Permanent residents may apply to become U.S. citizens through a process called naturalization. Naturalization is the last step in the U.S. immigration process and usually the last time the Bureau of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will review your immigration file not only to see whether you are eligible for citizenship but also to make sure you are eligible to stay in the United States.
Permanent residents should strongly consider applying for U.S. citizenship. U.S. citizenship gives a person many rights and privileges, including the right to vote, the ability to travel freely outside the United States for long periods of time and return, the right to apply for special government jobs, and eligibility for public benefits not available to non-citizens. The most important benefit of naturalization is U.S. citizens cannot be removed or deported from the United States.
Naturalization from permanent resident to U.S. citizenship is not always the right path to take. When you apply for U.S. citizenship, you are required to give a lot of personal information to the government. It is possible that applying for naturalization may trigger the government beginning removal (deportation) proceedings against you.
When applying for naturalization, you are required to disclose the number of visits outside the U.S. as well as the duration (length) of those visits. It is possible that you may have unknowingly forfeited your rights as a permanent resident.
In addition to your citizenship application being denied, it is possible the government may argue that you are no longer qualified to be or permitted to be a permanent resident. Another case in which you would definitely not want to apply for U.S. citizenship is if you have a criminal history that makes you deportable from the United States. As an immigration attorney, I can discuss how applying for naturalization may impact your status as a lawful permanent resident and help you decide what path is best for your situation.
Voting rights - make your voice heard and impact your community!
The ability to travel freely without restrictions.
Eligibility to apply for special government jobs.
Eligibility for public benefits not available to non-citizens.
Generally, before you apply for U.S. citizenship, you must:
be at least 18 years old;
have continuously resided in the United States as a permanent resident for at least five years;
have been physically present in the United States for at least two and a half years out of the last five years; and
reside in the state or the district in which your citizenship application will be filed for at least three months before you apply.
Meeting these eligibility requirements does not mean that you will be allowed to become a naturalized U.S. citizen. An Austin Immigration Attorney can help you understand the requirements and suggest ways to support your case. You must also show that you have "good moral character," pass the English literacy and civics test, and promise that you agree with the principles of the U.S. constitution by taking the Oath of Allegiance.
Becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen requires that the government must find that you were a person of "good moral character" for the five years before you apply for citizenship.
There are two exceptions to this rule:
If you were convicted of an "aggravated felony" after November 29, 1990, you will not be allowed to show that you are a person of "good moral character," even if you were convicted more than five years before the date of your citizenship application.
Many different kinds of crimes qualify as an "aggravated felony" under U.S. immigration law. Even some state law misdemeanors are aggravated felonies according to U.S. immigration law. If you have any sort of criminal history or have ever been in trouble with the police, you should consult with an Austin immigration attorney before you apply for U.S. citizenship.
It is a good idea to consult with an Austin immigration attorney to help you understand the rules and exceptions to the rules. For instance, even if you were not convicted of an aggravated felony, the government may look at your life before the five years if doing so would help determine whether you otherwise lack "good moral character."
To meet the English requirement, you must show that you can "read and write simple word phrases."
The immigration officer will also make sure that you have the ability to speak and understand English. Certain groups of people are exempt from the English requirement. For example, if you are 50 years or older and have been a permanent resident for more than 20 years, you are exempt. If you are over 55 years old and have been a permanent resident for more than 15 years, you are also exempt.
In addition to the English requirement, you must show "a knowledge and understanding of the fundamentals of the history, and of the principles and form of government, of the United States."
The immigration officer will test your knowledge of U.S. history and government from a standard list of 100 questions. In most cases, only six to ten questions will be asked, and you must get at least six questions right to pass the test. USCIS has made available Study Materials for the Naturalization Test as well as Scoring Guidelines for the Naturalization Test (PDF).
To become a naturalized U.S. citizen, you must have five years of continuous residence since becoming a permanent resident.
Your five years of residence before the date of your citizenship application must be continuous. Absences of less than six months do not break the continuous residency requirement. But any absence from the United States between six months and one year creates a presumption that you violated the continuous residency requirement
You can overcome this presumption by providing evidence that you had no intention of giving up your residence in the United States during your absence. It is a good idea to consult with an Austin Immigration Attorney before you make plans to leave the country for any length of time.
If you are outside the United States for more than one year, you have broken the continuous residency requirement. Generally, before becoming eligible for U.S. citizenship, you will have five years of continuous residency from the date you returned to the United States.
If you are outside the United States for more than one year, there is a presumption that you have abandoned your permanent residency in the United States. To prevent this from happening, if you know you will be absent from the United States for more than a year and want to keep your permanent resident status, you should apply for a Re-Entry Permit before you leave the United States.