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Is Naturalization The Same Thing As Gaining Citizenship?

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Naturalization is the process that immigrants take to gain citizenship. In the United States, a naturalized citizen is someone who has completed all the steps necessary to acquire citizenship.

Here is a look at naturalization, the requirements to begin the process, and the steps you need to take along the way.

You should keep in mind that naturalization is the last step in a process that includes military service, marriage to a US citizen, or living for 5 years as a legal permanent resident.

How to Qualify for Naturalization

There are different circumstances for people going through the citizenship process. However, many of the requirements apply to everyone regardless of how they became eligible.

In order to become a citizen, you need to meet the following requirements:

  • Be at least 18 years old. Those who are younger need to gain citizenship through their parents. When a parent becomes a citizen, their minor children gain citizenship as well.
  • Be a lawful permanent resident for at least 5 years. Permanent residents, known as Green Card holders, are legally allowed to reside and work in the United States, but they are not citizens and do not have all the rights and protections of citizens. There are exceptions to this timeframe. Some people who marry a US citizen or gain refugee status may be able to go through naturalization in less than 5 years.
  • Prove good moral character. To become a citizen, you need to avoid criminal activity and also prove that you have no criminal record in the countries where you previously resided. A criminal background check in your country of origin or other countries in which you lived is necessary for permanent residency as well.
  • Have basic English skills. Though fluency is not a requirement, you need a basic understanding of English to gain citizenship.
  • Understand US history and government. There is a short citizenship test on facts related to US history and government. This exam is given orally during the citizenship interview.
  • Willingly take the Oath of Allegiance to the United States. This oath takes place during the final ceremony before a judge who legally grants you citizenship.

Applicants need to provide evidence to prove they meet all these requirements.

The Most Common Ways to Earn Citizenship

According to the US Department of Homeland Security, there are four common ways to become a naturalized US citizen.

  • As the child of a naturalized citizen, you automatically earn citizenship when at least one of your parents does.
  • When you marry a US citizen, you can start the naturalization process.
  • If you are a lawful permanent resident for 5 years, regardless of your reason for having resident status, you can apply for citizenship.
  • Non-citizens who serve in the US military may be eligible for citizenship under special rules in the Immigration and Nationality Act. The requirements for this type of citizenship include one year of honorable military service or service during a time of conflict.

The Steps for Naturalization

If you are applying for naturalization, you already have a Green Card, which grants permanent resident status. If you do not have a Green Card, you need to file form I-485, which is the application for permanent residency. If approved, you will go through an interview process and receive your Green Card.

Once you have a Green Card, you can begin the naturalization process.

  • The first step in the naturalization process is to file form N-400 with the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). You need to include personal details, information about employment, family members, marital history, time spent outside the US, and details about your spouse or children.
  • You need to collect supporting evidence, such as a birth certificate, Green card, passport, US visa, and 2 recent passports-size photos. You should photocopy the documents (but send the original photos) and attach the copies to the N-400. You will need to pay an application fee with a check or money order when submitting the N-400. You can find the latest fee amounts on the USCIS website.
  • After the USCIS receives and files the application, they will contact you to schedule a fingerprinting and biometrics appointment. You will need to go to a USCIS field office for an electronic fingerprint scan. You will also be asked to bring the originals of the documents you photocopied for the N-400 application so that USCIS agents can verify them.
  • Once you pass all the initial checks, the USCIS will contact you to schedule a second appointment at a field office. This time, you will need to sit for an interview. The interviewer will verify information on your N-400 and may ask other questions pertaining to your application.
  • During the interview, you will need to pass tests on US history and civics, which will be given in English. You need language skills to understand and answer the interviewer, and you need to answer a majority of the questions correctly. There are study guides available with all the possible questions you could be asked during the test.
  • If your application is accepted, you will need to take one final step: attending an oath ceremony. You will swear an oath of allegiance to the United States in front of a judge and officially become a US citizen.

After you obtain citizenship, you can tak certain steps, such as changing your status with the Social Security Administration or registering to vote.

Do You Need a Lawyer for Naturalization?

You may or may not need a lawyer for the naturalization process. Technically, it is possible to fill out the N-400 application on your own, supply all supporting evidence, and attend necessary appointments without legal assistance.

However, any incorrect or incomplete information can cause significant delays, so it can pay to have an immigration lawyer at least check your application before submitting it. If there are complicating factors, you can get advice from an attorney.

Lawyers can help with cases involving refugees, people who have a deportation order and fear for their safety if they return to their home country, or those who feel their application wasn’t treated fairly.

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