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The Ins and Outs of the Naturalization Process

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There are many advantages and opportunities that go along with becoming a United States citizen. However, there are several requirements that a U.S. resident must satisfy to obtain U.S. citizenship.

This legal process is called naturalization.

At the end of the day, the underlying goal is to prove that you are serious about becoming a U.S. citizen. A critical part of this process is proving that you have been a continuous resident of the United States and that you have maintained a physical presence in the country.

The Basics

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) requires the naturalization applicant to meet certain eligibility requirements. You must be:

  • at least 18 years old and of good moral character,
  • able to understand and speak English,
  • a lawful and continuous resident of the U.S. for at least 5 years before the application, 
  • physically present in the U.S. for at least one-half of that 5-year period, and
  • a resident of the USCIS district from where you are applying from for at least 3 months.

Two of the most confusing issues when it comes to naturalization are the continuous residency and physical presence requirements. They may sound the same, but they are actually distinct requirements.

What Does it Mean to be a Continuous Resident? 

Naturalization is governed by a federal law, 8 USC. 1427.  Under the statute, a naturalization applicant must show that he or she has complied with a 5-year continuous United States residency requirement. 

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At first glance, it may seem like an applicant must stay in the United States for five consecutive years without leaving. There are, however, exceptions that will allow an applicant to leave the United States during that 5-year time-period, without losing his or her eligibility to become a U.S. citizen.

The statute breaks this situation down into two distinct time periods:

  • The applicant leaves the United States for More than 1 year.
  • The applicant leaves the United States for more than 6 months but less than 1 year.

An Absence of One Year or More

The general rule is that you will lose your eligibility for citizenship if you leave the country for a time- period of 365 days or more. In extremely rare cases, an applicant can leave the United States for a year and still remain eligible to become a citizen.

An Absence of More Than Six Months but Less Than One Year

A good rule of thumb is that you will run into problems if you leave the United States for more than 6 months at any given time. 

If an applicant is absent for 6 months or more, but less than one year, there is a presumption of interruption, which means that the applicant must have a good reason for leaving.  

EXAMPLE: You are applying for citizenship through the naturalization process and you have been in the United States for 4 years and 3 months. You than leave the United States and travel abroad for 6 months and 1 day. Technically, you are no longer eligible for citizenship via naturalization because you have not been a continuous resident for at least 5 years. Unless you come forward with evidence as to why you were absent from the United States for more than 6 months, you will lose your eligibility for naturalization.

As mentioned above, there are certain situations in which you may still retain your eligibility if you leave the United States for more than 6 months but less than 1 year. Those situations are discussed below.

Overcoming the Presumption of Interruption

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An applicant who is absent from the United States for more than 6 months but less than 1 year, can still be eligible for citizenship if he or she overcomes the presumption of interruption. Exceptions to the presumption include, but are not limited to, evidence that:

  • the applicant did not terminate his or her employment in the United States,
  • did not obtain another job while living abroad,
  • retained full access to his or her United States residence, and that
  • the applicant’s family remained in the United States.

While the presumption of interruption is not impossible to overcome, it will be difficult. You will need to have some documentary evidence that will show a continued residency in the United States. Your U.S. employer could help you satisfy this requirement, but it is still a good idea to avoid leaving the United States for a period of more than 6 months if it is at all possible.

What if I am Absent Multiple Times for Less Than Six Months?

Federal law does not specifically address this situation but keep in mind that the purpose of the statutory requirements is to prove that you want to be in the United States. The more times you leave, the greater potential for problems, even if you are absent for less than 6 months. 

What is the Physical Presence Requirement?

The physical presence requirement refers to the actual time that the applicant is physically present in the United States during the naturalization process. The requirement is at least 50 % of the 5-year time-period.

EXAMPLE: If you are married to a United States citizen and filing for naturalization, at the time of your interview you will need to prove that you were physically present in the United States for at least  30 months.

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While this requirement might not sound as onerous as the continued residency requirement, it is a good idea to be ready with documents that will show you have been physically present for at least two and a half years. 

Be Prepared in Advance

The path to becoming a United States citizen through naturalization can be confusing. However, one thing is clear: absences of 6 months or more, or multiple absences of less than 6 months will create unnecessary obstacles. An absence of one year or more will most likely put an end to your application. Be prepared in advance. Avoid leaving the country if you can. If you do so, try to limit your absences to less than 6 months. 

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