Demystifying the Naturalization Process

Erick Widman

With all of the uncertainty in the news lately regarding immigration in the United States, those with both temporary and permanent residence in the US are likely feeling a little uneasy. Even if you’ve filed your application properly or made sure to follow the laws in order not to jeopardize your status, there is always a chance that major changes will be made to the system as a whole and your status could become less secure.

For this reason, if you’re a permanent resident and you are (or will soon be) eligible to apply to become a US citizen, it may be a good idea to do so. Permanent residents can become US citizens as long as they have been here for five years (or three if they remain married to a US citizen). They must also have spent more time physically in the US than abroad and not have committed a crime during these three to five years. The naturalization application can be filed up to 90 days before the date you become eligible.

If you’re considering filing for naturalization, you may be nervous or concerned about the process. For many people, the interview and tests associated with becoming a US citizen can be very intimidating. In order to demystify the process a bit, we wanted to explain what to expect during the interview, and how to best prepare for the civics and English-language tests.

The Naturalization Interview

The naturalization interview is the final step to getting your naturalization application approved. You will need to bring original documents such as your birth certificate, permanent resident card, state-issued identification, all past visas and travel documents, and a printout of your interview notice. If there have been any changes to the information on your application since it was filed, such as a new trip outside of the U.S. or a change of address or employment, make sure to bring copies of the new evidence.

You may bring an attorney to represent you at the interview if you wish. This is especially recommended if you have a complex legal issue in your background that could potentially deem you ineligible for naturalization, such as a divorce from your sponsor shortly following your green card issuance, an extended trip during a time you were supposed to be residing in the U.S., or a serious criminal charge. Your attorney will be able to defend you and help you explain the matter to the officer.

The interview will probably take approximately 20 minutes. The officer will review your application and ask you questions about your background. It is important to be honest during the interview. Lying or omitting something about your past because you’re worried it will negatively affect your chance at naturalization will likely end up being worse for your case. USCIS often has information about you outside of what you submitted with your application.

After the questioning portion of the interview is done, you will take both the English-language test and the civics test. You will be told the results of your tests right away. You will not be provided with a translator (unless you are exempt from the English-language test); the officer will be evaluating your ability to understand and speak English throughout the entire interview. If you don’t understand a question asked or a direction given by the officer, it’s okay to ask them to repeat or rephrase it — it’s much better to do that than pretend you understand something that you don’t. The officer will repeat and rephrase their question many times, until it’s reasonable to assume that your level of English is too low.

If you are approved following the interview, you will be scheduled for an oath ceremony, which is when you’ll officially become a U.S. citizen.

If you are not approved initially, you may be asked to provide more evidence. In this case you will be given detailed instructions on what additional evidence is needed and where you should send it.

If you get denied due to failing one of the tests, you will have the opportunity to try again within 60 to 90 days from the first interview. If you fail either test again, however, your application to naturalize will be denied.

You may also receive a denial for another reason that makes you ineligible for naturalization. You can appeal a denial, but chances are low that the appeal will be accepted. It’s best to prepare with an attorney in order to get help navigating any potential ineligibility and create a good strategy for test preparation; this way, you can avoid receiving a denial in the first place.

The English-Language and Civics Tests

For many people, the most nerve-wracking part of the naturalization process is taking the required language and civics tests, especially if they are still learning English. While it may seem daunting, both tests are completely manageable if you prepare well by using the abundance of free study materials offered online.

You may be eligible to receive an exemption or waiver for one or both of these tests based on age or disability. If you are over the age of 50 and have lived in the United States for 20 years as a legal permanent resident, or you are over the age of 55 and have lived in the United States for 15 years as a legal permanent resident, you can be exempted from the English-language test. You will still, however, need to take the civics test in your native language. Exemptions and other accommodations will also be made for anyone with a qualifying mental or developmental impairment.

The English-language test evaluates your ability to read, write, and speak in English. During the structured test, you will need to read 1 written sentence out loud to the officer (out of 3 given options) and write down 1 sentence spoken out loud by the officer (out of 3 given options). All of the vocabulary used in these sentences is selected from a list that you can study beforehand.

The civics test evaluates your knowledge of United States history and government topics. You will be asked 10 questions, and need to answer 6 of them correctly to pass. These 10 questions are selected from approximately 100 possible questions, which are available online so that you can prepare for all of the potential questions you may be asked.

Since you only get two chances to pass the tests, it is a good idea to be very well prepared to avoid a denial.

You can access the official USCIS study materials here:

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