What is a "Green Card"

A green card, or permanent residence, allows an immigrant to live and work in the United States for the rest of his or her life. For many people, obtaining a green card is the first step in the road to U.S. citizenship. The most popular method of obtaining a green card is through employment sponsorship or family sponsorship. However, there are other ways to get a green card, including political asylum, investment visas, and diversity lotteries.

U.S. Naturalization and Citizenship

For most clients, naturalization is the next step following obtaining a green card that allows them to live and work in the U.S. Naturalization is the complex process by which a foreign national can become a U.S. citizen. A person may apply for Citizenship by Naturalization if they meet the following criteria:

  1. Time as a Permanent Resident - The applicant must be present in the U.S. as a Lawful Permanent Resident (LPR) or on Military Duty.
  2. Continuous Residence - Five years of continuous residency in the United States subsequent to LPR status and three months in the State where the citizenship application is filed.
  3. Physical Presence in the US - Must be physically present in the United States for at least one-half of the 5 years residing in the U.S.
  4. Time as a Resident in a USCIS District or State - Most people must live in the USCIS district or State in which they are applying for at least 3 months before applying.
  5. Good Moral Character - Must be a person of good moral character for 5 years prior to the filing of the citizenship application up to the time of admission.
    1. Criminal Record - Committing certain crimes may cause you to be ineligible for naturalization. You cannot establish that you are a person of good moral character if you have been convicted of murder, at any time, or of any aggravated felony, if you were convicted on or after November 29, 1990.1
    2. Lying - If you do not tell the truth during your interview, USCIS will deny your application for lacking good moral character. If USCIS grants your naturalization and you are later found to have lied during your interview, your citizenship may be taken away.
  6. English and Civics - According to the law, applicants must demonstrate:2
    1. "An understanding of the English language, including the ability to read, write, and speak...simple words and phrases...in ordinary usage in the English language...."
    2. "A knowledge and understanding of the fundamentals of the history, and of the principles and form of government, of the United States...."
  7. Attachment to the Constitution - This includes:
    1. Renouncing Foreign Allegiances
    2. Take an Oath of Allegiance to the United States
    3. Bear arms on the behalf of the U.S. when required by law
  8. Must not otherwise be barred as a subversive, a communist, a deserter, or in removal proceedings.

Minimum Residency Requirements

To maintain one's green card status one must intend to reside in the U.S. and be physically present in the U.S. While absences from the U.S. are permitted, those considering long absences from the U.S. of more than 5 months should consider obtaining a re-entry permit to preserve their residence. A re-entry permit must be obtained for absences of more than a year. Those taking absences of five months or more should also consider carrying evidence of maintaining a U.S. residence; even with a re-entry permit.

  1. An absence of one year or more disrupts the continuity of residence.
  2. An absence of 6 months to one year raises a presumption that the continuity of residence has been interrupted.
  3. USCIS will also review applications where there are multiple absences of less than six months.

A person whose continuous period of residency has been broken will need to reapply four years and one day following the date of their return to the U.S. to reestablish residency.

Get More Information

These are the general requirements, but some unique situations may require additional steps. Our South San Francisco naturalization lawyers have successfully guided countless clients through the naturalization process. We have the experience and resources necessary to prepare all applicable paperwork, comply with filing requirements, ensure clients are prepared for English and civics tests and complete all other aspects of the legal process.

For more information contact Litwin & Smith at (650) 588-7100 or visit our Green Cards & Naturalization page.


1Certain waivers are available

2Certain applicants, because of age and time as a permanent resident; or others because of a disability, have different English and civics requirements.