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5 mistakes to avoid when applying for citizenship

An overview of the most common citizenship mistakes and how to avoid them

Several common mistakes can make you ineligible for US citizenship, either temporarily (until you can reapply) or permanently. You need to apply at the right time, providing all the information that’s required. Be prepared to explain issues with your application or provide supplementary documents.

In addition, excessive travel in the 3-5 years before you apply can push back the date you’re eligible to become a citizen. Applicants with a criminal record or certain unpaid debts face particular challenges in obtaining citizenship, so it’s best to contact an immigration lawyer for advice on how to proceed.

1. Applying too early

You are ineligible for citizenship until you have been a permanent resident (a green card holder) of the US for 5 years. If you are married to someone who has been a US citizen for at least 3 years, you can apply after 3 years of permanent residency. You must also have lived in the same state for at least 3 months before applying.

The time between filing your naturalization application and going to your naturalization interview can be 3 or more months. USCIS has stated that applicants may apply for citizenship up to 90 days before the date they are eligible to become citizens. Use USCIS’s early filing calculator to see when you can file.

2. Trips outside the US

Long trips outside the US can make you temporarily ineligible for citizenship. In general, trips of 6 months or less will not disrupt your eligibility. However, you must have lived in the US for at least 30 of the past 60 months (2.5 of the past 5 years). Permanent residents married to US citizens only need to show they have lived in the US for 18 of the last 36 months (1.5 of the past 3 years).

Trips longer than 6 months can cause trouble for green card holders, who may have to prove they have not abandoned US residence. In particular, leaving the US for more than a year can put your permanent residence status and citizenship eligibility in jeopardy.

3. Past criminal record, back taxes, and child support

Prospective US citizens must have “good moral character.” Applicants who have been convicted of criminal offenses with a prison sentence of at least 1 year, are ineligible for citizenship permanently.

Other offenses will make you ineligible for a certain period of time. To learn more, read our guide to applying for citizenship with a criminal record.

Not being current on your taxes or child support payments can also jeopardize your application temporarily or permanently. If you have a criminal conviction or unpaid civil liabilities on your record, consult an immigration lawyer before applying.

Deportable offenses

One contradiction in immigration law is that one may be eligible for naturalization and yet be deportable. For example, one may not have had any arrests or criminal charges in the last 5 years and thus meet the good moral character criteria, but may still be deportable for an arrest which occurred well over 5 years ago.

You could face deporation proceedings for having falsely claimed to be a citizen or for voting illegally. If you have been arrested or criminally charged or made any type of a false claim, you are encouraged to consult with an experienced immigration attorney.

4. Forgetting supporting documents

Remember to include all relevant supporting documents before mailing your application. You must submit a copy of your green card and 2 passport style photos along with the application and all supporting documents.

If your application is incomplete, USCIS may request the missing documents from you before continuing to process your application. If you do not provide the necessary documents, USCIS will not process your application and you cannot proceed to the naturalization interview.

5. Failing the tests

Most applicants take English and civics tests during their naturalization interviews, although there are some exemptions based on age and ability. Plan to be ready to pass these tests 2-3 months after you apply for citizenship. Some applicants choose to take a citizenship class to help them study.

You must answer the English and civics questions from memory. The tests are not multiple-choice. If you fail one or both of these tests, you may schedule another interview for 60-90 days later. If you fail again, your citizenship application will be rejected.

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