As a green card holder in the United States, you are now a lawful permanent resident (LPR). LPRs are granted many benefits not available to other visa holders, such as permission to live permanently in the United States, accept employment without special restrictions, own property, and receive financial assistance at public universities and colleges. However, getting a green card is only one step in achieving the full benefits of an American citizen. The next step and final step in your immigration journey is to become a naturalized citizen.
The difference between a lawful permanent resident and a naturalized citizen
An immigrant who wants to settle in the US permanently must first obtain lawful permanent residence. That requires fitting one of the categories for green card qualification, then applying for citizenship. Benefits to both lawful permanent resident status and US citizenship include the ability to:
- Own or rent property in the US
- Apply for a driver’s license
- Go to public schools and colleges
- Get a US bank account
- Obtain a social security number
- File federal and state income tax returns
However, there are some key differences between the two statuses, as outlined in the table below:
|Lawful Permanent Resident (Green Card Holder)||US Citizen either by birth or naturalization|
|Eligible for Deportation||If the individual commits an act that is grounds for deportability defined by US law, such as committing a crime, failure to notify the US government of a change in address, or becomes a public charge.||US citizens are not subjected to grounds for deportation. However, citizenship can be revoked if fraud was committed during the citizenship application process.|
|Eligible for a US passport||No.||Yes. New citizens can apply for a passport with their N-550, Certificate of Naturalization.|
|Eligible to vote in US elections||No. Doing so can make them eligible for deportation.||Yes.|
|Sponsor family member visas||Yes, for spouses and unmarried children.||Yes, for parents, spouses, children (married or not), and siblings.|
|Qualify for government benefits||Yes, but on a more limited basis than US citizens.||Yes, if they meet the basic eligibility.|
|Travel restrictions||Yes, you may enter and leave the United States for no more than one year. If you intend to leave the country for longer than one year, you must apply for a re-entry permit with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) prior to leaving the United States.||There is no travel restrictions for US citizens.|
|Renewal policies||Most green cards are valid for ten years. However, the card is valid for two years if you have been granted conditional permanent resident status.||There are no renewal requirements for US citizenship.|
How to become a US citizen
Those born outside of the United States can become US citizens through naturalization. Naturalization is the process by which US citizenship is granted to a lawful permanent resident after meeting the requirements established by Congress in the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). LPRs must have had their green card for five years or more, live in the United States as a permanent resident, and have displayed all the characteristics of an upstanding citizen to become eligible for US citizenship. The only exceptions to the five-year rule are refugees, asylum seekers, and individuals married to US citizens.
Before applying for naturalization, please keep in mind that if you have a parent that was a US citizen, either by birth or naturalization, before you turned 18 years old, you may have a claim to citizenship. The form to file a claim for US citizenship is Form N-600, Application for Certificate of Citizenship.
Step 1: Determine Eligibility
Basic eligibility requirements for green card holders without a US citizen parent include:
- You have maintained continuous residence in the US for at least five years since you got your green card.
- You have lived in the US for at least 30 months out of those five years.
- You are at least 18 years old.
- You have continuously lived in the US from when you file Form N-400 to when you become a US citizen.
- You have lived in your state or United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) district for at least three months.
- You can read, write and speak basic English.
- You can pass a test of basic US history and government questions.
- You have a good moral character that reflects the values of the US Constitution. The USCIS looks at your naturalization application, your final interview, and whether you have a criminal record to decide whether you have good moral character. People who have committed certain criminal acts can’t show good moral character.
Step 2: Applying for Naturalization
Once you have confirmed that you are eligible, you will need to fill out Form N-400, Application for Naturalization. We recommend consulting a reputable immigration attorney for this process as it is a long and complicated process requiring specific supporting documents to prove you meet the eligibility process. You can avoid lengthy delays in processing by consulting an immigration attorney about what documents to submit.
Step 3: Citizenship Test and Interview
Once your application has been approved, you will be scheduled for a citizenship test and interview. The purpose of the interview is to verify the information submitted on your N-400 application. You may need to bring the original documentation you submitted with your application. The questions asked during the interview will be similar to the questions answered on your application. During this interview, you are also tested on your ability to speak and understand basic English, as a requirement of the naturalization process.
During your citizenship test, you will be tested on your English reading and writing skills and understanding of US civics. To test your ability to write in English, the officer will dictate three sentences in English. You’ll have three chances to write one of the sentences in English legibly. To sufficiently demonstrate the ability to read in English, you must read one sentence out of three sentences. During the civics test portion of the interview, you will need to answer six out of ten questions correctly.
Step 4: The Naturalization Ceremony
Once you have passed the interview and tests, you will be scheduled for your naturalization ceremony. At the ceremony, you will take an Oath of Allegiance to the United States. You will also exchange your green card for a Certificate of Naturalization. Then, you will be able to fully enjoy all the rights and privileges of a United States citizen.
Advantages to US citizenship
Once you become a legal permanent resident and obtain your green card, there are many benefits to pursuing the next step in your immigration journey and becoming a US citizen. Some benefits include:
- The government’s inability to take away your US citizenship unless you choose to expatriate.
- The full advantage of rights reserved for citizens in the US, such as the right to vote and hold a US passport.
- Cost savings through filing for citizenship. Citizenship is a one-time fee, but you would have to renew your green card every ten years or two years for conditional permanent residency.
Advantages to keeping your green card status
However, for some, there are advantages of maintaining green card status over becoming a US citizen, such as:
- You are ineligible to participate in jury duty: Jury duty is an obligation of US citizens who receive a summons from a court to appear on a particular day and time to potentially serve on a jury. Jury duty is a civic responsibility.
- Remaining a citizen of your previous country: The United States does not require you to give up any other citizenship when you become a US citizen. However, some countries may take away your citizenship if you become a US citizen. Countries that do not allow dual citizenship with the US include:
- Bosnia and Herzegovina
- Papua New Guinea
- San Marino
- You are not subjected to US taxes even if you live in another country: As a US citizen, you are liable for US taxes on your worldwide income even if you leave the US. Unlike most other countries, US citizens pay tax on their worldwide income, regardless of where they live.
- You are not required to report any international bank accounts: US citizens are required to annually report any foreign bank account with over $10,000 US in it at any time during the year. These reports are filed separately from your taxes, and the penalties for failure to file are steep.
- You still receive Consular protection: The Embassy of your home country can still intervene with the US authorities on your behalf. However, since they don’t have the authority to release you from a US jail, this may be a limited benefit.
The advantage of keeping your green card status over becoming a US citizen is a personal choice. Although green card holders are called “permanent” residents, this status isn’t permanent for everyone with a green card. However, as previously discussed, your status is permanent if you renew your green card and do not commit any acts of deportation.
On the other hand, being a US citizen is the highest status someone can attain under US immigration law, which means a truly permanent right to live in the United States. If you’re ready to take the next step in your immigration journey or have any questions, contact us today. We’re happy to help!
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