Law Offices of

Cynthia R. Exner, LLC



American Immigration Lawyers Association










Naturalization: Becoming a US citizen

The path to naturalization or US citizenship begins with first becoming a permanent resident (green card holder) of the United States for most people. There are some exceptions to this premise for those foreign-born who may have assisted the US military during times of war, or in some cases involving adoptions. However, in general a foreign-born person must first become a permanent resident before he/she can qualify for naturalization.

The general rule is that a person must be a permanent resident for a period of 5 years before qualifying to apply for naturalization, have been physically present for at least half of that time, be of good moral character, be able to speak/read/write English, pass a US history test and be willing to swear allegiance to the United States. There are some exceptions to this general rule.

If the immigrant obtained permanent resident status through marriage to a US citizen, and is still happily married to the US citizen, then the immigrant may file for naturalization after only 3 years as a permanent resident. The immigrant must still be able to meet all of the above criteria.

If the immigrant is 55 years old and has been a permanent resident for at least 15 years; or
is 50 years old and has been a permanent resident for at least 20 years; or
has a physical or mental impairment that makes them unable to fulfill the requirements of speaking/reading/writing English, knowledge of US history, or oath of allegiance, the requirements may be modified. In the first two instances, the immigrant can be permitted to take the history exam in their native language. If a person is mentally challenged, the immigrant may be required to submit medical documentation and must be able to understand that he/she is becoming a US citizen.

There is a personal interview required to become a US citizen. At the interview, the US Citizenship and Immigration Officer will reopen the immigrantís permanent resident case and ask detailed questions about the permanent resident case and require documentation supporting the permanent resident case. For instance, if an immigrant obtained legal status through an employer-sponsor case, the USCIS officer may ask about the immigrantís employment history, may request certified copies of tax returns and W-2 forms from the IRS (to be provided by the immigrant), etc. The immigration officer wants to make sure that the permanent resident case was all true, in addition to reviewing the case for naturalization. Many clients think that their permanent resident case is finished and do not consider that it will be reopened again at the naturalization interview.

If the immigrant has been arrested and convicted of a crime in the past, even prior to becoming a permanent resident, it is important to research the affects of the conviction on naturalization and permanent resident status. Immigration laws are constantly changing, and even though a prior conviction may not have been a problem in the past, a change in immigration laws could result in the conviction becoming a deportable/removable offense. Some clients who apply for naturalization on their own, find themselves not only not becoming a US citizen, but put into removal proceedings to lose their permanent resident status.