In an era of heightened enforcement, becoming a U.S. citizen is a dream that most immigrants have. While naturalization appears to be a simple process, it also has many hidden pitfalls. In some cases, uninformed or reckless applicants discover too late that applying for naturalization may actually be futile or worse, trigger removal proceedings. Before filing for naturalization, the applicant must satisfy the following requirements:

1. The applicant must have been a lawful permanent resident for five years. During these five years, the applicant should be physically present in the United States for at least half of that time.

2. If the applicant is married to a U.S. citizen, the residency requirement is reduced to three years. However, an applicant may only take advantage of the reduced residency requirement, if he has been living in marital union with his spouse at the time of his naturalization interview. Moreover, his spouse must have been a U.S. citizen for three years. Events such as divorce, legal separation, or even an informal separation would likely break the marital union and therefore, render the applicant ineligible for the three-year residency requirement.

3. If the applicant takes trips outside the United States, he must not be absent from the U.S. for a continuous period of more than one year. If there has been an absence of more than one year, it would break the continuity of the physical presence requirement. Also, if the applicant did not obtain a reentry permit to remain outside the U.S. for more than one year, his lawful permanent residence status may be deemed abandoned.

An absence from the U.S. of more than six months but less than one year establishes a presumption against compliance with the continuous physical presence requirement. However, such presumption may be overcome with evidence that the applicant continues to have ties in the U.S. while living abroad. Evidence may include: applicant’s immediate family members continued to reside in the U.S.; applicant’s employment in the U.S. was not terminated; or the applicant maintained a residence and other assets in the U.S.

Generally speaking, the applicant must be a person of good moral character during the five-year or three-year residency period. However, the examiner from the Bureau of Citizenship & Immigration Service (formerly known as the Immigration & Naturalization Service) may take into account of the applicant’s earlier acts and conduct beyond the five-year or three-year residency period, if such acts and conduct are relevant in determining the applicant’s present moral character. Giving false testimonies to obtain an immigrant benefit and certain criminal convictions, including but not limited to, murder, aggravated felonies, prostitution, and crimes involving moral turpitude or controlled substance are examples of acts that lack good moral character. However, waivers and exceptions are available for certain convictions.

Another important factor in evaluating good moral character is the obligation to register for Selective Service. Except those with nonimmigrant visas, every male between 16 and 26 years of age must register for Selective Service. Male naturalization applicants less than 26 years of age may be denied on basis of unwillingness to bear arms if they failed to comply with the Selective Service requirement. Male applicants between 26 and 31 years of age who failed to register risk denial based on lack of good moral character, unless the failure to register was not knowing and willful. On the other hand, male applicants over 31 years of age who failed to register are unlikely to be denied on this basis alone.

4. The applicant must be 18 years old.

5. The applicant must demonstrate an elementary level of reading, writing, and understanding of the English language and U.S. history. The English requirement shall not apply to (a) persons who are over 50 years of age and have resided in the U.S. for 20 years since becoming permanent residents, or (b) persons who are over 55 years of age and have been residing in the U.S. for 15 years since becoming permanent residents. These two groups of applicants however, are still required to take the history exam in their own native language.

Becoming a U.S. citizen is a dream that most immigrants have. Nevertheless, one must thoroughly understand the eligibility requirements before filing for naturalization. Filing the application improperly can result in denial of the naturalization application, or in certain cases commencement of removal proceedings. Given the complex regulations regarding naturalization, it is recommended that green card holders consult an experienced immigration attorney prior to applying for naturalization.