If you're a foreign national with U.S. lawful permanent residency (a green card), you might wish to take the next step in securing your right to remain in the U.S., by applying to become a U.S. citizen. The naturalization process gives you the chance to enjoy nearly all of the rights and privileges that come with native-born U.S. citizenship. (Becoming president of the United States is a notable exception.)
The process isn't fast or easy, though. There are a number of requirements you have to meet in order to qualify for U.S. citizenship. Among the most complicated of these are the U.S. residency requirements, which look at how long you've been living in the U.S. and your immigration status during that time.
Specifically, you should not file your naturalization application (Form N-400) until you're ready to show that you:
- are a lawful permanent resident (LPR); that is, you have a green card
- have, as an LPR (or "conditional resident"), resided "continuously" in the U.S. for at least three years (if married to and living with a U.S. citizen all that time), or five years
- have been actually, physically in the U.S. for at least half the required three or five years before filing your naturalization application
- have resided continuously for three months in the state where you filed your application for naturalization, and
- have not abandoned your residence in the United States.
In most cases, someone who doesn't meet one of the above criteria can solve this by simply waiting a little longer to apply for citizenship.
Requirement of LPR Status to Apply for U.S. Citizenship
Having status as an LPR basically means having a green card (or at least having been approved for it; don't panic if you've temporarily misplaced yours). LPR status comes with the right to live and work in the U.S. on a permanent basis, so long as you don't do anything that makes you deportable, such as committing a serious crime.
Conditional residence also counts in this analysis. If, for example, you got your green card based on a relatively new marriage to a U.S. citizen, and had to go through a two-year testing period, you should be citizenship-eligible so long as you converted to permanent residence at the end of that time.
When you file your naturalization application with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), you'll be asked to provide a copy of your green card to prove your LPR status. (If you have lost it, learn about Filling Out USCIS Form I-90 to Renew or Replace Green Card.)
Requirement of Years of Continuous Residence in United States
Most applicants need to show five years of continuous residence in the U.S. as an LPR before naturalizing, but some can show three.
"Continuous residence" is a legal term within U.S. immigration law. The word "residence" means where you actually live, that is, your dwelling or home. Residence "in the U.S." can include living in any of the 50 states or U.S. territories (Guam, Puerto Rico, or the U.S. Virgin Islands).
How many years continual residence you'll need
Unless you're married to a U.S. citizen, you have to reside continuously in the U.S. for five years after you become a LPR before you're eligible for naturalization.
However, take a close look at what counts toward those years. Some immigrants are credited with time before they actually held their green card. Refugees, for instance, can count all the time since entering the U.S. as though they were LPRs, so long as they received a green card before applying for naturalization. Asylees can count one year of their time before green card approval (in fact, their green cards will show that extra year; it will be backdated one year from the actual approval date).
In another twist, if you're married to a U.S. citizen, you need only three years' continuous residence with a green card before applying to naturalize. However, there are additional requirements:
- you have to have physically lived with your spouse for at least three years before you take the naturalization examination or test, and
- your spouse has to be a U.S. citizen for the entire three-year period.
Beware of possible breaks in your continuous residence
Now let's look at whether your U.S. residence was in fact "continuous." If you spend too long a stretch of time outside the U.S. during the years leading up to your citizenship application, you can be said to have "broken" your continuous residence. If you are away from the U.S. for up to six months it's typically not a problem. If you're absent for any time between six months and one year, you'll have to explain the absence to USCIS.
If you've been out of the country for more than one year within the years leading up to your application, you likely won't meet the continuous-residence requirement at all, unless the absence is excused. For instance, if: (1) you've been in the U.S. for at least one year already, and (2) you began certain types of work after you became an LPR, then your employment-related absence from the U.S. shouldn't count against you, so long as you were employed by either:
- the U.S. government
- A U.S.-based research firm that's recognized by the U.S. Attorney General
- A U.S. company that's engaged in foreign trade and commerce, or
- a public international organization of which the U.S. is a member, or
- a religious denomination or interdenominational mission organization having a bona fide organization within the U.S. where you are authorized to perform ministerial or priestly functions or serve as a missionary, brother, nun, or sister.
You need to apply in advance to stay outside the U.S. for more than year on this basis. Also, even if your absence is excused for residency purposes, it doesn't excuse you from meeting the physical presence requirement described below.
You also need to have continuous residence from the time you file your application (Form N-400) until you're finally granted citizenship. So, after you file, make sure you don't leave the country for too long.
MAJOR CAUTION: If USCIS finds that during ANY of your absences, no matter how short, you left with the intention of giving up your U.S. residence and making your home elsewhere, it can find that you abandoned your U.S. residence and are no longer eligible to keep your green card, much less receive U.S. citizenship. See an attorney for details and a personal analysis.
Requirement That You've Been Physically Present in the United States
According to a separate legal requirement, you'll need to have been actually, physically present in the U.S. for a set amount of time before filing your application for naturalization. In other words, too much traveling abroad, even if your U.S. residence stayed "continuous" overall, could undermine your citizenship eligibility.
The exact amount time you'll need to have been present in the U.S. is based upon your five- or three-year period, depending upon your marital status.
- are married to and living with a U.S. citizen, you need to have been physically within the U.S. for a total of 18 months out of the three-year period before filing your application for naturalization, and
- if you aren't married to a U.S. citizen, you need to have been physically present in the U.S. for a total of 30 months out of the five-year period before filing your application.
Like many green card holders, you might have traveled in and out of the U.S. a good deal. That's fine, but you'll need to count the total days in order to meet this requirement.
Three Months in the State Where You Apply Requirement
You need to have resided continuously in the state (or the USCIS district) where you will file your naturalization application (Form N-400) for three months beforehand. Unless you move to another state, you'll likely satisfy this requirement as you build up your three or five years of continuous residence.
Questions for Your Attorney
- My common-law wife is a U.S. citizen. We were never married officially, but we've been living together as husband and wife for 12 years. I want to become a U.S. citizen. Does my "marriage" qualify me for the shorter, three-year residency requirement?
- How long will it take USCIS to decide my application for citizenship?
- I filed my application for citizenship two weeks ago. My employer has offered to transfer me to an office in another state, and I'm concerned. Might this affect my citizenship application?
- I spent a year outside the U.S. because I took a trip that lasted longer than expected. When can I apply for naturalization? Or should I worry that I've abandoned my residence and my right to a green card?