How to Become A US Citizen: Understanding The Legal Process

how to become a us citizen

U.S. Citizenship has become a hot topic in the media, especially with the controversy over immigration and the refugee crisis. Millions of people worldwide dream of becoming a citizen of the United States, lured by the ideals of the American dream and full of hope for expanded possibilities. However, the actual process involved for how to become a US citizen is complicated and extensive, with numerous requirements to fulfill. There are a few different paths that an immigrant can take depending on his or her life circumstances.

Becoming a citizen of the United States gives immigrants many new opportunities, but there is great difficulty and complexity in learning how to become a US citizen and all the legalities involved. While the smartest move is probably to get an immigration lawyer to help you navigate the laws, here is some general information to give you an idea of what's involved, as you seek to learn how to become a US citizen.

4 Ways to Become a US Citizen

If you have been following recent politics or come into contact with immigrants, you may have wondered how to become a US citizen. There are four main paths to citizenship, each of which has different rules and requirements. There are typically many steps along the journey, and it can take many years: a fact that can be discouraging for those striving to become a citizen. It is also necessary to prove that the incoming immigrant is a moral person who plans on being a contributor to, rather than a leech upon, society.

How to Become a US Citizen: Naturalization

USA flag

One way to obtain citizenship is through naturalization, the legal process that an immigrant or foreign citizen must go through to become a U.S. citizen. There are certain requirements that an applicant must complete, including the completion of an application, attending an interview, and passing English and civics test. Once these steps have been completed, the applicant takes an oath of allegiance and is accepted as a U.S. citizen. These criteria help to ensure that only genuinely committed immigrants become citizens of the United States.

The first step in becoming a naturalized citizen through naturalization is obtaining a green card, which means that you are a legal permanent resident of the United States. This allows you to work and live in the United States freely. You may obtain a green card if you:

  • have a relative living legally in the United States
  • receive a job offer in the United States
  • have lived legally in the United States as a refugee or asylum seeker for a year
statue of liberty

Relatives living legally in the States can immediately sponsor a spouse, child under 21 years of age, or parent. If the U.S. citizen wants to sponsor a sibling or child over 21 years of age, the wait time is much longer: typically a few years. Those with a job offer can petition themselves for a green card or ask their employer to do so. This strategy of obtaining U.S. citizenship is a popular route, but it can take a long time.

How to Become a US Citizen: Marriage

wedding rings

Another viable option for receiving U.S. citizenship is through marriage. To use this route, you must apply for a green card by submitting the Form I-130 Petition for an Alien Relative, which establishes the relationship between the immigrant and the resident. You must show evidence of the marriage with official documents such as a marriage certificate.

If the immigrant spouse lives with the U.S. citizen already, they can adjust their status as the Form I-130 is being completed. The other form to submit is the Application to Register Permanent Residency or Adjust Status, which can be turned in with the Form I-130. If the immigrant spouse lives outside of the United States, they must wait to acquire a visa and then have an interview at a consulate or embassy. Once the spouse is accepted as a citizen of the U.S., they can file to adjust status with Form I-485.

How to Become a US Citizen: Parents

mother and daughter

Some immigrants achieve U.S. citizenship through having parents who legally live in the U.S. The parents must be married to each other and have physically lived in a state or territory of the U.S. for at least five years before the child in question is born. Two of those five years must have been after the parent was 14 years old, and the child's birthdate needs to be on or after November 14, 1986. One exception to the five year rule is if the U.S. citizen parent spent time serving in the American armed forces or worked for the U.S. government.

Another way to gain citizenship through parents is through adoption. Parents must have legal custody of the child in question, and they must have lived with the child in the United States for at least two years. It is necessary for the child to be accepted into the United States as an orphan or conventional adoptee. The child must be adopted outside of the United States before turning 18 years old.

How to Become a US Citizen: Military Service

soldier lending his hand to two young boys

If you serve in the United States military and are wondering how to become a US citizen, you can be eligible to apply for naturalization if you complete some of the requirements that apply to the five-year green card holders. Along with serving in the military, applicants must prove certain aspects about themselves to show that they will be a benefit to American society.

They must show that they are a person of good moral standing, have not been convicted of any serious crimes, pay taxes, pay any child support they might owe, and are overall viewed as a positive community member. In addition, they must be literate in English and understand the basics of U.S. history and government.

The requirements for applicants to achieve citizenship through the military vary depending on if the country is at war or at peace. A person serving during a period of hostility may apply for naturalization immediately as long as they complete their military service honorably. For applicants who serve in the military during peacetime, the applicant must serve for at least one year and get a green card. Those serving during peacetime must apply while still in military service or within six months of ending that service.

Do You Need an Immigration Attorney?

hammer and book of justice

If you are unsure of the next steps or qualifications after researching how to become us citizen, it is a good idea to find an immigration attorney. If you have already attempted to become a citizen and discovered that you were ineligible, it's time to ask an attorney to determine how to fix your situation. If you have issues with your record regarding a criminal past or difficulty paying taxes or child support, discuss with your immigration attorney how to solve this problem.

If you are unsure if you meet the requirements for naturalization, or you believe that you should receive an exception, you may be able to fix your situation with the help of an attorney.

Personal & Residential Requirements & Other Helpful Information

business man speaking on the phone while dotting on some notes

Another requirement for naturalization is being fingerprinted, which involves making an appointment with the USCIS, getting your fingerprints taken, and mailing additional documents if necessary. The next step involves being interviewed and tested, a part of the process that can be time consuming and stress inducing for immigrants.

You must make an appointment, bring your identification, answer questions about your background, and take your English and civic tests. After passing all of your tests and interviews, you are expected to take the last step: the oath of allegiance. To complete this phase, applicants must check in to a ceremony, return the Permanent Resident Card, answer questions about your whereabouts since you completed your interview, and take the oath.


The process of is long and complicated, full of steps that require planning and persistence. The United States takes citizenship very seriously, since being a citizen of our country is seen as a great privilege and a way to gain access to many opportunities. To become a part of our country, you must demonstrate that you have earned this right through your upstanding moral character and willingness to persist through the many steps of the citizenship process.  The United States is full of diverse and talented people, many of whom have come from afar to find a better life or to escape struggles back home. Part of the beauty of this country is its blend of different experiences and cultures. The phrase "melting pot" was aptly chosen as a description of American society.  The keys to becoming a US citizen are to be determined to contribute meaningfully to society, to have the diligence to follow through on all the application process requirements, and possibly to get an attorney to help you. Most immigrants who have attained their citizenship through this kind of hard work and determination will tell you that the process is well worth it.

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