The Right Time to Apply for U.S. Citizenship

There are people who are called US permanent or conditional residents in the country and they are sometimes referred to as green card holders. When is the right time for them to apply for US Citizenship or to apply to naturalize? Basically, the rule is that you cannot apply for US citizenship or to apply to naturalize until you have stayed as a lawful permanent resident in the United States for at least five years. It should be counted exactly from the time of being a permanent resident or even for a conditional resident status. For example, upon approval of your permanent residence on December 4, 2000, you will be granted US citizenship on December 4, 2005. In this case, you have to check the exact date stated on your green card as the one indicated that you have become a permanent resident.

For those who started as a conditional resident instead of being a permanent one, those who gained it through a recent marriage to a US citizen or through an investor visa, the process is a little bit similar. The two years that you had as a conditional resident will be counted as part of your permanent resident status for as long as you become a permanent resident at the end of the two years.

The 90-Days Early Application Rule

Within 90 days before your five-year anniversary has occurred, and despite the five years of permanent residence requirement, it is alright for you to submit your application for naturalization to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services or USCIS. The key here is timing. All you have to do is to obtain a form called N-400 at the USCIS and submit it by mail. It is a long period of time for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to process your application, including the setting up of schedule for fingerprinting, testing your knowledge of English and the U.S. government and more. It is safe to use the 90-day period to file such application because that is usually the time the USCIS can set a schedule for your interview.

How about People Married to a U.S. Citizen?

There are exceptions to the 5-year rule for people who are married to a U.S. citizen. The wait time is only three years if during that time you have been a permanent or conditional resident that is married to, as well as living with, a U.S. citizen. (See the Immigration and Nationality Act at I.N.A. Section 319(a) or 8 U.S.C. sections 1430(a).) Don’t forget to include proof of your qualification in your application. The exception is also applicable even if you weren’t able to secure a green card through the marriage and have secured one by an employer. In this case, you need to wait for three years from the date of your marriage to apply for citizenship.


For the exceptions to be applicable, it is important to stay married with your U.S. citizen spouse up to the schedule of your interview. In case you separate or divorce legally your U.S. citizen spouse, or you have chosen to stop living with him or her, the exception is no longer applicable. The same is true if your U.S. citizen spouse dies even before your interview.

Exception to Five-Year Rule for Battered Spouses of a U.S. Citizen Granted VAWA Protection

The U.S. Congress created an exception to the five-year rule for battered spouses. The government didn’t want for the battered spouses to stay in an abusive marriage relationship and wait for three years before applying for naturalization. However, this move should be based on a self-petition on Form I-360 because of the fact that the U.S. citizen is physically or emotionally abusive. This rule is also applicable to children but they must still be at the age of 18 prior to the submission of their application for citizenship.

The Partial Rule for Refugees Relating To the Five-Year Rule

For those who acquired their green cards by being a refugee, the time that they became refugees can be counted as if they’re permanent residents, and this is otherwise known as “rollback.” In other words, the date of your entry in the country is the reckoning date or as the beginning of your permanent residence.

Rule for People Granted with Asylum (Asylees) About Partial Exception to Five-Year Rule

There are people who have been granted an asylum status in the country. The basic rule is that one year of your time as an asylee will be counted as if you have a permanent residence status. This is also known as “rollback.” Please take note that if you waited longer than one year after receiving asylum to submit an application for your green card, that extra time will not be included pertaining to your permanent residency period. In that case, you will have to wait a full four years from the actual date you received the green card.

It may be confusing but you will need to wait a full five years from the date your green card says you became a permanent resident. That's because USCIS will automatically backdate your permanent residence approval date on your green card by one year, in recognition of your rollback rights. (See the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations 8 C.F.R. section 209.2(f).)

Exception to Five-Year Rules for Spouses of U.S. Citizens in Certain Overseas Jobs

There is another exception to the five-year rule and it pertains to those spouses of U.S. citizens who have job overseas. Let us talk about this for your benefit.

If your spouse has a job that requires both of you to live overseas, you may submit an application for citizenship without five years of permanent residence. The requirement is that you are willing to come back to the United States to apply, so you can file your application any time after you receive your permanent residence.

But this provision has limitations. It is essential that you must be regularly stationed abroad due to the employment of your spouse. It is also important to declare an intention to live in the United States when your spouse's employment ends. And lastly, the employer of your spouse must be either be the U.S. government (such as the C.I.A., the military, the Peace Corps, or the American Red Cross), a U.S. research institution that has been recognized by the U.S. attorney general (these are listed at 8 C.F.R. section 316.20(a)), a U.S. firm or corporation (or a subsidiary) that is engaged wholly or partly in developing U.S. foreign trade and commerce, a public international organization in which the United States participates by treaty or statute (these are listed at 8 C.F.R. section 316.20(b) and (c)), or a religious denomination that has an organization within the United States; your spouse must perform ministerial or priestly functions there or work solely as a missionary.

Other Necessities for Citizenship May Entail You to Wait Even Longer

There’s another warning, though. Even if you have spent the required amount of time with a green card, you may need to wait longer before applying for U.S. citizenship if you either have not spent the required amount of time physically present in the United States (for most people, at least half of your required years as a permanent resident), have not lived in the district or state where you are filing your application for at least three months, have spent more than a year outside the United States, or cannot yet demonstrate that you’ve had good moral character for the required amount of time before applying for citizenship.


Revised: May 16, 2022, 8:15 a.m.
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