Can Immigrants Get Automatic Citizenship After 20 Years?

Updated on January 7, 2024

At a Glance

  • Automatic citizenship in the United States after 20 years is not possible.
  • Non-citizens must apply for naturalization through the USCIS, meeting specific requirements depending on their circumstances.
  • The most common path is through being a green card holder for at least five years, fulfilling criteria such as age, continuous residence, physical presence, good moral character, English proficiency, knowledge of U.S. history and civics, and taking an Oath of Allegiance.
  • Exemptions exist for the English language requirement based on age and years as a green card holder, as well as accommodations for disabled individuals. Military members have separate requirements, and certain actions can result in citizenship revocation. Credit history does not directly affect the naturalization process, but financial issues like tax evasion may pose a problem.

The process of getting U.S. citizenship can be very long and confusing. There are different paths to becoming a U.S. citizen, each of which has different requirements. All of these paths have requirements regarding the time spent in the United States, but none of them is automatic. Read on to learn more about automatic citizenship after 20 years.

Can You Get Automatic Citizenship in the U.S. After 20 Years?

In short, no. In the United States, automatic citizenship is only obtained by birth. Every other person must apply for naturalization.

The federal government agency responsible for processing applications for naturalization is the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS).

There are several different ways to get citizenship in the U.S.:

  • As a Lawful Permanent Resident (Green Card Holder) for 5 Years or more
  • By marriage to a U.S. Citizen
  • By serving in the U.S. Military
  • As a child of a U.S. Citizen.

Each path to naturalization has specific requirements that you must meet for your application to be successful. Some of these requirements are outlined in the section below.

USCIS Citizenship Requirements

The most common path to becoming a U.S. citizen is through being a lawful permanent resident (a green card holder).

To qualify for naturalization, you must:

  • Be 18 years old or older when you submit a Form N-400, Application for Naturalization
  • Show that you have been a lawful permanent resident of the United States (a green card holder) for 5 years or more
  • Show that you have lived in the U.S. continuously for at least five years before you submit your application
  • Show that you have been physically present within the borders of the United States for at least 30 months in the five years before you apply
  • Prove that you have lived for three months or more in the state or USCIS jurisdiction where you want to submit your application (if you are a student you can apply in the place where you go to school)
  • Demonstrate that you are a person of good moral character and that you have been one for at least five years before you submit your application (this requirement essentially refers to criminal, legal, or tax issue.)
  • Show that you believe in and are committed to the principles and ideals of the U.S. Constitution
  • Know how to read, write and speak basic English
  • Know and understand the basics of the history of the United States
  • Understand the principles of the U.S. government and how it works. This is called civics (you can take this test in another language if you also bring an interpreter who is fluent in English and your language to the naturalization interview)
  • Be willing to take an Oath of Allegiance to the United States.

If you want to apply for naturalization through the other paths, such as to get citizenship through military service, marriage, or family, there are other requirements.

When Are Exemptions Made for The U.S. Citizenship Process?

There are some exemptions to the naturaliation requirements for people who meet specific conditions. A few of these exemptions are explained below.

Exemptions for the English Language Requirements After 20 Years

If you meet the conditions listed below, then you do not have to take an English test as part of your application and can disregard the English language requirement for citizenship:

  • 50 years old or older when you apply and a green card holder for at least 20 years (sometimes called the 50/20 exemption)
  • 55 years old or older when you apply and a green card holder for at least 15 years (sometimes called the 55/15 exemption).

Please note you are not exempt from taking the U.S. history and civics test even if you are exempt from the English language test based on a 50/10 or 55/15 exemption.

However, if you are 65 or older and have been a green card holder for 20 years or more, you are eligible for special consideration on the civics test.

Exemptions for Members of the Military

In effect, members of the military have a separate path to naturalization with different requirements than people who apply based on being lawful permanent residents of the United States.

As a former or current member of the United States military, you may be eligible for the following exemptions:

  • No requirement for continuous residence in the United States as a green card holder
  • No application fees are required for the naturalization application.

Eligibility for these exemptions depends on a few factors. These include how long you have served, and whether you served during a period of hostility, as defined by the USCIS.

Exemptions and Accommodations for the Disabled

People with physical or mental disabilities or impairments are eligible for exemptions concerning the English language and civics tests. If you qualify for this exemption, you may not need to take those tests.

To receive this exemption you will need a licensed medical doctor, or clinical psychologist to complete a Form N-648 Medical Certification for Disability Exceptions on your behalf.

Alternatively, if you inform the USCIS of any physical or mental impairments you have on the Form N-400 Application for Naturalisation, they will provide ways to make it possible for you to complete the tests.

In other words, even if you do not submit a Form N-648, you are still entitled to help, but you will need to pass the English and civics tests.

United States Citizenship FAQ

The questions that are answered below often come up when discussing automatic citizenship after 20 years.

Can I still get U.S. citizenship if I have bad credit?

Yes. The naturalization process does not take your credit history into account. However, it does require good moral character. Being in debt is not a barrier by itself.

However, certain kinds of financial problems may be an issue. For example, if you have failed to pay your taxes, this could interfere with your application.

Can I get my citizenship taken away?

Yes, but there are specific situations in which this can happen:

  • Illegal means used to apply
  • Deliberately hiding or misstating important facts
  • Membership or affiliation with certain organizations
  • Other than honorable discharge after less than 5 years served in the military.

Is there an automatic citizenship provision for immigrants after 20 years in the U.S.?

No, there is no automatic citizenship provision for immigrants after 20 years of living in the United States. Citizenship through naturalization requires meeting specific eligibility criteria and going through the application process.

What are the general requirements for naturalization in the U.S.?

General requirements for naturalization include:

  1. Being at least 18 years old.
  2. Having lawful permanent resident status (Green Card) for a certain number of years (usually 5 years, or 3 years if married to a U.S. citizen).
  3. Continuous residence and physical presence in the U.S.
  4. Good moral character.
  5. Knowledge of English and U.S. civics.
  6. An attachment to the principles of the U.S. Constitution.

Can long-term residency lead to any benefits in the naturalization process?

While long-term residency itself doesn’t lead to automatic citizenship, it can help establish continuous residence and physical presence, which are requirements for naturalization.

How can immigrants apply for U.S. citizenship?

Immigrants can apply for U.S. citizenship by filing Form N-400, Application for Naturalization, with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), and completing the subsequent steps including an interview and citizenship test.

Does the U.S. allow dual citizenship for naturalized citizens?

Yes, the United States allows dual citizenship. Naturalized citizens can retain their original nationality if their home country also permits dual citizenship.

Are there special naturalization provisions for elderly immigrants?

Yes, there are special provisions for elderly immigrants, such as exemptions from the English language requirement and modifications to the civics test for individuals over certain ages who have lived in the U.S. as permanent residents for periods totaling at least 15 or 20 years.

Can military service expedite U.S. citizenship?

Yes, U.S. military service can lead to expedited citizenship. Members of the U.S. Armed Forces can apply for citizenship under special provisions that may waive some naturalization requirements.

What happens if a naturalization application is denied?

If a naturalization application is denied, the applicant can request a hearing with a USCIS officer. They can also reapply for naturalization if they believe they can overcome the grounds of the initial denial.

How long does the naturalization process typically take?

The naturalization process timeline varies based on individual cases and USCIS office caseloads. It can range from several months to over a year from application to taking the oath of citizenship.

Can children of immigrants automatically become U.S. citizens?

Children of immigrants can automatically become U.S. citizens if they are born in the United States or, in some cases, if they are born abroad to U.S. citizen parents. Additionally, certain children can derive citizenship when their parents naturalize.

Read More

Final Thoughts

Automatic citizenship after 20 years does not exist. Every non-U.S. citizen who wishes to obtain citizenship must submit an N-400 Application for Naturalization. However, if you are older than 50 and have lived in the U.S. for 20 years or more, you do not have to prove that you can speak English when you apply for naturalization. Several other exemptions may apply to you.

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Frank Gogol

I’m a firm believer that information is the key to financial freedom. On the Stilt Blog, I write about the complex topics — like finance, immigration, and technology — to help immigrants make the most of their lives in the U.S. Our content and brand have been featured in Forbes, TechCrunch, VentureBeat, and more.