Last Updated September 3, 2020
Throughout its history, the United States has attracted immigrants from all over the world searching for a better life.
The US is a large and diverse country with plenty of economic opportunities, so it’s no wonder why so many people want to move there and become US citizens.
You also have a seemingly endless array of places where you can move in the US. Whether you crave the serenity of the mountains, the hustle and bustle of a major city, or a massive plot of land in the countryside, you can find all of that – and more – in the United States of America.
However, while the US is known as the Land of the Free, that characterization doesn’t always apply to its borders, which is why we created this ultimate guide.
Simply getting a tourist visa can be a hassle for many people – let alone actually immigrating there. Therefore, if you want to become a US citizen, you should carefully consider issues like fees, investment requirements, tax consequences, and opportunity costs before you take the plunge.
Additionally, since immigration reform has been a hot-button topic in the US, you should expect some changes to US immigration policy in the next few years; as such, we’ll do our best to keep you updated with any new developments in the process of getting US citizenship.
The Benefits of US Citizenship
However, while there are certain issues that make US citizenship undesirable, there are also plenty of good reasons why you would want to become a US citizen.
Here are just a few:
Living in the United States
Life in the US is characterized by diversity, openness, and innovation.
The US is often referred to as a “melting pot” of different cultures, and you’ll quickly realize just how true that is as you explore the country.
In major cities like New York and Chicago, you’ll hear a myriad of languages spoken in the streets, and you can try authentic foods from all over the world in a matter of a few city blocks.
Even when you leave the colorful big cities, you’ll encounter plenty of reminders of just how diverse the US is when you uncover delicious Cajun cuisine on a desolate highway in Louisiana or a Swedish heritage festival in the middle of the Kansas prairie.
Furthermore, the US is just as geographically diverse as it is culturally.
In the northeast, you’ll find lush New England forests and bustling cities, or you can head south to explore the warm wetlands of Florida.
You can experience all four seasons to their fullest in the Midwestern plains, or you can head southwest to enjoy the heat of the Mojave desert.
Adventurous types can head to the western Rocky Mountains for a dose of stunning natural beauty, or if you enjoy a good rainstorm, you can go to the Pacific Northwest.
No matter what you’re looking for, there’s a landscape and climate for just about everyone in the United States.
The US is also well-known for the openness and warmth of its people. When you first arrive in the US, you might be surprised at how often strangers may approach you to make light conversation or how friendly the staff at your hotel is.
Between small-town hospitality and a high standard of customer service, you’ll be surprised at the extent to which others will go out of their way to make you feel at home in the US.
Finally, US culture is innovative.
Since the late 1800s, US companies and inventors have continuously made massive contributions to scientific research and technology. Today, the country is home to companies like Google and Amazon, which have undoubtedly revolutionized the modern world.
In the US, you’ll easily find camaraderie with fellow entrepreneurial-minded people.
Quality of Life
Although quality of life can be difficult to measure, there’s little doubt that the US has plenty of it. With so many different cities, landscapes, and climates to choose from, US citizens have the ability to move anywhere that strikes their fancy without needing to leave the country.
In addition to this freedom of movement and opportunity, the US also ranks highly on traditional quality of life measures.
According to the OECD Better Life Index, which rates and compares OECD countries on certain quality of life measurements, the US ranks 8th – above both New Zealand and the UK, but behind Australia and Canada.
Notably, the US scores highest in the areas of personal income, health, housing, and job availability. It also ranks quite highly in the realm of civic engagement.
As a wealthy country that affords citizens plenty of living options, the US naturally offers an excellent quality of life for many of its citizens.
Economic Freedom and Opportunity
As one of the world’s wealthiest and most diversified economies, the US offers plenty of economic opportunity for citizens and newcomers alike.
The US economy is among the freest economies in the world, ranking 17th in the Index of Economic Freedom in 2020.
It rose as high as 12th place just a few years ago thanks to tax reforms that slashed the top individual tax rate to 37% and the corporate tax rate to 21%, but has fallen in the rankings due to government spending, poor fiscal health, and reduced government efficiency.
Overall, the US continues to score consistently high numbers in the realms of business, investment, and financial freedom, but due to recently-imposed tariffs, its trade freedom has slightly declined.
Although the average US citizen pays less in taxes than their counterparts in other developed countries, the US is by no means a tax haven. Even if you’ve just arrived in the US, the IRS will expect you to pay tax on all of your worldwide income if you qualify under the Substantial Presence Test.
And as a US citizen, you will be required to pay tax regardless of your residency status thanks to the US system of citizenship-based taxation.
In addition to its high level of economic freedom, the US is also brimming with economic opportunity. The US has always been at the forefront of research, development, and innovation, and its culture celebrates hard work and an entrepreneurial spirit.
One of the main economic advantages of living in the US is its sheer size. When you start a business in the US, you have many more opportunities to expand your business domestically, which can save you the hassle of expanding into costly foreign markets before your business is ready.
And if you’re a skilled worker, then you have more domestic job opportunities than citizens of smaller countries. If your local job market has declined or grown stagnant, then you can easily move within the country to find new – and better – opportunities elsewhere.
Finally, the US economy is just as diverse as its people. While there are plenty of jobs in traditional sectors like technology, manufacturing, and financial services, you can also find a plethora of unique niche markets that allow you to monetize your passion.
Celebrities hiring dog therapists and cat masseuses might sound like a joke on late-night TV, but in reality, you can actually make a decent living providing specialized services to others’ pets in the US.
With a large, diverse, and wealthy population, the US has a market for just about everything, giving you more opportunities to pursue your goals and passions.
From a travel standpoint, the US passport is one of the strongest in the world, affording you the ability to enter 185 different countries without the need to obtain a visa in advance.
Depending on your current country of citizenship, you may already have visa-free access to many of the countries covered by a US passport. However, a US passport does afford you extended visa-free tourist access to Canada and Mexico (180 days).
Additionally, the US is generally accepting of dual citizenship, so you will likely be able to use the extensive visa-free travel offered by a US passport to augment your current passport’s visa-free access. And if you decide to renounce your current citizenship, a US passport will serve as a strong replacement.
Although the US does not have an official language, the majority of US citizens and government officials primarily speak English.
Language barriers can be one of the most difficult aspects of pursuing a second citizenship. Hiring lawyers and translators to navigate a foreign-language legal system can be costly, and countries such as Portugal even require potential citizens to pass a language test to be eligible for naturalization.
Additionally, language barriers can make many daily interactions more difficult than they need to be. Renting an apartment, buying a car, and even ordering from a restaurant become much more of a hassle when you aren’t familiar with the local language.
Therefore, although the process of becoming a US citizen can be difficult, it’s much easier to navigate bureaucracy when you’re already familiar with its native language.
The Guaranteed Right to Live and Work in the United States
The most important benefit of getting US citizenship is that it guarantees your right to live and work in the United States indefinitely. There are, however, a few caveats.
The US immigration system is notoriously bureaucratic. Even if you’re a law-abiding immigrant with employer sponsorship or a substantial investment in the US, you still need to renew your temporary visa or residence permit every few years, which can be a hassle even if the process goes relatively smoothly.
Additionally, green card holders are required to spend the majority of their time in the US to maintain their permanent resident status, so if you spend too much time outside of the US during a given year, you could lose your lawful permanent resident status.
Finally, although obtaining a green card does grant you the right to live and work in the US, an increasing number of US green card holders are having their applications for renewal rejected, and some have even had their active green cards revoked.
Although some of these denials and revocations are for perfectly legitimate reasons, such as committing a crime, others have lost their green cards for less consequential issues, such as clerical errors.
Therefore, the only way to truly guarantee your right to permanently live and work in the US is to become a US citizen.
How to Become a US Permanent Resident
If you want to live and work in the US while enjoying all of the other benefits that a US passport has to offer, then you must start the process to get US citizenship.
The first step is to become a permanent resident of the United States. This process is commonly known as “getting your green card.”
Obtaining your green card is a major step in the process of becoming a US citizen. As a lawful permanent resident, you will enjoy many of the rights of US citizenship, including the ability to live and work freely in the US, serve in the US military, and even lawfully own a firearm.
Additionally, you will be subject to many of the same federal and state legal protections as your US citizen counterparts. Plus, certain countries such as Taiwan, Mexico, and Canada grant special travel privileges to US permanent residents.
However, US green card holders do not enjoy all of the rights and freedoms afforded to US citizens.
For example, US green card holders cannot vote in elections, and their access to certain public benefits are limited. Additionally, if you only have temporary residence, you will need to renew your green card periodically.
And even with permanent residence, if you choose to leave the US for an extended period of time, your green card may be revoked.
Therefore, most people who obtain US green cards do so as a stepping stone to US citizenship, which grants them greater benefits and freedoms than temporary and even permanent residency.
Getting your green card is an essential step in the process of becoming a US citizen, but your path to US permanent residency will ultimately depend on your individual circumstances and reasons for immigrating.
In some cases, you may need to obtain a temporary visa prior to getting permanent residency, whereas other permanent residence programs allow you to obtain a green card near-immediately.
In general, the US green card application process tends to favor highly skilled workers, investors, and persons with immediate family members who are US citizens or permanent residents.
Immigrants from certain countries may have a more difficult time becoming US permanent residents than others as US law dictates that no more than 7% of all immigrant visas may be issued to persons from a single country.
Because of this, individuals from mainland China, India, Mexico, and the Philippines may need to wait longer for their green card due to a large number of immigrants from those countries.
The US issues a monthly visa bulletin outlining the waiting periods for each category of permanent resident visas, so you should use that to determine how long you may be waiting for your US green card.
Your exact application process will differ depending on which category you apply under. In general, there are four common routes to getting your US green card:
- Family sponsorship;
- Investment and entrepreneurship; and
- the Diversity Visa lottery.
Up next, we will outline the general requirements that all residence applicants will need to meet to be eligible for a US green card before diving into the specific requirements for these four common ways of becoming a lawful permanent resident.
General Requirements for US Permanent Residency
Regardless of how you apply for permanent residency in the US, you will need to meet a handful of general requirements to be eligible for your green card.
First off, all potential US permanent residents will need to file Form I-485, the official application for a US green card. All residence hopefuls will need to pay a fee of $1,225 to submit their application.
You will also need to complete an interview with US immigration officials prior to becoming a legal permanent resident in the US.
The US sets a high standard for all potential green card holders, so aside from the fees and procedures, there are also general qualifications you must demonstrate to obtain US permanent residency.
You should take care to ensure that anything in your background will not disqualify you from obtaining your green card should you decide to apply. If you have concerns, we highly recommend that you speak to a US immigration lawyer who can provide you with more detailed guidance.
All potential US permanent residents must undergo a health examination and receive all necessary vaccinations prior to receiving their green cards.
This process exists to determine whether your presence in the US could constitute a health risk to the general public. While this doesn’t mean that your health record has to be impeccable, certain diseases or conditions may disqualify you from becoming a US permanent resident.
First, you must prove that you do not have any communicable diseases that may impact public health. You can find a comprehensive list of those diseases on the CDC website.
Second, you may be rejected if you have a physical or mental disorder that threatens the safety of you or others around you. This can include a history of suicide attempts or threatening others.
Finally, you may also be ineligible on health grounds if you have a history of drug abuse.
In order to be eligible to obtain a green card, you must also have a relatively clean criminal record prior to entering the US.
Not all crimes will disqualify you from entry, and in some cases, you may be able to obtain a waiver for past criminal behavior, depending on the nature and severity of the crime as well as when it was committed. However, the following crimes may prevent you from obtaining your US green card:
- Controlled substance violations;
- Convictions of two or more crimes with a prison sentence totaling more than five years;
- Engaging in prostitution;
- Human trafficking offenses; and
- Money laundering offenses.
Additionally, US immigration may prevent an individual from entering the country if they have committed a “crime of moral turpitude,” which essentially means a crime that is universally reprehensible and morally wrong.
Obviously, this includes serious felonies like murder and rape, but it can also be construed to include a number of different offenses. Therefore, if you have any kind of criminal record, you should consult with an immigration lawyer prior to applying for your green card.
The US takes national security seriously, so if you are deemed to present a threat to the national security of the United States, then you will be ineligible to obtain a US green card.
For the most part, this requirement is relatively straightforward. The US doesn’t want to grant legal permanent residence to former members of ISIS or known eco-terrorists.
Where this may cause problems is if a member of your family is associated with a terrorist group or if you lived in a conflict zone with terrorist activity.
US anti-terrorism laws are strict and tend to be applied broadly – even to individuals with no terrorist affiliations themselves. So, if certain circumstances apply to you, then you may want to consult an immigration attorney prior to applying for your green card.
The US does not issue green cards to persons deemed likely to become a “public charge,” which means a person who is dependent on government support.
To determine whether you may be a risk for becoming a public charge, US officials generally consider the following factors:
- Age and health;
- Family size;
- Support network within the US;
- Education and work experience; and
- Past or present receipt of public benefits.
If you’re applying for a green card as an investor or highly skilled employee, then you do not need to worry much about this issue. However, if you are concerned that you may be rejected on these grounds, you should obtain an Affidavit of Support from a family member who is a US citizen or permanent resident.
You may also be denied a US green card if you have a history of violating immigration laws in the US and in other countries.
Obviously, you will be denied if you have entered the US illegally, but this provision also applies to persons who have violated the terms of their visa (for example, working while on a tourist visa) or persons who habitually overstay their visas.
When you apply for your US green card, you will need to provide proof of identity, such as a passport, as well as all prudent biographical information as required by Form I-485.
You will also need to undergo biometric screening as part of your application process.
Willingness to Fulfill All Obligations of US Permanent Residents
Finally, to be eligible for a US green card, you must be willing to fulfill all of your obligations to the US as a permanent resident. US Customs and Immigration Services outlines the four primary responsibilities of US permanent residents as:
- Obeying all laws of the US, including state and local laws;
- Paying annual income tax to the IRS;
- Supporting the democratic form of government and not conspiring to change the government through illegal means; and
- Registering for Selective Service (if you are a male between the ages of 18 and 25).
If you are willing to fulfill these obligations and meet all of the requirements listed above, then you are eligible to become a US permanent resident.
Keep in mind that if your application for a US green card is successful, you will also need to abide by the financial obligations and any other specific obligations of your chosen permanent resident visa program.
US Permanent Residency through Family Sponsorship
One of the most common ways to become a US permanent resident is through sponsorship from a member of your immediate family.
Under family sponsorship, there are six distinct types of permanent residence visas available for potential green card holders. These categories are:
- IR: Immediate relatives of US citizens (spouses, children under 21 years old, and parents);
- F1: Unmarried children (21 years old or older) of US citizens;
- F2A: Spouses and minor (under 21 years old) children of lawful permanent residents;
- F2B: Unmarried children (21 years old or older) of lawful permanent residents;
- F3: Married children of US citizens; and
- F4: Brothers and sisters of US citizens.
Regardless of which category that you apply under, your sponsoring family member will need to file two additional forms along with your I-485 green card application.
First, your US citizen or permanent resident family member must file a Petition for Alien Relative (Form I-130), and once that petition is approved, they will need to submit an Affidavit of Support along with your I-485 application.
The following section will discuss each type of visa that you may obtain through family sponsorship, including details such as waiting periods and additional requirements.
IR: Immediate Relative
The fastest way to get a US green card is through sponsorship from an immediate relative. Unlike other permanent resident visa categories, the IR visa is not subject to quotas or lengthy waiting periods. You are eligible for this visa if you are a spouse, child under 21, or parent of a current US citizen.
To be eligible as a spouse, you must be legally married to your US citizen husband or wife. Although this marriage does not have to occur in the US, it must be recognized in the state or country in which you were married.
If you are not yet legally married, then you may apply for a temporary K-1 fiancé visa, which allows you to enter the US for 90 days to legally marry your US citizen fiance. Then, once you are married, you may apply for your green card while in the US.
If you intend to obtain US permanent residency by marriage, keep in mind that US immigration officials tend to go to great lengths to ensure that your marriage is legitimate, using evidence from personal communications, joint assets, and even social media.
Additionally, if you are applying for a K-1 visa, you will need to have met your spouse in person prior to obtaining that visa, and your permanent residence will be conditional upon remaining married to your US citizen spouse for two years.
The process is more straightforward for minor children since unmarried children under the age of 21 can usually obtain citizenship at the same time their parent does. Additionally, if you are a parent of a current US citizen, then your child can sponsor your green card when he or she is 21.
Although this process is also quite simple, many people mistakenly believe that you can obtain a US green card this way regardless of the age of your child. Because the US offers birthright citizenship, people will sometimes come to the US to give birth with the intent of using their US citizen child to gain permanent residency in the US.
While giving birth in the US can be a valuable way to set your child up for future success and give them a second passport, it isn’t a good immigration strategy.
Birth tourism is frowned upon among immigration officials and the Trump Administration has demonstrated particular animosity toward the practice. You should therefore be wary of any organization that tells you that you are guaranteed to become a US resident after giving birth in the US.
F1: Unmarried Children of US Citizens Over the Age of 21
If you are a child of a US citizen and you are over the age of 21, you are still eligible for permanent residency through family sponsorship, but you must apply under the F1 category instead of IR.
Not to be confused with the F1 nonimmigrant student visa, this F1 family preference category stands for first preference.
However, “first preference” doesn’t mean you’ll be first in line for a green card. Although the process for applying under the F1 family preference category is the same as if you applied as an immediate relative, you will need to wait at least eight years to receive your US green card given current wait times.
And if you are from Mexico or the Philippines, your waiting time may be substantially longer – as much as 15 years!
F2A: Spouses and Children of Lawful Permanent Residents
Just as US citizens can sponsor their spouse and children to become permanent residents, green card holders may also sponsor their immediate family. However, you and your spouse must be legally married prior to applying.
Spouses and children of US permanent residents may therefore apply for a green card under the F2A family preference category.
Although this category is technically “second preference,” immediate family members of US permanent residents have substantially lower waiting periods – roughly one or two years – compared to other sponsored family members that do not qualify under the IR visa.
F2B: Unmarried Children Over the Age of 21 of Lawful Permanent Residents
Unmarried children of US permanent residents who are over the age of 21 may also apply for permanent residency under the F2 category.
However, since the majority of F2 permanent resident visas are granted to spouses and minor children, older children often need to wait substantially longer for their green cards.
At a minimum, you will need to wait three or four years, but if you are from Mexico or the Philippines, you may end up waiting over a decade.
F3: Married Children of US Citizens
The F3 family sponsorship category allows US citizens to sponsor their non-resident married children and, by consequence, their spouses and minor children.
Because this provision grants whole families permanent residency, the US only issues a small number of these visas each year. Therefore, current wait times tend to hover around 10-20 years.
F4: Brothers and Sisters of US Citizens
Finally, US citizens may sponsor their siblings’ immediate families. However, like the F3 category, US immigration officials only grant a limited number of these visas per year. Current waiting periods range from 12-20 years, depending on your country of origin.
US Permanent Residency through Employment
Another common method of obtaining a US green card is through employment. If you accept a job offer with a US company, then your employer is able to sponsor you to become a US permanent resident.
Under this provision, you can apply for US permanent residency through employment in one of the following categories:
- EB-1: Priority workers;
- EB-2: Professionals holding advanced degrees and persons with exceptional abilities; or
- EB-3: Skilled workers, professionals, and other workers.
Each category applies to different types of workers and job offers, which shall be discussed in the following section.
While the category that you must apply under will depend on your job offer and individual attributes, the application process for obtaining a green card through employment is the same no matter what.
Once you have accepted your job offer, your employer will file Form I-140, the Immigrant Petition for Alien Worker. You may file your green card application, form I-485, concurrently with your employer’s petition. On your application, you must certify that you intend to accept your job offer when your application is approved.
Additionally, if you have a spouse or minor children, they may apply for permanent residency as derivative applicants.
In general, waiting periods for employer-sponsored green cards are substantially lower than waiting periods for family-sponsored applications because the US tends to favor highly-skilled immigrants.
However, immigrants from mainland China and India may face substantially longer waiting periods due to a large number of EB visa applicants from those countries.
EB-1: Priority Workers
This category is reserved for first-preference workers that fall into one of three different categories.
First, people with extraordinary ability in art, science, business, education, or athletics are considered to be priority workers.
In this case, having “extraordinary ability” is generally defined as being nationally or internationally acclaimed in your field. If this designation applies to you, then you may sponsor yourself to work in the US in your field of expertise.
Second, internationally-recognized professors or researchers with at least three years of experience in their fields also fall under this designation.
To qualify under this category, you must have an offer from a university or other higher education institution to pursue a tenured, tenure-track, or similar research position.
Finally, multinational managers and executives transferring to a US division of the company that they currently work for also qualify under the EB-1 category.
In general, waiting periods for an EB-1 visa are rather short – most EB-1 applicants receive their US green card within two years of applying.
EB-2: Professionals Holding Advanced Degrees and Immigrants with Exceptional Ability
The EB-2 visa category applies to professionals with advanced degrees or exceptional abilities with an active job offer in the US.
In general, this visa applies to two categories of workers.
First, if you hold an advanced degree – such as a Master’s, PhD., or professional degree – or have experience equivalent to an advanced degree (at least five years of professional training in your field), then you may apply under the EB-2 designation.
If you do not have an advanced degree, then you may still qualify under this category if you can demonstrate a substantial level of expertise in your field.
If you do not have a current employment offer from a US company, then you may still apply to become a US permanent resident through certain programs. The Physician National Interest Waiver program, for instance, allows medical professionals from outside the US to immigrate if they agree to work in an under-served community for five years.
For most applicants, EB-2 visas are currently available, which means that you can obtain your green card as soon as your I-485 application is approved. However, due to a large number of applicants from these two countries, EB-2 applicants from mainland China or India will need to wait 3-10 years before they receive their green cards.
EB-3: Skilled Workers, Professionals, and Other Workers
Finally, the EB-3 category includes all other workers with employer sponsorship who wish to obtain a US green card. These workers include:
- Skilled workers whose positions require a minimum of two years of training or experience;
- Professionals whose position requires at least a Bachelor’s degree; and
- Unskilled workers.
Because the US immigration system favors skilled workers, USCIS will generally award green cards to immigrants in the first two categories (skilled workers and professionals) before it allocates them to unskilled laborers.
However, for immigrants from most countries, EB-3 visas are currently available for both skilled and unskilled workers.
All EB-3 applicants from the Philippines will need to wait one year for their green cards, and applicants from India will need to wait nearly 10 years. Skilled workers from mainland China will wait 3-4 years, and unskilled workers from China must wait 12 years.
US Permanent Residency through Investment and Entrepreneurship
The EB-5 Immigrant Investor Visa is a residence by investment program for foreign entrepreneurs looking to move to the US.
You can qualify for the EB-5 program by investing in a qualifying business, which is any business that will create at least ten full-time jobs within two years.
The investment amount will vary depending on where you invest. If you invest in a business located in a “targeted employment area” – which includes rural areas and areas with high unemployment – you must invest a minimum of $900,000. If you invest anywhere else in the United States, the minimum investment goes up to $1.8 million.
EB-5 applicants have two choices when making their initial investments – creating a business individually or using the Investor Pilot Program. Under the Investor Pilot Program, you can make your required investment in a “regional center” that manages your investment for you.
Although the regional center does take a portion of your return, this program can be advantageous if you are unfamiliar with the US market or want the confidence that you will meet the EB-5’s strict requirements.
Additionally, if you are not starting your own business with your EB-5 investment, you should take care to ensure that the company or regional fund that you invest in is reputable. Although the US Securities and Exchange Commission highly regulates the program, bad actors occasionally take advantage of it.
When you apply for an Immigrant Investor Visa, you will need to first file Form I-526, an Immigrant Petition by Alien Investor. Once your petition is approved, you will then file your standard green card application with US Customs and Immigration. If you have a spouse or minor children, they may file with you as derivative applicants.
If your EB-5 application is accepted, you will first be granted conditional permanent residency for two years. To remove the conditions on your permanent residency, you must provide proof that you have made your required investment and have met all job creation requirements to be granted full permanent residency.
One of the common misconceptions about the EB-5 visa that Andrew addresses in the video below is the belief that the EB-5 is a citizenship by investment program, such as what you’d find in places like Dominica or St. Kitts.
However, the reality is that while an EB-5 visa does allow you to become a US permanent resident by making certain investments, its standards are much higher than in other countries, and you will still need to undergo the same naturalization process as everyone else to get US citizenship.
Additionally, unlike many residence by investment programs, you will need to have your primary home in the US to maintain your lawful permanent resident status, and you will need to pay US income taxes as a permanent resident.
To put it simply, becoming an Immigrant Investor under the US EB-5 program requires more commitment than your average residence by investment program. And it is, indeed, a residence by investment program and not citizenship by investment.
The Diversity Visa Lottery
If none of the above categories apply to you or if you face extensive waiting periods under your designated category, you may want to consider applying for the Diversity Visa Lottery.
The Diversity Visa Lottery randomly selects 50,000 people from countries with low US immigration rates to apply for permanent residency.
To qualify, you must either have a high school education or two years of skilled work experience, and you cannot come from a country with high levels of immigration to the US. You must also be able to meet all other general qualifications for permanent residency.
For the current round of Diversity Visas, immigrants from the following countries are not eligible to apply: Bangladesh, Brazil, Canada, China (mainland), Colombia, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, India, Jamaica, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, South Korea, the United Kingdom (except Northern Ireland) and its dependent territories, and Vietnam.
If you are eligible for the Diversity Visa Lottery, you can apply by filing an Electronic Diversity Visa Entry Form or by submitting the paper application, DS-5501, by mail.
Unless you require language assistance, you should file the application yourself, and you should be wary of scams that promise you that they can increase your chance of selection for a fee.
If you win the Diversity Visa Lottery, you will need to apply for permanent residence using Form I-485 and pay all fees associated with your application.
In general, you should not rely upon the Diversity Visa Lottery as your primary method of obtaining US permanent residency. Because the selection process is both highly limited and random, the odds that your submission is selected are low.
However, applying for permanent residency under other visa categories does not disqualify you from using the Diversity Visa Lottery, so if you face substantial waiting periods under your current visa category, then it may be worthwhile to add your name to the lottery to potentially receive your green card sooner.
How to Become a US Citizen
In the US, the primary pathway to citizenship is through naturalization. Although provisions such as citizenship by birth and citizenship by acquisition do exist, they only apply to children born in the US or its territories or children born to US citizen parents abroad.
Therefore, regardless of how you obtain your permanent resident status, you will need to undergo the process of naturalization to get US citizenship.
As a general rule, you will need to maintain your green card for five years to be eligible to apply for citizenship. However, there are ways to expedite that process, such as serving in the US military or being married to a US citizen.
In the following section, we will discuss the general requirements and basic steps of the process of naturalization, after which we will address the expedited routes to US citizenship.
As you begin the process of obtaining US citizenship by naturalization, you should keep in mind that the US immigration system can be slow and bureaucratic.
Although most applications for naturalization take an average of six months to a year to be processed, some applications can take longer depending on the time of year that you apply, where you apply, and if there are any complications with your immigration status.
Unlike the process of obtaining a US green card, the process for becoming a naturalized US citizen is fairly straightforward.
Once you determine your eligibility, you may apply for naturalization using Form N-400, take the citizenship test, and complete your interview and biometric screening. If you are approved, you will take an Oath of Allegiance to the United States to complete the process of becoming a naturalized citizen.
While the process to obtain US citizenship is quite straightforward, you must still meet US Customs and Immigration’s strict standards for becoming a US citizen.
General Requirements for US Citizenship
Just as you need to meet a set of general requirements to obtain US permanent residency, you will also need to meet a handful of general requirements to be eligible to apply for naturalization.
To be able to apply for US citizenship, you will need to have maintained your green card for five consecutive years unless you qualify for expedited naturalization.
You will also need to have met all responsibilities of US permanent residents, including following all US laws and registering for Selective Service (if applicable).
In addition to maintaining your lawful permanent resident status, you will also need to fulfill certain physical presence requirements to be eligible to apply for naturalization.
During your five years as a US permanent resident, you will need to have spent no more than 30 months outside of the US, and you cannot have taken a trip outside of the US that lasted for more than a year.
The only exemptions to these requirements are if you traveled outside of the US for certain types of work engagements, or if you have taken a trip outside of the US for a year or longer, you received approval for your trip from the USCIS.
When you apply for naturalization, you will apply within the state or district in which you currently reside, and you will need to have resided there for at least three months prior to your application.
To be eligible for naturalization, you will need to demonstrate that you can read, write, and speak basic English. US Immigration will test your mastery of English during your citizenship interview and during your naturalization test, which will be conducted in English.
To become a naturalized US citizen, you will need to demonstrate basic knowledge of US history and government in your Naturalization Test. This 10-question test requires you to provide short written answers to questions about the fundamentals of US civics.
Although this test can appear daunting, US Customs and Immigration provides a basic study guide to assist you in preparing for the test. There are also a number of online resources available to prospective US citizens studying for their naturalization exams.
Good Moral Character
Finally, to be eligible for naturalization, you must demonstrate good moral character. In general, if you meet the requirements to become a US permanent resident and have followed all US laws during your period of permanent residency, then you should easily meet this requirement.
The US Naturalization Process
Once you are eligible to apply for US citizenship, your first step in the naturalization process is to complete and file Form N-400, your Application for Naturalization. When you file this document, you will need to include any necessary additional documents and pay a $725 application and biometrics fee.
Once your initial application has been processed, USCIS will set an appointment for you to come and have your biometric data taken.
After you successfully complete your biometric screening, you will need to attend another appointment for your citizenship interview. During this interview, you will take the English Language Test as well as the Naturalization Test.
After your interview and testing, USCIS will render a decision on your application status, and if you are approved, you will be invited to attend a naturalization ceremony where you will take an Oath of Allegiance to the United States. At this ceremony, you will officially gain US citizenship.
Expedited Routes to Naturalization
Most US permanent residents must wait five years before they can apply for US citizenship, but if you’re married to a US citizen or if you serve in the US military, you can substantially reduce that waiting period.
Keep in mind, however, that you will still need to meet all other naturalization requirements before officially getting your US citizenship. Being married to a US citizen or serving in the military simply reduces the amount of time that you need to wait to do so.
Expedited Naturalization by Marriage
If you are currently married to and living with a US citizen, then you can reduce your waiting period from five years to only three.
To be eligible for expedited naturalization by marriage, you must:
- Hold a green card for three years;
- Be married to and living with your US citizen spouse for three years;
- Live within the state that you’re applying in for three months; and
- Meet all other requirements for US citizenship.
You will need to remain married to your US citizen spouse all the way through your citizenship ceremony. If you decide to divorce or legally separate from your US citizen spouse, you will lose this route to expedited naturalization.
Unfortunately, this rule also applies if your spouse dies prior to your citizenship ceremony. The only exception to this rule is in cases of proven spousal abuse.
Expedited Naturalization by Military Service
The US is unique in that it is one of two countries that offers citizenship through military service. What this means is that if you serve in the US military, then you only need to wait one year to apply for US citizenship.
However, to join the US military, you will need to have your green card and be able to speak, read, and write fluently in English. The only way you may be able to get an exception is if you have a high-value skill set, such as medical training.
Additionally, you will need to meet the US military’s general enlistment requirements, such as age, health, and physical fitness requirements. Most branches will not accept anyone over the age of 35, and some branches, such as the Marines and Coast Guard, have recruitment age limits below 30.
If you meet those age requirements, you will need to pass the Armed Forces Qualification Test and meet other standards to be deemed fit to serve.
Enlistment, however, is the most difficult part of this process. If you are able to successfully enlist, then you can apply for citizenship after one year of active service.
You will still need to meet the other requirements for US citizenship and pass the US citizenship test, but for the most part, you will easily qualify for citizenship if you qualify for military service.
Should I Consider Becoming a US Citizen?
When you decide to immigrate to any country, you need to consider the negative aspects of citizenship along with the benefits.
The process of becoming a US citizen is long, costly, and bureaucratic, so you should carefully weigh the benefits and drawbacks of life in the US and US citizenship before you begin the immigration process.
If you wish to live and work in the US for the rest of your life, then US citizenship may be the best choice for you, but if you’re not so sure, then you may want to consider the following issues before investing too much time or money in becoming a US citizen.
The largest drawback of US citizenship is the US tax system.
Unlike most countries in the world, the US uses a system known as citizenship-based taxation. Under this system, you must pay tax on all of your global income by virtue of being a citizen.
So, if you decide to leave the US for an extended period of time, you will still need to pay income tax regardless of how much time you actually spend in the country.
While this may not be an issue if you intend to spend the majority of your time in the US, it can become problematic if you decide to move abroad.
In that case, you have two equally poor options – you can keep paying tax to a country that you don’t reside in, or you can give up the US passport that you worked so hard to get in the first place.
Therefore, if you don’t intend to spend most of your time in the US, you should carefully consider whether adding this tax burden is worthwhile.
Unlike other developed countries, the US does not offer much in the way of social services to its citizens.
Universal health care, free college tuition, and other important social benefits do not exist in the US. While some states, such as California, have more extensive social benefits than others, these programs are still quite paltry compared to those in places like Canada or Germany.
Additionally, the US offers fewer guarantees and protections to workers than other developed countries. For example, employers are not required to give employees any paid time off, which can come as a shock if your country offers four or more weeks of paid holiday to its citizens.
If an extensive social welfare network is important to you, you may want to reconsider becoming a US citizen.
Extreme Culture Shock
In every country, you’ll encounter things that you aren’t familiar with and deal with some level of culture shock. However, depending on where you have lived, certain aspects of US culture can be difficult to acclimate to.
These kinds of issues go beyond minor annoyances like needing to learn the English system of measurement or figuring out how tipping works – there are major cultural issues that can make it difficult to acclimate to life in the US.
For example, religiosity is an aspect of US culture that can be off-putting for people from less religious or predominantly non-Christian parts of the world. Churches are often a major aspect of community life in some parts of the US, and religious beliefs often infiltrate political discourse.
This issue is more pronounced in some areas of the country, such as the Southern and Midwestern “Bible Belt”. Utah, for instance, has some of the strictest drinking laws in the country due to a large population in the state of members from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
When you consider moving to the US, you should account for this cultural issue as you decide where to live.
Additionally, guns are a cultural aspect of American life enshrined in the US Constitution and laws regarding gun possession can be surprisingly loose. Certain states, such as Texas, even allow civilians to openly carry firearms.
If you’re from a country that heavily restricts gun ownership, the prevalence of guns can be disturbing at times.
Finally, although the US is a highly diverse country, cultural tensions can run high, and you may face some level of discrimination, particularly outside of major cities. Unfortunately, the US doesn’t always live up to its ideals of inclusion and equality despite its inherent diversity.
Although these cultural issues should not totally dissuade you from pursuing US citizenship, you must consider them if you’re thinking of permanently living in the US.
Summary: How to Get US Citizenship
Becoming a US citizen is no easy task. The process is long and bureaucratic, and even simple mistakes can extend your wait time by years.
Additionally, while the US does offer special visa options for persons with exceptional talent and for high-value investors, you must still meet all naturalization requirements to become a US citizen.
To summarize, the general steps to becoming a US citizen are as follows:
- Apply for permanent residency;
- Obtain your green card;
- Reside in the US continuously for five years;
- Apply for naturalization;
- Pass your English Language and Civics tests;
- Attend a citizenship ceremony and take an Oath of Allegiance to the US; and
- Apply for your US passport.
As you can tell, the process for becoming a US citizen is lengthy and its requirements are strict.
You will also need to commit to spending the majority of your time in the US for your five years of permanent residency, and you will need to commit to paying US taxes for life.
As such, if you want to become a US citizen, you should carefully consider the consequences and opportunity costs involved in your decision.