What is Naturalization in the U.S. & Who Is Eligible?

What is naturalization: U.S. flag, passport, and a document

Naturalization and citizenship are closely related to one another, but are not the same. Naturalization is a process for obtaining U.S. citizenship. It differs from other types of acquired citizenship, such as becoming a U.S. citizen by birth.

Citizenship by naturalization comes with the same rights and responsibilities as acquired citizenship, but applicants have to go through a lengthy naturalization process to demonstrate their commitment to American society.

So, what is naturalization in the U.S.? Let’s take a look at the steps in the naturalization process, as well as how much it costs and who is eligible.

What is naturalization in the U.S.?

Naturalization is the process outlined in the Immigration and Nationality Act by which foreign citizens or foreign nationals can obtain United States citizenship.

The process of naturalization starts with an application to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and ends with a citizenship ceremony.

We’ll get into specific eligibility requirements later, but for now, it’s important to note that you’ll have to spend some time living in the U.S. as a lawful permanent resident before being eligible for citizenship by naturalization.

That means you may need to apply for an immigrant visa, such as a work visa or a spouse visa, before being eligible for citizenship through naturalization.

Naturalization and citizenship

Naturalized citizens have the same rights and responsibilities as other American citizens. The main difference is in how citizenship is obtained.

Acquired citizenship

You secure acquired citizenship by being born in the United States (including on a U.S. military base) or by being born to American parents overseas.

Children under 18 years of age who meet these eligibility requirements may still have to get a certificate of citizenship (which they’ll need to obtain a passport), but they don’t have to go through the naturalization process. This is true even if they were born before their parents became U.S. citizens.

Unlike some countries, such as Italy, the U.S. doesn’t offer citizenship by descent, which means you can’t obtain citizenship via your grandparents or other ancestors.

Citizenship by naturalization

If you aren’t eligible for acquired citizenship, you can still become a U.S. citizen through naturalization if you meet the eligibility requirements. In most cases, you’ll need to be a lawful permanent resident or green card holder to be eligible.

The U.S. government allows for dual citizenship, which means you may still be able to remain a citizen of your country of birth or residence if that country also allows it.

The citizenship application process can take several years, so it may be worth seeking legal advice from an immigration lawyer to make sure you’re eligible before starting the process.

Who is eligible for naturalization in the U.S.?

There are four ways to quality for citizenship through naturalization:

  • You’ve lived in the U.S. for at least five years as a lawful permanent resident;
  • You’ve lived in the U.S. for at least three years as a lawful permanent resident and you have a spouse who is a U.S. citizen;
  • You’ve completed at least one year of military service in the U.S. Armed Forces and are a lawful permanent resident; or
  • You’re not currently living in the U.S., but your parents are U.S. citizens.

In addition, you’ll also need to meet other eligibility requirements as defined in immigration law. These include:

  • Living in the U.S. for at least 30 months within the five years preceding your application;
  • Being of “good moral character” (i.e., no significant criminal record);
  • Passing an interview and an oral civics test with a USCIS officer (this will include questions about U.S. history and the U.S. Constitution); and
  • Demonstrating basic English language skills.

Limited exemptions are available for the civics and English language test based on age and disability.

Benefits of American citizenship

If you’re already a permanent resident of the United States, do you need to go through the U.S. naturalization process? Technically, no: You can renew your green card every ten years without ever becoming a full citizen of the United States.

But there are some rights and benefits that come with naturalization:

A U.S. passport

One major benefit is that you’ll be able to apply for a U.S. passport. This can streamline your entry and exit into the U.S. and entitle you to consular assistance while overseas. It may also allow you visa-free entry to more countries than your current passport.

You’ll also be able to pass on your U.S. citizenship to your children (even those born overseas), and you can’t be deported unless you’re stripped of your citizenship.

Government benefits and services

As a permanent resident, chances are you file federal income taxes and are eligible for some Social Security and Medicare benefits. A certificate of naturalization can provide even greater benefits, such as financial aid for higher education.

You’ll also be eligible to apply for government jobs, which are restricted to U.S. citizens, and you’ll likely have access to other benefits, such as stimulus checks.

Voting in elections

As a U.S. citizen, you’ll be able to vote in federal, state, and local elections, and have a say in who runs the country. You’ll also be eligible to run for office, so you may even decide you want to run for Congress yourself!

How to become a naturalized U.S. citizen

Once you know what naturalization is and have decided you want to become a U.S. citizen by naturalization, you’ll have to follow these six steps.

1. Confirm your eligibility.

First, make sure you meet the eligibility requirements by filling out this worksheet from the USCIS. For more complex cases—such as applicants with a criminal record or a disability waiver—consult an immigration lawyer.

2. Fill out the Application for Naturalization (Form N-400).

The next step is to fill out the naturalization application form (Form N-400). You can submit this form online or fill out a hard copy and mail it to USCIS. You may need to include additional documents, such as a passport photo and a marriage certificate (if applicable).

3. Pay the filing fee.

To submit your application, you’ll need to pay a filing fee of $640, as well as $85 for a biometrics appointment. That makes for a total cost of $725.

4. Attend a biometrics appointment.

Applicants must provide fingerprints, photographs, and a digital signature at a USCIS biometrics appointment. You’ll receive a notification when USCIS schedules your appointment, but it may not be for several months after submitting your application.

5. Attend your citizenship interview.

The next step is to attend a citizenship interview, where a USCIS officer will assess your English language skills and knowledge of U.S. civics. You can prepare by studying the list of questions from the 2020 civics test. (The USCIS officer will ask you 20 questions.)

6. Attend a naturalization ceremony.

Once you’ve made it through the application process and received approval, you’ll attend a naturalization ceremony, where you’ll take an Oath of Allegiance and return your green card. You’ll receive a Certificate of Naturalization, and now you’ll officially be a U.S. citizen!

How much does naturalization cost?

United States of America passport and some bills

Naturalization is a lengthy process that can take several years. Although the cost to file Form N-400 is a onetime fee of $725 ($640 to file the form, plus an $85 biometrics fee), there may be other expenses. These can include applying for a permanent residency visa or consulting an immigration lawyer.

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