Becoming a US citizen: a complete guide

Gabriela Peratello
05.12.21
8 minute read

Living and working in the US as an immigrant is a very different experience from being a citizen. The latter allows you to enjoy several privileges like voting rights, right to perpetual existence and even lower tax rates.

But, that’s not all. As a US citizen, you’d have access to visit 184 countries and territories without needing a travel visa¹. How cool is that!?

If you’re wondering, as an immigrant, “how can I become a citizen of the US?", "What do I need to do to become eligible?", "How long is it going to take?” Well, you’re in luck. In this article we’ll take you through the entire process.

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📑 Table of contents

Naturalization: what it is and who can apply

America is known as one of the leading destinations for immigrant workers. A large portion of them have been issued the Green Card to validate their stay in the country. These people are called permanent residents.

On the other hand, there are immigrants who actually have become bona fide (good faith) citizens of the US. But how do they achieve this feat?

Generally speaking, there are four major pathways to becoming an American citizen:

  • Citizenship by birth: being born on US soil
  • Citizenship by acquisition: through citizenship of your parents
  • Citizenship by derivation: through successful naturalization by your parents when you are below 18 years
  • Citizenship by naturalization

For immigrants, the most relevant pathway to American citizenship is by naturalization².

Naturalization is a legal process through which a non-citizen of a country may acquire nationality citizenship rights of that place. It usually involves a standardized process of voluntary application by the immigrant and approval by the host country’s immigration authorities. In the US, the official agency that administers this process is the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

Eligibility scenarios for naturalization

For your naturalization application to stand any chance of being approved, you must have fulfilled certain eligibility requirements. There are different categories of people who are qualified to obtain citizenship.

Now, let’s examine what these eligibility requirements are:

Immigration CategoryEligibility Scenario
As a permanent residentMust have lived in the US for 5 years
Green Card holder by marriageMust have lived in the US 3 years as a permanent resident in marital union with a US citizen spouse
Green Card holder who has served at least one year of peacetime military serviceMust have lived in the US for 5 years
Green Card holder who served any period of wartime military serviceEligible to apply for naturalization at anytime

Note: For each category, you must be 18 years and above at the time of filing for citizenship.

Requirements to become a US citizen

Falling into any of the aforementioned categories alone is not sufficient to guarantee a spot on the American citizenship block. You still have to qualify under the requirements that are relevant for you..

Here’s a list of requirements that must be fulfilled to become a US citizen:

  • You must be 18 years old or above at the time of filing
  • You must not have taken any trips of six months or longer outside of the United States during your wait period
  • You must have resided in the state where you plan to apply for citizenship for at least three months
  • Pass the standardized naturalization test. The test consists of an English language test and a civics test which covers your knowledge of American history and government³
  • Be adjudged to have “good moral character”, that measures up to the standards of average citizens in your immediate community. More specifically, you must not have participated in specific types of crimes — such as:
    • Murder
    • Illegal gambling
    • Tax evasion
    • Intentionally lying to the US government in order to gain immigration benefits
    • Falsifying documents at any time on your record during or before filing
    • Lying during your naturalization interview

Whether you meet these requirements is decided by the USCIS on a case-by-case basis.

us-flag-brooklyn-bridge

The naturalization process: step by step

In this section, we will give you a brief description of each step in the naturalization process.

1. Determine if you are already a US citizen

Naturalization is strictly for immigrants. If you are born in the US or you’ve attained citizenship through any other means, you are automatically ineligible to undergo a naturalization process.

2. Determine if you are eligible to become a US citizen

Not every legal resident in the US is eligible to apply for citizenship. Before you even begin the application process, it is important that you check the eligibility category that you might fall in.

3. Prepare and submit your form N-400

Form N-400 is officially titled “Application for Naturalization”⁴. You can obtain the form by creating your free account online on the USCIS website.

After obtaining the form N-400 and collecting all the necessary documents to demonstrate your eligibility for naturalization, the next step is to submit the form to the USCIS and pay the applicable fees.

4. Pay for your fees

Once you have submitted form N-400, USCIS will send you a receipt to acknowledge your submission. The receipt will contain a tracking ID which you can then use to check online both your case status and processing times.

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5. Attend your biometrics appointment, if applicable

If you are required to have your biometrics taken, USCIS will issue you an appointment notice showing the date, time, and location. Make sure you arrive at the designated location at the scheduled time.

6. Complete the naturalization interview

This is one of the most crucial parts of the citizenship process. USCIS will schedule an interview with you to assess your eligibility for citizenship and complete the naturalization process. You must report to the USCIS punctually at the stated location and date. Also ensure that you bring the appointment notice with you.

7. Receive a decision from USCIS

After completing the interview, you will receive one of three verdicts from USCIS.

  • Granted: your application for naturalization is approved
  • Continued: you are required to submit for further documentation
  • Denied: your form N-400 record establishes you are not eligible for naturalization

8. Take the Oath of Allegiance

If your naturalization application is granted, you will receive a notice to take the oath of allegiance. In some cases, you may be able to participate in the naturalization ceremony on the same day as your interview in step 6.

Otherwise, you will receive a notice scheduling the location, date and time of your oath-taking and naturalization ceremony⁵. The oath consists in swearing allegiance to the US constitution. At this moment you will also have to turn in your Green Card while you receive your Certificate of Naturalization.

9. Understanding US citizenship

After taking the oath and receiving your naturalization certificate, you then become a bona fide American Citizen. You should proceed to examine the checklist of some of the most important rights and responsibilities that bind all American citizens.

How long does it take to become a US citizen?

The journey towards naturalizing to become a US Citizen can be a long and challenging one, it’s undeniably rewarding.

The total wait time it would take to fulfil the requirements to file an application hugely depends on your category of eligibility.

Immigration CategoryAverage Wait Period
As a permanent resident5 years
Green Card holder by marriage3 years
Green Card holder who has served at least 1 year of peacetime military service5 years
Green Card holder who served any period of wartime military serviceEligible to apply for naturalization at anytime

However, after each application is filed, there is a standard time-frame for processing each application. The application timeline is summarized as follows:

ActivityEstimated Processing Time
Processing your application for naturalization (form N-400 processing time)12 months
Citizenship tests and interview4 months
Receiving a decision on your application4 months
Taking the Oath of Allegiance and receiving your Certificate of Naturalization2 months

Considering the waiting period and processing time, the estimated timeframe to become a US citizen can vary from 5 to 7 years.

It is also important to note that the USCIS processes each application on a first-come, first-serve basis. As a result, applicants who file for citizenship in states with higher populations can see their application take a little longer than those who do it in smaller states.

How much does it cost to become a US citizen?

Currently, the standard total cost you have to pay to complete your naturalization application is 725 USD⁴, this amount stands for the following:

  • Filing fee: 640 USD
  • Biometric fee: 85 USD

However, based on your category of eligibility, such as being in the military or aged 75 and above, can allow you to be eligible to a certain level of fee exemptions. You can check which one might be applicable to you on the table below:

Exemption CategoryExempted FeesTotal Applicable Fees
Typical applicantsN/A$725
Applicants age 75 and above
  • Biometric $85
$640
Military applicants
  • Filing fee $640
  • Biometric $85
N/A

Also, if you are living below the poverty line or your household income is at or below the 150% of the poverty level at the time of filing. You can visit the USCIS website to fill the form I-912P, to explore options for Fee Waiver Requests⁶.

Payment methods

If you file your form I-400 papers by mail you get to pay your fees with a money order, personal check or cashier’s check. All checks must be made payable to the US Department of Homeland Security.

Alternatively, you may pay online using a Visa, MasterCard or American Express card.

However if you are abroad, one of the most cost efficient and hassle free ways to pay your application fees is through Wise.

Wise offers you an avenue to make your naturalization fee payments conveniently from over 50 countries. You get to enjoy the mid-market rate and know up front how much you’ll have to pay.

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Being an American citizen has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? One of the most challenging aspects of the process that many people often dread is the citizenship test. However, in reality, there’s no reason to panic. The tests and interview questions are fairly easy. And the good news is that the USCIS provides study materials to help you get prepared. You’ll also get two shots to retake the test if you are not successful the first time.

There’s no need to wait any longer, start getting your documents ready!


Sources:

  1. US State Travel
  2. USCIS - Citizenship and naturalization
  3. USCIS - Citizenship test
  4. USCIS - N-400 form
  5. USCIS - Naturalization ceremonies
  6. USCIS - Information on filing a fee waiver

Sources checked: 05.11.2021


This publication is provided for general information purposes only and is not intended to cover every aspect of the topics with which it deals. It is not intended to amount to advice on which you should rely. You must obtain professional or specialist advice before taking, or refraining from, any action on the basis of the content in this publication. The information in this publication does not constitute legal, tax or other professional advice from TransferWise Limited or its affiliates. Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome. We make no representations, warranties or guarantees, whether express or implied, that the content in the publication is accurate, complete or up to date.

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