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What Are the Steps To Becoming a U.S. Citizen?

Understand the process of becoming an American citizen

There are a few ways a person can become a citizen of the United States: 

  • They are born in the United States 
  • They are born outside the United States to a U.S. citizen parent 
  • One of their parents naturalized when they were younger than 18 years old 
  • They go through the naturalization process to become a U.S. citizen 

This article will focus on naturalization or the process that a non-citizen adult must go through to become a citizen of the United States.  

After getting a sense of what the process involves, it’s essential to speak with an experienced immigration lawyer about your situation.  

“You want someone in the room who’s on your side” in the immigration process, says Philadelphia immigration lawyer W. John Yahya Vandenberg.  

Eligibility Requirements 

The first general step in becoming a U.S. citizen is to ensure you are eligible.  

There are a few major eligibility requirements set by federal immigration law:  

  • You must be at least 18 years old. Minors or children cannot apply for citizenship. 
  • You must be a permanent resident. Applicants must “have been a permanent resident for five years, or three years if they’re married to a U.S. citizen,” says Vandenberg. To become a lawful permanent resident, you must get a permanent resident card (known as a green card). Read this article to see if you are eligible to become a green card holder. 
  • Physical and continuous presence. In addition to being a permanent resident, applicants “have to be in the United States, on U.S. soil, for either two and a half years or one and a half years,” says Vandenberg. In other words, applicants must be physically present in the U.S. for at least half their required permanent residency. Additionally, applicants must have a continuous presence. This means they should have “no trips longer than six months. If [the absence is] longer than six months but less than a year, we get a chance to argue that the absence wasn’t so long that it broke their residence,” says Vandenberg. However, “if [the absence] is over a year, it just resets that period.” 
  • Demonstrate good moral character. Generally, this means that an applicant has the character of an average citizen in the community. The applicant would make a good neighbor. More practically, good moral character “[means] they have no significant contacts with the police,” says Vandenberg. In other words, the applicant hasn’t committed serious crimes and has never lied on an application.  
  • Oath of allegiance. Finally, says Vandenberg, “they’re willing to take the oath of allegiance [to the U.S. Constitution].” 

Application Process 

Having checked off the eligibility requirements, you’re ready to start the application process. 

  • Complete form N-400. Form N-400 is the citizenship application. It is a lengthy document, with multiple sections requiring a lot of personal information. You will need to include U.S. passport-sized photos of yourself and photocopied supporting documents, including your green card. Be sure to complete the entire form accurately and truthfully and to follow the requirements for your application picture (no side angles, head coverings, etc.).  
  • Complete a background check and biometrics appointment. To submit the N-400 form, you have to complete a background check. A biometrics appointment simply means getting your fingerprints taken at the nearest U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) office. 
  • Submit form N-400. Once you have completed the form, you can submit it along with the filing fees by mail or online.  
  • Go to your naturalization interview. An assigned USCIS officer will conduct the citizenship interview. During the interview, you will complete both an English and civics test to demonstrate your language proficiency and knowledge of U.S. history and government.  

How Long Does the Application Process Take? 

The primary determinant of how long the process takes is “where you live,” says Vandenberg.  

“There are some jurisdictions running through citizenship applications super fast,” he says. “Philadelphia, for example, [currently processes applications] two or three months after filing. This is due in part to officers who conduct video interviews, as well as interviews being conducted early in the morning and on weekends to break down the backlog.”  

However, “not everyone is so lucky,” says Vandenberg. “In Seattle, for example, the current processing time is calculated at nineteen and a half months for 80 percent of their cases. In New York, it’s fifteen months.”  

You can use this calculator from USCIS to estimate current processing times for your area. 

Is there a way to speed up the process? This is largely out of an applicant’s control. Still, “one thing people can do to speed up the process of citizenship is to process their application for citizenship [with USCIS] electronically” rather than by mail, says Vandenberg.  

“It’s good to have a lawyer draft the application, whether electronically or with a hard copy,” he says. 

The Citizenship Ceremony 

Once you have completed the application and it is approved, you’re ready to take the final steps to become a U.S. citizen: 

  • Take the oath of allegiance. Once your application is approved, you will receive form N-445 (Notice of Naturalization Oath Ceremony). You will use this form to schedule your naturalization ceremony. At the ceremony, you will take an oath to the U.S. Constitution
  • Certificate of citizenship. At the ceremony’s conclusion, you will receive your certificate of citizenship.  

It’s now official! 

Should You Get a Lawyer? 

“I always advise people to get a lawyer to represent them through [the immigration] process,” says Vandenberg.  

“Immigration officers are good at their job. They enjoy their job and have an important job,” he says. “But there are good officers who have bad days and bad officers who have good days, and there could be complications that a person may not be ready for.” 

Having an attorney representing you means two things: 

  • First, “if there’s a mistake on the form, the attorney can take responsibility for it. If a person doesn’t have an attorney, the immigration officer can give them the benefit of the doubt [for the mistake], or, depending on how they’re feeling, they can say that the applicant tried to lie. A lie on the application interview can lead to finding a lack of good moral character, which can take years to fix,” says Vandenberg. 
  • Second, “If there’s a disagreement about the law, having a lawyer in the room to explain it to the officer and talk to the officer can really be helpful,” he says.  

“A lawyer will prepare the client for the interview and then represent them at the interview,” he says. “If there is a complication, you want someone in the room who’s on your side… A good lawyer will understand the client and be able to speak up if the client makes a mistake.” 

And mistakes can happen. For example, if a client misunderstands a question, it can lead to terrible results.  

Vandenberg gives an example of a client who was eligible for an interpreter in the citizenship interview but decided not to use one. When the immigration officer asked the client if they had ever claimed to be a U.S. citizen, the client misunderstood the question and falsely said “yes.”  

“That’s a problem—falsely claiming U.S. citizenship can not only lead to a denial, but it can also lead to a deportation (officially called removal proceedings),” says Vandenberg.  

In this situation, Vandenberg was able to intervene and get a translator to help. Once the client got the immigration officer’s question through a translator, they were able to understand and correctly answer “no.”  

Having a lawyer really made a difference in this situation by avoiding a “mistake based on a misunderstanding” that could have had significant consequences, he says.  

A good lawyer helps an individual understand and mitigate the risks of the citizenship process.  

“There is a lot of risk in the citizenship process since the person has to qualify for citizenship in every way… If there’s anything in your immigration history that was a mistake, or there’s something that’s not true, [the immigration officer] can deny the citizenship and, if they wish, seek to revoke the green card,” says Vandenberg.  

Questions for an Immigration Attorney 

Many attorneys provide free consultations, allowing you to get legal advice and decide if the attorney or law firm meets your needs. 

To get the most out of a consultation, ask informed questions such as: 

  • What are your attorney’s fees and billing options? 
  • Do I meet the eligibility requirements to apply for U.S. Citizenship? 
  • How much money does it cost to apply for citizenship? 
  • What is the processing time for the naturalization application? 
  • How long is the citizenship process overall? 
  • What sort of questions will I be asked in the citizenship interview? 

Once you have met with a lawyer and gotten your questions answered, you can begin an attorney-client relationship. 

Look for an immigration law attorney in the Super Lawyers directory for help becoming a U.S. citizen. 

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