It is possible to gain US citizenship even if you weren't born in America. Naturalization is a legal process for gaining US citizenship that must be followed by individuals born outside America keen on becoming American citizens.
The process grants lawful permanent residents of the US the opportunity to become US citizens provided they met certain requirements as per the INA (Immigration & Nationality Act).
Generally, naturalization can take place automatically (through a statute), through application, or via a motion. While the rules of naturalization differ by country, there are notable similarities, such as a promise to abide by a country's law. Countries also require someone to take a special oath of allegiance.
Brief History of Naturalization in the US
The Attorney General of the US has the sole authority of naturalizing people as US Citizens. However, federal judges can enjoin the AG conferring US citizenship to a person.
Naturalization rules date back to 1795 when the act (Naturalization Act 1795) set initial guidelines for US citizenship, the most notable being the 5-year or more residency period. In 1862, a law excused Army veterans (in any war) from having to wait 5 or more years. Instead, they could wait for a year only as residents of the US before seeking citizenship. Three decades later (in 1894), another law extended similar privileges to Navy and Marine Corps.
The following decades saw different acts enacting and repealing naturalization-related laws on individuals from many countries. Some limits were also set on the number of immigrants liable for citizenship from different counties. The 1965 Immigration Act gave all nations equal opportunity to immigrate to the US and seek US citizenship. In 1986, the Immigration Reform & Control Act tightened border control and offered opportunity for illegal aliens who had been in the US for 4 or more years to seek citizenship.
Fast forward today, individuals who gain permanent residency in America are the only persons eligible for Naturalization after 5 years. This rule may not apply to lawful permanent residents who have married US citizens i.e., such individuals wait for three as opposed to 5 years before being eligible to apply for citizenship.
In the year 2000, the Child Citizenship Act streamlined naturalization for adopted children. Any child (under 18 years) born outside America and adopted by parents who are US citizens (or one parent is a citizen) gain automatic citizenship on entering the US or after being legally adopted in America. The ACT also has a provision for non-citizen minors of US citizens who have been newly naturalized. Whether the children are adopted or born, they qualify for US citizenship automatically.
Eligibility Requirements for Naturalization
Before you apply, you must;
- B an adult (18 years and above)
- Be a permanent residency (legally) who has stayed in the US for 5 or 3 years continuously depending on the category in question
- Be able to converse, read and write in English
- Be of sound moral character
- Be knowledgeable about American history and government
- Be ready and willing to swear allegiance to the US and demonstrate loyalty to the principles dictated in the US constitution.
Exemptions to Naturalization Requirements
The above eligibility requirements aren't set on stone. Some applicants enjoy exemptions from some general requirements. As mentioned, spouses of American citizens don't have to meet the 5-year continuous residency requirement. The same applies to military members. The main exemptions include;
- Spouses of American citizens. Such applicants can apply for naturalization three years after gaining lawful permanent residency as opposed to the 5-year general requirement.
- Spouses of American citizens stationed abroad. Such applicants don't need to meet continuous permanent residency requirements.
- Members of the US military who have served honorably during periods of conflict. Such applicants qualify for naturalization without being permanent residents of the US.
Members of the US military who serve for a year during peace time can also apply for US citizenship after their military service bypassing conditions for permanent residence.
There are more guidelines to citizenship via military service during peace time. For instance, applicants must submit complete Form N-426 when filling N-400 as a demonstration of honorable service. Applicants also need to be lawful permanent residents when they go for their naturalization interview. Other general guidelines apply, such as demonstrating knowledge about the American government and history, ability to write, read and speak English, and the ability to demonstrate good character and adherence to principles of the American constitution.
Filing for Naturalization
After establishing eligibility, the next step is filing for naturalization. Eligible applicants can file online or via paper application.
I. Filing for Naturalization Online
To file for naturalization in the US, you need a USCIS account which can be created easily via the USCIS website. After creating an online a/c, you are supposed to submit evidence of eligibility and pay the applicable fees. Applicants receive status updates thereafter about their application. Communication is secure and direct with the USCIS. Applicants should respond to evidence requests accordingly.
II. Filing for Naturalization by Paper
When filing by paper, read Form N-400 carefully and complete everything before signing. After paying the filing fee (if applicable to your application), provide the required supporting documents/evidence and mail the form, after which you will get an acceptance notice with instructions. Applications sent via mail are still processed even if an applicant doesn't open an online account. However, the USCIS generally encourages applicants to open online accounts.
Fees for Naturalization
How much does naturalization cost?
The current filing fee is $640. However, additional costs like biometric fees apply (costing $85). The total cost is, therefore, $725.
How do I pay for my naturalization fee?
Individuals who file by mail (or paper) can pay via money order, cashier's check, personal check or via credit card via Form G-1450 that authorizes credit card transactions.
It's worth noting that the fees are non-refundable whether your citizenship application is accepted or rejected. For an accurate estimate of the total naturalization cost, use the USCIS's fee calculator.