Military Citizenship

Members of the U.S. military can work toward citizenship through service in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, or a National Guard unit while the unit was federally observed as a reserve component of the U.S. Armed Forces.

There is a long history of immigrants serving in the U.S. military. The U.S. Defense Department reports that over 30,000 non-citizens are currently active duty service members. In fact, more than 100,000 foreign-born United States soldiers have attained expedited citizenship through military service.

Video — The Oath Ceremony for military at the White House

Thanks to the Immigration and Nationality Act (I.N.A.), people who were born abroad can obtain U.S. citizenship through military service. In some very special cases, they may be able to do so without having to go through the first step of becoming a lawful permanent resident (obtaining a U.S. green card). The legal requirements will vary depending on if you serve during peace time or war time.

Additionally, spouses of U.S. military personnel who are currently deployed, or may be deployed, may also be eligible for expedited citizenship. For certain spouses, other provisions of the INA permit them to complete their citizenship process from overseas.

Naturalization Benefits of Military Service

U.S. military personnel receive some naturalization benefits in exchange for their sacrifices. Most naturalization applicants must accumulate 5 years as a permanent resident before they are eligible. Service members, however, contain attain citizenship much sooner, and without having to pay the USCIS filing fee.

Any U.S. service member who has served honorably at any time, is potentially eligible for expedited citizenship. In the military community, this process is sometimes referred to as “peacetime naturalization”. Some more of the naturalization benefits enjoyed by foreign-born U.S. service members include:

  • Not being subject to the continuous residence requirement. Military personnel do not need to establish 5 years of continuous residence in the United States, nor do they need to live in the same district/state for 3 months prior to filing their application.
  • Not being subject to the physical presence requirement. Because of their service, military personnel do not need to be physically present in the United States for 30 months like most applicants are.
  • Not having to pay the USCIS filing fee. Typically, a naturalization applicant must pay $680 to have their form processed. Of this, $595 is for the USCIS filing fee and $85 is for biometrics. Service members need only pay the $85 biometrics fee for their naturalization application.

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Naturalization Through Peacetime Military Service

One major advantage that non-citizen military personnel enjoy is that they don’t need to have their green card for five years before applying for citizenship like most other permanent residents must do. The military service member needs to be a permanent resident only by the date of their naturalization interview.

In addition to being a permanent resident by the date of their interview, to be eligible, the applicant must meet other conditions, including:

  • Having served honorably for a minimum of 1 year;
  • Being at least 18-years old;
  • Being of good moral character;
  • Comprehending spoken and written English;
  • Understanding basic U.S. government and history;
  • Demonstrating loyalty to the U.S. Constitution; and
  • Having filed their application while serving or within 6 months of discharge.

To begin the naturalization process, everyone must file Form N-400. While service members must complete an N-400 as well, they will not have to pay the application fee. In addition to the traditional form, service members will also need to file Form N-426, Request for Certification of Military or Naval Service. The input and signature of a U.S. military official is necessary to complete this form.

If you have already been discharged, you must be aware of the restrictions on filing your N-426. To take full advantage of the early citizenship benefits available to service members, you must apply within 6 months of your honorable discharge. If you miss this deadline, you will be subject to the 5-year waiting period most other green card holders face.

Naturalization Through Wartime Military Service

Those military personnel who enlist during wartime, are eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship after their first day of service. Various conditions may constitute wartime, such as the period that started on September 11, 2001 and will continue until the U.S. President declares an end to the hostilities.

As with all applicants for U.S. citizenship, military personnel who fall into this category must meet certain requirements, including:

  • Being at least 18-years old;
  • Being of good moral character;
  • Comprehending spoken and written English;
  • Understanding basic U.S. government and history; and
  • Swearing loyalty to the U.S. Constitution.

Additionally, you may apply for citizenship in this category if you are serving overseas.

Naturalization at Basic Training

In August 2009, USCIS in conjunction with the Army, launched the Naturalization at Basic Training Initiative. This program allows individuals who enlist as non-citizens the opportunity to naturalize when they complete basic training. USCIS is able to conduct the naturalization process, including biometrics, the naturalization interview, and the administration of the Oath of Allegiance entirely on the military installation. Enlistees of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines are potentially eligible to be U.S. citizens upon completion of their basic training.

Expedited Citizenship for Family Members of Military Personnel

Members of the United States armed forces who are also U.S. citizens may be eligible to receive expedited or overseas naturalization for their spouses and children.

Additionally, spouses of U.S. citizen military personnel who are currently deployed, or will be deployed, could also be eligible for expedited citizenship while they are in the United States. Most of these naturalization applicants will need to meet the following requirements:

  • Be at least 18-years old;
  • Be of upstanding moral character;
  • Understand written and spoken English;
  • Have a general understanding of American government and history;
  • Be willing to swear allegiance to the U.S. constitution;
  • Have acquired lawful permanent resident status prior to the naturalization interview;
  • Prove that his or her U.S. citizen spouse is deployed overseas as a service member; and
  • Make a good faith declaration of their intent to live overseas with the U.S. citizen spouse while deployed and return to the U.S. to live with that spouse after their deployment.

Posthumous Benefits

Members of the United States military who served honorably during specified “wartime” periods and died because of disease or injury sustained during that service, could be eligible to be awarded citizenship posthumously. However, under Section 329A of the INA, the deceased military member’s next of kin must apply for this benefit within 2 years of the death of the service member. This provision also extends immigration benefits to surviving members of the deceased’s family, including spouse, parents, or children.

If the deceased service member and his or her survivors had already applied for U.S. citizenship before the service member’s death, their application will be processed in the same manner as if the death had not occurred. Spouse, parents, and children can receive citizenship benefits if the following conditions are met:

  • The service member applicant served honorably in active duty status in the United States armed forces;
  • The service member’s death was a result of an injury that was caused or worsened by combat;
  • The service member was granted citizenship posthumously.

U.S. Military Enlistment for Immigrants

Typically, to be eligible for citizenship through military service, you must have a lawful and valid immigration status. The armed forces generally require enlistees to be citizens of the United States, U.S. nationals, or green card holders. Immigrants who are currently undocumented are not allowed to serve. However, the MAVNI (Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest) program has provided some exceptions that permit certain undocumented immigrants to enlist in the U.S. armed forces. The program is highly selective, enlisting only those immigrants with specialized medical training and/or specific language skills.

General Information About Military Citizenship

Although enlisting in the United States armed forces can be a path to expediting the citizenship process, the two branches of the government involved in this scenario — the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security – do not coordinate to naturalize citizens. Therefore, you will still have to follow the same steps as other green card holders.

Likewise, the military cannot assist you in the immigration process. You must immigrate first, using the existing procedures and protocols. Once you have established an address in the U.S. and received your green card, you can visit the nearest recruiter’s office and apply for enlistment in the branch of service of your choosing.

While non-citizens are permitted to enlist in the U.S. armed forces, federal law does prohibit their service as commission or warrant officers. You will not be granted a security clearance until you obtain citizenship and therefore, will be unable to serve in any positions of higher responsibility.

If you are a non-citizen already enlisted in any of the armed forces, you can get more information relevant to your situation by speaking with your designated point of contact (POC) at your military installation. Every installation should have a POC, you can find yours by inquiring through your chain of command.

If you obtain your citizenship through military service, current law dictates that your citizenship can be revoked if you are discharged under anything other than honorable conditions.

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