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Green Card To Citizenship Process: Timelines & Requirements

Citizenship is in your hands. Nearly one million people became American citizens during the fiscal year 2022. This statistic may make the green card to citizenship process sound easy, but more than 100,000 applications for citizenship were denied in the same year. 

You must follow several requirements in order to receive American citizenship. Having a green card is an important first step, but there are other steps you must follow. Here are the timelines and requirements you must meet to receive American citizenship.

The Permanent Residence Rule

The permanent residence rule requires all people holding green cards to live in the United States as lawful permanent residents for five years before applying for citizenship. If you were approved for permanent residence on July 1, 2018, you would be eligible for citizenship on July 1, 2023. Your green card will list the date you gained permanent residency status, so look at it. However, if you received your green card through marriage to a U.S. citizen, you are eligible to file for your citizenship after three years of having your green card, provided you are still residing with your U.S. citizen spouse. 

Conditional Immigrants

The permanent residence rule has a few exceptions. Conditional residents are people who immigrated to the United States as spouses of American citizens before the second anniversaries of their marriages. These residents receive green cards valid for two years, and these two years count toward the permanent residence rule. However, you must apply for a ten-year green card 90 days before the conditional green card expires. 

As mentioned above, regardless of whether you have a conditional green card or a ten-year green card, if you received your green card through marriage to a U.S. citizen, you can apply for citizenship after three years instead of five if you still live with your U.S. citizen spouse. You must also stay married until you are sworn in as an American citizen.

The Violence Against Women Act can help immigrants in abusive marriages to U.S. citizens or Lawful Permanent Residents file self-petitions for their green cards.  Thereafter, the immigrant can file for citizenship after three or five years depending on if their abusive marriage was to a U.S. citizen or Lawful Permanent Resident. 

If your spouse with American citizenship has a job that requires both of you to live overseas, you can apply for citizenship any time after you receive your green card. Your spouse must work for the United States government, a company that develops foreign trade, a recognized research institution, or an international organization. You must be stationed abroad on a regular basis, and you must return to the United States to file your application. 

Refugees and Asylees

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If you received a green card as a refugee, you can count part of your time as a refugee toward the five-year rule. If you received refugee status while in another country, you must use the date you entered America as the beginning of your permanent residence. For example, if you were granted refugee status on July 1, 2019, and entered America on July 1, 2020, you would use July 1, 2020, as your starting date for the five-year rule. 

One year counts toward the time period to be eligible to naturalize if you received a green card as an asylee, regardless of how long you waited to apply for your green card.  This means that if you got your green card as an asylee, you must wait four years from when your green card says you gained permanent residency before you can file for citizenship. 

Other Requirements

USCIS imposes a few additional requirements for citizenship applications. You must live in the district or state you are filing your application in for at least three months before applying. You cannot spend more than 30 months outside the United States in the five years before applying, or 18 months in the three years before applying if you got your green card through marriage to a U.S. citizen.  

All citizenship applicants are required to have good moral character. Crimes that automatically bar permanent residents from citizenship include murder, sexual assault, drug trafficking, and fraud of $10,000 or more. Crimes that temporarily bar applications from citizenship include certain drug offenses and vice activities, like prostitution. You may have a temporary bar on your application if you spent over 180 days in jail for any crime. Talk to a green card immigration lawyer to determine if you have a permanent or temporary bar on your citizenship application. 

You must pass English and U.S. civics and history tests. You should start taking English and history courses before filling out your forms.  There are exceptions to the language requirement depending on your age and how long you have been a permanent resident.

If you are a man between 18 and 26, you must register for the Selective Service. Keep proof that you have registered and submit it with your application. You must also have copies of your income tax forms from the last five years. 

Filling Out Your Form N-400

Form N-400 is the application for naturalization. All green card holders wanting to become American citizens must fill out the form, regardless of their marital status.

You can start filling out your Form N-400 in advance, though you cannot submit it until 90 days before your three-year or five-year anniversary. Do not guess or supply information you think may be inaccurate; even small mistakes can lead to your application being denied. 

If you’re confused about what date you can file your paperwork, you can use the USCIS Early Filing Calculator

Completing Your Application

a graphic of someone approving a visa

Once you have filled out Form N-400, you must schedule a biometrics appointment and have your fingerprints taken. USCIS will conduct a criminal background check before scheduling an interview with you. You must report to the USCIS office at the date and time on your interview notice, regardless of your personal schedule. If you must reschedule, you should follow the instructions on your notice with help from a lawyer. 

The USCIS officer may ask you various questions about information on Form N-400. You will want to bring original documents like your green card, your birth certificate, and any immigration-related documents you may have (old work permits, passport, etc.). During the interview, you will take the civics test, be required to write a sentence in English, and read aloud a sentence in English, unless you have a language exemption in which case you will take the civics test in your native language. You can use study guides and take practice tests to prepare for your exam, though you cannot bring any materials into your interview room.

The officer may decide to continue your application on the day of your interview. They may also ask for additional materials or need extra time to determine the status of your application. You will receive notification from USCIS about what your officer needs, so be patient. If you fail the civics and English test, you can retake the test one more time before your N-400 is denied and you have to refile it. USCIS will automatically reschedule another interview date for you.

If USCIS approves your citizenship application, you will receive a notice to participate in an Oath of Allegiance ceremony. If USCIS denies your application, you will receive a notice explaining why your citizenship application has been denied. You can schedule an appeal hearing with USCIS within 30 days.

The Essentials of the Green Card to Citizenship Process

Most people applying for American citizenship must be permanent residents for five years before they fill out their applications. Exceptions include spouses of American citizens, refugees, and asylees. All applicants must fill out Form N-400, supply fingerprints, perform an interview, and pass English and civics tests before being granted U.S. citizenship status. You can hire an immigration lawyer to examine your documents, file paperwork, and accompany you to USCIS appointments. 

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