Under U.S. immigration law, there are three ways to obtain citizenship. Generally, persons born in the United States are considered to be U.S. citizens. In addition, under certain circumstances, persons can acquire or derive U.S. citizenship through their parents, and sometimes, even through their grandparents. Persons who satisfy the requirements of naturalization are eligible for citizenship. Naturalized citizens are granted all of the rights, privileges and responsibilities that citizenship entails.
Although there are exceptions, most applicants for naturalization must fulfill age, residence, physical presence, and good moral character requirements. Specifically, most naturalization applicants must have been a permanent resident and have maintained a residence in the United States continuously for five years since obtaining permanent resident status. Persons with permanent resident status living in marital union for three years with a U.S. citizen spouse are eligible for citizenship. Although overseas travel is permitted after applying for citizenship, a U.S. residence must be maintained between filing for naturalization and obtaining citizenship. There are special procedures which apply to military veterans and individuals currently serving in the U.S. Armed Forces and they may be exempt from some of the general requirements.
Most applicants must reside for three months in the state of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) district of filing. Additionally, most applicants must have been physically present in the United States at least half of the required time period prior to filing, i.e., either half of five or three years. Absences from the United States of over six months, but less than one year, during either the five or three year periods break the continuity of residence, unless the applicant can prove that residence was not abandoned. Absences of over one year break the period of required residence where the applicant does not obtain the USCIS’ approval of an application to preserve residence. Applications for citizenship may be filed no more than 90 days before the applicant’s fifth or third anniversary date as a permanent resident.
All naturalization applicants must demonstrate good moral character. Good moral character is determined not only by an examination of the applicant’s police records, but also general conduct. Some behavior, such as failure to pay child support or taxes, certain driving offenses, and criminal convictions can result in a finding that an applicant lacks the required good moral character for American citizenship.
Literacy, civics and the oath requirements
All applicants for naturalization are required to have a basic knowledge of English and of U.S. history and government. With the exception of certain persons over 50 years of age and individuals who are disabled, applicants are tested on their ability to read, write and speak words in English at an elementary level. They are also tested on the fundamentals of history and the principles of U.S. government. There are exceptions to these requirements based on age and disability considerations. Applicants who are over 50 years of age and who have been residing in the United States for at least 20 years as of the date of filing of the application can be tested in their native language. This exception also applies to applicants over 55 years of age and who have been living in the United States as lawful permanent residents for over 15 years. Applicants who are physically unable to comply with the English or civics requirements because of a physical or mental impairment may be excused from complying. Once an application for naturalization has been approved, an applicant is required to take an oath of allegiance to the United States. This requirement can be waived for those applicants who are physically, developmentally or mentally impaired.
If a person has two or more nationalities, he is considered a dual national. Most countries adhere to the principles of nationality by descent (jus sanguinis), nationality by birth within the territory (jus solis), or a combination of these two models. Thus, it is not uncommon for someone to hold citizenship in one country because he was born there and also from the country where his parents were born. Dual citizens in the United States are not required to choose one or the other of their nationalities, unless specifically required by statute. Persons who obtain their citizenship through naturalization in the U.S. can also acquire dual citizenship, despite the requirement under U.S. law that they renounce all foreign allegiances.
The USCIS Naturalization Interview and Test
USCIS has published a video providing an overview of the naturalization process. The video is 16 minutes long and discusses eligibility requirements, application process, preliminary steps, naturalization interview, English tests, and U.S. history and government test. The video is available for viewing on the USCIS website.