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The Citizenship Process

The process to become a citizen of the United States can seem daunting and challenging at times. However, it is relatively straightforward, though it involves a lot of paperwork and may take several years. You will likely need the assistance of an immigration lawyer to help you through the more complex parts of your citizenship process.

Steps Toward Citizenship

Generally speaking, there are three big hurdles you need to overcome to become a naturalized U.S. citizen. These are:

  1. Get your visa to legally live in the United States for a temporary period.
  2. Get your green card to establish lawful permanent residence in the United States.
  3. Become a naturalized U.S. citizen after meeting certain criteria.

Keep in mind that there are dozens of visas, and green card requirements are often quite stringent as are naturalization requirements.

Visa Requirements

If you want to become a U.S. citizen, the first step is to determine the visa for which you want to apply. U.S. visas can be categorized into four overarching types:

  • Work visa - You have a specialized skill or sponsorship from a U.S. employer.
  • Family visa - You have family with lawful permanent residency or citizenship.
  • Student visa - You have been accepted into a U.S. educational institution.
  • Refugee visa - You were the victim of trafficking or political persecution in your home country.

Green Card Requirements

Once you have a visa, the next step is to meet all the necessary requirements for a green card. As with a visa, there are several paths toward getting a green card. These include:

  • Having an immediate relative, defined as a spouse, child, parent or sibling, who is a United States citizen
  • Holding a certain high-skill job such as doctor, lawyer, researcher or executive
  • Having a post-baccalaureate degree
  • Being a political refugee

There are other ways to get a green card, but these are the most common ones. If you fit green card requirements, you will need to file an application for lawful permanent residency before your visa expires. Keep in mind that even if you are eligible for a green card, it may take several years to be accepted due to the current backlog. You will need to re-apply for a visa to stay in the country until your green card is accepted.

Naturalization Requirements

Once you've received your green card, you need to meet naturalization requirements to become a citizen. These include:

  • Having your green card for five years
  • Maintaining continuous residence in the United States for five years
  • Maintaining physical presence in the U.S. for at least 30 months of the past five years
  • Civic understanding and ability to read, write and speak English well enough to pass a citizenship test
  • Keeping a clean criminal record and being a person of "good moral character."

If you meet these requirements, you can apply for naturalization. Once this application is accepted, you will be a United States citizen.