The U.S. government appreciates the military service of noncitizens who fight for the United States, whether during periods of peace or war. If these servicepeople want to become U.S. citizens (“naturalize”), special rules make it easier and quicker for them. In particular, these rules help deal with the fact that people serving in the military may have spent long periods of time outside the U.S. and thus not satisfy the normal requirements as to time spent living within the United States.
Qualifying military service includes with the U.S. Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, Coast Guard, or a National Guard unit (recognized as a reserve component of the armed forces) if and when the unit is called for active duty.
U.S. Citizenship for Peacetime Military Servicepeople
If you are a permanent resident (green card holder) who served in the U.S. military for a year or more, even during a period when there was no war, and you want to naturalize, your eligibility to take advantage of special rules depends on the following.
Your Status as a U.S. Lawful Permanent Resident
You must be a permanent resident of the United States (a green card holder) to take advantage of special naturalization rules. If you have a “conditional,” two-year green card, you need to get the condition removed first.
Your Honorable Military Service
You must have served or be serving honorably in the U.S. armed forces for at least one year. The one year doesn’t have to be continuous—you can add periods of service together to make one year. Any separation from the service must have been honorable.
Your service branch determines whether your service was honorable. If you have been discharged, either “Honorable” or “General-Under Honorable Conditions” discharge types qualify as honorable service. Other discharge types, such as “Other Than Honorable,” do not qualify.
How the Special Rules for Peacetime Military Servicepeople Work
There are several special naturalization rules that apply to peacetime military servicepeople. All the other usual rules for U.S. citizenship apply.
Residence and Physical Presence Requirements for Naturalization
Usually, an applicant for U.S. citizenship has to have been residing continuously in the United States as a permanent resident for five years before applying for citizenship, and half of that time must have been spent physically present in the United States. For applicants who’ve been married to and living with a U.S. citizen for three years, the residence period is lowered to three years, half of which must have been spent physically present in the United States.
In addition, usually a naturalization applicant must live for three months in the state or U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) service district where he or she is applying, and live in the U.S. from the time of submitting the application until the time of taking the citizenship oath.
If it’s been more than six months since you left military service, you have to comply with these requirements. If you’re applying for citizenship while you’re still serving or within six months of leaving, however, these requirements don’t apply to you.
Also, you may be reading this while the U.S. continues to be in a period of designated hostilities, as it has since September 11, 2001 (as of mid-2018). If so, you should be applying under a different set of citizenship rules, for wartime military servicepeople, as described below.
Good Moral Character Requirements for Naturalization
Like most applicants for U.S. citizenship, you must show good moral character, attachment to the principles of the U.S. Constitution, and a favorable disposition toward the good order and happiness of the United States during the five (or three) years before filing your application for citizenship.
If your service was a long time ago, you have to comply with that requirement. But if your military service was recent, perhaps because the United States has been in a period of designated hostilities since September 11, 2001, you should be applying under a wartime citizenship rules (described below), and would have to show only one year of good moral character.
U.S. Citizenship for Wartime Military Servicepeople
Whether you can naturalize based on service in the U.S. military during war depends on when you served, your current immigration status, and more.
Your Immigration Status
You qualify for the special naturalization rules as long as you were physically present in the U.S. at the time of your induction, enlistment, reenlistment, or extension of service in the U.S. armed forces. “United States” includes the Panama Canal Zone, American Samoa, Swains Island, or on board a ship owned or operated by the U.S. government for noncommercial service. If you were in the U.S. at that time, you don’t have to have any particular type of immigration status when you apply for citizenship.
If you weren’t in the U.S. at the time of your induction, enlistment, reenlistment, or extension of service, you must be a U.S. permanent resident (green card holder) to take advantage of the special naturalization rules. If you have a “conditional” two-year green card, you need to get the condition removed first.
Your Military Service
To be eligible for the special naturalization rules as a wartime service member, you must have served or be serving honorably in the U.S. armed forces in an active duty status or as a member of the Selected Reserve of the Ready Reserve during certain periods of war or other “hostilities.” Currently, the qualifying periods of war and other hostilities include:
- World War I (April 6, 1917 to November 11, 1918)
- World War II (September 1, 1939 to December 31, 1946)
- the Korean Conflict (June 25, 1950 to July 1, 1955)
- the Vietnam Hostilities (February 28, 1961 to October 15, 1978)
- the Persian Gulf Conflict (August 2, 1990 to April 11, 1991), and
- the current “War on Terrorism” (September 11, 2001 to the present).
Members of the Selected Reserve of the Ready Reserve qualify for the special naturalization rules without having their unit activated. They are considered to be in an active status at all times.
One day of service is enough to qualify you for the special naturalization rules. MAVNI enlistees may file an application for naturalization during basic training.
Your service branch determines whether your service was honorable. If you have been discharged, both “Honorable” and “General-Under Honorable Conditions” discharge types qualify as honorable service. Other discharge types, such as “Other Than Honorable,” do not qualify. If you were separated from service because of your nationality, because you were a conscientious objector who performed no military, air or naval duty, or because you refused to wear a military uniform, your service was not honorable for purposes of the special naturalization rules.
How the Special Naturalization Rules for Wartime Servicepeople Work
Several special naturalization rules apply to wartime military servicepeople, which make applying easier than for the average citizenship-eligible applicant.
First, servicepeople under 18 can apply if they wish. (Usually, applicants have to be over 18.)
Second, there are no continuous residence or physical presence requirements. (Usually applicants have to have been residing continuously in the U.S. as a permanent resident for five years before applying, and half of that time must have been spent physically present in the United States.)
There is also no requirement that you live for three months in the state or USCIS service district where you apply, or that you live in the U.S. from the time you apply until the time you take your citizenship oath. You can even have your fingerprints taken, attend the interview, and take the citizenship oath overseas if you are currently there on official orders. Finally, you have to demonstrate good moral character during just one year before applying, instead of the usual five years. You can get your citizenship even if you are in removal proceedings.
All the other usual rules for U.S. citizenship apply.
How to Apply for Naturalized U.S. Citizenship
Whether you're applying on the basis of wartime or peacetime service, the procedures are basically the same. If you’re on active duty, inquire through your chain of command for assistance. Most military installations have a designated office that helps people apply for citizenship.
If you’re applying on your own, the application form is USCIS Form N-400. You can get it, and instructions for how to fill it out, on the USCIS website. In Part 1, select box D to indicate that you are applying on the basis of qualifying military service. In Part 9, you may supply the information about your trips outside the United States if you wish, but if you're applying based on wartime service you may also leave this part blank, because it does not apply to you.
You do not have to pay the N-400 filing fee.
In addition to the usual supporting documentation, you may need to supply two passport-style photographs if you live outside the United States.
You must submit a DD From 214, Certificate of Release or Discharge from Active Duty, for all past periods of active service. If you’re on active duty, submit a copy of your official military orders.
If you are currently in the armed forces, you need to submit a Form N-426, Request for Certification of Military or Naval Service, completed and signed by an officer in your service branch.
If you are separated from the armed forces, you can submit an unsigned N-426 if you submitted a DD Form 214 or National Guard Report of Separation and Record of Service (NGB Form 22) for all the applicable periods of service listed on the Form N-426. The DD Form 214 or NGB Form 22 must list information on the type of separation and character of service (typically found on page “Member-4” of DD Form 214 or Block 24 of NGB Form 22).