Immigration Q&A: Residency requirements for naturalization
“Is it possible to apply for naturalization from abroad? I am not very familiar with the process, but I do have a green card that I got four years ago. I am living in Ireland since the start of 2008 and will be for the foreseeable future, but I do travel back and forth to the U.S. a few times a year. I would hate to lose the green card just in case I need it in the future, but I’m happy in Ireland for now. Would I be able to apply for citizenship when I have my green card for five years?”
The naturalization process cannot be completed, or even initiated, while the applicant is a full-time resident abroad – except in certain cases when the applicant is a member of the U.S. armed forces, or is an immediate relative of a service member.
The residency requirements for naturalization are as follows – the applicant must have maintained a permanent residence in the U.S. for the five-year period preceding the application, with at least half of that time spent physically present here.
Absences of a year or longer break the “continuity” requirement – in other words, if an applicant is out of the U.S. for a year or longer, the five-year residency period will have to start again from the date of return to the country. (Actually, the applicant would have to accumulate another four years after return, as the year away could be counted towards the two and half year period that an applicant is permitted outside the country.)
As you’ve been away from the U.S. on a full-time basis since 2008, you do not meet the residency requirement, not to mention the other necessities that citizenship candidates must possess – the maintenance of a primary residence in the U.S., and filing appropriate tax returns each year. (At least we’re assuming that you haven’t filed a tax return since you’ve left.)
You say that you’ve been traveling to and from the U.S. with your green card since 2008, apparently without problem. As just mentioned, green card holders are obligated to maintain a primary residence in the U.S. Using the green card as a temporary travel document may have worked for you so far, but sooner or later a U.S. border official will take note of your travel history and call you on it, which will likely result in the loss of your status.
The N-400 naturalization application form requires great detail about an applicant’s travel abroad history in the five-year period preceding the application. This section of the application is intended to show USCIS that the applicant has maintained a primary residence in the U.S. Absences, of course, are allowed, but they cannot add up to more than two and a half years, with no single absence being greater than a year.
The next time you are in the U.S. -- if you wish to preserve your green card – you should apply for a re-entry permit (Form I-131) with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS). The document would preserve the validity of the green card for two years after you leave, but you must apply for it while in the U.S.