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How Do Immigrants Become Citizens?

How Do Immigrants Become Citizens?

How do immigrants become citizens? The answer to that question depends on a number of factors and each individual’s circumstances. That said, Low Income Relief has the scoop on some common and lesser known ways for foreign nationals to become United States citizens.

The Naturalization Process

Before we begin the discussion on how immigrants become citizens, let’s establish who is a United States citizen at birth. Anyone born in the United States or in certain United States territories are automatically U.S. citizens at birth, no matter where their parents were born. 

Furthermore, anyone who has one or more parents who were United States citizens at the time of their birth is automatically a United States citizen in many cases, regardless of where in the world they were born.

Those who were born outside of the United States to non-citizens must go through a process called naturalization. The most common paths to U.S. citizenship through naturalization are: 

  • Being a child of a United States citizen  
  • Being married to a United States citizen
  • Serving in the United States military 
  • Being a lawful permanent resident (green card holder) for five or more years

The path to citizenship can be a complicated process, depending on each individual’s circumstances. However, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has broken down the process into nine steps that most applicants will follow. Those steps are as follows:

  1. Determine whether you are already a United States citizen.
  2. Make sure you are eligible for United States citizenship.
  3. Prepare your application for naturalization (form N-400).
  4. Submit your application for naturalization and pay your fees.
  5. Attend your biometrics (fingerprinting) appointment, if applicable.
  6. Attend your interview with USCIS. 
  7. USCIS will mail a notice to you informing you that you are eligible for naturalization, requesting more information, or denying your application. 
  8. If you are determined eligible for naturalization, attend a naturalization ceremony and take the Oath of Allegiance to the United States. 

These steps might be helpful if you already meet one of the qualifications for becoming a U.S. citizen (being a child of a U.S. citizen, being married to a U.S. citizen, serving in the U.S. military, or being a lawful permanent resident). But how do immigrants become citizens when they don’t already meet these requirements? 

Many people come to the United States to work or study before they decide they want to set down roots here. In those cases, there are some alternative paths to citizenship. 

college students with backpacks walking down new york city street toward american flag in article on how do immigrants become citizens

How do immigrants become citizens with a non-immigrant visa?

People from all over the world come to the United States to study and work with the help of non-immigrant visas. Non-immigrant visas grant foreign nationals the ability to spend a certain amount of time in the United States as workers or students. 

In the section above, we described some of the common paths to U.S. citizenship, and mentioned that many people become citizens after being lawful permanent residents (aka. green card holders) for five years. But how do you become a lawful permanent resident in the first place?

It is not an easy task to adjust your immigration status to become a lawful permanent resident if you are in the United States with a non-immigrant visa (i.e. work visa or student visa). However, there are some ways that workers and students can become lawful permanent residents of the United States. 

For people in the United States who can perform certain types of jobs, or who have made significant contributions through academic research, there are ways to apply for an employment-based permanent residency

Please see the USCIS website for a full list of green card eligibility categories

celebrating America and the flag for new citizens

How do immigrants become citizens when they are undocumented?

Immigrants who have entered the United States legally (with a visa, for example) become undocumented if they do not maintain their legal status. This could occur, for example, if someone were to remain in the United States after their visa has expired. 

Immigrants who enter the country without a visa by crossing the border without the knowledge of United States officials are undocumented as well. 

How do immigrants become citizens under these circumstances? There are a few ways for undocumented immigrants to become lawful permanent residents, and then U.S. citizens:

  • Apply for asylum status: immigrants can apply for asylum status if they are subject to persecution in their home country based on their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or their political opinion
  • Apply for a U-Visa: Survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, trafficking, and other crimes who assist law enforcement can apply for a U-Visa.

Please note that these are not the only paths to obtaining a green card as an undocumented immigrant in the United States. Please see the USCIS website for a full list of green card eligibility categories

couple enjoying citizenship and the american flag

How do immigrants become citizens through family and marriage?

Immigrants can also become citizens if they marry a United States citizen or if they have family members who are U.S. citizens. 

For immigrants who meet certain eligibility requirements, it is possible to become a lawful permanent resident as the parent of a U.S. citizen, the unmarried child (under 21) of a U.S. citizen, or the spouse of a U.S. citizen. 

It is important to note that some immigrants may be barred from going through this process, depending on how they entered the U.S. or other reasons. 

It is important to point out that the information in this article, How Do Immigrants Become Citizens?, should not be taken as personal legal advice. Everyone’s situation is different, and this should be used as a guide to begin exploring the possibilities for becoming a U.S. citizen. 

When you are attempting to navigate the U.S. immigration system, it can be helpful to have professional legal help. There are many organizations across the U.S. that can help answer questions about your unique, personal situation, and even help you file the necessary forms for citizenship or permanent residency. By calling 211, or visiting their website, the United Way can help you find all types of resources, including legal help, in your area.

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Catherine Hall, LMSW is a therapist at a small group practice in New York City. She earned her master of social work degree at New York University.