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July 22nd 2019

Determining the right time to apply for U.S. citizenship

9 million permanent residents are eligible to naturalize as U.S. citizen. Are you one of them?

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Russ Leimer

The Department of Homeland Security estimates there are about 9 million permanent residents who are eligible to naturalize as U.S. citizens. Naturalization is the process that a foreign national obtains American citizenship after fulfilling certain requirements established by the immigration laws. If you are eligible, now is good time to apply for US citizenship through naturalization. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) recently announced that they are making an active effort to reduce processing times in locations that have had longer waits. There are other factors that go into determining the right time to apply for US citizenship. 

Generally, a foreign national must meet the following criteria to naturalize as a citizen:

  • Be at least 18 years old

  • Have continuous residence in the US as a permanent resident for 5 years before filing the application

  • Have been physically present in the US for at least 30 months out of the 5 years before filing the application

  • Have lived in the same the state for at least 3 months prior to filing application

  • Be able to pass the English test as well as US civics test

  • Be a person of good moral character

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How to Apply for US Citizenship

To apply for U.S. citizenship, permanent residents must submit Form N-400, Application for Naturalization, to USCIS. You can find the application on the USCIS website.

Some people use a lawyer to file Form N-400, but most people can do it by themselves. That doesn't mean you have to do it alone. CitizenPath has emerged as a solution for applicants who have straight forward cases but want the reassurance they are doing everything correctly. Designed by immigration attorneys, the do-it-yourself platform makes it easy to apply for citizenship and provides instant feedback if there is a problem. CitizenPath is a low-cost service that guarantees success. In fact, you don't have to pay until CitizenPath is confident there are no problems. Check your N-400 eligibility at CitizenPath.

Early Filing Rule for Form N-400

Most applicants may file the N-400 application up to 90 days before meeting the continuous residence requirement. To determine the date that you started your permanent residence, look at the front of your green card. The "Resident Since" date is the date that you became a permanent resident. Most permanent residents meet the continuous residence requirement five years after this date.

Take the example of that you became a permanent resident (green card holder) on 1/1/2015. Five years from this date would be 1/1/2020. However, you may also file your Form N-400, Application for Naturalization up to 90 days before 1/1/20. Therefore, you may file Form N-400 on 10/3/2019.

Disruptions in the Continuous Residence Requirement

Not everyone may file five years after the "Resident Since" date. A long trip outside the United States can cause a disruption in the period of continuous residence. Even a recent move can cause a minor delay.

Absence from US

Generally, permanent residents should avoid trips abroad which are six months or more in duration. Extended trips can lead to abandonment of permanent residence and disrupt the continuous residence requirement for naturalization. There are some general rules for permanent residents. For the purposes of applying for U.S. citizenship, most permanent residents should understand that:

  • A trip abroad that is less than 6 months will not disrupt continuous residence.

  • A trip of more than 6 months but less than one year is presumed to break your continuous residence.

  • A trip 12 months or longer will break your continuous residence.

It is possible to overcome a presumption that you disrupted the residence requirement with the help of a lawyer. Alternatively, most people may apply four years and one day after returning to the U.S. from an absence that disrupted continuous residence.

Take the example that you became a permanent resident on 1/1/2015. In 2018, you travel back to El Salvador to be with family members for a period of eight months. You returned to the US on 7/1/2019. Although you used a reentry permit, USCIS will still presume that he disrupted the continuous residence requirement if he tries to apply for US citizenship. Therefore, you will have to wait four years and one day to file the N-400 application on 7/2/2023.

Recent Move

A recent move to another state can also force you to delay applying for U.S. citizenship. Generally, you must have lived in the same U.S. state for the three months prior to submitting Form N-400. If you have recently moved, there is a simple cure: wait until you've been a resident of your current state for at least three months.

Spouses of US Citizens May Apply for US Citizenship Early

The continuous residence and physical presence requirements are reduced for certain permanent residents married to U.S. citizens. These individuals may apply for U.S. citizen just three years after becoming permanent residents. This benefit is available to individuals who:

  • Have been a permanent resident for at least 3 years; and

  • Have been married to a U.S. citizen for 3 years; and

  • The US citizen spouse has been a citizen for the entire 3 years prior to applying.

As discussed above, the continuous residence requirement is reduced to 3 years. Likewise, the physical presence requirement is reduced to 18 months out of the 3-year period. 

Spouses of U.S. citizens are also eligible for early filing. Therefore, applicants may apply for US citizenship up to 90 days before the 3 years of residence.

Take the example that you became a permanent resident on 1/1/2015. You married a U.S. citizen on 1/1/2016. Three years from this date would be 1/1/2019. However, you may file your Form N-400 up to 90 days before 1/1/19. Therefore, you may file Form N-400 on 10/3/2018.

Expedited Citizenship for US Armed Forces

Foreign nationals who enlist in the U.S. armed forces are rewarded with some of the best naturalization benefits. The U.S. armed forces include the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines or Coast Guard. This benefit is available to service members who are presently serving or have been honorably discharged within the last 6 months. You must be a permanent resident at the time of the naturalization interview. With few exceptions, only permanent residents or US citizens may enlist. 

About the Author

Russ Leimer is the co-founder of CitizenPath.com, an online, do-it-yourself immigration services designed by attorneys and backed up with live customer support. CitizenPath simplifies immigration paperwork related to green card applications, renewals, U.S. citizenship and a variety of other services. Russ holds twenty years of experience in management, marketing and entrepreneurship.

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