Frequently Asked Questions About U.S. Citizenship and Naturalization
By Scott M. Borene*
1. Who can apply for U.S. citizenship?
Generally, only non-citizens who have already obtained Lawful Permanent Resident status from the office of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) may apply for U.S. citizenship (i.e. a person must first obtain a “green card” before applying for citizenship). The process by which an immigrant becomes a U.S. citizen is called naturalization.
2. When can one apply for U.S. citizenship?
The general rule is that one can only apply for naturalization after he or she has been a Lawful Permanent Resident for five years and has had continuous residence in the U.S. for the immediately preceding five years. An extended absence from the U.S. may be considered a break in the continuity of residence. Short absences from the U.S. usually do not create a problem. Spouses of U.S. citizens may apply for naturalization after continuously residing in the U.S. for three years rather than five years. In some exceptional cases, it is possible to obtain citizenship immediately after attaining Lawful Permanent Resident status without meeting the three year or five year requirement.
3. How long does it take to get U.S. citizenship?
Processing times vary depending upon multiple case-specific factors. However, from the time of filing the naturalization application to the swearing in, it usually takes at least six months. Processing times at some USCIS offices are a year or more.
4. Are permanent residents required to apply for citizenship?
No. A permanent resident can live in the U.S. for the rest of his or her entire life and never become a U.S. citizen. Some individuals are reluctant to become U.S. citizens because it may require him or her to abandon any foreign citizenship. Increasingly, many countries accept dual nationality. This may allow a person to obtain U.S. citizenship without forfeiting their citizenship in another country. Also, U.S. citizenship carries some additional benefits (discussed below).
5. What are the advantages of U.S. citizenship?
U.S. citizens have the right to vote in public elections, sit on juries and run for public office. Returning to the U.S. after travel outside of the U.S. is much easier for U.S. citizens because they do not need to worry about obtaining travel documents or losing their status. Citizens can work for the federal government and are eligible to apply for certain state government jobs. Sponsorship of family members for immigration purposes may be much faster for U.S. citizens than it is for permanent residents. In addition, there is no limitation on the right of U.S. citizens to receive public benefits. These are just a few of the many advantages of being a U.S. citizen.
6. What duties does someone owe as a U.S. citizen?
An individual must take an oath to become a U.S. citizen. By reciting this oath, an individual affirms attachment to the principles of the U.S. Constitution and states a willingness to serve the United States, if necessary (which may include joining the Armed Forces or providing civil service).
7. Does the U.S. recognize dual citizenship?
In some cases the answer is yes. This is a complex question involving the citizenship laws of more than one country. Some foreign countries will still recognize an individual’s foreign citizenship after they become U.S. citizens while other foreign countries will not. One should check with the appropriate government authorities to determine whether or not a particular country recognizes dual citizenship in a specific case.
8. What legal requirements must someone satisfy to become a U.S. citizen?
The general legal requirements that must be satisfied before an individual can become a U.S. citizen are the following: (1) he or she must have been admitted to the U.S. as a lawful permanent resident, (2) he or she must have continuous residence in the U.S. for the required amount of time, as discussed above, (3) he or she must have resided in the U.S. for the three months immediately preceding the application for naturalization, (4) he or she must have been physically present in the U.S. for an aggregate total of at least half of the period of required continuous residence, (5) he or she must have the ability to read, write, or speak English, (6) he or she must have knowledge and understanding of the fundamentals of the history and government of the U.S., and (7) he or she must have good moral character and be committed to the principles of the U.S. Constitution. There are certain exemptions from the English test if an individual is 50 years of age and over and has resided in the U.S. for a certain number of years.
9. What documents are required for the Naturalization application?
The commonly required documents that must be submitted to the USCIS with the naturalization application are Form N-400, a copy of the individual’s alien registration card (“green card”), photographs, fees, and other relevant supporting documents. Applicants will also be required to get fingerprinted so that the government can perform a background check on the individual before granting citizenship.
10. Are naturalization applicants required to attend an interview as part of the application process?
Yes. Usually the applicant’s knowledge and understanding of U.S. history and government is tested at the interview by the officer asking the applicant a series of questions. In addition, the interview serves as an opportunity for the USCIS to verify that an individual is able to read, write and speak English if it is at issue. After successfully completing the citizenship interview, the individual will be scheduled for an oath ceremony as the last step in the citizenship process. In some cases, security clearance processing may delay completion of citizenship cases for several months.
11. Can the children of naturalization applicants get U.S. citizenship?
A child can derive U.S. citizenship from his or her naturalized parent if the child is a permanent resident and became a permanent resident before his or her 18th birthday. Also, the child must have been under 18 years of age and must not have been married at the time the parent naturalized. Finally, a child can only derive citizenship from a naturalized parent if all of the foregoing is true and either the other parent is a naturalized parent, the relevant parent is the only surviving parent, or the parents are legally separated or divorced and the naturalized parent has legal custody.
12. What is the role of the immigration attorney in the citizenship process?
An immigration attorney will assist with the preparation of the required forms and documents for the naturalization application and can attend the citizenship interview with the client. An individual is not required to be represented by an attorney in the naturalization process, but the assistance of an attorney may simplify the process especially if there are any potential issues with the individual’s immigration history, etc.
*Scott M. Borene is the Founder and Managing Attorney of Borene Law Firm, P. A. The immigration lawyers now with Borene Law Firm have more than 70 years of combined professional experience helping clients with U.S. and global visa and immigration projects. Scott Borene was selected by other lawyers as 2018 Lawyer of the Year in Immigration Law as noted by The Best Lawyers in America and Minnesota Monthly magazine. He has been repeatedly recognized as one of the Top 20 Lawyers in the World “most highly regarded by other lawyers” in corporate immigration law. He is listed in the Best Lawyers in America and acknowledged as an Immigration Law Super Lawyer. He is often called upon to act as an “expert’s expert” to advise other experienced immigration lawyers on complex immigration matters. Scott Borene is a past Director and a past Member of the Board of Governors of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), the world’s largest professional organization of immigration lawyers. In 2002, he was the founder and Conference Chair of AILA’s Global Immigration Summit in New York City, the world’s largest conference of global immigration lawyers. He has written many articles on immigration law and is a frequently invited expert speaker on immigration topics at AILA National Conferences and other major national and international legal conferences. He is the Editor-in-Chief of many leading professional reference books for immigration lawyers including The Global Immigration Guide: A Country-by-Country Survey and The Global Immigration Guide: Crossing Borders for Business, AILA’s most comprehensive books on Global Immigration. He served as Editor-in-Chief of Immigration Options for Academics and Researchers (2005), AILA’s leading Expert Occupational Handbook on immigration issues in higher education. He is the author of Dr. Yes – Some Practical Strategies for the Diagnosis and Treatment of Immigrant Visa Cases of Health Care Professionals. Scott Borene attended Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts as a National Merit Scholar. After graduation from Harvard, he attended William Mitchell Law School in Minnesota. Scott Borene has more than 30 years of experience helping employers obtain work visas for key international talent. Scott Borene can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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