Path to U.S. Citizenship

For foreign national who wishes to gain legal status and eventually citizenship in the United States, this may be achieved in a number of ways. Among the most common methods for a foreign national to achieve citizenship are either through employment or through family, including by marriage. Depending on the foreign national’s circumstances, other methods are also available.

The first step on the road to citizenship is gaining legal entry to the U.S. While foreign national may eventually become a citizen despite illegal entry, the illegality of the entry will make gaining citizenship much more difficult, not to mention having to face possible detention and removal from this country, civil or perhaps even criminal penalties if the reentry was made following an existing removal order.  One can gain entry in different ways, oftentimes using either immigrant or nonimmigrant visa categories; however, some non-immigrant visa categories may not translate to citizenship.

Next, in most cases a foreign national residing in the U.S. would have to first get permanent residency. Permanent residency, or a Green Card, can be awarded following entry with an immigrant visa or can be applied for from within the United States. A permanent resident can travel, re-enter, and work in the U.S. with fewer restrictions than someone with a non-immigrant visa.

Once permanent residence is obtained, the foreign national must live in the United States for five consecutive years before applying for citizenship, or three years if married to a U.S. citizen spouse.  In addition, a foreign national must be able to demonstrate they are of good moral character and take a U.S. history and civics test in English, unless otherwise exempted.

The remainder of this article is dedicated to the various ways one can enter and obtain permanent residency: First, the various possible visas available for temporary entry into the United States, or non-immigrant visas, which require further application for permanent residency; second, the various permanent visas foreign nationals can apply for directly; finally, special categories based on family relations and other unique situations.

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Foreign citizens come to the U.S. for a myriad of reasons – to study, to be with family, to work, to escape persecution, or to share their culture. For every reason, there is generally a corresponding visa category. The U.S. has categories of visas for both immigrants and non-immigrants. Among the most common immigrant visas are family and employment-sponsored ones. In the non-immigrant category, there are temporary visas for those who visit for business or pleasure, treaty investors/traders, students, temporary workers, exchange visitors, those who are engaged to a U.S. citizen, intracompany transferees, those with extraordinary abilities or who are artists or entertainers, persons in religious occupations, and victims of trafficking and criminal activity. In addition, certain people may be eligible for the visa waiver program, which allows individuals from approved countries to gain entry into the U.S. without applying for a visa from their consulate, so long as they have a valid passport and pass the border inspection.

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Naturalization 101

NATURALIZATION AND REMOVAL

When a non-citizen wants to become a United States citizen, that person must undergo a process known as naturalization. There are many benefits in becoming a U.S. citizen. A U.S. citizen can travel more freely; he can vote; and he can apply for more jobs, including government positions. Citizens are more eligible to apply for public benefits such as full Social Security, Supplemental Security Income, food stamps, and have access to certain loans, mortgages and scholarships. Finally, U.S. citizens would not be subject to deportation or removal proceedings.

WHAT IS REQUIRED FOR SOMEONE TO BECOME NATURALIZED?

An immigrant must be older than 18, be a permanent resident for 5 years (or 3 years for those who have gained permanent residency through a U.S. spouse), demonstrate good moral character, prove continuous residence and physical presence in the U.S., and be able to read, write and speak basic English (this last requirement may be waived in certain cases such as if the person has a permanent impairment that prevents them from being able to learn and understand English). In addition, the permanent resident must file an N-400, undergo an interview, pass a civics and ethics test, and take the Oath of Allegiance to the United States.

WHEN IS NATURALIZATION NOT THE BEST OPTION?

Naturalization may not be the best course for every permanent resident. The naturalization application is usually the last time for the immigration officials to review the immigrant’s case and determine both whether the person is eligible to naturalize and whether he is eligible to stay in the United States. Any inconsistencies in the naturalization application, such as evidence of immigration violations, criminal conduct or abandonment of his permanent residence status, may actually subject the immigrant to removal proceedings. Someone who is interested in becoming a U.S. citizen but is not sure of his eligibility should consult with an immigration attorney.

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