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How Permanent Residents May Naturalize
by Cyrus D. Mehta

This article will focus on the basic residency requirements and will also discuss some of the difficulties that permanent residents may encounter if they have spent considerable periods of time outside the U.S.


Naturalization is the process by which citizenship can be obtained after birth as long as certain requirements that are mandated by the immigration laws are complied with. It should be noted that this is a voluntary process; permanent residents are not required to become citizens of the U.S. They may do so or, alternatively, they may retain their permanent resident status and the nationality of their country of origin.


A person must be a lawful permanent resident and at least 18 years of age in order to start the naturalization process. In certain cases, the permanent resident requirement may be set aside if the person concerned has served with the U.S. military in active duty status in the time of war.
The person must also be continuously resident in the U.S. for a period of at least five years prior to submitting the application for naturalization. If the person is the spouse of a U.S. citizen, then the continuous resident requirement is three years.
Of the requisite five year period (three for U.S. citizen spouse), the person must have been physically present in the U.S. for at least one-half of that period – namely two and a half years for most permanent residents and one and a half years for spouses of U.S. citizens. In the latter case, the U.S. citizen spouse must have been a U.S. citizen for three years, the parties must have been married for at least three years and there should be no legal separation or divorce between the parties concerned.
The person must also satisfy the residency requirement for the state or the INS district where the naturalization petition is filed. This means that the person must reside for at least three months in the state or district in which the petition is filed.
The law also permits you to file three months prior to the time that the person satisfies the five year (or three year for spouses of U.S. citizens) residency requirement.
For the most part, a person must reside in the U.S. from the time the application is filed to the time that U.S. citizenship is actually conferred on the person.
It should be noted that there has been a recent change in the law in this area. A person no longer has to intend to reside permanently in the U.S. after they have completed the naturalization process.

Absences from the U.S. during the Statutory Period

In general, if a permanent resident is absent from the U.S. during the five (or three) year statutory period for a period of six months or less, the continuous resident requirement will not be affected or broken. If the person has spent more than six months, but less than one year outside the U.S., there is a rebuttable presumption that continuous residence has been abandoned for purposes of naturalization. Absences of more than one year automatically terminate the continuity of residence for purposes of naturalization, unless the permanent resident has taken steps in advance to preserve the continuity of residence. These steps include working abroad for the U.S. government, U.S. research institute, a U.S. corporation, or a majority owned subsidiary of a U.S. enterprise that is involved with foreign trade or commerce.
If there is a break in the continuous residence period for the purposes of naturalization, then the permanent resident will have to reapply four years and one day (or two years and one day) after his/her return to the U.S.

Reentry Permits

Permanent residents must understand the distinction between preserving continuity of residence for the purposes of naturalization and maintaining permanent resident status.
Generally, when permanent residents travel abroad for a temporary period, their “green card” is sufficient documentation to permit reentry into the U.S., this is assuming that they return within one year of their most recent departure.
If permanent residents are aware that they may have to spend more than a year abroad in advance of their trip overseas, they may apply to the INS while still in the U.S. for a Reentry Permit. This document is valid for a period of two years from the person’s departure from the U.S. The purpose of the Permit is to preserve permanent resident status if the person is overseas, it does not preserve the residency requirement for purposes of naturalization.
Permanent residents should be prudent when applying for new Reentry Permits as they are not granted as a mater of course. Protracted absences from the U.S. cast a long shadow over the person’s intention to maintain permanent resident status.
Moreover, those permanent residents who do not apply for a Reentry Permit, but use their green cards to reenter the U.S. within each twelve month period, and believe that a visit to the U.S. for a few weeks each year, without more, is sufficient to maintain permanent resident status, are misguided. The person must be able to show that he or she intended to remain a permanent resident through other ties such as U.S. bank accounts, maintenance of a U.S. address, and employment contracts that evidence why the person needs to reside overseas and the period of time involved.
Most importantly, the person must continue to file U.S. tax returns as a permanent resident. For naturalization purposes, compliance with this requirement is vital as the INS officer conducting the naturalization interview will confirm whether the permanent resident has filed tax returns for the requisite period.

About The Author

Cyrus D. Mehta, a graduate of Cambridge University and Columbia Law School, practices immigration law in New York City. He is Vice Chair of the American Immigration Lawyers Association's National Labor Department Liaison Committee, trustee of the American Immigration Law Foundation and recipient of the 1997 Joseph Minsky Young Lawyers Award. He is also Chair of the Immigration and Nationality Law Committee of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York. He frequently lectures on various immigration subjects at legal seminars, workshops and universities and may be contacted at 212-686-1581 or

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