How to obtain U.S. citizenship: What you need to know


Living in the United States has been the goal of many for more than a century. Painted as the “American dream,” the concept of finding a well paid job in the capitalistic US society and settling down with a family is a well-known figure of speech that is cherished by foreigners around the world.

While the dazzle of the United States has faded in recent years due to the systemic stall of social programs and dipping educational prowess, the ability to start a business, find a job and make money remains untarnished, and the US is still an attractive option for many would-be expats considering where to start a life.

That desire comes as no surprise, even beyond the free market. A huge country rife with diverse experiences, foreigners travel to America to enjoy everything from the bustling city life of New York to the hollywood glamour of Los Angeles, the tropical beaches of Miami, and the relaxing, down-to-earth lifestyle of the midwest.

While today’s United States isn’t as progressive as Scandinavia, as quaint at Europe, as technologically advanced as Asia or as exotic as South America, there are still many benefits to living in the US.

For one, housing and real estate are of the highest quality of almost anywhere in the world. Americans enjoy seriously modern and well-kept infrastructure, in everything from public buildings to large roads. Thanks to the presence of Hollywood, the US typically has the first access to new movies and music, and many of the world’s major celebrities choose to reside there, at least temporarily. Cars, electronics and other manufactured goods are notoriously inexpensive in the US. Importantly for many business people, Internet speeds are some of the fastest around the globe.

What stands out the most, however, is the United States’ persistent startup culture, welcoming entrepreneurs to build their companies and enjoy the large pool of American investment capital. Some of the world’s biggest banks, manufacturers and conglomerate corporations also call the US home, creating a plethora of excellent, high-paying jobs for qualified applicants. Overall, this free market economy is an extremely attractive option for many expats seeking a new home.

Whether you’re starting a new job, hoping to form a new business or are just ready to take a crack at life in the United States, it’s important to understand the implications of your continued stay in the country, and what the process of becoming a citizen is like. Read on to learn about the most important steps and tips for applying for US citizenship.

What is the difference between permanent residence and citizenship?

In the United States, a permanent resident has the right to live in the country indefinitely. This residence comes in the form of a green card, which acts as proof of your residency status.

Green card holders have many of the same rights that citizens do, including the right to hold a job and the ability to petition for your spouse and children to join you in the United States with the same privileges. However, permanent residents don’t have the right to vote, the right to run for public office, the right to an American passport, and - most importantly - are subject to having their residence revoked under the terms of a wide range of residency conditions.

Technically, a green card is a document that allows a person to live in the United States indefinitely. That being said, it must be renewed every ten years; this is a simple undertaking, and it’s almost impossible for your residency status to change as it’s renewed. This inconvenience mostly represents a bureaucratic process that is tedious to repeat, but is also a significant cost. The fee for renewal is more than $500.

While it’s true that residency status won’t change without cause, there are ways to lose a green card, including:

  • Proof of immigration fraud: If the government can prove that a foreigner married a US citizen for the sole purpose of obtaining a green card, that green card may be revoked. Because it’s relatively difficult to prove a person’s intentions beyond a reasonable doubt, having a green card removed for this reason is fairly rare.
  • Breaking a law: While green cards aren’t taken away for minor infractions, if a felony level crime is committed by a green card holder they are liable to be deported and have their residence status revoked.
  • Fraud: If the process of obtaining a green card can be proven to have been fraudulent in any way, including fake documents or lies or omissions on an application form, the green card can be taken away.
  • Non-residence. A green card holder may not spend more than 180 days per year outside of the US without abandoning their green card status. Abandonment is cause for removal of the green card.

Conversely, citizenship in the United States can almost never be revoked, outside of acts of terrorism or membership within a subversive group such as the Nazi party or Al Qaeda.

Can I have dual citizenship?

All in all, a US citizen may hold citizenship with another country. This is most applicable to a person who has existing citizenship in their home country and applies to become a US citizen.

That law becomes a bit tricky in reverse, however. If you have been granted a US citizenship and have revoked your foreign citizenship, i.e. you only hold a US citizenship, applying for citizenship in another country may put your citizenship status at risk, outside of applications based on marriage to a foreign citizen. The exact law states, “the person must apply for the foreign nationality voluntarily, by free choice, and with the intention to give up U.S. nationality.”

It’s the last phrase, however, that makes this law more or less irrelevant. Because it would be nearly impossible to prove that a person had the intention to forfeit their U.S. nationality, this law is extremely difficult to enforce.

Ways to Obtain US Citizenship

There are three major pathways towards becoming a US citizen. The two main routes that are typically undertaken by adults both require applicant to first hold a green card, which is arguably the more difficult process. Once you do have your green card, however, you may be eligible for citizenship via any of these routes:

Through parents

In the United States, citizenship through parents (if not granted at birth) is only possible before you turn 18. However, if you’re the child of a US citizen born after February 2001, are currently residing in the United States and are in the legal and physical custody of at least one US citizen parent, you have the right to obtain a US citizenship. Alternatively, if you’re adopted by a US citizen before your 16th birthday, are in legal custody of that adoptive parent and have resided with them for two years or more, you’re eligible for US citizenship.

Through marriage

Marriage to a United States citizen does not necessarily grant you US citizenship, however, it does aid in the process of applying for citizen status. On top of having been married to a US citizen for three years, you must:

  • Be over the age of 18
  • Have held a green card for a least three years at the time of application
  • Have been living “in marital union” with your spouse for the duration of the three year requirement
  • Have lived in one state for at least three months at the time of application
  • Be present in the United States continuously from the time naturalization is applied for until the time naturalization is granted.
  • Have been physically present in the United States for a minimum of 18 months in the three years prior to application
  • Be able to sufficiently speak, read and write in English
  • Have background knowledge in US history and government (civic)
  • Be of good moral character

By naturalization

For applicants who are applying for citizenship by general naturalization, you must:

  • Be over the age of 18
  • Have held a green card for the past five years
  • Be able to show that you’ve been physically present in the US for 30 months out of your five year tenure
  • Be able to sufficiently speak, read and write in English
  • Have background knowledge in US history and government (civic)
  • Be of good moral character

How can I apply for citizenship?

The first step in applying for citizenship is determining whether you’re eligible for naturalization, as outlined above. If you feel that you’re qualified to apply, the steps to do so are as follows:

  • Prepare and submit an N-400 Application for Naturalization in English. During this phase you’ll need to gather documents proving your eligibility for citizenship, as listed in the “ways to become a US citizen” section above. You can download an application form here.
  • Go to a biometrics appointment. This is conditional on necessity - US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will send you a notice of appointment with a date, time and location to have your fingerprints taken if you’re required to do so.
  • Once you’ve completed the basic application, USCIS will let you know the date and time of your interview, which is the final step in the naturalization process.
  • Based on your interview, you’re likely to be required to take and pass a naturalization test. This covers both the English language and civics. Notoriously a bit tricky, it’s a good idea to study for this text in advance. You can learn more about the naturalization exam at the USCIS website.
  • Next, you’ll be issued a notice of decision. This can come back as “granted,” “continued” or “denied.” If you’re denied naturalization, you may apply again when you become eligible. If your application is continued, you either need to provide USCIS with further evidence and documentation of your eligibility, or you’ve failed your English and/or civics test, both of which may be retaken. If your naturalization is granted, there’s only one more step to becoming a US citizen.
  • If your application was granted, the last thing to do is take your oath of allegiance, an appointment for which can typically be made for the same day your citizenship is granted.

Associated fees

Unfortunately, application for citizenship in the United States comes with a fairly significant number of fees, none of which are particularly small. For starters, the application alone is USD 640. During that process, you’ll pay for biometric registry at a cost of USD 85, and the USCIS Immigrant Fee of USD 220. Next, you’ll need USD 1,170 to apply for a certificate of citizenship. Should you ever lose your citizenship document, the fee to replace it is 555 USD. All in all, the cost of applying for US citizenship is more than $2000.

If you’re funding your naturalization process from your account back home, use Wise to get the real exchange rate and cut out expensive international bank transfer fees.

How can I apply for a passport?

Once you’ve been granted your US citizenship, you’re eligible to apply for a passport. This process isn’t handled by USCIS, but instead is done with the US Department of State.

First, you’ll need to fill out a form DS-11 for first time passport applicants. Next, you’ll collect the necessary documents; these are typically your citizenship certificate and your government ID. You’ll also need a passport photo, a 2”x2” photograph which can be easily purchased at drugstores, supermarkets, the DMV, AAA, or a variety of other locations.

Finally, you’ll submit all of your documents and an application fee of USD 110 at your local passport agency. If your application is approved, you’ll be required to pay an execution fee of USD 25.

Additional resources

For more clarification around the process of becoming a US citizen, visit the US Citizenship and Immigration Service’s website for a wide range of resources. For information specifically related to obtaining a passport, visit the US Department of State online.

With that, you’re all set! Good luck on becoming a US citizen!

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This publication is provided for general information purposes and does not constitute legal, tax or other professional advice from Wise Payments Limited or its subsidiaries and its affiliates, and it is not intended as a substitute for obtaining advice from a financial advisor or any other professional.

We make no representations, warranties or guarantees, whether expressed or implied, that the content in the publication is accurate, complete or up to date.

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