While there are many eligibility requirements to become a US citizen as noted in the Immigration and Nationality Act, to apply for citizenship, which is also referred to as naturalization, key requirements are that you are over the age of 18, have been a permanent resident for 5 years (or 3 years if married to a US citizen), and maintain continuous residence and physical presence.1
Continuous residence and physical presence means you must (1) reside continuously in the US for a period of five years following lawful admission to permanent residence status (or three years if applying based on marriage to a US citizen) and (2) be physically present in the US for at least half of that period. An extended absence from the US could break the continuity of your residence in the US for naturalization purposes.
The question of continuous residence can be difficult to analyze. According to USCIS, "To qualify for citizenship, generally applicants must demonstrate they have continuously resided in the United States for at least 5 years before submitting Form N-400, Application for Naturalization. This means you must be residing exclusively in the United States – not in any other country. You may travel to another country, including your home country, provided no other legal impediment precludes you from doing so. However, if a trip lasts longer than 180 days, USCIS may determine that you have not continuously resided in the United States and therefore are ineligible for naturalization.” If you have been outside the US for more than 6 months but less than a year, USCIS will presume that you have broken continuous residence for naturalization purposes. You may be able to overcome this presumption by providing evidence such as not having terminated your US employment, family remaining in the US, keeping a home in the US, etc. If you are outside the US for a continuous period of one year or more, this breaks the continuous residence requirement.
The “physical presence” requirement is straightforward to calculate: if your trips abroad, including short trips, result in a combined time of more than two and half years (or one and a half years if your application is based on marriage to a US citizen) outside of the United States, you will be ineligible for naturalization.
The continuous residence and physical presence requirements are similar, but they are two separate requirements. A naturalization applicant must meet both requirements.
When completing the naturalization (N-400) application, you must account for every absence from the US, with an exact start and end date for each trip. For foreign nationals who travel frequently, this requirement can present difficulty and, in some cases, the USCIS naturalization examiner may count each travel day to determine whether the foreign national has sufficient periods of physical presence in the US to qualify for naturalization.
If you are considering applying for citizenship, you should begin tracking all travel outside of the United States. In addition, you should gather all travel information which took place after you were granted legal permanent resident status.
If you haven’t been keeping track, it can be troublesome to find your exact travel dates. We suggest trying these options to determine your dates of travel:
If you're unable to recount an exact travel history for the past 5 years (or 3 if married to a US citizen) or you have an absence from the US of 180 days or more, your eligibility to naturalize may be delayed until you can present an accurate account of your travel for the required timeframe and meet the continuous residence rule.
It is never too early to speak to an attorney about your plans for citizenship! It is important to make sure you are doing all you can to successfully naturalize when the time comes and to avoid other tricky issues related to taxes, criminal records (including traffic citations), etc. We invite you to use our Naturalization Eligibility tool by visiting our citizenship page and setting up a consultation with one of our attorneys HERE.
1You may also qualify based on military service which has different requirements and different qualifications for conditional residence and physical presence which will not be discussed in this article. In addition, there are limited exceptions for the continuous residence requirement depending on employment that requires living overseas, or for spouses, children, or parents of certain US citizens.