Applying for Citizenship? 9 Things You Need to Know

If you’re a green card holder and you’ve been living in the Los Angeles area for a few years, you may be thinking about applying to become a U.S. citizen. As you start to look into it, you may be thinking to yourself, what does the process look like? What are the common problems people who apply for naturalization encounter? I understand. It’s confusing! And, if you have any concerns about your case, it just makes the whole process much more stressful.

Here are some common problems that we’ve found people run into on their naturalization applications along with helpful tips:

1. Can I apply for citizenship if I've been living outside the United States as a green card holder?

Many people wonder if this will be a problem for their citizenship application. Another common question is

"What if I list my U.S. address on my form but I don’t actually live there all the time?"

A lot of people in Los Angeles tell me that they’ve been living abroad but want to return to the United States and apply for citizenship.

But under U.S. immigration laws green card holders must establish and maintain residency in the United States in order to retain their status as permanent residents.  When it comes to filling out the form for the citizenship application, when they ask for your residences, they want to know where you lay your head down at night. And at your naturalization interview, USCIS will scrutinize not only how many days you have been outside the United States but they will also examine your pattern of travel to determine whether you have maintained your residency since becoming a green card holder.

2. What if I can’t remember all the trips abroad that I’ve taken?

Form N-400, Application for Naturalization asks you to list all of the international trips that you’ve taken over the past 5 years. Yes, you actually have to do this. You have to look back through your records - emails, passport stamps, travel itineraries and figure out: what day you left the U.S., what day you returned, and which countries you visited during your trips. You have to make a good faith effort to figure it out.

But don’t obsess about having the list of trips be perfect, but do your absolute best to include the most accurate information you can.

Quick tip: The minute you become a green card holder you should start keeping a contemporaneous record of your international trips. This will make your life so much easier when it comes time to apply for citizenship down the line.

3. Should I wait to apply for citizenship?

When it comes to applying for citizenship, timing is everything. That’s because the immigration laws require you to establish “good moral character” for a certain number of years before you can be eligible for citizenship. So, if there is something in your past that might reflect badly on your character (certain criminal cases, for instance), then sometimes waiting to apply is the smart move.

Certain criminal convictions and immigration violations, for instance, can bar you from getting your U.S. citizenship if they took place during the 5-year or 3-year statutory period that the immigration service will be evaluating. In some cases, if you wait to apply until you clear the statutory period, then it won’t automatically bar you. This is just one example of why you should never file for naturalization without first consulting an experienced citizenship lawyer.

4. Immigration “Skeletons” - Should you apply for citizenship at all?

Most people are surprised to learn that when you file your N-400 citizenship application, USCIS will closely re-examine ALL aspects of your immigration history. So, for instance, if you got your green card through a fake marriage or have other problems in your past, you should consult with an immigration lawyer. You may have problems in your immigration history that you aren’t even aware of.

Sometimes, it’s better to simply remain a permanent resident and never apply for citizenship. An experienced immigration lawyer can help you figure out if you have one of those cases.

5. Do I need to tell USCIS about my dismissed or expunged criminal case?

Many people mistakenly believe that if the criminal charges against them were dismissed or if the case was expunged then they don’t have to disclose the case on the N-400.

Whether your criminal case was expunged, dismissed, or if your case happened 30 years ago and you think it’s irrelevant now, you to do 3 things:

  • Disclose the case on your N-400
  • Bring to your naturalization interview a certified copy of the disposition or docket sheet;
  • Be prepared to explain the circumstances of the crime if the immigration officer asks about it.

Quick tip: Expunging criminal records causes all kinds of immigration headaches because:

  • Expungement generally does nothing to mitigation the immigration consequences; and
  • Expungement destroys the court records that you will need to provide to USCIS.

This is why I generally advise against expungement for non-citizens.

6. What if I no longer live with my wife/husband?

If you’re a green card holder, you can apply for naturalization 3 years after becoming a green card holders if:

  • you’re married to a U.S. citizen, and
  • you have been living with your U.S. citizen spouse for 3 years before you file for citizenship.

But if you’ve lived separately at any point--even briefly--during those 3 years, you can’t take advantage of this provision of the immigration laws because cohabitation is required.

Quick immigration tip: You can take advantage of this provision even if you didn’t originally get your green card through the U.S. spouse if you’ve been living with for the past 3 years. Many people got their green cards through an employer or maybe through a previous marriage, and these people can still take advantage of the 3-year statutory period as long as they’re otherwise eligible and fit the criteria listed above.

7. The N-648 Medical Certification for Disability Exceptions

USCIS offers the N-648 medical or disability exception to having to take the English and/or civics exam(s) when you apply for citizenship. But often USCIS takes a skeptical view of the N-648 these waiver applications, so they have to be meticulously documented. You have to be able to prove that:

  • your physical or developmental disability or mental impairment would stop you from being able to adequately perform on the tests, and
  • that these problems have lasted or will last for at least a year.

USCIS may not give a lot of weight to a letter from a friend of yours who happens to be a medical doctor. You’re going to need to submit Form N-648 with your naturalization application, and undergo a real evaluation from a physician who can justify how they came up with their diagnosis and how the diagnosis relates to your ability to take the tests.

8. What can I do if my citizenship application has been delayed?

Some immigration cases get stuck in limbo. Sometimes this is called extended review or administrative review. Sometimes such delays indicate that USCIS has reservations about your case for some reason. Or your citizenship could get delayed for no good reason whatsoever.

USCIS is required by law to make a decision on all applications for naturalization within 120 days of your naturalization interview. And if USCIS fails to schedule your naturalization interview for a long time, you can file a mandamus lawsuit to challenge these unreasonable delays.

9. Listing Names - Do I have to list every single one? Even nicknames?

The naturalization form, Form N-400, asks you to list any and all other names you’ve ever used. Don’t underestimate this seemingly simple question. The immigration service wants to know all of your names - your maiden name, your nicknames, any misspellings, any name you’ve ever used anywhere.

Be overly inclusive. If you leave one name out and USCIS realizes that you didn’t list them all, even though it’s a small mistake, USCIS could think that the information on your application is unreliable or even intentionally inaccurate. Don’t let your sloppiness create a fraud problem.

We are here to help you become a U.S. citizen!

The process of applying to become a U.S. citizen can be complex. Thankfully, Los Angeles Attorney Joshua Goldstein and his team are here to help!

Based on our extensive experience in countless immigration cases, we can help evaluate your case and give you the advice you need to make your citizenship application go as smoothly as possible. To schedule a consultation with Attorney Goldstein, call us today!