When You Can Apply for U.S. Citizenship?

Posted by Frank Gogol

Being a permanent resident of the U.S. is great. Still, there are even greater benefits to being a U.S. citizen. You’ve probably been waiting for ages to be able to apply. And now, you’re wondering how long you still have to wait and when you can apply for U.S. citizenship. We’ll break it down for you below. 

Five-Year Rule and 90 Days Early Application Rule

The time you’ve spent in the U.S. as a permanent resident determines when you can apply for U.S. citizenship

If you are a green card holder, you can apply for U.S. citizenship if you’ve lived in the U.S. as a permanent resident for exactly five years. This is known as the five-year rule. If you received your green card on 19 July 2017, you will be eligible for U.S. citizenship on 19 July 2022. You can check the date on your green card to see the exact date you became a lawful permanent resident. 

The good news is, however, you don’t have to wait for the five years to pass before you can actually apply for naturalization. You can submit your Form N-400 Application for Naturalization to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) within 90-days before your five-year anniversary arrives. This is known as the 90-days early application rule, and the purpose is to give you and the USCIS time to go through the application process before your five year anniversary arrives.

Exceptions to the Five-Year Rule

Although most people will have to wait the full five years, there are certain exceptions to the five-year rule. This could mean you may be eligible to apply for naturalization before the five years have passed. Here are the exceptions to the five-year rule. 

People Married to a U.S. Citizen

If you married a U.S. citizen, you will only have to wait three years from the date you received your permanent residency before you can apply for U.S. citizenship. This would be the case even if you didn’t initially receive your green card through your marriage with the U.S. citizen. If you got married after you received your green card, you can apply for citizenship three years after your date of marriage. If you have a green card marriage, the two years you are a conditional resident will also count towards the three years. 

To take advantage of this exception, you will have to stay married to your U.S. citizen spouse until you have completed the naturalization process. If you get a divorce, or even if you stop living together, before you get your U.S. citizenship, the exception will no longer apply. Unfortunately, this is also the case where your spouse dies before your naturalization interview. 

Battered Spouses of a U.S. Citizen Granted VAWA Protection

If you got your green card through a citizenship marriage, but your U.S. citizen spouse was, or is, emotionally or physically abusive, you can still make use of the three-year exception, even if you leave or divorce your spouse before the three years have passed. Congress granted this exception as they didn’t want immigrants to remain in an abusive marriage just to obtain the benefit of the three-year exception. If you find yourself in this situation, you can make use of Form I-360 to self-petition your naturalization. 

Partial Exception to Five-Year Rule for Refugees

Refugees who received their green cards based on their refugee status can count all the years they’ve lived in the U.S. as a refugee as part of the five-year rule. You could do this even if you weren’t a permanent resident for all those years. This is known as a “rollback”. 

Even if you were granted refugee status in another country before you came to the U.S., you could use the date you originally entered the U.S. as the “start” of your “permanent residency” for purposes of the five-year rule. It doesn’t matter how many years you lived in the U.S. as a refugee before you eventually obtained permanent residency status. All the years will count as if you were a permanent resident for the entire time. 

Partial Exception to Five-Year Rule for People Granted Asylum

Another rollback applies to people who received a green card based on being granted asylum in the U.S. One year of the time you spent in the U.S. before becoming a permanent resident will be counted as if you were a permanent resident for purposes of the five-year rule. 

Note, the USCIS will automatically backdate the date on your green card (i.e., the date your permanent residence started) by one year in recognition of your rollback rights. So, you still have to wait five years from the date on your green card. But if you were granted asylum status at least a year before you received your green card, your wait will only be four years since receiving your green card. 

Spouses of U.S. Citizens in Certain Overseas Jobs

Usually, if a permanent resident is outside of the U.S. for an extended amount of time, the time spent outside of the U.S. suspends the counting of the five years required to qualify for citizenship. If, however, your spouse has a job requiring the two of you to live together outside of the U.S., it may be an exception. You might still be able to apply for citizenship after five years. 

There are specific requirements that apply to this exception, however. You must declare an intention to live in the U.S. once your spouse’s employment ends. Also, you must be regularly stationed abroad only due to your spouse’s employment. 

Finally, your spouse’s employer must be one of the following:

  • a U.S. research institution recognized by the U.S. attorney general (you can find a comprehensive list of these here
  • the U.S. government (examples would be the American Red Cross, the military, the C.I.A. or the Peace Corps)
  • a religious denomination that also has an organization in the U.S.
  • a public international organization in which the U.S. participates by a statute or treaty
  • a U.S. firm or corporation that is engaged in developing U.S. foreign commerce or trade.   

Additional Requirements that Could Extend Your Wait Time

We’ve looked at the exceptions where you don’t have to wait the full five years before you can apply for citizenship. But there are also situations which could cause you to have to wait longer before you can apply. 

These would be:

  • If you can’t demonstrate you’ve had a “good moral character” for the required amount of time before you apply for citizenship
  • You haven’t lived in the state or district where you are filing your citizenship application for at least three months
  • You’ve spent more than one year outside of the U.S. (unless an exception applies), or
  • In total, you haven’t spent the required amount of time present in the U.S. while you were a permanent resident. Generally, the requirement is you have to spend at least half the time of being a permanent resident in the U.S.

These factors could result in different rules and time periods applying before you can apply for citizenship. 

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Now you know when you can apply for U.S. citizenship. Generally, you will have to wait five years, but one of the exceptions could apply! Be patient while you wait out the time. Remember if you’re planning to leave the U.S., make sure you don’t disqualify yourself and the time you’ve already waited as a permanent resident.

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