For anyone who would like a life in America, there is often the question of the quickest way to become a U.S. citizen. The reality is it can be a difficult, complex process with no easy path. The best thing you can do is know what all of your options are, work with a legal professional who can guide you, and be prepared for everything.
With that in mind, below, we discuss some of the things to know about U.S. citizenship and the paths that might be available to you, as well as what you can expect.
Understanding Citizenship and Naturalization
Naturalization is the process where you get citizenship as a lawful permanent resident after you meet the requirements Congress sets. Acquisition is a type of citizenship you get if you have parents who are U.S. citizens, either at birth or after birth, but it happens before you reach the age of 18.
There are benefits and reasons to consider citizenship. For example, only citizens can vote in federal elections, and most states restrict voting to only citizens.
You can serve on a jury and travel with a U.S. passport. You may also be able to petition to bring your family members to the U.S. permanently and get citizenship for your children who are under the age of 18.
Certain federal jobs require that you’re a citizen, and only citizens can run for federal office as well as most state and local offices. Your right to remain in the U.S. can’t be taken away when you’re a citizen, and you may be eligible for education aid such as federal scholarships and grants.
Some government benefits are available only to citizens of the United States.
Citizens have certain rights as well as responsibilities.
When you’re a citizen, for example, you have the freedom to express yourself, worship as you like, and receive a fair trial by jury. Your responsibilities, among others, include supporting and defending the Constitution, obeying laws at all levels, and participating in your local community.
The Different Ways to Become a Citizen
There are four main paths to citizenship in the United States.
When you have a green card, you can become a naturalized U.S. citizen. Having a green card simplifies the process. If you have one, you’re already a legal and permanent U.S. resident. You can, for the most part, live and work freely in the country.
To get a green card, you might, for example, have a job offer from the states. Then the employer can file a petition for a green card on your behalf. You can also petition yourself.
If you’re a green card holder, you can apply for naturalization if you’ve lived in the U.S. for at least five years.
Other requirements for eligible green cardholders include:
- You have to be at least 18 years old
- You’ve lived in the U.S. as a lawful, permanent resident for a minimum of five years
- For at least 30 months before your application, you’ve been physically present in the U.S.
- You’re a person of “good moral character.”
- You can read, speak and write the English language
- You have an understanding of the U.S. government, civics, and history
- You’re willing to take the Oath of Allegiance
If you’re applying for naturalization, you complete USCIS Form N-400, Application for Naturalization. You have to include supporting information to prove your statements, and as of August 2021, the filing fee was $640. You also have to pay a biometric fee, currently $85.
After you complete the application, you’ll receive a filing packet with instructions.
Part of a citizenship interview includes a test. You’ll talk to a USCIS officer who will ask about your background and application, and you’ll take the English and civics test.
After your biometrics appointment, you get a letter telling you the date and time of your citizenship interview, as mentioned above.
The final step of naturalization is going to a naturalization ceremony, and you’ll take the Oath of Allegiance. Then, you get a naturalization certificate which is your proof of citizenship.
Marriage to a U.S. Citizen
If you’re married to a U.S. citizen and have a green card, you may be eligible for citizenship after three years of living in the country. The person you’re married to must have been a citizen for at least three years before you can file your naturalization application.
Other eligibility requirements include being physically present in the country for at least 18 months in the past three years and having lived continuously or for at least three months before the date of your application within the state or USCIS district that has jurisdiction.
You have to maintain continuous U.S. residence during your application period and meet the other above requirements for eligible green cardholders.
If you’re the spouse of a citizen living abroad, you may also be eligible if your spouse is employed by the U.S. government, which can include the military. Other qualified employers may meet the requirements, and your spouse must be scheduled to be stationed abroad in this employment for at least a year at the time you file.
If you’re married to a citizen, you can apply for a green card using Form I-130, Petition for Alien Relative. This form establishes a relationship between your spouse and yourself. You’ll have to submit documents to prove your marriage, like your marriage certificate.
If an immigrant spouse already lives in the U.S., they can change their status when they file. If you’re an immigrant spouse outside the U.S., you have to wait for a visa to become available and when you attend an interview at an embassy or consulate. After you’re admitted to the country as an immigrant spouse, you can file to adjust your status with Form I-485.
You’ll go through a marriage interview as a way to prevent marriage fraud. An officer will ask you in-depth questions about your marriage and your daily life with your spouse.
Member of the Armed Forces
Members of the U.S. armed forces and some veterans may be eligible for citizenship in the United States. If you’re a military member and you’re eligible, you may not have to meet some of the typical requirements. What you will need is to be, of course, moral character, have a basic understanding of the government and civics, understand English, and take the Oath of Allegiance.
Citizenship Through Parents
If you’re the child of a U.S. citizen, your path may be different than what’s above, and the requirements also vary depending on whether both of your parents are citizens or just one is, and whether you were adopted.
According to the Constitution’s 14th Amendment, anyone born or naturalized in the U.S. is a citizen of the U.S. and the state where they live. If both of your parents are U.S. citizens and they’re married, even if you’re born outside the country, you become a citizen. One of your parents is required to have lived in America before your birth.
If you meet the requirements, you will apply for a Certificate of Citizenship.
If one of your parents is a citizen, to qualify your parents to have to be married to each other. The parent who is a U.S. citizen must have been physically in a state or territory of the U.S. for at least five years before the child is born.
Two of the years must have been after the parent, who’s a U.S. citizen, was 14 years old. The child’s birth date has to be on or after November 15, 1986.
If the parent who’s a citizen worked or lived outside of the U.S. because they were in the armed forces, they worked for America’s government, or they were employed by some companies that are international, the parent may still qualify.
If the parents aren’t married, the child could still have opportunities for citizenship.
How Long Does the Process Take?
Back to the original question—how long does it take to become a citizen? It varies primarily depending on the path you’re taking.
The most common citizenship route is naturalization. After you’re eligible to apply, it can take at least six months to process your application and up to 14 months.
You might have to retake your exam or provide more information. After a decision is made by USCIS, they can grant your citizenship immediately or deny it.
If you marry a U.S. citizen and get your green card that way, you cut down the time you’re required to be in the U.S. before applying from five years to three, making it a faster option.
This doesn’t mean you should marry just for a green card, of course.
If you want a green card, and you’re not at a point where you’re ready to apply for citizenship, some of the fastest paths include finding a job where you’re considered to have extraordinary ability in the U.S., asylum, or the diversity visa lottery.