Becoming a U.S. Citizen
LA County proudly welcomes immigrants from all parts of the world, recognizing and valuing their many contributions.
Deciding to become a U.S. citizen is a very important decision. It demonstrates a real commitment to the country’s legacy and loyalty to its Constitution. Once a citizen, you receive the benefits of citizenship and accept civic responsibilities. Before applying for citizenship, learn about the naturalization process. The LA County Library proudly hosts two U.S. Pathways for New Americans Centers that can provide helpful resources.
The Citizenship Process
- Be 18 years age or older
- Be a Legal Permanent Resident (LPR) at time of application and have 5 years as an LPR
- Meet Continuous Residence and Presence Requirements
- Knowledge of U.S. history & civics and English language
- Loyalty to the U.S. and attachment to the Constitution
- Good moral character
Prepare and Submit Application
- Determine if you need a lawyer.
- Prepare N-400 application and submit with filing fee or fee waiver. Keep a copy of your application.
- USCIS will schedule a biometrics appointment.
- Review information on N-400 application and bring documents requested on interview notice.
- Take English exam and US history/government exam.
Taking the Oath of Allegiance is the final step to becoming a U.S. citizen. You will be scheduled for a ceremony after the USCIS officer approves your application.
You must meet all eligibility requirements until your oath ceremony – you do not become a U.S. citizen until you are sworn in.
Enjoy the Benefits of U.S. Citizenship – You Earned It!
- Right to vote (and even run for office!)
- Family unity
- As a U.S. citizen, you have the right to petition for certain relatives – your parents, siblings, and married sons & daughters – whom you can’t petition as a resident.
- For other relative relationships, the process may be faster when you’re a citizen.
- Your permanent resident children under 18 automatically become U.S. citizens when you naturalize.
- Citizenship is a permanent status.
- You may travel outside the U.S. for any period and You’ll remain a U.S. citizen when you return.
- U.S. citizens cannot be deported!
- Employment opportunities: certain government jobs are only available to citizens.
Full Eligibility Requirements
I. Be 18 years of age or older
II. Be a Legal Permanent Resident (LPR) at time of application and have 5* years as an LPR
3-year exception: you may be eligible to naturalize after 3 years if you have been an LPR for 3 years and have been living in a marital union with a U.S. citizen during that time. You must meet all other eligibility requirements.
III. Meet Continuous Residence and Presence Requirements
Continuous residence: an LPR must maintain continuous residence in the U.S. in the 5-year period (or 3 years, if applying based on the 3-year exception described above) before applying for naturalization. This involves maintaining a permanent dwelling place in the U.S. and making the U.S. your primary place of residence.
If you travel outside the U.S. for 180 days or longer in a single trip, USCIS will presume that you have broken your continuous residence (those traveling abroad for over 1 year automatically break continuous residence). In certain circumstances, applicants may be able to demonstrate to USCIS that they did not break continuous presence despite traveling abroad for over 6 months but less than a year. The Office of Immigrant Affairs encourages persons in this situation to speak to an attorney or accredited representative. Lengthy or frequent absences from the U.S. (even if less than 180 days) can result in a denial of naturalization due to abandonment of permanent residence.
Physical presence: an LPR must be physically present in the U.S. for at least half of the 5-year period. This is separate from the continuous residence requirement. An LPR must meet both requirements.
Exemptions and exceptions to the continuous residence and physical presence requirements exist for certain members of the military, government employees or contractors, and other limited circumstances involving work abroad.
Applicants must file their N-400 application with the USCIS “service district” for their place of residence and they must have resided in that district for at least 90 days prior to filing. For example, an LPR who meets all other eligibility requirements but moved from New York to Los Angeles 45 days ago must wait another 45 days before filing their N-400 application here in the Los Angeles service district.
IV. Knowledge of U.S. history & civics and English language
Most naturalization applicants are required to show that they have an understanding of U.S. history and civics by passing an exam. They must also demonstrate the ability to speak, write and read English by passing an exam and completing a naturalization interview in English. Some individuals are exempt from the English requirement, and some individuals may be eligible for a disability waiver for the history & civics and/or English language requirements.
U.S. History & Civics:
Applicants must show that they have an understanding of U.S. history and civics by passing an exam that is administered orally during the naturalization interview. USCIS has recently changed the exam. Persons who submitted an N-400 application before Dec. 1, 2020, may continue to take the 2008 exam. Applicants need to study 100 questions. The USICIS officer will ask them 10 questions and they must answer 6 correctly. Persons who file their N-400 on or after Dec. 1, 2020, must study for the 2020 exam, which includes 128 questions. These applicants must answer 12 out of 20 questions correctly at their interview.
Applicants who are 65 or older and have held permanent resident status for 20 years or more qualify for a simplified exam. They are only required to study 20 questions. They may take the exam (and naturalization interview) in their native language.
Most naturalization applicants must show that they speak, understand, and write basic English. This is separate from the U.S. history and civics exam. Study materials for the English exam are available by using the search feature at this USCIS webpage.
The following applicants are automatically exempt from the English language requirement:
- Persons age 50 or older at the time of filing the N-400 who have held legal permanent resident (Green Card) status for 20 years; or
- Persons age 55 or hold at the time of filing the N-400 who have held legal permanent resident (Green Card) status for 15 years
Individuals who meet these requirements may bring an interpreter and complete the naturalization interview in their native language. However, they are not automatically exempt from the U.S. history & civics exam.
Naturalization applicants who have a disability that makes them unable to learn or remember new information may qualify for a waiver of the U.S. history & civics exam, or the English language requirement, or both. They must file a disability waiver by submitting form N-648 with their N-400 applicants.
Getting USCIS to approve a disability waiver for the English or U.S. history & civics exam requirement can be very difficult. USCIS will only approve waivers for people who have disabilities that prevent them from learning or remembering new information. Some examples of disabilities that may qualify for a waiver include Alzheimer’, stroke, or documented learning disabilities. But even if an applicant has such a disability, approval of the waiver is not guaranteed.
Disability waivers may not be approved if the doctor fails to fill out the form N-648 fully and completely, explaining the connection between disability and the applicant’s inability to learn or retain new information. In most circumstances, the N-648 must be filed with the N-400 application. USCIS will also consider the length of time the doctor preparing the waiver has treated the applicant. Applicants who see a doctor on one occasion for the purpose of completing the disability waiver are less likely to be successful.
If you need advice or assistance preparing a disability waiver, you may contact the Office of Immigrant Affairs or search for local immigration service providers by using our Immigrant Services Map.
V. Loyalty to the U.S. and attachment to the Constitution
Naturalization applicants must be willing to take an Oath of Allegiance and show that they are attached to the principles of the Constitution of the U.S.
Most men who reside in the U.S. between ages 18 – 26 are required to register for the Selective Service. Permanent residents who failed to register may be denied naturalization up to age 31, unless they demonstrate that they did not knowingly or willfully fail to register. Persons in this situation are encouraged to seek advice from an attorney or accredited representative.
Persons who have been affiliated with a communist or totalitarian party should also seek legal advice before applying.
VI. Good moral character
Naturalization applicants must show they have been and continue to be persons of good moral character during the five-year period immediately before submitting the N-400 and up to the time of the Oath of Allegiance. USCIS may also consider conduct outside the five-year period in some circumstances. USCIS considers criminal history, as well as other factors such as failure to pay child support or taxes.
Persons who have ever been arrested are strongly encouraged to seek legal advice from an attorney or accredited representative before submitting an N-400.
USCIS requires “biometrics”, including fingerprints, to check for criminal history. USCIS will send fingerprints to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), where they are compared to a database of all fingerprints taken by law enforcement agencies across the country. The FBI will inform USCIS, regardless of when or why the applicant was arrested, and whether they were arrested under a different name. The arrest record will remain when a conviction is removed or expunged by the court. USCIS also has access to certain criminal records outside the United States.
USCIS will compare the FBI report and other criminal records with the information you provided on your application. Crimes that were not revealed before a person became a legal permanent resident can result in denial of can N-400 and initiation of removal proceedings.
The Office of Immigrant Affairs does not seek to discourage all legal permanent residents with criminal history from applying for naturalization. Many applicants remain eligible despite having criminal history before or after they obtained a “green card”. However, because the consequences of certain convictions can be severe and even result in deportation, it is important that applicants understand their individual circumstances and seek legal advice from an attorney or accredited representative before submitting an N-400.
Child support, taxes:
USCIS requests information about all children of applicants on the N-400 form. USCIS may consider failure to provide support for children even absent any court-ordered obligation. This includes children outside the U.S. Failure to provide child support is not an automatic bar to naturalization, and USCIS may consider the circumstances if the applicant is unable to pay.
Persons who have failed to file tax returns when they were legally required to do so, and persons who owe unpaid taxes, may also be denied naturalization. Like unpaid child support, owing taxes is not an automatic bar to naturalization.
Persons who have failed to provide continuous support for children in the U.S. or abroad, and persons who failed to file income taxes or have tax debt, are encouraged to seek legal advice from an attorney or accredited representative before submitting an N-400.
False claims to U.S. Citizenship
If the federal government determines a person made a false claim of U.S. citizenship to receive an immigration benefit or other benefit, the consequences can be severe. Persons may be denied naturalization and in certain circumstances, this can result in deportation. A false claim to U.S. citizenship can happen in a number of ways. A person may do so by registering to vote or voting, or by filling out a financial aid application and checking a box indicating that they are a U.S. citizen. Sometimes a person claims to be a U.S. citizen by mistake. But the law in this area is complicated. The Office of Immigrant Affairs recommends that all persons who may have made a false claim to U.S. citizenship seek legal advice from an attorney or accredited representative before submitting an N-400.
Full Application FAQ
Do I need a lawyer to prepare my N-400 application and represent me?
Not everyone needs a lawyer or accredited representative. Many applicants go through the naturalization process without legal representation. The USCIS website now provides extensive information about preparing and submitting the N-400 application, including the filing address and fee, detailed instructions for completing the form, a checklist of evidence to include with your application, and form filing tips. You may file the N-400 application by mail, or online after creating an account. USCIS encourages applicants to take advantage of the benefits of filing applications online and offers these tips for filing online (USCIS still accepts applications by mail and while online processing may save you a few days, it does not result in a significantly faster process). These tools are helpful for some people who apply without legal assistance.
But getting legal advice before submitting an N-400 is very important for people who have concerns about their eligibility. This includes people who have been arrested and those with lengthy or frequent absences outside the country. Getting legal advice can also help avoid delays in the application process and loss of filing fees – USCIS does not refund filing fees when it denies an application. After a legal consultation, you may determine that you can complete the rest of the process without representation.
If you have questions about your eligibility, or you are unsure how to answer any question on the N-400, it is important that you get advice only from an attorney or accredited representative. See our “Immigration Fraud” page for more information about getting the right legal help. Use our Immigrant Services Map to identify one of the many free or low-cost legal service providers for naturalization applicants in Los Angeles County.
What if I cannot pay the N-400 filing fee?
If you cannot pay the N-400 fee, a fee waiver or reduced fee application may be available, depending on your household income and circumstances. You may qualify for a fee waiver if you are currently receiving certain means-tested benefits, if your household income falls below 150% of the federal poverty guidelines, or you can demonstrate that you have a financial hardship such as recent unemployment. Persons whose household income is above 150% but below 200% of the federal poverty guidelines may qualify for a reduced fee application. Interest-free loan programs can also help certain individuals who cannot afford the filing fee.
Will I be considered a “public charge” if I request a fee waiver for my N-400?
No. Legal permanent residents are not subject to a public charge test when they apply for naturalization. If you receive certain public benefits legally, applying for a fee waiver on that basis will not affect your naturalization eligibility.
What happens after I file my N-400 application?
USCIS will send a receipt confirming that your application is being processed. This notice will provide a receipt number that you can use to track the status of your case. If you submitted a fee waiver, you should receive a decision within a few weeks. If USCIS determines that you do not qualify for the fee waiver or your evidence was insufficient, it will return your application. You may either resubmit the fee waiver with additional information or re-file with a fee. After USCIS accepts a fee waiver, it issues a receipt confirmation with a case receipt number.
After getting your receipt notice, you will receive a notice scheduling your biometrics appointment. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected processing, so the timeframe for receiving your appointment is difficult to predict.
What happens at my biometrics appointment?
At your biometrics appointment, USCIS will take your photograph and collect your fingerprints and a signature. You will be asked to sign a verification that you provided or authorized the information on your N-400 application, and that all the information was complete, true, and correct at the time of filing. If you have concerns about the information on your N-400 application, speak with an attorney or accredited representative in advance. However, you do not need to bring an attorney. You will not be interviewed about your naturalization application and attorneys generally do not accompany their clients to biometrics appointments.
Naturalization Interview FAQ
What happens at the naturalization interview?
The USCIS officer will place you under oath. The officer will ask questions about your naturalization application, review the answers on your N-400, and ask if any information has changed. The officer may also ask to review documents such as your permanent resident card, passport, marriage certificate and birth certificate. Most applicants will also be tested on their knowledge of English, U.S. history and civics.
How do I prepare for the questions the officer will ask me during the interview?
In most interviews, officers spend a large amount of time reviewing the N-400 form to determine whether you meet the eligibility requirements. It is very important to review a copy of your N-400 before your interview and be prepared to explain any errors or changes. The officer may also review prior immigration benefit applications and ask you questions about those applications to determine whether you were lawfully admitted for permanent residence. For example, if the officer concludes that a naturalization applicant became a legal permanent resident through a “sham marriage”, the officer will deny the application and may place the applicant in removal proceedings. If you have been arrested, charged or convicted of any crimes, it is common for the officer to ask you about those incidents even if you explained them on your application.
If you are required to demonstrate knowledge of English, the officer will also evaluate your ability to understand and answer questions during the interview. The USCIS website includes a video with a simulated naturalization interview. However, interviews can be very different, depending on the applicant’s situation and the officer. Some citizenship classes offer mock interviews with volunteers who play the role of the USCIS officer. These mock interviews can be very helpful to get you comfortable with answering some of the questions you are likely to be asked.
How do I prepare for the English, U.S. history and civics exam?
Be sure to study in advance – you may receive an appointment notice only a week or two before your interview date. USCIS provides a number of online study resources. Many applicants prepare by taking citizenship classes. To search for citizenship education resources in Los Angeles County, use our Immigrant Services Map.
Some individuals are exempt from the English requirement, and some may be eligible for a disability waiver of the English and/or history & civics requirements. See our “Eligibility Requirements” section (Step 1) for more information. Applicants who are exempt from the English requirement must provide their own interpreter for the naturalization interview. The USCIS officer may speak Spanish. In that case, an interpreter will not be required, but the applicant will not know this in advance.
What happens if I don’t pass my English or U.S. history and civics test?
USCIS will reschedule you within 90 days to retake any part(s) of the test that you failed. If you fail on your second attempt, your application will be denied.
Do I have to wait to reapply if I fail the English or history & civics test?
No. You may reapply for naturalization at any time. However, you may wish to spend more time studying before re-submitting another application. Some people who fail the English test may choose to enroll in an English as a Second Language course before reapplying.
What happens if I pass the test on English, history & civics?
The officer will make a decision on whether you meet all the other requirements for naturalization. This may happen on the day of your naturalization interview, or you may receive a notice by mail. The officer may “continue” the application if more time is needed to review your case before making a decision. In some cases, the officer may request additional evidence from you before making a decision and give you a deadline to respond. If you have questions or concerns about a request for evidence, you should speak to an attorney or accredited representative immediately. Do not wait until the deadline approaches to seek legal advice.
What happens if my N-400 application is denied?
You will receive a decision within 120 days of your interview that explains the reason(s) for the denial. You may request “administrative review” of your denied application by filing form N-336. This form generally must be filed within 30 days of the denial of your N-400. However, the N-336 also requires a filing fee or fee waiver. Filing an administrative appeal will not necessarily result in a different outcome. In some instances, it is preferable to refile the N-400 application (possibly after waiting a period of time) or not refile at all. If your N-400 application is denied, we strongly encourage you to seek legal advice from an attorney or accredited representative to help you understand your options and decide how to proceed.
What happens when my N-400 is approved?
You will be scheduled for an oath ceremony. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, oath ceremonies in the Los Angeles area occurred primarily at large venues like the Convention Center or the L.A. County Fair. As a result of the pandemic, USCIS is now scheduling smaller ceremonies at USCIS offices. Ceremonies may be shorter to limit exposure and attendance is limited to the candidates who are scheduled to be naturalized, a parent or trusted adult if the candidate is a minor and individuals providing disability assistance to a candidate. In some instances, officers may approve an N-400 and schedule the applicant for an oath ceremony the same day or shortly after the interview. It is important to remember that you do not become a U.S. citizen until you have completed the oath ceremony.