Ways to become a U.S. citizen
There are several ways through which foreign nationals can become U.S. citizens. The following are the four ways to obtain citizenship in the United States:
- Citizenship by birth
- Citizenship by marriage
- Citizenship by naturalization
- Citizenship by military service
Most immigrants to the United States become citizens through the naturalization process. One of the most common avenues is for Lawful Permanent Residents (also known as green card holders) to meet citizenship eligibility criteria and then apply for it. Nearly one million permanent residents on average apply for naturalization each year.
There are several ways you can become a permanent resident. For most people, it is through any of the following routes:
- Family sponsorship
- Diversity lottery.
Others may become permanent residents through humanitarian programs, refugee, or asylum status.
Requirements for U.S. citizenship
To apply for U.S. citizenship, you have to meet the following conditions:
You must be 18 years of age or older.
You must be licensed to live and work permanently in the U.S. as a lawful permanent resident (green card holder) for at least five years. If you become a permanent resident through marriage, you will be eligible to apply for citizenship after three years of being a green card holder.
You must have a continuous residence in the United States for at least five years (or three years if you are married to a United States citizen) and be physically present in the United States for at least half of that time.
- You must prove you are able to read, write and speak basic English.
- You must know and understand the foundations of U.S. history and government.
- You must be a person of “good character.”
- You must take an oath of allegiance to the U.S. and abide by the United States Constitution and form of government.
To apply for citizenship, you must complete a comprehensive application process and provide proof of eligibility.
What are the benefits of holding U.S. Citizenship?
U.S. citizenship has many advantages. Becoming a U.S. citizen entitles you to benefits that are not available to green card holders. These include:
- The right to vote.
- The ability to travel around the world with a U.S. passport, which is one of the strongest passports in the world.
- The opportunity to sponsor relatives to obtain U.S. citizenship.
- You cannot be deported to your country of nationality or previous citizenship.
- No loss of status after long trips outside the United States.
- Possibility of obtaining government jobs, scholarships, and other benefits.
- Children automatically become U.S. citizens.
- Serve on a jury
- Obtaining citizenship for children born outside the United States.
- Qualify for Federal Jobs
Citizenship through family support
A foreign citizen who wishes to reside permanently in the United States needs an immigrant visa, otherwise known as a permanent visa. To apply for a family-based immigrant visa, you must be sponsored by a close relative who is either a U.S. citizen or a lawful permanent resident. Your I-130 sponsor must be at least 21 years of age.
There are two main categories of family-based immigrant sponsorships available to foreign nationals. These are the immediate relative and family preferences categories.
Immediate Relative category
Visas of this category are strictly based on a close family relationship with a U.S. citizen. Applicants are grouped as follows:
- IR1: The spouse of an American citizen
- IR2: Unmarried child under the age of 21 of a U.S. citizen
- IR3: Orphan adopted abroad by an American citizen.
- IR4: Orphan to be adopted in the U.S. by an American citizen.
- IR5: Parent of a U.S. citizen who is at least 21 years old
Family Preference category
These visas are for those with more distant family relationships with a United States citizen and certain specified family relationships with a Lawful Permanent Resident. Applicants are grouped as follows:
- Family First Preference (F1): for unmarried sons and daughters of U.S. citizens and their minor children, if applicable.
- Family Second Preference (F2): minor children, spouses, and unmarried sons and daughters (aged 21 and over) of Lawful Permanent Resident.
- Family Third Preference (F3) for married sons and daughters of U.S. citizens, their spouses, and minor children.
- Family Fourth Preference (F4): Siblings of U.S. citizens, spouses, and minor children, provided U.S. citizens are at least 21 years old.
Unlimited visas are available for the immediate relative group. In other words, they can apply for a visa anytime and obtain it, as long as they and their sponsors meet the requirements and can prove they have a qualifying family relationship.
But for applicants under the family preference category, there is a limited number of visas available annually. This is known as the annual visa cap, which stipulates those applicants under certain categories cannot receive more than a specific number of visas in a year. For this reason, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) processes family preference visa applications on a first-come, first-served basis. Applicants usually stay in a waiting line until those ahead of them have received their visas. The wait can be for several months or years.
Citizenship through the diversity lottery visa
The Diversity Lottery Visa is also known as the Green Card Lottery. It is a U.S. immigration program that annually provides approximately 50,000 green cards. The visa allows foreign nationals to live and work permanently in the United States. It is usually available to people from most countries across the world. The only exceptions are those born in countries with high immigration rates to the United States.
The U.S. government offers and regulates the Diversity Visa Lottery program through the Department of States (DOS). It can be considered one of the easiest ways to get U.S. citizenship by simply entering the lottery and waiting for the computer-generated results. The Diversity Visa Lottery is one of the easiest ways to get a green card, and the eligibility requirements are strict.
Who is eligible for a diversity visa?
Country of Birth
To qualify for a diversity visa, you must be born in a country that has sent less than 50,000 immigrant nationals to the United States in the past five years. There are annual variations in some eligible countries. Still, Canada, China, India, Mexico, and the U.K. are never on the list because all of these nations regularly send large numbers of immigrants to the U.S.
If your country of residence is not eligible, there are two other ways to qualify for a diversity visa:
- If your partner was born in an eligible country, you can apply with them and choose your spouse’s country of birth in your application.
- If neither of your parents has legally resided in your own country of birth, you can choose the country of birth of your mother or father.
The second main requirement for diversity visa applicants is to have a high school degree and at least two years of work experience in the past five years, as determined by the United States Department of Labor.
A computer program selects diversity visa winners randomly, with a certain percentage of the available visas granted to applicants from different countries. No country receives more than 7% of the diversity visas available in any given year.
You will have to keep a record of your application number, so you can always monitor your progress and success in the lottery. And if you are selected, you should act quickly to secure your visa.
You can check the State Department’s visa bulletin to find out when to submit your visa application.
Once the application has been processed, you will be scheduled for a visa interview and notified of the venue and time. If you prove to the immigration officer that you meet the visa requirements at the interview, your visa will be approved to travel to the United States.
Citizenship through employment
There are several ways to get a green card based on employment. Having lawful employment-based permanent resident status for several years may make you eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship. About 140,000 employment-based immigrant visas are issued each year.
The categories of employment-based preference immigrants are as follows:
First preference (EB1): priority workers
- Foreigners with extraordinary skills in the fields of science, the arts, education, business, or athletics.
- Exceptional professors and researchers; or
- Certain multinational managers and executives.
Second preference (EB2)
Foreigners belonging to professions holding higher degrees or possessing exceptional skills (including requests for national interest waivers).
Third preference (EB3)
Skilled workers, professionals, or other workers.
Fourth preference (EB4)
Religious workers and certain special immigrants
Fifth preference (EB5)
The immigrant investor visa category is for foreign investors able and ready to invest in new business in the United States and create jobs for U.S. workers.
Citizenship through investment/ entrepreneurship
Citizenship through investment is one of the fastest and most reliable ways for a foreigner to become a U.S. citizen. As with most methods, it requires you to first become an EB5 green cardholder.
Since the inception of this Green card program in 1990, people from many countries have benefited from this visa classification. Through the program, you can obtain permanent residence and citizenship with all associated rights and privileges.
To become a U.S. citizen through investment, a foreign national will first need to apply for an investor program visa. Previously, the EB-5 immigration visa was granted to foreign investors who had the ability to invest $500,000 or $1 million in the U.S. However, due to the new EB-5 rule in 2019, EB-5 applicants must now invest at least $900,000 or $1.8 million.
Another requirement is that the investment funds must be legally sourced, and there must be evidence to show this. The money must not be borrowed.
A total of 10,000 EB-5 visas are issued each year to applicants from different parts of the world. In addition to the investment capital amount, as part of Congress’s intention for the program, an EB-5 project must create or preserve at least 10 jobs in the United States for economic growth.
Last modified on August 29th, 2023 at 12:42 pm
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Depending on the relationship between the sponsor and the beneficiary, the standard documents required are a certificate of naturalization, birth certificate, marriage certificate, adoption, and a divorce certificate. In most cases, the sponsor must provide the previous year’s employment verification and W-2 forms. Other information required from the recipient includes passport, visa, I-94, photograph, and medical examination report.
Yes. If the beneficiary is already residing in the United States and has applied for permanent residence, they can apply for a work permit, also known as EAD (Employment Authorization Document).
Within three to four months, before the beneficiary receives the green card, they can legally start working with an EAD.
No, you can’t. As a lawful permanent resident, you do not have the right to petition to bring your parents to reside and work permanently in the United States.
While you do not need to work with a lawyer to apply for citizenship, it is always advisable to work with an immigration lawyer. This is because the application involves various procedures and documentation, which requires ultimate thoroughness.
The process can be cumbersome and complex for a non-immigration expert. An immigration lawyer will use their wealth of experience in the industry to help you navigate through the complex pathway smoothly and avoid the common pitfalls that usually lead to delays and denials.
While the decision solely lies with USCIS, working with immigration lawyers may significantly improve your chances of approval.