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How to apply for US citizenship

Credit: Naturalization Ceremony by Jen Nance

1. Introduction

Naturalization is the most common path to citizenship for permanent residents in the United States. US citizenship offers many benefits to those who are approved, but the path to get there is often long and complicated.

This is our definitive guide on how to become a US citizen through naturalization. Here we'll guide you through the fundamental steps of applying for US citizenship: the documents and forms you'll need, tips for the interview, how to prepare for the tests, and what to do when you become a naturalized US citizen.

Number of naturalizations by state
Source: Department of Homeland Security, 2014

2. Before you start

Before you apply for US citizenship, you'll need to make sure you meet all the requirements set by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS). Once you send in your US citizenship application, a USCIS officer will look into your history as a permanent resident, and may perform further background checks.

Many people are able to successfully complete the process by themselves, though there are a small number of cases where ineligibility results in removal proceedings. If you are unsure of your eligibility, we recommend speaking with an immigration attorney about your case history.

Do you qualify?
You are at least 18 years old.
You have held a green card for the past 5 years.
You have lived within your state for at least 3 months before applying.
You have lived in the United States for 5 years, without leaving the country for more than 6 months at a time.
You have been physically present in the United States for a minimum of 30 months total in the last 5 years.
You are a person of good moral character.
You are able to live continuously within the United States from the time you file until you are naturalized.
You can pass the English and civics tests during your naturalization interview.

These requirements are slightly different if you have been married to a US citizen for at least 3 years or have served in the armed forces.

Differences in eligibility requirements
Continuous residencyPhysical presence
Standard rule5+ years30+ months total out of the last 5 years
Marriage rule3+ years18+ months total out of the last 3 years
Tip: Good moral character is difficult to define, but it is very important to your case. You can read more about it on the USCIS website. Filing for naturalization with a criminal history can put your residency at risk. Speak to an immigration lawyer if you've ever had an encounter with law enforcement.
Credit: Image by Jay Baker, Maryland GovPics

How much does it cost?

$725 total cost

$640 application fee + $85 biometrics fee

The cost of applying for US citizenship is a hurdle for many who want to become citizens, but there are options available to lower this cost. If you are eligible, you can find fee waiver forms on the USCIS website.

Tip: All government forms are available for free, including USCIS forms like N-400. We'll link to the free forms throughout this guide.

How long does it take?

5-8 months

From start to finish

The total length of the naturalization process usually takes 5 to 8 months. If you live in an area with a large immigrant community, it may take longer for the local USCIS office to process your application. You can find out an estimated wait time in your area by visiting the USCIS Processing Time Information portal.

Here is a typical timeline for the application process, based on the moment Form N-400 is submitted:

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3. How to fill out Form N-400

The first step to becoming a US citizen is completing Form N-400, Application for Naturalization. This form allows USCIS to collect information about your medical, legal, and personal history, to make sure you're eligible for citizenship.

The latest version of the US citizenship application is always available for free through the USCIS website or by calling 800-870-3676.

Here are the documents that are helpful to have while you're filling it out:

  • Green card (permanent resident card)
  • Social security card or number
  • Dates and receipts of trips traveled abroad
  • Selective service registration information (men only)
  • Address information for the past 5 years
  • Job and school information for the past 5 years
  • Contact information of current and former spouses (if applicable)
  • Contact information of children (if applicable)
Tip: It's a good idea to make extra copies of all your documents, just in case something is lost during processing. Once you complete Form N-400, be sure to make a copy of that too. It will help to reference it while preparing for your naturalization interview.

Many of the sections in Form N-400 are straightforward, but pay careful attention to the instructions that USCIS provides. If any information is missing or answered incorrectly, USCIS may delay your case to request additional information.

It is just as important to answer each section with complete honesty. Not only will misleading information hurt your case, it may jeopardize your current status as a permanent resident. If you're working with an immigration attorney, be sure to discuss any questions or concerns you have before completing the form.

Filling out your US citizenship application

Form N-400 consists of 18 sections, but you'll only need to fill out the first 15 right now. Here we'll cover each section individually: how to handle difficult questions, when to seek advice from an attorney, and how USCIS will use your information throughout the process.

Tip: USCIS will use scanners to read your form and documents, so make sure your answers are neat and the form is complete. If a section doesn't apply to you, write "N/A". Use black ink, whether your answers are printed or written by hand.
  • Part 1. Information about your eligibility

    This section lets USCIS make sure you meet the most basic requirements for eligibility. If you think you qualify for any option other than A or B, an immigration lawyer can look into your case and help you determine the right course of action.

  • There are a few areas to keep an eye on in this section, starting with the first 4 questions about your name.

    1. If your name changed when you got married or divorced, use the name that appears on your marriage certificate or divorce decree. Otherwise, use what is on your birth certificate.
    2. If your name is misspelled on your permanent resident card, write it misspelled on this form. You will get a chance to correct it later.
    3. If you have any nicknames or maiden names, add them here. If not, write "N/A".
    4. This box allows you start the process of legally changing your name. If you choose to do so, you'll need to be sworn in by a Federal Judge when your application is approved. You can confirm this with USCIS during your naturalization interview.

    Questions 12 and 13 address exemptions to the language and civics requirements.

    If you think you will be unable to pass the English or civics requirements for naturalization due to a disability, mark "yes" for question 12 and submit Form N-648 along with your application.

    Answering "yes" to any part of question 13 allows you to skip the English test portion of the interview.

    You may be eligible for exemptions if you are in any of these categories:

    • You are 50 or older at the time of filing your application and have been a permanent resident for at least 20 years.
    • You are 55 or older at the time of filing and have been a permanent resident for at least 15 years.
    • You are 65 or older at the time of filing and have been a permanent resident for at least 20 years.

    You will still need to pass the civics test, but you can take it in your native language.

  • USCIS offers accommodations to applicants with low vision, that are hearing-impaired, or have another disability that would make naturalization difficult. If you need additional help, complete these sections, and USCIS will help provide the support you need to complete the interview.

  • USCIS will almost always contact you through the mail, but an officer may call you about your application status. If you have difficulty hearing and use a TYY telephone connection, add "TYY" after your phone number.

  • This section helps USCIS verify that you meet the continuous residence minimum for eligibility:

    • 5 years for typical applicants
    • 3 years for spouses of US citizens

    Later in the form, you can explain any trips you took outside the United States during the required timeframe. If you have any long absences, it is a good idea to speak with an immigration lawyer before submitting the application. If USCIS believes you abandoned your residence at any point, your case could be denied.

    In addition to your home address, you need to add your mailing address. This address should be the most secure place for USCIS to communicate with you. Some people prefer a PO box or a trusted friend, particularly if they are planning to move during the process. USCIS will send all your important application information to this address.

    If you live at a shelter or receive benefits under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), you are protected from listing your home address in this form. You may simply write "Confidential", along with your city and state. However, you will need to provide a mailing address, such as a PO box, so USCIS can contact you during the process.

  • This section asks about your parents' citizenship status. If either of your parents became a US citizen before you turned 18 years old, you may already be a US citizen.

    Many new laws and provisions have come into effect since 2000, so if you are unsure of your current status, discuss your situation with an immigration lawyer before submitting Form N-400.

  • Your biographic information will be used to help USCIS determine that you are a person of good moral character. They will use the information here to conduct an FBI background check. USCIS will run a second investigation after they collect your fingerprints at your biometric exam.

    It is important to be truthful with your answers here. A criminal history may not result in your application being denied, but giving false information to USCIS has severe consequences. If you have ever been arrested while living in the United States, contact an immigration attorney to review your case before continuing with this process.

  • List any international trips you've taken during your time as a permanent resident. If you're applying for citizenship through marriage, you'll only need to include trips that occurred in the last 3 years. The information you include in this section will help USCIS determine that you meet the continuous residence and physical presence requirements.

    As a resident, you may travel abroad for vacations or work trips. However, USCIS requires that you live in the United States continuously to be eligible for citizenship.

    For trips that lasted between 6 months and 1 year, you may need to prove that you still lived in the United States while you were away. If any of your trips lasted longer than a year, and you did not get approval from USCIS before you left, you have broken continuous residence. You can apply for naturalization 4 years and 1 day after the date you received your re-entry permit. If you are applying for citizenship through marriage, that time is reduced to 2 years and 1 day.

    Under "Your Occupation", you can write "N/A", or briefly describe what you were doing during those dates if you were not working. For example, you could write "Retired", "Caring for young children", or "On disability leave".

    Tip: You may need extra space to include all your jobs and schools. Use a separate sheet of paper and include it with your application. Label it "Part 8", then sign and date it when you are finished.
  • This section will help USCIS understand how you supported yourself during your time as a permanent resident. A USCIS officer will review your work history to make sure you were legally employed during your stay and that you filed your income taxes.

    Continuous residency

    If you earn enough to pay income taxes, you may be required to show your federal tax returns before you can naturalize. If you don't earn enough to pay income taxes, USCIS may look into public benefits you received in the past. As long as you received those benefits legally, it will affect your case.

    Start with your current or most recent employment and work backward. Include times where you were unemployed or self-employed. Begin each section with "Unemployed" or "Self-employed" and include as much information about those periods as you can.

    Physical presence

    In the right-hand column of this section, you'll add up the days you spent outside the US. If any of your trips were for military purposes, you don't need to count them. In order to be considered physically present during your residency, you need to have spent more time in the United States than in other countries.

    Tip: You may need extra space to include all your trips abroad. Use a separate sheet of paper and include it with your application. Label it "Part 9", then sign and date it when you are finished.
  • USCIS asks you to list your current and past marriages here to make sure you've never used marriage to gain immigration or public benefits illegally. To qualify for the 3-year process, you must have been married to, and living with, your US-citizen spouse for the last 3 years. This is commonly referred to as the marriage rule.

    Depending on your situation, only certain portions of Part 10 will apply. Fill in the questions that apply to you. Be prepared to provide documents to back up your claims, like marriage certificates or divorce decrees. If you are single and have never been married, check the first box and skip ahead to section 11.

    Tip: You may need extra space to include your full marriage history. Use a separate sheet of paper and include it with your application. Label it "Part 10", then sign and date it when you are finished.
  • In this section, give information about all your children, whether they are living or deceased, adopted, or a stepchild. USCIS will review any child support duties you have and make sure you are making payments.

    If any of your children are unmarried and under the age of 18, they may automatically derive citizenship when you naturalize. An immigration attorney can help you determine if your children qualify, and assist you in that portion of the process.

    Tip: You may need extra space if you have more than 4 children. Use a separate sheet of paper and include it with your application. Label it "Part 11", then sign and date it when you are finished.
  • Questions 1-43

    This long list of questions plays a big part in determining whether or not USCIS believes you have "good moral character". Take your time answering these, and pay close attention to the questions being asked before selecting a response. Answering "yes" to many of these questions can make you ineligible for naturalization.

    While you should never give false information to USCIS, you could jeopardize your status or future naturalization opportunities by submitting this form. Speak with an immigration attorney if you have any concerns about how your history could affect your application.

    Question 44

    Question 44 covers the selective service and only applies to men between 18 and 31 years of age. Read our Immigrants and the selective service guide for tips and information.

    Questions 45-50

    The final questions in this section help USCIS gauge your willingness to pledge allegiance to the United States. You must support the US Constitution to be considered for citizenship. You must also be willing to perform civic or military duties when called upon.

    If your personal beliefs keep you from bearing arms or participating in combat on behalf of the United States, attach an explanation along with this sheet. You will need to be willing to contribute to noncombatant services or civic duties instead.

  • Now that you've completed the first part of the application, carefully read Part 13. Answer the remaining questions and add a signature. If you completed the application with the help of an interpreter, continue to Parts 14 and 15.

  • If you used an interpreter to help translate Form N-400 for you, enter that person's information and have them sign the form. This is to help USCIS make sure the person helping you with this form is fluent and clear in communicating each section.

  • Like Part 14, Part 15 only applies if you had someone help fill out the form. If someone filled out the form on your behalf, have them fill out Part 15.

What to include with your application

When you are finished, review each section of Form N-400 carefully. If you needed extra space to fill out certain sections, make sure they are labeled. Everyone who applies for naturalization needs to include several additional documents with their application.

All applicants must include these required documents:

  • A completed and signed Form N-400
  • A photocopy of your green card, front and back
  • 2 identical passport-style photos, with your name and alien registration number written in pencil on the back
  • Your filing fee payment. If you want to pay with a credit card, fill out Form G-1450 and attach it to the top of Form N-400.

You might need to supply additional paperwork too. See our detailed document guide for a full list of what you may need to include in your application.

If you want to get a text or email notification when USCIS receives your application, fill out Form G-1145, e-Notification of Application/Petition Acceptance, and include it with your paperwork.

Once you have your application package together, you'll need to mail it to a USCIS PO box. Depending on where you live, the mailing addresses will be in either Arizona or Texas:

Find out where to mail your application
P.O. Box 660060
Dallas, TX 75266

A few weeks after sending in your application, you should receive a notice called Form I-797C, Notice of Action. This form confirms that USCIS has received your application. It also lists your receipt number, which allows you to check your case status.

Shortly after this, you'll receive another notice with information about your biometrics appointment. Make a copy and add the date and time to your calendar.

It may take more than a few weeks to receive these notices, depending on the number of applications USCIS is processing.

4. Your biometrics appointment

You most likely went to a biometrics appointment when you applied for your green card, but you'll need to do it again as part of the naturalization process. Here we'll discuss what to bring to the appointment, as well as what to expect when you get there.
Credit: Image by Matt Aronoff, National Institute of Technology

The appointment will take place at a local USCIS application support center. The date, time, and address will be listed on the appointment notice, Form I-797C. Remember to bring both the appointment notice and your green card with you. Because USCIS offices are federal buildings, you will most likely need to walk through a metal detector when you arrive. The appointment itself should only last about 20 minutes, but be prepared to wait up to an hour, depending on how busy the office is that day.

During the appointment, you will get fingerprinted and photographed. This helps USCIS verify that you are who you say you are, and allows them to run a background check to make sure you haven't been convicted of a crime that would make you ineligible for citizenship. Once that's done, you'll provide your e-signature to affirm that the information in your N-400 application was complete, true, and correct at the time of filing.

Before you leave, you will receive a stamp on your appointment notice, indicating that you completed the appointment. Keep this document with your immigration paperwork just in case USCIS loses your appointment records.

In the next few months, you will receive another Form I-797C, Notice of Action, in the mail. This is your interview appointment notice. It includes the date, time, and location of your interview.

5. The citizenship interview

It's normal to feel nervous before your interview, but simply understanding what to expect will help ease you through the process. Here we will give an overview of the interview, how to best prepare, and how to study for the tests.

Here are the documents you need to bring:

  • A copy of your interview notice (Form I-797C)
  • A copy of your green card
  • A copy of both sides of your green card
  • A copy of your driver's license or state-issued ID card
  • A copy of your tax returns from the last 5 years, or 3 years if you are filing through marriage to a US citizen
How to prepare for the interview

The interview consists of several parts: a review of your application and the reading, writing, and civics tests. The whole process lasts about an hour and takes place in a room with you and a USCIS officer.

To prepare, you can take practice tests online. Be sure to familiarize yourself with all 100 questions and answers listed on the USCIS website. These will be the same questions asked during the test. If you prefer to learn in a group setting, many communities offer free citizenship classes and English conversation groups as well.

What to expect on the day of the interview

Plan to arrive at least 30 minutes early. When you arrive, you will need to show your appointment notice and ID to the building's security officer. Let them know you are here for a naturalization interview. They will direct you to a waiting room where you will check in with an immigration officer at the front desk. Once you are checked in, you can wait until your name is called. An immigration officer will take you to their desk and ask you to stand, raise your right hand and swear that you will tell the truth. Then they will begin the interview.

Application review

The USCIS officer will start by reviewing your application with you. You'll be asked questions about your application to make sure your answers match what you wrote on Form N-400. They'll also review the supporting documents that you included with your application. If you forgot to submit a required document with your application, bring it to the interview.

This process takes about 20 minutes. If are unsure about a question the officer asks you, ask them to repeat or rephrase the question. Let the officer know of any changes that may have occurred (if you have a new address, if you've been married or divorced) since you sent the application.

The officer will ask you about:

  • Your background. Where were you born? What are the names of your family members?
  • Your place of residence. Where you live and how long you have lived there? Have you taken any trips outside of the United States?
  • Your moral character. Have you ever been arrested or convicted of a crime? Do you have a steady employment history? Have you recently divorced?
  • Allegiance to the United States. Will you promise to uphold the values of the US constitution?

You should review a copy of your completed Form N-400 in the days leading up to the interview. While you should be able to answer simple questions about yourself and your family, it might be harder to remember specific travel dates. Reviewing this information will help you confidently finish your interview. They may also ask you to elaborate on information you included in your application.

When you've finished answering these questions, the officer will ask you to sign your application and the two photos you submitted. The first part of the interview is done, and you'll move on to the tests.

The English test

The English test has 2 parts: a writing test and a reading test. It will take about 20 minutes to complete both. Applicants over the age of 50 may be exempt from this part of the interview.

Writing test

The officer will read you a sentence in English, and you will write down what they said onto a piece of paper. The officer will check to make sure you can differentiate the words they are saying and that you are able to spell basic English words. Ask the officer to repeat the sentence if you need to hear it again. You will get 3 tries to do this correctly.

Reading test

The officer will give you a piece of paper with 3 sentences. You will need to correctly read at least 1 of them out loud to the officer.

The civics test

The officer will ask you 10 questions about US civics. USCIS will randomly choose these 10 questions from a list of 100. You don't need to answer all 100 at the interview, but you should study all of them since you won't know which 10 questions they will ask.

The test is conducted orally, meaning the officer will ask the question out loud in English, and you will answer out loud too. It is not multiple choice. If you are unsure of the answer, take your time, and ask the officer to repeat the question. If you do not know the answer, you can say that you do not know, or guess. To pass the test, you must correctly answer at least 6 out of 10 questions. Once you answer 6 questions correctly, the officer will move on the next part of the interview.

If you qualify to take the test in your native language, you may have an interpreter present at the interview. You can bring your own interpreter, or USCIS will select this person for you. Your interpreter can be a friend or family member, but they must be fluent in both languages.

“Celebrate Citizenship, Celebrate America” by COD Newsroom, College of DuPage
After the interview

Once you've finished the interview, the officer will let you know if you've passed. They will give you Form N-652, which will list the results of your interview and what to expect next.

1 to 4 weeks after the interview, you will get a final decision notice from USCIS, Notice N-445. The notice will state that your application has been:

  • Granted: you are eligible for naturalization. Your notice will include the date, time, and location of the naturalization ceremony.
  • Continued: you need to provide additional evidence/documentation, failed to provide USCIS the correct documents, or failed the English or civics test the first time.
  • Denied: you are not eligible for naturalization at this time. You'll receive info that explains how to appeal the denial if you believe USCIS made a mistake, but in most cases, it's easier to re-apply once you become eligible.

If you fail any part of the tests, you'll have another chance to retake the part you failed 60 to 90 days after the initial interview. USCIS may also request more documents before approving your application.

If your application is approved and you successfully completed the interview, your next step will be the naturalization ceremony. The date and time of this event will be listed on Form N-445, Notice of Naturalization Oath Ceremony. The ceremony may be scheduled the very same day, or it may be several weeks after your interview.

Remember that you are not a US citizen yet. It's important to maintain your eligibility status until you've attended the oath ceremony.

6. The oath ceremony

The oath ceremony is the last step in your path to citizenship. It will take place approximately 1 month after your interview.

For many, the oath ceremony is an important milestone, similar to a graduation. Immigrants from all over the world gather at a local district court of USCIS office to officially become US citizens together. Friends and family members are welcome to attend too.

What to expect

Form N-445, Notice of Naturalization Oath Ceremony will list the time, date, and location of your ceremony. It will also have a list of items to bring to the ceremony.

You'll need to bring:

  • Your completed Form N-445
  • Your green card
  • Any other immigration documents that you won't need as a US citizen, including reentry permits or refugee travel documents.
  • Your children, if they have also been approved for naturalization

On the back for Form N-445, there is a list of questions confirming you are still eligible for US citizenship. If you answer "yes" to any of these questions, a USCIS officer will ask you to explain, to confirm that you are still eligible.

When you arrive, you'll first check in with an officer. They will review your completed Form N-445, then ask you to return your green card and any other immigrant travel documents—you will no longer need them as a US citizen.

Soon, the ceremony will begin. A judge will enter the room and administer the Oath of Allegiance.

The Oath of Allegiance is a formal pledge, that means you will give up your loyalty to your previous country. You will support US laws, and you will defend the country in any way you can, if the law requires it. The judge may ask you to repeat the oath after them, or they may read the oath and ask the applicants if they accept the oath.

"I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God."

Then, you will hear a congratulatory speech. This may be presented in-person or via a pre-recorded video. At the end of the speech, the judge concludes the ceremony and a USCIS officer will distribute the naturalization certificates. This means you are officially a US citizen.

Next steps
Rights of US citizensResponsibilities of US citizens
  • Freedom to express yourself.
  • Freedom to worship as you wish.
  • Right to a prompt, fair trial by jury.
  • Right to vote in elections for public officials.
  • Right to apply for federal employment requiring US citizenship.
  • Right to run for elected office.
  • Freedom to pursue life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
  • Support and defend the US Constitution.
  • Stay informed of the issues affecting your community.
  • Participate in the democratic process.
  • Respect and obey federal, state, and local laws.
  • Respect the rights, beliefs, and opinions of others.
  • Participate in your local community.
  • Pay income and other taxes honestly, and on time, to federal, state, and local authorities.
  • Serve on a jury when called upon.
  • Defend the country if the need should arise.

US citizenship brings an entirely new set of responsibilities. You’ll need to update your social security records, apply for a US passport, and register to vote. US citizens can also sponsor their immediate relatives for a family green card.

Want to learn more about applying for US citizenship?
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