For many people, United States citizenship is the ultimate goal of the immigration process. The benefits of citizenship include the ability to vote, the ability to apply for permanent residence (or “green card”) for family, and freedom from deportation or removal if there are any changes in the law, or if ignorance of US law causes someone to run afoul of the authorities; for example, the permanent residents from the Philippines who were charged with enslaving their maid. Although they claimed that the charges were the result of a misunderstanding of cultural norms for domestic employees, they are now facing possible deportation — which, if they had been citizens, would not have been the case.
In most cases, a permanent resident can apply for U.S. citizenship after having had the green card for five years (although USCIS allows applications to be submitted three months before the five year mark) or, in the case of those who got their green cards through marriage to a US Citizen and are still married to the petitioning citizen, three years (USCIS allows applications to be submitted three months before that time, as well). There are special rules for permanent resident members of the armed services, and in some cases, for spouses of members of the armed services.
To apply for citizenship, use the form N-400.
There are some preliminary concerns:
- Are you at least 18 years old?
- Have you lived in the district where you’re filing for at least three months?
- Have you paid your taxes (not on the NR forms) since obtaining your green card?
- If you are a male and had your green card at any time between the ages of 18 and 26, did you register with Selective Service?
- Can you read, write, speak and understand the English language?
- Have you been in the U.S. for at least half of the last five years (or
of the last three years, if applying based on marriage to a U.S.
- Have you ever been arrested?
- Have you ever left the U.S. for more than six months at a time?
If you answered “no” to any of questions 1-6, or “yes ” to any of questions 7-8, you should consult with an immigration attorney. This is generally a good idea anyway, as immigration law is quite complex and subject to change. Besides these questions, there are many more questions on the N-400 which can be traps for the unwary.
Once you apply, if your application packet is in order (with photographs, the current application fee, and a copy of your permanent resident card, plus whatever supporting documentation is needed), you’ll first be called in for fingerprints, and then for your naturalization interview. The time this takes can vary, depending on the backlog at your local District Office. In Boston, the wait times are fairly short… 4 to 8 months, in many cases.
USCIS should have done a criminal records check by the time of your interview. The interview will consist of a review of your papers by the District Adjudications Officer, a civics exam, and a test of your understanding of the English language. In some cases, depending on age or disability, it’s possible to get a waiver of the English requirement (you can bring a translator to assist), or to take a simplified version of the civics exam. If you pass the exams, USCIS will schedule a swearing-in ceremony, though sometimes, you have to wait for the results of the background check.