Since 2001, more than 129,000 foreign-born service members have become naturalized U.S. citizens, while serving in over 30 countries worldwide. Additionally, an estimated 3 percent of all U.S. military veterans were born outside of the United States. Foreign-born service members have served honorably under the U.S. flag in every major armed conflict since the American Revolution.
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) offers a fast-tracking option for foreign-born currently serving in the U.S. military to seek a path to citizenship during what they consider a period of hostility, which collectively includes all service from September 11, 2001 until the present day. What would normally require a five-year waiting period for foreign-born civilians now only requires one year of service for military members, as well as a waiver of the almost $800 application fee.
Navigating the naturalization and citizen process can be intimidating, especially if you’re trying to decipher regulations and eligibility. Here are the streamlined versions of the USCIS policies for military service members on a path to citizenship and how to avoid disqualification.
1. Determine your eligibility.
If you are currently in the service, which includes active, reserve, and guard components of the U.S. armed forces or have separated honorably within the previous six months, you are eligible to apply for expedited citizenship, with a couple caveats.
- You either must be a lawful permanent resident (LPR) or have been present inside a U.S. territory during your enlistment into the armed forces. This includes American Samoa, Swains Islands, and the Canal Zone.
- You must read, write, and speak basic English.
- You must be able to demonstrate knowledge of the U.S. history and government (read on for more information on testing and how to study).
- You must demonstrate good moral character in the year prior to the date you submit your application. A conviction, administrative or disciplinary action, or a discharge status of anything other than honorable or General-under honorable conditions will most likely disqualify you.
2. Verify your service.
The USCIS Form N-426 is a five-page application to verify your military service, which must be signed off by an O-6 or above, or the civilian equivalent, GS-15 or above. You can complete the form electronically or print and mail it in. Most of the questions on this form are about your personal information and where you enlisted. This form will accompany your actual application.
3. Complete your application.
The USCIS Form N-400 is your main citizenship application and must be filled out carefully and thoroughly. The 20-page form queries not only your personal information, but your residences the past five years, information about your parents and children, and any trips you’ve taken outside of the U.S. It is very important to take your time with this and answer all the questions truthfully and completely. A missed question will inevitably add more time to your application process. The completed application, which you can complete online or print and mail in, should include:
4. Provide biometric information. After the USCIS receives your application, you will be contacted for a biometric appointment to obtain your fingerprints and photos at for background checks at an Application Support Center (ASC). If you’re are serving overseas, however, you’ll need to submit your fingerprints and passport-style photos with your application. Active duty service members serving stateside also have the option of submitting photos and fingerprints without an ASC appointment as well. There are a couple ways to do this:
- You can have your fingerprints taken using the standard FD-258 fingerprint cards or electronic fingerprinting device at a U.S. military installation, U.S. embassy, or consulate
- You can submit the fingerprint cards or electronic fingerprints taken by the military at your time of enlistment
Otherwise, show up to your scheduled ASC appointment with a photo ID, your appointment notice, and a copy of your complete application packet.
5. Prepare for your interview. During your interview to determine your fitness for citizenship, you’ll be asked basic questions to determine your competency with the English language as well as some basic questions about U.S. civics. USCIS provides study materials on their website so you know exactly what to study for. In your interview you’ll need to answer 6 out of 10 questions correctly. The national pass rate for this exam is 91 percent, according to USCIS, so as long as you come prepared you should be able to pass.
Based on your test and the information provided on your application, your interviewer will decide if you are granted or denied citizenship, or if your application needs additional information. If you are granted citizenship, you may participate in a naturalization ceremony immediately or at a later date provided to you.
There are a few things that may disqualify your application or hinder the process. Here are some of the more common downfalls and how to avoid them during the naturalization application process.
- Improper certification of military service
Your USCIS form N-426 must be signed off by an O-6 or above, or a GS-15 or above in order for USCIS to accept your application. It cannot be signed by a recruiter or a non-governmental official.
- Missing your window after military separation.
If you fail to submit your application within six months of separation from the military, you are no longer eligible for expedited citizenship through military service. At this point you must establish legal residency in the U.S. for five or more years and meet additional eligibility requirements.
- Failing to submit biometrics.
If you fail to show up for your ASC appointment or do not submit photos and fingerprints with your application, USCIS will consider your application abandoned after a period of three days from the time of your appointment.
- Other than honorable discharge
If you are granted citizenship during your time in the military, USCIS may revoke it if you are discharged from the military under other than honorable conditions without having served honorably for five or more years. There are a few other more obscure ways you can lose your citizenship, which you can read about here.
To find out more about naturalization and how to become a U.S. citizen, you can contact the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services here.