approved waiver)|
*Applicants aged 65 and older are required to study only 20 of the 100 usual questions that most applicants must prepare for. The test administrator will ask 10 of the 20 questions, but the applicant will need to answer only six correctly to pass.
Boundless has more details on the citizenship test exceptions. If you choose to work with Boundless and RapidVisa, our dedicated team of specialists can also guide you through the English and Civics test requirements and how to prepare.
Exceptions based on disability
Applicants with a physical or developmental disability or mental impairment may be exempt from the English and civics test requirement above. They may apply for the exemption by filing Form N-648 (officially called the “Medical Certification for Disability Exceptions”), which is completed by a medical doctor.
Exceptions based on peacetime military service
Individuals who apply for naturalization based on at least one year of peacetime military service are exempt from requirement Nos. 2 and 3 above. To meet requirement No. 4, the applicant’s criminal record must be free of certain crimes at least five years before filing until they naturalize.
Exceptions based on wartime military service
Individuals who apply for naturalization based on any period of wartime military service are exempt from requirement Nos. 1 (they may be any age), 2, and 3 above. To meet requirement No. 4, the applicant’s criminal record must be free of certain crimes at least one year before filing until they naturalize.
Special requirements for U.S. military personnel
Green card holders who are current or former members of the U.S. armed forces must meet additional criteria:
- You must not have deserted (left before discharge) from the U.S. military.
- You must have never received a discharge or an exemption from the U.S. military based on your non-U.S. citizen status.
What if I can’t afford the filing fee?
If you cannot afford the filing fee for income-based reasons, you may apply for a fee reduction or waiver.
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The Naturalization Process
The following is a brief overview of the naturalization process. Make sure to also check out our detailed guide to the U.S. citizenship timeline to help you understand when each stage of the naturalization process takes place.
How to apply for U.S. citizenship
Step 1: Application for Naturalization
The first step to becoming a U.S. citizen is to file an Application for Naturalization (Form N-400) and pay the filing fee (unless you are exempt — see above for details). You may fill out and mail a paper application or complete the application online. If you file online, you must first create an online account with U.S. Citizenship and Naturalization Services (USCIS).
If you’re applying based on your military service, from abroad, or for a fee reduction or waiver, you may not complete your application online. You must mail your application to the appropriate USCIS office.
90-day early-filing rule: You may submit your N-400 to USCIS as early as 90 days before reaching your three- or five-year wait period as a green card holder — as long as you’ve satisfied all other eligibility requirements. You must still wait the full three or five years, however, to become a U.S. citizen. Filing early just lets you get ahead in the application process. (Our guide to the Form N-400 has the full details.)
Step 2: Biometrics Appointment
The next step is to set up your biometrics appointment — basically, getting your fingerprints taken — at your local USCIS field office. As with the family-based green card process, USCIS will take your fingerprints during naturalization in order to conduct a background check. The fingerprinting appointment usually takes place about a month after USCIS receives your U.S. citizenship application.
Step 3: Citizenship Interview and Exam
The citizenship interview is usually scheduled around 14 months after filing your application. Exactly how long it will take to process your naturalization application, however, depends heavily on the USCIS field office handling your case, which is assigned to you based on your ZIP code.
During this interview, a USCIS officer will verify that all of the information on your naturalization application is correct. The interview usually takes place at the nearest USCIS office. If you are applying from abroad, you will attend the interview at a U.S. embassy or consulate. If you are in active military duty, your interview may be held at a military facility.
The citizenship interview is also referred to as a citizenship “exam” because, at the same time, the USCIS officer will also give you a two-part naturalization test (unless you qualify for an exemption): The first component, an English language test, will evaluate your written and spoken English skills. The second, a civics test, will assess your knowledge of U.S. history and basic information about how the U.S. government works. (Check out our detailed guide to the naturalization exam, which includes helpful preparation tips.)
But don’t panic! These tests are fairly basic, and USCIS provides study materials to help you prepare. You’ll also have two chances to take the tests per application: once during your interview and again at a later date to retake any portion that you didn’t pass the first time.
If you pass the interview and exam, the USCIS officer will approve your application at the end of the interview. In some cases, USCIS may ask you for additional documentation or schedule a second interview.
If you do not pass, USCIS will send you a denial letter explaining why, but you may appeal their decision within 30 days of receiving the letter or reapply. A USCIS policy on denied applications taking effect on September 11, 2018 underscores the importance of completing the naturalization application and meeting all requirements correctly the first time.
Step 4: Oath of Allegiance
You’re almost finished! Once your application is approved, you will attend an Oath of Allegiance ceremony. It’s very important that you complete this step. You are not a U.S. citizen until you have taken the Oath of Allegiance.
After your citizenship interview, you’ll receive a notice in the mail with the date, time, and location of the ceremony (usually a local courthouse or USCIS office). The time it takes to schedule the ceremony varies by state.
You’ll be asked to return your green card when you check in. Once the ceremony is over, you’ll receive a Certificate of Naturalization and begin your life as a U.S. citizen!
Benefits of Naturalization
Once you officially receive your Certificate of Naturalization, you’ll have access to a number of benefits that were previously unavailable to you as a green card holder. In this section, we’ll touch on a few of these.
As a green card holder, you may have been able to vote in certain local municipalities, but with a Certificate of Citizenship, you can make an impact on the national stage by casting your vote in federal elections.
Eligibility to Run for Office
To be eligible for candidacy in U.S. elections, you must be a citizen, which means, with a Certificate of Naturalization, you can run for office.
No More Immigration Forms
Moving forward, you won’t need to go through the rigamarole of filing forms with USCIS. That means no more filing fees, no more green card renewals or replacements, and no more having to check in with the U.S. government whenever you decide you want to move.
New Employment Opportunities
Under U.S. law, only U.S. citizens may be hired to work for the U.S. government. While income levels vary, federal employees are generally paid more and have greater benefits than their private-sector counterparts.
Greater Access to Government Assistance Programs
As a green card holder, you have limited access — if any — to federal programs like Social Security and Medicare. But with a Certificate of Naturalization, you’ll no longer face these restrictions. You can even, in certain cases, apply for federal college assistance, which is reserved solely for U.S. citizens.
No More Deportations
Just as with any U.S. citizen, you cannot be forcibly removed from the United States. This is true even if you’re convicted or arrested. A naturalized citizen can only be deported if they are first stripped of their citizenship — which is very rare. For this to occur, the initial application must have been fraudulent in some way.
Ability to Sponsor Relatives Seeking Immigration Status
With a Certificate of Naturalization, you can sponsor any siblings, parents, or adult children who wish to apply for lawful permanent residence in the United States.
Automatic Citizenship for Children
Once you’re naturalized, your children will automatically obtain citizenship, even if they’re born abroad. If your child is born outside the United States, be sure to notify the U.S. embassy or consulate.
The Power of the U.S. Passport
As a citizen of the United States, you’re entitled to a U.S. passport, which comes with a number of benefits. For starters, you’ll have visa-free access to over 180 countries and territories throughout the world, and if, while abroad, you find yourself in an emergency, you’ll be able to contact the local U.S. consulate or embassy. You’ll also have near-complete freedom to travel the globe, as the U.S. government places no restrictions on the duration or frequency of trips abroad. (Note: it’s always a good idea to check the specific visa requirements for any given country before making travel arrangements.)
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Before you begin your journey toward U.S. citizenship, it’s important to understand the basic responsibilities of being an American citizen. Some of the most important duties include the following:
You may be required to renounce your citizenship in other countries. Depending on your home country’s rules for dual citizenship (being a citizen of two countries at the same time), you may need to give up your current citizenship upon becoming an American. The United States permits dual citizenship, but it requires U.S. nationals to use their U.S. passports when traveling in and out of the United States.
Many countries — Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom, for instance — also allow you to be a national of another country. India, Japan, and a number of others, however, require you to relinquish your citizenship in those countries once you become an American.
It’s best to check your home country’s policy on dual nationality before applying for naturalization if you intend to maintain your citizenship in that country.
You may be called upon to serve in the military. Mandatory military service enforced by a draft was officially discontinued in 1973. If reinstated, however, you could be drafted to serve. Any male who is a U.S. citizen or green card holder and has lived in the United States between the ages of 18 and 25 must register with the Selective Service System.
You may need to serve on a jury. In the United States, jury duty in a legal proceeding is mandatory. If summoned, you must attend, but you may not necessarily serve. Only those who are selected by the judge and attorneys after being summoned will actually serve on the jury.
Active-duty military service members, professional fire and police department workers, and some public government officers who serve full time in their positions are exempted from federal jury duty. Individuals who have served on a federal jury in the past two years, are aged 71 and older, or are volunteer first responders generally may request to be excused from service, but policies vary by district court. State and local courts impose their own rules but generally also exempt individuals based on age, disability, or their positions in public office.
You must file U.S. income tax returns for life — no matter where you live. As a U.S. citizen, even if you move abroad, you must still file U.S. income tax returns. As long as you meet certain requirements, though, you’ll be able to exclude from your income up to the yearly limit — currently over $100,000 — allowed by the U.S. government, meaning it won’t be taxed. Any income that exceeds that limit will generally be taxed.
Your criminal history will be heavily scrutinized. If you’ve committed a crime that could make you deportable — such as immigration fraud, drug abuse, or domestic violence — it’s especially important to seek legal assistance before applying for naturalization.
What is a naturalized citizen?
A naturalized citizen is a person who was born outside the United States and obtained U.S. citizenship. Only immigrants who have been lawful permanent residents for 3-5 years or meet certain military service requirements are eligible.
What’s the difference between naturalization and citizenship?
Naturalization is a process. Citizenship is a status. Naturalization is the process by which an immigrant becomes a U.S. citizen after meeting certain requirements, while citizenship applies to anyone who is a United States citizen, regardless of whether they were born within the U.S. or outside the U.S.
Do you have get a green card before applying for U.S. naturalization?
Obtaining citizenship after having a green card is the most common route for the vast majority of naturalization applicants, although certain foreign-born military members or veterans may also be eligible.
What do the terms “peacetime” and “wartime” mean?
“Peacetime” refers to any point in time. “Wartime” refers specifically to the following periods:
- World War I (April 6, 1917–November 11, 1918)
- World War II (September 1, 1939–December 31, 1946)
- Korean War (June 25, 1950–July 1, 1955)
- Vietnam War (February 28, 1961–October 15, 1978)
- Persian Gulf War (August 2, 1990–April 11, 1991)
- War on Terrorism (September 11, 2001–present)
Although peacetime naturalization is always an option for any applicant with at least one year of military service, anyone eligible for wartime naturalization would almost certainly choose that path instead.
Avoiding Naturalization Pitfalls
Naturalization via Military Service
Completing the Application for Naturalization (Form N-400)
Documents Required for Citizenship
What You Need to Know About the Certificate of Naturalization
What Are the Benefits of United States Citizenship?
What Are the Requirements for Naturalization?
How Much Does Naturalization Cost?
How Long Is the Naturalization Process?
Preparing for the Naturalization Interview
Common Naturalization Interview Questions
Understanding the Naturalization Exam
Citizenship Oath of Allegiance Ceremony
Immigration & Naturalization Forms