Wednesday March 31, 2021

Naturalization: Tips From An Immigration Lawyer On Filing For U.S. Citizenship

by Scott Girard

For many, becoming a citizen is the last step in a long immigration journey. A naturalization ceremony is a moment of joy and relief. However, applying for citizenship is usually not a joyous occasion.


Except in very rare situations, lawful permanent residents, also known as green card holders, can file for citizenship 3 or 5 years after getting their green card. Only green card holders who received their permanent status through marriage to a U.S. citizen and are still married to and living with the same spouse can file after three years. All other green card holders need to wait five years.


To qualify for citizenship, a green card holder has to be continuously residing in the U.S. during the last 5 years (or three years for marriages to U.S. citizens). This does not mean they have to constantly live in the U.S. during this time period. A green card holder has to physically live in the U.S. at least half of the time. But keep in mind that absences from the U.S. for more than six months may break the continuous residence. Also, absences of at least one year will break the continuous residence unless they are due to government employment or other similarly exempt employment. If you want to file for citizenship and expect to be outside the U.S. for more than six months, talk to an immigration lawyer.


Green card holders who file for citizenship must show they have been a person of “good moral character” during the last five years, or three years for the marriage exception. While good moral character is a subjective concept, there are several actions that will prevent someone from showing good moral character. These include: drug crimes (except a small amount of marijuana), crimes involving fraud or deceit, most crimes involving physical injury to another person, illegal gambling, prostitution, lying to the government, aggravated felonies, and being imprisoned for at least 180 days from a criminal conviction, among others. To automatically disqualify a green card holder, these must have occurred within the five (or three with the marriage exception) years before filing for citizenship.


Even if something does not automatically disqualify a green card holder for citizenship, immigration officers have discretion to deny a case for lacking good moral character. For example, someone who has not filed taxes for three years when they were required to do so could be denied. Other examples include: owing back taxes and not making any effort to pay them off, serious crimes outside the five (or three) year period, and multiple crimes within the time period, among others. An immigration officer can look beyond the five (or three) year period to decide on good moral character as a matter of discretion. If you have concerns about whether you qualify for citizenship, talk to an immigration attorney.


The paperwork itself is not complicated but the questions are often invasive and sometimes outrageous. The naturalization application asks for general biographic information in the first several pages. Then it goes through dozens of questions about qualifications for citizenship. Some of these questions basic, like have you ever been arrested for a crime; some are almost offensive, like have you ever hired a prostitute; and some are inapplicable in most cases, like were you a Nazi during World War II. While these questions may seem silly, they can mean the difference between getting citizenship and not. The most important questions, and most difficult, ask about criminal history. If you have any criminal history, it is best to talk to an immigration lawyer before filing an application.


After waiting several months, applicants eventually will get scheduled for an interview. At the interview, green card holders must show they can read and write in English and pass a civics and U.S. history exam. They will have to show they can read a sentence in English and write a sentence in English. For the exam, they must answer 6 out of 10 random questions from a list provided by USCIS. The list can be found here: Some people may be excused from the exam or English requirements based on their age and length of permanent residence in the U.S. Others may be excused if they have a proper medical waiver based on health or mental competency issues.

After the exams, applicants will talk to an immigration officer, who will review their application and make sure they are eligible for citizenship. During this interview, the officer usually will ask most, if not all, the questions on the applications, including the awkward questions mentioned above. The interview is generally short (no more than 30 minutes) and if it goes well, a green card holder will be scheduled for a naturalization ceremony within 1-2 months.

If you have any questions about filing for citizenship, please call our office at 913-210-0939 (Kansas City) or 312-291-1234 (Chicago) or email us at to schedule an appointment with one of our immigration lawyers.

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