Attorney at Law

How to Become a U.S. Citizen

James Parker
September 21, 2022
Last reviewed by
Boruch Burnham, Esq.
May 21, 2023

The United States means many things to many people. For some, it is a tempting land of opportunity to ascend to success and wealth. For others, the United States is a safe refuge from the torments of their home country. While many aliens may find themselves coming to the U.S., remaining there can be much more complex than initially anticipated for many foreign nationals.

Temporary visa holders coming to the United States are authorized to remain in the country for a limited period of time. On the other hand, when one obtains a Green Card, they become a lawful permanent resident (LPR) and will have the privilege of residing in the U.S. indefinitely and enjoying certain rights and benefits. LPRs have fewer rights and benefits than U.S. citizens and are at risk of having their Green Card/LPR status revoked for various reasons. Finally, an LPR may become naturalized, which is when an individual transitions from being a Green Card holder to a full citizen.

1. Apply to enter the United States.

Before you can become a U.S. citizen, you will need to apply to come to the United States. There are a number of nonimmigrant visa categories under which individuals may be authorized to enter the United States on a temporary basis.

Some common types of temporary visas include student visas and temporary worker visas. These visas allow immigrants to remain in the United States for a given period of time. For individuals aiming to become U.S. citizens, certain visas are better than others. For example, a transit visa is not helpful to people seeking to become permanent residents.

Regardless of the visa chosen, there will be some requirements that need to be met. This includes providing documentation such as health records, paying various fees, and submitting to examinations. Finally, there will be an interview process to gauge whether or not the applicant should be allowed to enter the United States. For more information about how to present yourself in the best light during an interview, check out AAL’s 7 Immigration Interview Do’s and Dont’s

2. Choose an avenue for acquiring a Green Card 

Once you have applied for a temporary visa, you will need to explore which path you will choose to become an LPR. Becoming an LPR removes the expiration date from your visa and allows you to remain in the U.S. indefinitely as long as your status is not revoked. This is a critical step to becoming a naturalized citizen and has four major pathways: family, work, diversity, or asylum.

The family path generally involves a family member sponsoring the applicant to become an LPR. Subject to a few exceptions, the sponsoring family member must either be a current citizen or LPR themselves, and the applicant must be closely related to the sponsor.

The employment-based immigration system provides a pathway for specific categories of workers to obtain lawful permanent residency in the United States. Typically, applicants must demonstrate exceptional abilities, possess an advanced degree, or work in industries with a critical shortage of skilled employees.

In any event, to obtain a Green Card via this pathway, the applicant will generally need to have a sponsor, which will usually be their prospective or current U.S. employer.

The diversity lottery is the third path to becoming a lawful permanent resident. Every year, a set number of visas are awarded to applicants from countries with historically low immigration rates to the United States. This method is not easily accomplished and generally requires the submission of more documentation, forms, fees, more rigorous interview processes, and other bureaucratic hurdles as compared to the other categories discussed above.

Finally, the asylum process is the fourth most common path to lawful permanent residence. Asylum will be granted to applicants who show that they face the serious threat of persecution, torture, or death in their home country on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion

3. Apply for an adjustment of status

Once you have decided on your pathway for lawful permanent residence, under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), you can apply to adjust your status from a nonimmigrant temporary visa to an LPR. This is generally accomplished by filing a Form I-485 (Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status) along with filing fees and a Form I-134 (Affidavit of Support) that identifies your sponsor. Undocumented immigrants seeking to apply under the amnesty program should file a Form I-698 (Application to Adjust Status from Temporary to Permanent Resident)

4. Fulfill general naturalization provisions

Once someone has obtained their Green Card and becomes an LPR, they can begin to pursue the final stretch for citizenship: naturalization. In order to begin the naturalization process, an applicant must first fulfill a set of general naturalization provisions.

First, the applicant must be at least 18 years old before they can file for naturalization. The second requirement is that the applicant has been an LPR for at least five years (or three years if married to a U.S. citizen). This does not generally include the amount of time that the applicant is required to wait to qualify for their green card.

In addition to demonstrating that the applicant has been a permanent resident for at least five years, the applicant must also have been a continuous resident for at least five years (or three if married). This means that the applicant must maintain an address in the U.S. for at least five years and cannot be absent from the country for longer than 180 days.

Finally, the applicant cannot have been legally removed from the country. This includes apprehension, conviction, voluntary removal, or deportation.

5. Explore your options under the special naturalization provisions

In addition to general naturalization provisions, there are special provisions under Section 316 (A through E) of the INA that allows certain people to become naturalized citizens even if they do not meet the general naturalization requirements, such as Section A (for children subjected to battery and extreme cruelty) and Section B (for children of deceased members of the U.S. armed forces). 

6. Take the citizenship test

After completing the naturalization process, the final step to becoming a U.S. citizen is passing the citizenship test. This two-part test assesses an applicant's English language proficiency and knowledge of U.S. civics. Finally, applicants who pass the citizenship test can take the Oath of Allegiance and become U.S. citizens.

7. Consider hiring an attorney with extensive experience in immigration law practice.

If you are planning to immigrate to the U.S., obtain a Green Card, and ultimately become a U.S. citizen, seeking the help of an experienced attorney can greatly benefit you. 

AAL’s directory offers a large pool of attorneys who have extensive experience and in-depth knowledge of the immigration bureaucracy, administrative proceedings, and other complex processes you will encounter on your pathway to citizenship. They can provide you with sound advice, help you explore your options, and vigorously advocate on your behalf to ensure you get the best possible outcome for your case.



*Disclaimer: Attorney At Law does not represent all lawyers in all states. There may be differences of opinion. It’s always advisable to consult with an attorney when in a legal situation.

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