Every year, about 860,000 U.S. green card holders apply for Citizenship by Naturalization, the process by which a lawful permanent resident becomes a U.S. citizen after living in the U.S. for a period of time, usually 3–5 years. Like citizens born in the United States, naturalized citizens can vote in American elections and apply for American passports. And they can never be deported. Of the applications submitted each year, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) approves about 23%, denies about 2–3%, and leaves about 70% pending. This article covers the U.S. citizenship by naturalization process and statistics on that process.
Written by Jonathan Petts.
Written November 19, 2020
How Many Naturalized Citizens Are There in the United States?
There were approximately 22 million naturalized citizens in the United States as of 2017, which the Migration Policy Institute reports is about half of the foreign-born population. Between 2008 and 2018, more than 7.2 million immigrants have become citizens by naturalization.
In terms of demographics, naturalized citizens come from all over the world. Seventeen percent of naturalized citizens were born in Mexico, making it the most common country of birth for naturalized citizens. Mexico is followed by India, China, and the Philippines. Naturalized citizens come from over 200 countries of origin and live in all 50 states, from New York to California and everywhere in between.
Data on Submitted Naturalization Applications
United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) receives an average of 860,000 Form N-400 applications each year across 88 field offices. Here is a breakdown of the number of applications filed in recent years:
In 2015, 806,682 naturalization petitions were filed
In 2016, 1,023,235 naturalization petitions were filed
In 2017, 926,260 naturalization petitions were filed
In 2019, 844,121 naturalization petitions were filed
Source: USCIS Data on Form N-400. (Note that the number of approved naturalization petitions, as reported by USCIS, does not match the number of persons naturalized, as reported by the Office of Immigration Statistics. The discrepancy, however, is minimal. For example, the OIS reports that 837,168 naturalization petitions were filed in 2018; for that same period, USCIS reports that it received 833,161 applications. The cause of this discrepancy is not clear).
How Many Citizenship by Naturalization Applications Are Currently Pending With USCIS?
There were 713,689 naturalization applications pending with USCIS as of March 31, 2019. This number is 87% higher than the 380,639 applications pending at the end of 2014. In just five years, the number of immigrants with pending applications for citizenship has nearly doubled.
This increase in pending applications is likely the result of USCIS processing a smaller portion of total N-400 petitions per year. In the first quarter of 2015, USCIS decided (either approved or denied) 33.16% of the total Citizenship by Naturalization applications pending and received during that quarter. By the first quarter of 2019, that figure had fallen to just 23.52%. As the USCIS processing rate decreases, the number of pending cases increases.
Data on Pending Naturalization Applications, by Year
|Naturalization Petitions Pending||380,639||388,832||636,164||729,400||713,689|
Source: USCIS Data on Form N-400.
How Many Citizenship by Naturalization Applications Does USCIS Approve Each Year?
Since 2014, the number of citizenship applications USCIS approved has increased from 653,416 to 843,593 in 2019. During these six years, USCIS approved, on average, 739,980 applications for naturalization per year.
Naturalizations have remained strong despite the Trump administration’s crusade against other forms of legal immigration — like asylum, refugee resettlement, and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program — and overall immigration enforcement crackdown. In fact, in 2019, the number of green card holders who became naturalized citizens reached its highest level in a decade.
Unfortunately, the approval rate has also declined during this time. In the second quarter of 2015, USCIS approved around 30% of total petitions pending and newly received. By the first quarter of 2019, that figure had fallen to 21%. Meanwhile, pending cases continue to rise as USCIS processes a smaller percentage of petitions overall. In other words, total naturalizations have increased even as the percentage of cases processed and approved has declined.
Data on Approved Naturalization Applications, by Year
|Approved Citizenship by Naturalization applications||653,416||720,645||753,060||707,265||761,901||843,593|
How Many Citizenship by Naturalization Applications Does USCIS Deny Each Year?
As USCIS approvals of Citizenship by Naturalization applications increased, so did denials. From 2014 to 2019, the number of naturalization applications that USCIS denied increased from 66,767 to 97,789. In the first quarter of 2015, USCIS decided (i.e., either approved or denied) 33.16% of total applications pending and newly received that quarter. That figure fell to just 23.52% by the first quarter of 2019.
That both approvals and denials increased may be a result of USCIS processing a smaller portion of total N-400 petitions per year and taking longer to do so, as discussed above.
Data on Denied Naturalization Applications, by Year
|Citizenship by Naturalization||66,767||75,810||86,033||83,176||92,631||97,789|
Source: Department of Homeland Security Office of Immigration Statistics, Fiscal Year 2019 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics (Table 20).
5 Most Common Reasons That Citizenship by Naturalization Applications Are Denied
USCIS considers many factors when deciding on a Citizenship by Naturalization application, and you want to make sure that you are avoiding common mistakes. Here are the five most common reasons for USCIS to deny an application.
Reason 1: Not Meeting the Residency and Physical Presence Requirements
To apply for Citizenship by Naturalization, you must meet the residency and physical presence requirements.
The physical presence requirement usually means that you:
Must have been a green card holder for at least 5 years, and
Have not spent more than 30 months in total outside the U.S. during those 5 years.
The requirements are shorter for immigrants married to U.S. citizens, part of U.S. immigration law’s policy of keeping family units together. If your husband or wife is a U.S. citizen, you can apply for Citizenship by Naturalization after only 3 years of being a green card holder. And you cannot spend more than 18 months in total outside the U.S. during that time. For minor children of U.S. citizens, there is no minimum time. Children who live in the U.S. and have at least one U.S. citizen parent can apply for Citizenship by Naturalization as soon as they get their green card.
The residency requirement means that you must have lived in the same U.S. state for at least three months before applying for Naturalization. You can read the full list of requirements in our detailed guide to naturalization.
Reason 2: Forms Filled Out Incorrectly
Applicants must pay careful attention to the instructions for Form N-400, which are very detailed and thorough. Even a simple mistake (such as leaving questions blank) may cause USCIS to deny your naturalization application.
Completing the N-400 citizenship application can be difficult. To avoid mistakes, you can prepare your forms using our free tool. After you complete your forms, check out our detailed filing guide to make sure you don’t miss any steps in the application process.
Reason 3: Criminal Background Check
U.S. immigration law comes primarily from the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). The INA requires all immigration applicants, including naturalization applicants, to pass a criminal background check. USCIS is not a law enforcement agency, unlike its sister agencies ICE and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). However, it does enforce the criminal background check requirements of the INA. Having a criminal background means that USCIS can deny your citizenship application.
If you have any relevant criminal activity in your past, you may be inadmissible by INA standards. For example, two convictions with combined prison sentences of five years or more will make you inadmissible. So will any conviction for controlled-substances offenses, prostitution, or drug trafficking. Even if you passed the criminal background check when you applied for your green card, new convictions since then could get your application denied.
If you’re worried about issues in your past, you can check your admissibility before you apply. If you’re clear and ready to apply, you can use the same tool to prepare and file your forms quickly and easily.
Reason 4: Extreme Financial Distress
Not paying debts can give USCIS a reason to deny your application for Citizenship by Naturalization. USCIS looks for financial obligations that, in its view, can reflect on your moral character. For example, failure to pay taxes or child support can hurt your chances of approval and give USCIS a reason to deny your application. You may need to take care of outstanding debts before applying for Citizenship by Naturalization.
Reason 5: Failing the Civics Test
The civics test, an essential part of the naturalization process, requires migrants seeking citizenship to know about U.S. history and government. For example, the exam may ask you how many members are in the House of Representatives, what year the Constitution was written, or who our first president was. (435, 1787, George Washington). If you fail the test on your first try, USCIS will let you try again in 2–3 months. It will deny your application if you fail a second time.
To avoid common mistakes and improve your chances of being approved, check out our detailed Naturalization Filing Guide.
How Long Does It Take To Become a Citizen?
To apply for Citizenship by Naturalization, you must file Form N-400 with USCIS and pay the accompanying filing fee. If USCIS approves your N-400 petition, it will schedule a naturalization interview for you. The entire naturalization process takes, on average, 15 months.