Immigration

English and Civics Requirements for Naturalized U.S. Citizenship

By Ilona Bray, J.D., University of Washington Law School

Are you a green card holder hoping to become a naturalized U.S. citizen? If so, you will need to not only meet various eligibility requirements and submit an application, but ultimately demonstrate to the satisfaction of a U.S. government official that you have a:

  • basic understanding of the English language, including the ability to speak, read, and write simple common words and phrases, and
  • a basic knowledge and understanding of U.S. history and the U.S. form of government, also known as "civics."

This article will discuss these two requirements for U.S. naturalization.

How Does a Person Become a U.S. Citizen?

First, a little background. There are three primary ways to become a U.S. citizen.

The first is if a person is born in the United States or if his or her parents are or were U.S. citizens when the birth took place outside the United States (or when the child was adopted). In either case, the person automatically became a U.S. citizen, at birth.

The second way is called "acquisition" of citizenship, and may occur when the parents of a child who has a U.S. green card become naturalized U.S. citizens.

The third way is called"naturalization." It's a special process that allows lawful permanent residents who have held a green card for a certain number of years (usually five) to become U.S. citizens if they satisfy various requirements under U.S. immigration law.

The English Test to Become a Naturalized U.S. Citizen

One of the most important requirements for becoming a U.S. citizen is that you are able to show U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) that you can read, speak, and write basic English. You'll do this during an in-person review of your application for naturalization, which usually takes place some months after you have submitted your Form N-400.

You will have to read one to three English sentences out loud to a USCIS examiner. You will also have to write down one to three English sentences after the USCIS officer reads them aloud to you. And, you will need to follow the examiner's instructions, and speak with him or her about the information you provided in your application for U.S. citizenship.

Exceptions: Who Can Avoid Taking the English Test

Some applicants don't have to satisfy the English requirement; that is, they are exempt from showing they can read, speak, and write English. You don't have to take the English test if you are:

  • 50 years old or older and you've lived in the U.S. as a permanent resident for at least 20 years, or
  • 55 years old or older and you've lived in the U.S. as a permanent resident for at least 15 years.

The History and Civics Test to Become a Naturalized U.S. Citizen

You will need to have a basic understanding of U.S. history and government. For this test, the USCIS conveniently provides a list of 100 questions that you might be asked. The USCIS officer will ask you several questions, but no more than ten from this list, such as:

  • What is the supreme law of the land?
  • Name one branch or part of the government.
  • Why did the colonists fight the British?
  • What did Martin Luther King, Jr. do?

To pass the test, you need to answer at least six out of the ten questions correctly.

Exceptions: Who Can Avoid Taking the Civics Exam

In most cases, the applicant will need to take the history and civics test even if not required to take the English test. There are some special rules, though:

  • If you are 50 years old or older and you've lived in the U.S. as a permanent resident for at least 20 years, you can take the civics and history test in the language of your choice.
  • If you are 55 years old or older and you've lived in the U.S. as a permanent resident for at least 15 years, you can take the civics and history test in the language of your choice.
  • If you are 65 years old or older and you've lived in the U.S. as a permanent resident for at least 20 years, you can not only take the test in your own language, but don't have to study all 100 questions. Rather, there are 20 questions from the list of 100 that you need to be able to answer (look for the asterisks on the USCIS list).

Special Exemption for Disability

An applicant may be able to skip the English test and take the history and civic test in his or her her native language if she has a physical or developmental disability or a mental impairment that makes it impossible to learn, or to demonstrate knowledge of, the English language. Or, the applicant's disability may exempt him or her from both tests.

For example, an applicant with Alzheimers may not have to take either test if the disease makes him or her unable to learn and remember a new language and facts about U.S. civics.

To qualify for this exemption, the disability or impairment:

  • must be at least one year old, or be expected to last for at least one year, and
  • can't be the result of using illegal drugs.

Also, a doctor or psychologist must explain and prove the disability or impairment and how it makes the person unable to learn or take a test on English and civics. The doctor or psychologist needs to do this by filling out USCIS Form N-648.

If there's some reasonable way in which you can learn English or take both tests, you won't qualify for the exemption. For example, you will not qualify for a special exemption if you can take the tests with the help of a sign language interpreter or by using Braille testing materials.

USCIS will make every reasonable effort to help you take the tests. If you think you need special help (called "reasonable accommodation" in legal terms), like a sign language interpreter or Braille materials, there's a place on the naturalization application for you to tell the USCIS about your needs.

Preparing for the Tests

If you've never attended school in the U.S., you might want to consider taking a class in English and/or U.S. history and civics. These are often called "citizenship classes." You're likely to find them at a local adult school or cultural center. You can also find materials or gain access to online classes in a local library.

Many people also use the free study materials on the USCIS website.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • How long will it be between the time I file my application for naturalization and my having to be ready to take the tests of English and U.S. history and civics?
  • If I fail either the English or history and civics exam, can I take it again? How long do I have to wait between the tests?
  • My father suffers from dementia, which has gotten worse since he filed his application for naturalization. I have his medical records from his doctor in Mexico. Will that be good enough to get him an exemption from the English and history and civics tests?
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