What is the Physical Presence Requirement for Naturalization?
There are two key requirements to naturalize that involve a minimum amount of time spent in the U.S. The requirements happen to rhyme, which can perhaps make them easy to remember: continuous residence and physical presence.
Continuous presence can be somewhat more complicated because the question of whether it has actually been broken is often a judgment call where you have to weigh various factors. In contrast, physical presence is more objective and less difficult overall to determine correctly. Perhaps if you studied social science in college you will be more comfortable with the continuous residence requirement but if you are an engineer or scientist you will prefer the physical presence requirement. Either way, however, you have to meet both requirements in order to naturalize.
The physical presence requirement is also known as the “boots on the ground” requirement to naturalize. While you are able to maintain your continuous residence even though you are outside the U.S. for several months (for example), any full 24 hour days spent outside the U.S. do not meet the physical presence test. It is black and white and either/or if your days count towards the physical presence minimum number.
The specific minimum amount of time of required physical presence for naturalization applicants who are applying on their own is half of 5 years. This comes out to two and a half years, or thirty months, or about 913 days. However if you are applying on the basis of your marriage to a US citizen, the required minimum period for physical presence is half of three years, or one and a half years, or 15 months or about 548 days.
In Part 9 of the N400 Naturalization form (currently page 7), there is a chart where an applicant needs to list the total days spent outside of the U.S. This chart exists to show USCIS if you meet the physical presence requirement or not. To determine if you spent a “day” outside of the U.S., you have to calculate if you spent 24 hours or longer on a trip. If your trip, for example, only lasted for 8 hours when you drove into Canada to visit beautiful Vancouver, British Columbia, but then returned back down into Washington state - this visit does not count as a “day” where you were not physically present in the U.S. In theory you could do this trip daily and still meet the physical presence requirement to naturalize.
The USCIS policy manual states that applicants has the burden of proving you were in fact physically present in the U.S. for the required period. Therefore simply having a valid green card for the minimum amount of time is not sufficient to approve your case. You instead need to provide “documentation” that you were in the U.S. However, USCIS will consult “relevant records” to help determine when you were physically present and will also consider the “applicant’s testimony.”
Thankfully in practice this means that at the naturalization interview the vast majority of our clients have simply been able to verbally confirm to the USCIS officer when they have been outside of the U.S. without needing to document every single trip. Some clients, however, who are close to the maximum number of days outside the U.S. have been asked to provide every page of their passport for inspection and USCIS has cross-checked these entry stamps with the online I-94 form.