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How immigrants and refugees become U.S. citizens

How does the citizenship process work? 

Each year, more than 700,000 people become American citizens.

Many arrive in the United States after escaping war and persecution. Some are resettled in the U.S. as refugees and others request asylum after reaching a U.S. border.

The U.S. immigration system can be extremely difficult to navigate and the application process to become a citizen alone can take a year or longer. Generally speaking, people applying for citizenship must successfully pass six stages or steps. Find out how the naturalization process works and learn what you can do to support new Americans.

How does the citizenship process work?

Step 1: Determine eligibility

To become U.S. citizens, immigrants must first become permanent residents—green card holders. The International Rescue Committee helps refugees and immigrants obtain green cards, a costly and lengthy process in itself.

After living in the U.S. for five consecutive years as lawful permanent residents (or three years if married to a U.S. citizen), green card holders can then apply for citizenship (there are exceptions for military veterans as well). Applicants must:

  • be at least 18 years old;
  • be of good moral character;
  • able to read, write and speak basic English.
  • demonstrate an understanding of the principles and ideals of the U.S. Constitution;
  • have a basic understanding of U.S. history and government;
  • take an oath of allegiance to the United States.

Step 2: Apply for naturalization

Naturalization is the process by which U.S. citizenship is granted to a foreign citizen or national. Once individuals have met the legal requirements for becoming citizens, they must submit an application form, with supporting documents and a $725 fee, to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

The IRC helps immigrants and refugees prepare their applications and documentation and guides them through the process, which can take nine to 26 months.  Over the past six years, the IRC has helped nearly 30,000 refugees and immigrants become U.S. citizens.

Step 3: Complete the biometrics screening

Applicants for citizenship will receive an appointment letter from the USCIS to be fingerprinted and photographed for the purpose of conducting multiple background checks and cross-checks by the Department of Justice, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Department of Homeland Security. All applicants must be cleared before the USCIS schedules an in-person interview.

Step 4: Complete the interview

Applicants are interviewed by USCIS officers who ask questions about their applications, backgrounds, character, understanding of the U.S. Constitution, and willingness to take an oath of allegiance.

Step 5: Take the civics and English tests

During the interview, a USCIS officer will test an applicant’s ability to read, write and speak basic English as well as his or her knowledge and understanding of U.S. history and government. Here’s a sample civics question:

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