Basic Requirements for US Naturalization

Immigration Reform Protest
Protestors Support President Obama’s Immigration Reform Plan. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Naturalization is the voluntary process by which the status of U.S. citizenship is granted to foreign citizens or nationals after they have fulfilled the requirements established by Congress. The naturalization process offers immigrants a path to the benefits of U.S. citizenship.

Under the U.S. Constitution, Congress has the power to make all laws regulating both the immigration and naturalization processes. No state can grant U.S citizenship to immigrants.

Most people who legally enter the United States as immigrants are eligible to become naturalized U.S. citizens. In general, persons applying for naturalization must be at least 18 years old and must have lived in the United States for five years. During that five-year period, they must not have left the country for more than a total of 30 months or 12 consecutive months.

Immigrants wishing to apply for U.S. citizenship are required to file a petition for naturalization and pass an examination demonstrating their ability to read, speak, and write simple English and that they have a basic knowledge of American history, government, and the Constitution. In addition, two U.S. citizens who know the applicant personally must swear that the applicant will remain loyal to the United States.

If the applicant successfully completes the requirements and examination for naturalization, he or she may take the Oath of Allegiance for Naturalized Citizens to become U.S. citizens. Except for the right to serve as president or vice president of the United States, naturalized citizens are entitled to all of the rights granted to natural-born citizens.

While the exact process of naturalization can vary depending on each individual's situation, there are some basic requirements that all immigrants to the United States must meet before applying for naturalization. U.S. naturalization is administered by the U.S. Customs and Immigration Service (USCIS), formerly known as the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). According to the USCIS, the basic requirements for naturalization are:

  • Be at least 18 years old at the time of filing Form N-400, Application for Naturalization.
  • Be a permanent legal U.S. resident (have a "green card") for at least 5 years.
  • Have lived within the state or USCIS district with jurisdiction over your place of residence for at least 3 months prior to the date of filing Form N-400.
  • Have continuous residence in the United States as a lawful permanent resident for at least 5 years immediately preceding the date of filing Form N-400.
  • Be physically present in the United States for at least 30 months out of the 5 years immediately preceding the date of filing Form N-400.
  • Be able to read, write, and speak basic English.
  • Have a basic understanding of U.S. history and government (civics).
  • Be a person of good moral character.
  • Demonstrate an understanding of the principles and ideals of the U.S. Constitution.

Civics Test

All applicants for naturalization are required to take a civics test to prove a basic understanding of U.S. history and government. There are 100 questions on the civics test. During the naturalization interview, applicants will be asked up to 10 questions from the list of 100 questions. Applicants must answer at least six (6) of the 10 questions correctly to pass the civics test. Applicants have two opportunities to take the English and civics tests per application. Applicants who fail any portion of the test during their first interview will be retested on the portion of the test they failed within 90 days.

English Speaking Test

The ability of applicants to speak English is determined by a USCIS Officer during an eligibility interview on Form N-400, Application for Naturalization.

English Reading Test

Applicants are required to read at least one out of three sentences correctly to demonstrate an ability to read in English.

English Writing Test

Applicants must write at least one out of three sentences correctly to demonstrate an ability to write in English.

How Many Pass the Test?

Nearly 2 million naturalization tests were administered nationwide from October 1, 2009, through June 30, 2012. According to the USCIS, the nationwide overall pass rate for all applicants taking both the English and civics tests was 92% in 2012.

According to the report, the average annual pass rate for the overall naturalization test has improved from 87.1% in 2004 to 95.8% in 2010. The average annual pass rate for the English language test improved from 90.0% in 2004 to 97.0% in 2010, while the pass rate for the civics test improved from 94.2% to 97.5%.

How Long Does the Process Take?

The average total time required to process a successful application for U.S. naturalization – from applying to being sworn in as a citizen – was 4.8 months in 2012. This represents a vast improvement over the 10 to 12 months required in 2008.

Oath of Citizenship

All applicants who successfully complete the naturalization process are required to take an Oath of U.S. Citizenship and Allegiance to the U.S. Constitution before being issued an official Certificate of Naturalization.