How to Become a Legal American Citizen

By Mallory Ferland

Only those who are born inside of the United States or to at least one U.S. citizen parent automatically obtain U.S. citizenship. All other forms of citizenship outside of soil and blood must be obtained through naturalization. Naturalization is a long process with many stages, including the visa, residency and application stages. Residency green cards can only be obtained through familial connections to a U.S. citizen, marriage to an U.S. citizen, through permanent and sponsored employment or through refugee or asylee status.

Qualify for an immigrant visa. Before you can qualify for a green card you must obtain an immigrant visa. Visas that can result in a green card all require sponsored petitions. These visas include I-130 Petition for Alien Relative for family members of U.S. citizens, I-129F Petition for Alien Fiancé(e) for a K-1 fiancé(e) visa and I-129 Petition for Immigrant Worker for a person who has obtained a permanent job offer. Other less common situations that result in immigrant visas include refugee visas, asylum status, diversity lottery visas and a variety of specialty subcategories. All petitions are applied for through the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), and visas are completed through a U.S. Consulate General.

Apply for permanent residency. After you obtain an immigrant visa and enter the United States, apply for permanent residency, a green card, through the USCIS. Download and complete I-485 Application to Register Permanent Residence. I-485 can be found at the website of the USCIS. K-1 visa holders must marry their U.S. citizen fiancé(e)s before submitting the I-485s.

Complete the residency period and meet all conditions. In order to naturalize as an U.S. citizen, you must complete five years of permanent residency from the date of receiving your green card. Those who entered as a fiancé(e) or spouse of an U.S. citizen only need to complete three years of residency before applying for citizenship. During the residency period, you cannot leave the U.S. for more than six months at a time without obtaining a re-entry permit, I-131 Application for Travel Document. If your are absent from the United States without a permit for one year or more at a time, you will be considered in abandonment of your residence and will lose your green card. Green card holders also must live according to all state and federal laws; any criminal conviction can result in immediate deportation and rejection of a citizenship application.

Apply for citizenship. Application for citizenship is also completed through the USCIS by filing form N-400 Application for Naturalization. After the application is reviewed, you will be required to attend an interview with an USCIS officer and submit a digital fingerprint scan, also known as a biometrics exam.

Complete the English proficiency and U.S. civic exams. At the citizenship interview, you are also required to pass an English proficiency exam in listening, writing, reading and speaking as well as a basic exam covering the key features of U.S. history and government functions.

Attend the citizenship ceremony. All new citizens are required to attend a citizenship ceremony before receiving their citizenship certificates. At the ceremony, all new citizens must swear allegiance to the flag of the United States as well as allegiance to the U.S. government.

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About the Author

Mallory Ferland has been writing professionally since her start in 2009 as an editorial assistant for Idaho-based Premier Publishing. Her writing and photography have appeared in "Idaho Cuisine" magazine, "Spokane Sizzle" and various online publications. She graduated from Gonzaga University in 2009 with Bachelor of Arts degrees in history and French language and now writes, photographs and teaches English in Sao Paulo, Brazil.