Becoming a U.S. citizen

En Espanol


There are four ways to become a U.S. citizen:

  • by birth
  • through a process called "naturalization"
  • through "derivative citizenship"
  • through "acquired citizenship"

Applying for naturalization, or figuring out whether you might already be a U.S. citizen, is very complicated. It is always important to talk to an experienced immigration advocate or lawyer before filing for naturalization or assuming that you may have "acquired citizenship." (See Resources below.)

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Requirements to Become a U.S. Citizen through Naturalization:

Naturalization is a process where you show Immigration that you meet certain legal requirements for becoming a U.S. citizen. To do this in Maine, generally you must:

  • be at least 18 years old;
  • be a permanent resident (have your "green card");
  • have lived in Maine for at least the past 3 months;
  • have had your green card for at least 5 years (or 3 years, if you have been married to a U.S. citizen for the past 3 years);
  • have actually lived inside the U.S. for at least 2½ years during the past 5 years (or 1½ years of the past 3 years if you have been married to a U.S. citizen during the past 3 years). Note that if you have taken a trip outside the U.S. that lasted one year or more, you might not be eligible for citizenship now, even if you've lived inside the US for longer than the periods mentioned here;
  • be able to speak, read and write simple English, and pass a test on U.S. history and government. There are some exceptions to these requirements for older or disabled people. If you became a U.S. citizen through the 1986 "amnesty" program and were successfully tested then, you will not need to be tested again when you apply for naturalization;
  • have "good moral character" (see below);
  • be willing to swear (take an oath about) your allegiance or loyalty to the United States, including your willingness to fight in the U.S. military or do other national service if required. You may be exempt if your religion or moral values would not allow you to do military service. Also, a person who is so disabled that she could not possibly understand the oath (a person with severe mental retardation or with Alzheimer's disease, for example) may not have to take the oath. Talk to an experienced immigration advocate if you or an ill person you know may need one of these exceptions, before beginning the naturalization process.

Many organizations, including adult education centers and religious organizations, offer help with learning English or learning about U.S. history and government. Check with your religious leaders, your town's school department, your town or city hall, or those of cities near you to find out where you can get this help.

If you are in, or have been in, active duty service in the U.S. Armed Forces. There are special laws that may make it easier or faster for you to be eligible to become a U.S. citizen. For more information talk to an experienced immigration advocate or lawyer before filing for naturalization.

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Good Moral Character:

To become a naturalized U.S. citizen, you must have "good moral character." This is a legal term. It is not necessarily the same as a "good person," as opposed to a "bad person." A person whom you might think of as a "good person," Immigration might think is a person who does not have "good moral character" and should not be allowed to become a U.S. citizen.

The following are just some of the situations where Immigration might say a person does not have "good moral character" and deny citizenship:

  • the person has worked but has not always filed income taxes when he should have;
  • a man has lived in the United States at some point during the ages of 18 and 25 but did not register for "Selective Service"; (See Special Privileges and Obligations of Living in the U.S.)
  • the person has a drinking problem (especially if arrested for driving while drunk);
  • the person has ever had children with a person to whom he was not married;
  • the person has children but does not live with them, and is not paying child support for the children;
  • the person got public benefits such as food stamps, but did not tell his benefits caseworker right away when he began working again or when he took a brief trip outside of the U.S.;
  • the person has ever lied to Immigration, for example, on earlier applications for permanent residency;
  • the person has ever been arrested by the police for any reason;
  • the person has been convicted of any crimes. This includes nonviolent crimes such as shoplifting.

Please note that if you have ever been arrested or cited by the police, you should speak with an experienced immigration advocate before you apply to naturalize. Immigration takes your fingerprints to check whether you have ever had any criminal problems. Even criminal cases that were dismissed or vacated or expunged can cause not only denial of your naturalization application but could lead to deportation. Also, even if you already went through deportation hearings in the immigration court because of a criminal issue, and you won your case and were able to stay in the U.S., the same criminal case could cause you problems again. The immigration laws change often, and you can be put into deportation proceedings again if the law has changed since you won your case.

Also, if you have ever voted in the U.S. or at any time claimed to be a U.S. citizen, do not file for naturalization. Talk with an experienced immigration advocate instead.

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The Naturalization Process:

If you meet all these requirements, you can apply for naturalization using the N-400 form. If you file your application without legal help, be sure to:

  • include all the photos and other documents asked for in the N-400 instructions,
  • before sending documents to Immigration, make copies of all items for your records, and
  • send your application to Immigration by certified mail, return receipt requested. This way you'll have proof that Immigration received the application, even if Immigration later says it was lost. This will save you from having to pay the filing fee a second time, if you have to file a duplicate application. If you do not know how to send something by certified mail, ask a clerk at the post office to help you.

The application is expensive. If you are low-income, you can ask Immigration not to charge you a filing fee. Ask an experienced immigration advocate to help you. This "fee waiver" process is complicated.

Once you have filed your N-400 application, it is all right to travel outside the United States. But any trip outside the U.S. while your naturalization application is in process should be short. Also, have someone whom you trust and who knows how to contact you checking your mail. If you do not get your appointment notices from Immigration because you are away, they may deny your application. You will have to start all over again, including paying the fees again.

Several months after you file your naturalization application, Immigration will send you an interview notice. At the interview Immigration will go over your application with you to make sure your answers are still correct. Then the Immigration officer will test your English skills (including reading and writing). He will also test your understanding of U.S. history and civics (unless you qualify for an exception to these requirements). If you fail either the English or the U.S. history and government tests, Immigration will schedule a second interview with you 3 months later, to give you more time to study. If you fail at the second interview, Immigration will deny your citizenship application. You can file again when you are ready, but you'll have to pay the fees again.

If you pass either the first or the second interview, Immigration will then set an appointment for you to be "sworn in" as a U.S. citizen. You may have to wait several more months for this date. If you will be changing your name when you become a U.S. citizen, your swearing in ceremony will happen in the U.S. District Court. This might take slightly longer to schedule than the usual swearing in ceremonies that are held by Immigration. Once you are sworn in, you are a citizen of the United States. If you need to travel outside the United States after you become a U.S. citizen, you should apply for a U.S. passport (or “Passport Card” that is valid for travel to Canada, only). See more about applying for a U.S. passport below.

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Dual Nationality:

Some countries allow their citizens to remain citizens even after they become U.S. citizens. This depends on the country. To find out if you can keep "dual citizenship" after you become a naturalized U.S. citizen, contact your country's embassy in the United States. If your country says "no," then you must choose to either remain a citizen of your home country or give that up to become a U.S. citizen. If your country says “yes,” then the U.S. will also allow you to be a dual citizen of that country and the U.S. You must still take the oath to be loyal to the U.S.

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Derivative Citizenship:

Some children become U.S. citizens automatically, or "derivatively," through their parents' naturalization. The laws about "derivative citizenship" vary, depending upon the date that the parent(s) naturalized.

On or after February 27, 2001, a child will become a U.S. citizen derivatively as soon as all of the following things happen:

  • the child is under 18 years old;
  • the child is or becomes a permanent resident;
  • a parent of the child is sworn in as a naturalized U.S. citizen after February 27, 2001; and
  • the child lives with and is in the legal custody of the parent who became the U.S. citizen.

It does not matter in what order these things happen. The child will become a U.S. citizen derivatively through his parent's naturalization as long as all of these requirements are met before the child's 18th birthday. The child could have been living outside the U.S. at the time his parent became a U.S. citizen, as long as he later enters the U.S. as a permanent resident to live with that parent while still under 18 years old. Note that this applies only to children by birth or legal adoption of the U.S. citizen. Step-children through marriage, and children only under legal guardianship of the naturalized U.S. citizen, cannot become U.S. citizens derivatively.

Before February 27, 2001, to become a U.S. citizen derivatively the laws were the same as above, except that if the child lived with both of his parents, both parents had to become naturalized U.S. citizens before the child's 18th birthday. If one parent naturalized while the child was under 18, but the other naturalized after the child's 18th birthday, then the child did not become a U.S. citizen automatically and must file for naturalization on his own.

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Acquired Citizenship:

If you were born outside the United States and either of your parents was a U.S. citizen when you were born, then you may have "acquired" U.S. citizenship at birth, without you or your parents even knowing it. This may also be true even if neither of your parents was born in the United States, but one or more of your grandparents were. This is an extremely complicated area of the immigration laws. To find out whether you might have acquired U.S. citizenship, you should talk to an experienced immigration advocate or lawyer. (See Resources.)

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Using a U.S. Passport to Prove Acquired or Derivative Citizenship:

If you "acquired" citizenship or became a citizen "derivatively," the easiest way to prove that you are a U.S. citizen is to apply for a U.S. passport or "passport card." A passport is much less expensive than a certificate of citizenship from Immigration. It takes only a couple of months to arrive (whereas a certificate of citizenship can take a year or more), and you can use it to travel outside the U.S.

Most U.S. post offices have U.S. passport applications. The first time you apply for a U.S. passport, you must apply in person at a U.S. Passport office (the nearest one is in Boston) or at certain U.S. Post Office branches. You will need to attach to your passport application:

  • a copy of your parent's naturalization certificate
  • a copy of your birth certificate or adoption papers showing that that parent is your parent,
  • a copy of your green card, and
  • proof that you live with your parent (copies of school records or medical records, for example).

Although your parent's naturalization certificate says that it is illegal to photocopy it, it is all right to copy it in order to apply for a U.S. passport. Take the original naturalization certificate with you, so that it can be compared to the photocopy, when you file the passport application.

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Go to the Immigration website to find help resources, including:

Form N-400
The USCIS Naturalization Interview and Test Video
Practice Civics Test
Resources for New Immigrants (includes flier in 13 languages)

Get passport application here:
or fill out this version online, then print:

You will need Adobe® Reader ® on your computer to get some of these .pdf files. You can download it for free from

Immigration Legal Aid in Maine

Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project
309 Cumberland Avenue, Suite 201
Portland, Maine 04112
207-780-1593 or 1-800-497-8505
Services are free or low-fee depending on income

Private Immigration Lawyers: See the "Immigration Law" listing under "Lawyers" in the Yellow Pages of the phone book

Updated September 2008
This content was authored by Maine Law & Civics Education of the University of Maine School of Law,
with assistance from the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project and Pine Tree Legal Assistance,
and with funding from the Maine Bar Foundation.

Original Source: