U.S. Immigration Laws and the Selective Service

By Ilona Bray, J.D., University of Washington Law School
U.S. citizens are not the only ones who have to sign up with the Selective Service and potentially be called up to serve in the U.S. armed forces; find out when non-citizens must also put their names on the rolls.

No one who visits a foreign country expects to be drafted into its army, and certainly the United States does not require non-citizens to serve at this time. But it may, under certain circumstances, require them to sign up for the "Selective Service," which is a list of young men who may be called upon if and when their services are needed during a time of war or hostilities.

Regardless of why you're in the U.S. or how you got into the country, as a foreign national you need to have an understanding of how the U.S. immigration laws and the Selective Service System (SSS) work together. In short, you need to know whether you're required to register with the Selective Service and, if so, when you have to register.

What the U.S. Selective Service System Is and Isn't

The U.S. armed forces are made up of people who sign up voluntarily. In other words, men and women choose to sign up or "enlist" in one of the branches of the armed services. They serve for a set number of years, usually four, and they are paid for their service. The U.S. armed forces are normally fully staffed, meaning the government has enough military personnel to carry on its current duties and responsibilities.

However, there's always the possibility that a national emergency may come up, which requires an immediate increase in the number of people serving in the armed forces. How would the U.S. government find the people it needed?

This is where the Selective Service System comes in. The U.S. government uses this system to keep track of persons in the country who can serve in the U.S. military in case there's a need for a rapid increase in personnel.

By registering with the Selective Service, you're not actually joining the U.S. military. You might never be called into active service. Rather, you're simply letting the U.S. government know that you're available for service and how you can be contacted, if need be. The last time the U.S. used a military draft was 1973.

Who Must Register With the U.S. Selective Service?

The general rule is that all men in the U.S. who are between the ages of 18 and 25 must register with the Selective Service System.

There are some exceptions to and a few details about this general rule that you, as a foreign national, need to know about. For one, women don't have to register. (However, you must register if you were born male and changed your gender to female.)

In addition, if you're a man, you don't have to register if:

  • you're in the U.S. on a valid nonimmigrant or temporary visa, such as a student visa or a visitor's visa
  • you're in the U.S. as part of a diplomatic or trade mission
  • you entered the U.S. after your 26th birthday
  • you didn't enter the U.S., or you didn't maintain your lawful nonimmigrant status by continually remaining on a valid visa, until after your 26th birthday, or
  • you've been incarcerated, or hospitalized or institutionalized for medical reasons (in which case you must register within 30 days of your release if you're not yet 26).

You must register, on the other hand, if:

  • you're a lawful permanent resident (LPR) in the U.S.; that is, you have a "green card"
  • you entered the U.S. without going through the proper procedures at the border or point of entry; in other words, you're an "undocumented immigrant" or "illegal alien" or you "entered without inspection" (EWI)
  • you came to the U.S. on a temporary nonimmigrant visa, like a visitor's visa, and failed to maintain legal status for more than 30 days, such as by not renewing your visa
  • you're in the U.S. on a student visa and have failed to maintain full-time student status
  • you entered the U.S. under the visa waiver program (VWP), which allows certain foreign nationals to enter the U.S. without a visa, and you stayed beyond the 90 days allowed
  • you've been granted humanitarian parole, refugee status, or asylum in the U.S., or
  • you came to the U.S. under a valid nonimmigrant visa but your Form I-94, which sets out the details of when you entered the U.S. and by when you must leave, expired more than 30 days ago.

Dangers of Not Registering for Selective Service

Not registering with the Selective Service can have a big impact on your future. For starters, you could face criminal charges, a fine of up to $250,000, and up to five years in prison. Also, you won't be able to qualify for student financial aid for college, or to work at a federal job.

Moreover, as an immigrant, if you're required to register and don't, you may be barred forever from becoming a U.S. citizen. As part of the naturalization application process (the procedure by which foreign nationals become U.S. citizens), you need to establish your good moral character. United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will look carefully at your actions and behavior during the "statutory period" before you filed your application for naturalization. (That's five years for most people, but three years for people who were married to and living with a U.S. citizen the whole time.)

If USCIS finds that you didn't register even though you knew you should have, there's a high chance that your application will be denied. (If you can prove you knew nothing about the requirement, however, you may be alright.)

So, generally, if you're a man and between the ages of 18 and 25, you're legally required to register. If you're thinking about applying for citizenship, or there's a chance that you may apply some time before your 32nd birthday, you should register so that you don't jeopardize your chances of becoming a citizen.

Your 32nd birthday is critical because you have to register by the time you're 26 years old, and the USCIS will look back five years. So, if you're 31 at the time you apply and you didn't register, your application may be denied. If you're 32 years old, the USCIS will focus on your conduct from the age of 27 onward, at which age you had no obligation to register.

How to Register for Selective Service

If you haven't already done so, you can register for Selective Service in various ways. You can pick up the forms in person at any U.S. Post Office. Or, you can register online at the Selective Service website. Also, if you applied for an immigrant visa at a U.S. embassy or consulate in your native country and you completed Form DS-230, you automatically registered with the Selective Service.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • I've almost completed my application for naturalization, and I just realized that I was supposed to register for Selective Service, but I never did. I've been in the U.S. for ten years, and I'll be turning 27 in two weeks. Should I register now?
  • My student visa has been expired for 40 days, and I'm in the process of getting it renewed. Do I need to register for Selective Service now, or should I wait to see if my renewal is denied?
  • I'm applying for naturalization and USCIS is asking for proof of my registration with Selective Service. I'm positive I registered, but I don't have a copy of my registration, the Selective Service says it can't find my records. What should I do?

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