How to Become a Legal American Citizen

••• Motortion/iStock/GettyImages

Related Articles

People around the world view America as the land of opportunity. Many spend years working to get to the United States by any means necessary – legal or otherwise – their hopes pinned on a better life for themselves and their families. But being here illegally is not just breaking the law, it’s living with the constant fear of discovery and deportation. It also means doing without many of the rights and privileges afforded to citizens. If you aren’t American by birth, there are steps to take to become a legal American citizen, but a number of restrictions and rules can make it difficult or impossible to become a citizen. Not everyone is eligible. Understanding the rules is important if you want to become an American citizen.

Path to Citizenship

Citizenship paths can be complex and there are multiple avenues for citizenship. The four most common ways to become a U.S. citizen are as follows:

  • You can be born on U.S. soil or a U.S. territory. 
  • You can, after a certain period of time as a legal permanent resident with a green card, apply for naturalization. 
  • You can marry a U.S. citizen and become a citizen yourself, if you were already a green card holder.
  • You can seek asylum protection status, and then legal permanent resident status, with eventual application for naturalization.

To become a U.S. citizen, it’s easiest if you are at least 18. The citizenship process is complicated for children. Unless you are born on U.S. soil – a state or territory belonging to America – you must have at least one parent, including adoptive parents, who is a legal U.S. citizen, whether by birth or through naturalization. Naturalization is the process by which someone who was not born in the U.S. takes proper legal steps to become a citizen. Otherwise, you must first reach the age of 18 to apply for citizenship, which is done by using Form N-400 Application for Naturalization.

It is also possible to become a citizen if you are first a lawful permanent resident with a "green card". A green card allows you to live and work in the United States as a resident – not a citizen. You must meet certain eligibility requirements to apply for a green card. It can take a long time to obtain, and many people are denied for a variety of reasons. Know if you are eligible before even starting the process. If you are granted a green card and you have held it for several years, you can apply for naturalization. The number of years depends on whether you are filing alone, in which case at least five years of permanent residence is required, or as the spouse of a U.S. citizen for three years. You must prove that you have established continuous residence in America for those time periods.

You may also choose to apply from your state or district. In addition to proving long-term, legal U.S. residency, you must live in that state or district for at least three months before applying. Though citizenship is a national designation, local residency requirements work to prove you are in the process of stable, long-term residency in America.

Read More: Difference Between Certificate of Citizenship & Naturalization

What Is Naturalization?

If you are not afforded American citizenship by birth, but you go through all proper legal channels to become a citizen, you are referred to as having naturalized citizenship. Naturalization is the term used to describe this process. As part of naturalization, you must demonstrate that you have the basic ability to read, write and speak English. Though there is no official national language of the United States, English is the most widely spoken language, so you must demonstrate proficiency as part of the citizenship process.

You will eventually take a citizenship test, which includes demonstrating your understanding of and dedication to the U.S. Constitution and its ideals and principles. The test will also require you to prove a basic understanding of American laws, history and government workings. There are many ways to prepare and study for this test, including citizenship classes or the purchase of review material. Websites are also available that provide a great deal of information that may prove useful.

The final step, once you have successfully concluded all required paperwork and have passed the citizenship test, is to take a verbal oath, swearing your allegiance to America. Though dual citizenship – citizenship in more than one country – is allowed, if you travel into and out of the United States, you’ll be required to show your U.S. passport when going through customs.

Undocumented Immigrants and Citizenship Paths

If you have entered the United States without proper legal documentation, you are considered an undocumented immigrant. There are select alternative paths to obtaining a green card for undocumented immigrants.

One path is what’s known as asylum. Asylum involves a situation in which a person is desperately fleeing their home country due to persecution and/or violence, thus making it dangerous if not impossible for them to wait through the usual green card application processing time. Asylum may be granted to foreign nationals who qualify as refugees, who were defined by the United Nations 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol as people who are "unable or unwilling to return to [their] home country, and [who] cannot obtain protection in that country, due to past persecution or a well-founded fear of being persecuted in the future."

To quality for asylum, you must meet these criteria:

  • You must first be physically already in the United States, or present yourself at the border and ask for asylum. 
  • You must state that you cannot or do not wish to return to your home country because your life is in danger, or that you are being persecuted due to your race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular type of group. 
  • You must not be involved, or have been involved in the past, in any activity which would disqualify you for applying for asylum. This includes certain illegal activities.

If these criteria have been met, complete Form I-589, the Application for Asylum and for Withholding of Removal. You will need to follow the path to asylum status, which includes a credible fear interview. If it is determined that an individual seeking asylum has a credible fear of persecution or torture, they will be referred to immigration court to proceed with the defensive asylum application process. This will include a court hearing. If it is determined instead that the individual has a reasonable fear, they will be sent to immigration court to prove to a judge their need for asylum. In either case, a year after being granted asylum, you can apply for a legal green card. After you have that, you can apply for naturalization.

Getting a U Visa

To encourage cooperation with law enforcement, the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act created the U Visa to help protect crime victims who assist law enforcement. This can include employment authorization and legal status to allow you to apply for permanent residency and eventual naturalization. There are several criteria required of U Visa applicants, which include their willingness to cooperate with law enforcement and the capacity of their information to help prosecute criminals in the United States.