Becoming a U.S. citizen typically requires an immigrant to be a legal resident of the country for at least five years. Once that has been achieved, immigrants can apply to become naturalized citizens, which includes taking the U.S. citizenship test (see Understand the Requirements For U.S. Citizenship).

The Civics Test portion of the citizenship test has recently become a call to action in states worried that students are graduating from high school without mastering at least what the United States requires immigrants to know to become citizens.

In January 2015, Arizona became the first state to make answering correctly at least 60 of the 100 questions in the Civics Test a requirement for receiving a high school diploma. (Immigrants are given 10 of the 100 questions and must get six right.) When the Arizona law passed, some 13 other states were considering similar laws, according to the New York Times.

Qualifying for the Test

The citizenship test is one step during the naturalization process, which requires applicants to:

  • Be at least 18 years of age
  • Be a lawful permanent resident (green card holder) 
  • Have resided in the United States as a lawful permanent resident for at least five years immediately preceding naturalization application filing date
  • Have been physically present in the United States for at least 30 months of the last five years immediately preceding naturalization application filing date
  • Be a person of good moral character
  • Be able to speak, read, write and understand the English language
  • Have knowledge of U.S. government and history and civics
  • Be willing and able to take the Oath of Allegiance

Certain exemptions and accommodations may apply if:

  • An immigrant is married to a U.S. citizen (spouses only have to be a legal resident of the country for three years)
  • An immigrant is a spouse of a U.S. citizen stationed abroad (these spouses may not have to meet the residency requirement)
  • An immigrant who served in the military applies for naturalization during a certain time frame
  • An immigrant is a child under age 18 (click here for the details)

For more detailed information, please visit the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services page on exceptions and accommodations. 

The Application Process and the U.S. Citizenship Test

If an immigrant has been a legal resident of the U.S. for five years (three years for spouses of U.S. citizens) and meets all of the above requirements, he or she may apply for naturalization.

The first step will be to file the appropriate application. Once that is filed, the immigrant will receive a receipt and later, a scheduled time for an interview. Applicants must show up at their scheduled time and bring their notice with them.

After the interview, which will consist of questions about the application and the immigrant’s background, the applicant will be required to take the citizenship test, which consists of four parts:

  • Speaking Test: How well the immigrant speaks English will be determined during the interview process.
  • Reading Test: The applicant is asked to read aloud one of three sentences correctly to demonstrate an ability to read English.
  • Writing Test: During this portion of the test, the applicant is asked to write one of three sentences to demonstrate the ability to write in English.
  • Civics Test: The full test has 100 civics questions; the officer will ask the applicant 10 questions from that test. As discussed above, he or she must get six of them right. Topics covered are the U.S. Constitution, rights and freedoms, systems of government, functions of elected representatives, American history, geography and integrated civics such as national holidays.

Applicants have two chances to take the English and civics portions of the test per application. Applicants who fail any portion of the test will be asked to retake the portion they failed within 60 to 90 days of the initial interview. 

Exemptions and Accommodations

Immigrants may qualify for certain exemptions of the English portion of the test if they are:

  • Age 50 or older at the time of filing for naturalization and have lived as a permanent resident in the United States for 20 years. This is commonly referred to as the “50/20” exception.
  • Age 55 or older at the time of filing for naturalization and have lived as a permanent resident in the United States for 15 years. This is commonly referred to as the “55/15” exception.

It’s important to note qualifying for the 50/20 or 55/15 exemption does not exempt applicants from the civics portion of the test. They may be allowed to take the test in their native language, but only if their understanding of English is insufficient to conduct it in English. I

f that is the case, the immigrant must bring an interpreter, who is fluent in both the native language and in English, to the exam. Immigrants who are 65 or older and have been legal residents of the United States for at least 20 years may be given special consideration with regard to the civics test.

Applicants for U.S. citizenship who have a physical or mental disability that prevents them from taking the English or civics portion of the exam may apply for an exemption.

How to Study for the U.S. Citizenship Test

If you live in a city or town with a large immigrant population, there may be community resources for immigrants seeking to learn English and pave their path to citizenship.

If this isn’t possible, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services provides study materials for immigrants on its website. Applicants may also find the 100 questions on the civics portion of the test.

If You Pass, If You Don't

After taking the test, applicants will be notified if they passed. If they did not, they will be given an opportunity to take the portion of the test they did not pass within 60 to 90 days of the initial interview.

If they passed the test, they will be notified about the next Naturalization Oath Ceremony. Taking the oath is a requirement. The path to citizenship is not complete until the immigrant takes the oath and receives his or her Certificate of Naturalization.

The Bottom Line

By the time immigrants swear allegiance to the United States and become naturalized citizens, they may well know more about U.S. history and civics than many Americans. For more on becoming a legal resident of the United States, see Getting A U.S. Visa For Entrepreneurs & Investors.