Anyone born in the US, or born to parents who are US citizens, is a US citizen automatically. However, if you're a foreign national, there's a way you, too, can become a US citizen. The naturalization process gives you the chance to enjoy all of the rights and privileges that come with US citizenship, except becoming president.
The process isn't fast or easy, though. There are a number of requirements you have to meet in order to qualify for citizenship. For example, there are residency requirements that look at how long you've been living in the US and your immigration status during that time.
Specifically, you have to show:
- You're a lawful permanent resident (LPR)
- You've resided continually in the US for at least three years, or perhaps even five years
- You've been actually, physically in the US for at least 18 or possibly 30 months before filing your application
- You've resided continuously for three months in the state where you filed your application for naturalization
- You've resided in the US for the entire period since you filed your application
Continuous Residence in US
Generally, residence means where you actually live - your dwelling or home. Residence "in the US" includes living in any of the 50 states or US territories. This includes Guam, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands.
Unless you're married to a US citizen, you have to reside continuously in the US for five years after you become a LPR before you can file your application for naturalization. On the other hand, if you're married to a US citizen, you need only three years of continuous residence. However, there are requirements for the marriage, too:
- You have to physically live with your spouse
- You have to live together for at least three years before you take the naturalization examination or test
- Your spouse has to be a US citizen for the period between your application and examination dates
Having status as an LPR is the same as having a green card. It means you have the right to live and work in the US permanently basis, so long as you don't do anything that makes you deportable, such as being convicted of a serious crime. When you file your naturalization application with the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), you'll be asked to show your green card to prove your LPR status.
Physically Reside in the US
You have to physically reside in the US before you file your application for naturalization. The time period is based upon your five- or three-year period, based upon your marital status. If you're:
- Married to a US citizen, you have be physically within the US for a total of 18 months out of the three-year period before you filed your application for naturalization
- Aren't married to a US citizen, You have to be physically present in the US for a total of 30 months out of the five-year period before the date of your application
Out of the Country?
Generally, you can be absent or away from the US for up to six months and it won't count against your three- or five-year residency period. If you're absent for any time between six months and one year, you'll probably have to explain the absence to the USCIS. You may also have to show that you never intended to give up your US residence, such as if work required you to be out of the country.
If you've been out of the country for more than one year, you usually won't meet the continuous-residency requirement unless the absence is excused. For instance, if: (1) You've been in the US for at least one year, and (2) You began certain types of work after you became an LPR, then your employment-related absence from the US won't count against your residency requirement.
To qualify, you must be employed by:
- The US government
- A US-based research firm that's recognized by the US Attorney General
- A US company that's engaged in foreign trade and commerce, or
- Certain public international organizations
You need to apply for this special treatment before you're absent for one year. Also, even if your absence is excused for residency purposes, it doesn't excuse you from meeting the physical presence requirement.
You need to reside continuously in the state (or the USCIS district) where you filed your application for three months before you filed it. Generally, unless you move to another state, you'll satisfy this requirement as you build up your three or five years of continuous residence.
You also need to have continuous residence from the time you file until you're finally granted citizenship. So, after you file, make sure you don't leave the country for too long. To be safe, keep it under six months. You don't want to make it look as though you're staying in the US for only as long as it takes to get citizenship.
Questions for Your Attorney
- My wife is a US citizen. We were never married officially, but we've been living together as husband and wife for 12 years. I want to become a US citizen. Does my "marriage" qualify me for the shorter three-year residency requirement?
- How long will it take for the USCIS to decide my application for citizenship?
- I filed my application for citizenship two weeks ago. My employer has offered to transfer me to an office in another state, and I'm concerned how this could affect my citizenship application.