Special rules in U.S. immigration law allow permanent residents applying for citizenship through marriage to become naturalized in just three years. Most permanent residents must live in the United States for a minimum of five years before applying for citizenship. However, the spouse of a U.S. citizen who resides in the United States may be eligible to file Form N-400, Application for Naturalization, on the basis of his or her marriage after just three years.
The Immigration and Naturalization Act (INA Section 319(a)) describes the special provisions for the spouse of a U.S. citizen living in the United States. The spouse must have continuously resided in the United States after becoming a permanent resident for at least three years immediately preceding the date of filing the naturalization application and must have lived in marital union with his or her U.S. citizen spouse for at least three years prior to filing.
Citizenship through Marriage Requirements
If you are considering applying for U.S. citizenship through marriage, you must meet several criteria in order to qualify. You must be:
- Age 18 or older at the time of filing.
- A lawful permanent resident at the time of filing the N-400 application.
- Living in marital union with the U.S. citizen spouse for at least three years preceding the time of filing the naturalization application. (The citizen spouse must have been a U.S. citizen for those three years.)
- Continue to be the spouse of the U.S. citizen up until the time you take the Oath of Allegiance in the naturalization ceremony.
- Continuously residing in the United States as a permanent resident for at least three years immediately preceding the date of filing the application and up to the time of naturalization.
- Physically present in the United States for at least 18 months (548 days) out of the three years immediately preceding the date of filing the application.
- Living within the state or USCIS district with jurisdiction over the applicant’s place of residence for at least three months prior to the date of filing.
- Demonstrate an understanding of the English language, including an ability to read, write, and speak words in ordinary usage.
- Show a knowledge and understanding of the fundamentals of the history and principles and form of government of the United States (civics).
- Demonstrate good moral character for at least three years prior to filing the application until the time of naturalization.
- Attachment to the principles of the U.S. Constitution and well-disposed to the good order and happiness of the United States during all relevant periods under the law.
Citizenship through Marriage Isn’t Mandatory
In many cases, the spouse of a U.S. citizen may also qualify on the basis of five years continuous residence as a permanent resident. Applying for citizenship through marriage isn’t mandatory just because you are married to a U.S. citizen. If you are married to a U.S. citizen, it isn’t necessary that you apply for citizenship based on the marriage. Generally, it is easier to prepare an application when applying for citizenship based on five years as a permanent resident. That’s because it won’t be necessary to submit additional documents about your marriage and U.S. citizen spouse.
Marital Union Requirement
If you are applying for citizenship through marriage to a U.S. citizen, there is a marital union requirement. Generally you must be living in marital union with your U.S. citizen spouse for at least three years immediately preceding the time of filing the N-400 application. This provision requires that you live in marital union with the citizen spouse during the entire period of three years before filing. USCIS considers you to be “living in marital union” with your citizen spouse if you and the citizen actually reside together.
Factors that can disrupt this period of living in marital union include:
Death of U.S. citizen spouse
You are ineligible to naturalize as the spouse of a U.S. citizen if the citizen dies any time prior to you taking the Oath of Allegiance. However, if you are the surviving spouse of a U.S. citizen who died in military service, you may be eligible for naturalization under another special provision.
Divorce or annulment
A divorce or annulment will break the marital relationship. Thus, you are ineligible to naturalize as the spouse of a U.S. citizen if the divorce or annulment occurs before or after the naturalization application is filed.
A separation (legal or informal) generally includes living at separate residences. Because you are no longer actually residing with your U.S. citizen spouse following a separation, you are also not living in marital union with the U.S. citizen spouse, and you are not eligible to apply.
If you were subjected to battering or extreme cruelty by your U.S. citizen spouse, you are likely exempt from this requirement. If any of the above conditions apply to you, please seek the advice of an experienced immigration lawyer before filing a Form N-400, Application for Naturalization.
Three Years of Continuous Residence
Before applying for citizenship through marriage, you must have continuously resided in the United States as a permanent resident for at least three years immediately preceding the date of the filing the application and up to the time of the Oath of Allegiance. This means that you have lived in the United States for three years and consider it your home. Someone who resides in the United States generally will:
- Maintain a permanent home in the U.S.
- Have employment or attend school in the U.S.
- File tax returns in the U.S.
- Maintain community ties in the U.S.
The continuous residence requirement does not prevent you from traveling outside the United states. But there are limitations on the length of time you may be absent from the U.S. without disrupting your continuous residence. Generally, you should not take any trips of 180 days or more.
18 Months of Physical Presence
You must have been physically present in the United States for at least 18 months (548 days) out of the three years immediately preceding the date of filing Form N-400. Physical presence refers to the number of days you must physically be present in the United States during the three-year period up to the date of filing the naturalization application.
If you have made any trips outside the United States (of 24 hours or more), you’ll need to document them when you apply for citizenship. Be sure that you were physically present in the U.S. for at least 18 months out of the three years that precede the date you apply. Learn more about the physical presence requirement.
90-Day Early Filing Provision (INA 334)
Despite the continuous residence requirement described above, you may actually file Form N-400, Application for Naturalization, up to 90 days before the date you would first meet the required three-year period of continuous residence. That’s right. A provision in the law (INA 334), makes it possible to apply early. Although you may file early and may be interviewed during that period, you can’t actually complete the naturalization process until you have satisfied the required three-year period of residence. Furthermore, all other requirements for naturalization must be met at the time of applying for citizenship through marriage.
It isn’t necessary for you to have obtained permanent residence through the marriage. In other words, you can be a permanent resident first and married afterwards to qualify for the three-year exception. Consider the following examples:
Rosario is a Venezuelan national that meets and falls in love with Robert, a U.S. citizen. They eventually get married and Robert helps Rosario obtain a green card through their spousal relationship. USCIS grants Rosario conditional residence on 2/1/2016, and she receives a two-year green card. The period of conditional residence counts as time as a permanent resident. So if Rosario continues to be married to Robert, she will meet the continuous residence requirement for naturalization on 2/2/2019. Because of the 90-day early filing provision, she can file Form N-400 as early as 11/4/2018.
Kyle obtained a green card through employment; he has been a permanent resident since 7/1/2017. After obtaining his permanent residence, he met Michelle, a U.S. citizen, and they got married on 7/1/2018. If Kyle and Michelle remain married, he will meet the continuous residence requirement for naturalization on 7/2/2021. (At this point he will have been a permanent resident for four years, but married to a U.S. citizen for only three years.) If the marriage falls apart before 7/2/2021, Kyle can still apply for citizenship after five years, 7/2/2022.
Same Sex Marriages
Immigration law recognizes same sex marriages in the same way it does opposite sex marriages, as long as the marriage was legal in the jurisdiction that it took place. In cases of marriage between persons of the same sex, USCIS officers will review the laws of the jurisdiction in which the marriage took place to determine if the jurisdiction recognizes same-sex marriages and the marriage otherwise is legally valid.
Supporting Documents When Applying for Citizenship through Marriage
To apply for naturalization, you must submit Form N-400, Application for Naturalization, and the USCIS filing fees. In Part 1 of the application, you’ll need to select item 1B, “You are at least 18 years of age and have been a lawful permanent resident of the United States for at least 3 years. In addition, you have been married to and living with the same U.S. citizen spouse for the last 3 years, and your spouse has been a U.S. citizen for the last 3 years at the time you filed your Form N-400.”
Under this provision, the burden is on you to establish that you are married and living in marital union with a U.S. citizen. Bring the following items to your interview if you are applying for citizenship through marriage:
Proof of Spouse’s U.S. Citizenship
Provide evidence that your spouse has been a U.S. citizen for at least three years at the time you file Form N-400. Examples of acceptable documents include: birth certificate, U.S. Passport (if valid and unexpired), Certificate of Naturalization, Certificate of Citizenship, or Form FS-240 Consular Report of Birth Abroad.
Proof of Marriage
Provide evidence of a legal marriage. The applicant must establish validity of his or her marriage. In general, the legal validity of a marriage is determined by the law of the place where the marriage was celebrated. Examples of acceptable documents include: marriage certificate or other official civil record to establish that the marriage is legal and valid.
Proof that Prior Marriages have been Terminated
If either spouse had a prior marriage, evidence should be submitted that proves all prior marriages have been terminated. Examples of acceptable documents include: divorce decree, annulment and death certificate.
Proof of Marital Union
Provide evidence that you and your spouse have lived in marital union for at least three years at the time you file your Form N-400. Examples of acceptable documents that have both spouses’ names include: joint bank and credit card statements, leases or mortgages, birth certificates of children, insurance policies, IRS-certified copies of the income tax forms that you and your spouse filed for the past three years (or an IRS tax return transcript for the last three years).
Spouses of U.S. Citizens Employed Abroad
There are additional provisions in the law that address applications for citizenship by spouses of U.S. citizens not living in the United States. If you are the spouse of a U.S. citizen who is “regularly stationed abroad” in qualifying employment, you may be eligible for naturalization on the basis of your marriage. Under this provision you may be exempt from the continuous residence and physical presence requirements for naturalization. This provision is often applied to U.S. military spouses. But qualifying employment abroad means to be under employment contract or orders and to assume the duties of employment in any of following entities or positions:
- Government of the United States (including the U.S. armed forces);
- American institution of research recognized as such by the Attorney General;
- American firm or corporation engaged in whole or in part in the development of foreign trade and commerce of the United States, or a subsidiary thereof;
- Public international organization in which the United States participates by treaty or statute;
- Authorized to perform the ministerial or priestly functions of a religious denomination having a bona fide organization within the United States; or
- Engaged solely as a missionary by a religious denomination or by an interdenominational mission organization having a bona fide organization within the United States.
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