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Applying for US Citizenship

July 2011 - By Shahzad Ahmed with NeJame Law

Becoming a U.S. citizen is a dream for many immigrants to the United States. But unless if you are born in the United States or have acquired citizenship derivatively through a parent, then you must fulfill certain requirements in order to naturalize in the U.S. What are these requirements? Let's review these.

5 years of lawful permanent residence

In order to be eligible for naturalization, one must first have maintained continuous residence in the U.S. for at least 5 years and up until the grant of citizenship. The law does provide an exception and permit you to apply after only 3 years of permanent residence if you have been married to and living with a U.S. citizen. There is an exception for those in the military service.

Moreover, you can apply 3 months in advance of either the 5 or 3 years.

The L-1 Visa has two different subcategories: L-1A and L-1B. The L-1A visa is available for managers and executives and the L-1B for staff with specialized knowledge about the company's products and services, systems, proprietary techniques, management, research, or procedures.

Physical presence

Many individuals often confuse the requirement of physical presence with that of continuous residence. The continuous residence requirement, discussed above, requires one to maintain residence within the U.S., but not necessarily be physically present in the U.S. Thus for example, one may be on a temporary trip abroad while maintaining residence in the U.S. Although that time abroad may not disrupt the continuity of residence in the U.S., it will disrupt one's physical presence required in the U.S.

Specifically, the regulations also require that in order to be eligible for naturalization, you also be physically present in the United States for half of the time required to be a permanent resident. Thus, an applicant required to maintain 5 years of continuous residence for naturalization, must be present in the U.S. for 2 ½ years. An applicant required to maintain 3 years of residence (based on residence with a U.S. citizen spouse) must be present in the U.S. for 1 ½ years. This time spent in the U.S. need not be continuous, but rather may be aggregated.

Again, exceptions do apply for the members of the military serving abroad.

Good moral character

In addition to being a continuous resident and being physically present in the U.S., an applicant for naturalization must also prove that he or she possesses good moral character. The statute requires the applicant to demonstrate that he or she bears good moral character for the 5 (or 3-year period) of required residency (though the regulations permit the USCIS to look at conduct even preceding this period in some cases.) Be prepared to present any evidence of good moral character. For example, USCIS sees evading the IRS as bad moral character. Thus, have copies of your filed tax returns. If you have missed any payments, then consider entering into a settlement with the IRS. Similarly, USCIS views evasion of child support obligations as bad moral character. Be prepared to present evidence of any child support payments or settlement, if applicable.

Another example of something that may show a lack of moral character is the willful failure to register for the Selective Service. Males between the age of 18 and 26 (not including those on temporary immigration status) are required to register for Selective Service. If you did not do so, be sure to consult with an experienced immigration attorney about the exceptions to these requirements. You may be able to establish that you did not willfully fail to register or that the failure to register was over 5 years ago, if you are now 31 years of age or above.

Civics and English Exam

An applicant for naturalization must demonstrate his or her knowledge of U.S. civics and history and also demonstrate the ability to speak English. Currently, the USCIS administers a 10-question test for the civics and history and one must answer 6 correctly in order to pass. For the English portion, the applicant must write a sentence as requested by the examiner, though the applicant is also expected to understand the oath of allegiance.

If you are 50 years of age and have been a lawful permanent resident for 20 years, or 55 years of age and have been a lawful permanent resident for 15 years, then the language requirement does not apply. Further, if you are over 65 years of age and a lawful permanent resident for 20 years, then you can receive special consideration on the civics test.

Moreover, applicants with disabilities which prevent them from learning English and Civics may obtain a medical waiver. However, a doctor or psychologist must complete the application for a waiver.

Be 18 years of age or above

Last, the applicant must be at least 18 years of age in order to apply for naturalization. If one has derived citizenship from his or her parents as a minor, then the applicant has become a citizen automatically by operation of law and need not apply for naturalization. Rather, he or she would apply for a certificate of citizenship without having to fulfill the above requirements. Therefore, before applying for naturalization, ask an experienced immigration lawyer whether you have already acquired citizenship derivatively through your parents.


As you can see, naturalizing to become a U.S. citizen has many more requirements than merely passing the English exam. Therefore, adequate preparation is the key for your naturalization application.

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