How to become a U.S citizen in Philadelphia

Choosing to become a naturalized citizen comes with responsibility, after all, citizens pay taxes whether or not they live in the U.S., but it also has many benefits. In 2021 alone, 855,000 new U.S. citizens became able to vote, travel to more than 150 countries without a visa, eligible for government jobs, protected from deportation, able to permanently bring their family members from abroad, and make their children eligible to become citizens.

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But the process is complicated, and, with the pandemic, some things have changed. Here are some Philadelphia resources to help you navigate your path to citizenship.

The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) lists 10 steps to becoming a citizen, but we’ve broken it down into five to make it easier:

  1. Check your eligibility and collect all documents: Make sure you are eligible to become a U.S citizen, and look at the instructions for the citizenship application (Form N-400). Collect all the required documents (which can include things like birth and marriage certificates, tax returns, and more). Don’t send any original records unless USCIS asks you to.

  2. Sign and file form N-400: You can now file this by mail or online. If you apply online, you can pay the fees online, check the status of your case, get notifications and updates, respond to requests for evidence, manage your information (including updating your address), and see when your case is expected to be decided (in Philadelphia, the average processing time for naturalization can take anywhere from 11 to 17 months). If you apply by mail, send the signed form and payment (money order, personal check or cashier’s check made out to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, or a credit card authorization form). Double check the address where you need to send it, which varies depending on where you are: Send it to the wrong place and your case can be delayed. Some other tips from USCIS: Write in black ink; if you make a mistake, start over again with a new form; and don’t forget to sign, or USCIS will deny your application. If you don’t remember your travel history, check the I-94 Website.

  3. Biometrics appointment: You went to a similar appointment during your green card application, but you have to do it again (and pay the fee again). You will get a notice with the date, time, and place to get your fingerprints, signature, and photo taken. This picture will appear on your Certificate of Naturalization, and they will not retake it based on whether or not you like it. The USCIS may use your old biometrics. (Between March and September 2021, they reused biometrics for around 838,000 applicants.) In this case, they will notify you, but you won’t get your money back.

  4. Interview: Once everything is complete, USCIS will schedule an interview to go over your application and background. Unless you qualify for an exception, you will also take your English and civics (history and government) tests. You have to pass both to become a U.S. citizen.

  5. Oath of Allegiance: You are not a citizen until you attend the swearing-in ceremony.

Am I eligible for U.S. citizenship?

In general, you are eligible to become a U.S. citizen if you:

  • are at least 18 years old.
  • are a green card holder, and have lived in the U.S, for at least five years (three years if you are married to a U.S. citizen).
  • have lived in the district and state you are applying from for at least three months.
  • haven’t spent more than a year outside the U.S. in the last five years. (Note: any time you spend outside the U.S. doesn’t count as you living here, even if it’s a short vacation.)
  • are able to read, write, and speak English at least at a basic level.
  • can pass a civics test about U.S history and government. 
  • have good moral character. (Some crimes can make you temporarily ineligible for citizenship.)
  • are willing to take the Oath of Allegiance

If you are not sure if you qualify, check the USCIS Eligibility tool

These Philadelphia groups can help pay for your naturalization fees:

  • HIAS Pennsylvania: HIAS Is a Jewish American Nonprofit helping immigrants at the international and federal levels. Its Philly chapter, HIAS Pennsylvania, helps low-income eligible people apply for citizenship for free. HIAS will also help you apply for Form I-912 to request a fee waiver. 📞 Call 215-832-0900 to see if you qualify, 🌐 hiaspa.org

  • Ceiba: Nonprofit Ceiba runs the bilingual (Spanish and English) program Pograma Adelante for eligible immigrants seeking U.S. citizenship. If you qualify, the group will help you open a bank account to save for the application fees. The group will also support you with financial coaching and immigration workshops for nine months. By the time you graduate, you will know your rights, be able to manage your finances, and have up to $1,000 in savings for the naturalization fees. If you attend at least 70% of the meetings, Programa Adelante will pay you $100, and match your savings up to $100. 📞 215-634-7245, or request a call back 🌐 ceibaphiladelphia.org

How much does U.S. citizenship cost?

Most cases cost $725 ($640 for filing your case, and $85 for your biometrics). USCIS has a calculator to help you check the total cost of your case. 

You can file your own naturalization application, but many people prefer to hire a lawyer, which can be expensive. The U.S. Department of Justice also recommends you check that your lawyer hasn’t been disciplined or disbarred from practicing immigration law. They also have to submit Form G-28 along with your Form N-400 application to be able to represent you.

These organizations can help with legal advice for free or at a low cost:

  • Upcoming partnering initiative: Esperanza, The New Americans Campaign, HIAS PA, EILS, Naleo, EILS, and Representative Danilo Burgos are holding a two-part in-person program to help Philadelphians with simple cases apply for citizenship in spring 2022. Attend an information session on March 17 at 5:30 p.m. at 4261 N. Fifth Street to see if you qualify. If you do, you will be invited to an in-person consultation in April. You will have to pay a legal representation fee based on your income. 🌐 Register online or by email ✉️ [email protected]

  • Esperanza: Esperanza offers immigration legal services, including help filing for citizenship for low-income Philadelphians. You will pay based on your income. In the past, the group has run pop-up clinics to help with simple cases, however, these are not currently operating because of the pandemic. You can schedule a one-on-one virtual consult to have a lawyer review your case. Note: You may have to wait for an appointment.📞 347-719-1402 ✉️ [email protected], 🌐 esperanza.us

  • HIAS Pennsylvania: HIAS PA has a citizenship program that can help with legal services for low-income people, families, elderly and disabled residents anywhere in the city. 📞 Call 215-832-0900, Wednesdays 9:30 a.m.-noon and Thursdays 2-4:30 p.m. 🌐 hiaspa.org

  • National Services Center: The National Services Center focuses on helping low-income Philadelphians reunite with their families, seek humanitarian relief, get assistance for survivors of domestic violence and other crimes, and in removal/deportation proceedings. Before the pandemic, the group offered in-person legal consultation, but now all appointments are virtual. The cost to assess your case is $60. 📞 215-893-8400, ✉️ [email protected], 🌐 nscphila.org

  • New Americans Campaign: Before the pandemic, New Americans Campaign held in-person free clinics, where you could go over your case and see if you qualify for citizenship, and get an attorney’s help with your naturalization form. Now, the group offers the same services over the phone and online. 📞 Call 888-839-8682 (English/Spanish), 800-520-2356 (Chinese), 800-867-3640 (Korean), 855-300-2552 (Tagalog), or 800-914-9583 (Thai). In Philadelphia, you can also contact the following NAC partners for more information:

    • Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians: 📞 215-557-2626, 🌐 welcomingcenter.org

    • African Cultural Alliance of North America: 📞 215-729-8225, ✉️ inf[email protected], 🌐 acanaus.org

    • Catholic Social Services of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia: 📞 267-331-2490, 🌐 cssphiladelphia.org

    • Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Associations Coalition (SEAMAAC): 📞 215-467-0690, 🌐 seamaac.org

You must pass an English test to become a citizen. But, If you are 50 years old or older and have lived in the U.S. as a permanent resident for more than 20 years, are 55 years or older and have been here more than 20 years, or if you have a medical disability, you may qualify for an exception.

The USCIS and United Way of Pennsylvania can help you find English classes in your zip code, but here are some good places to start:

  • HIAS Pennsylvania: HIAS PA offers free Zoom English classes for green card holders through the Breslin Learning Center. They offer 4 levels of classes — beginner, intermediate, high intermediate, and advanced— and meet twice a week, Mondays and Wednesdays or Tuesdays and Thursdays. Times vary depending on your level. Upcoming classes are listed on the group’s website. 📞 215-832-0912, 🌐 1199ctraining.org

  • National Services Center: NSC offers virtual English classes on Zoom. There are four English levels, but classes cost $125 for eight weeks. Each class meets twice a week, on Mondays and Wednesdays or Tuesdays and Thursdays from 9:30-11 a.m. or 6-7:30 p.m. You’ll need a computer, email address, and internet access. 📞 215-609-1525, ✉️ [email protected] or file the student form online. 🌐 nscphila.org

  • Beyond Literacy: In 2021, the Center for Literacy (CFL) and Community Learning Center (CLC) merged to form Beyond Literacy. They offer eight free programs, including English and civics classes for citizenship. Register for Zoom or in-person English classes online at beyondliteracy.org/start. 📞 215-474-1235, ✉️ [email protected], 🌐 beyondliteracy.org

  • The Free Library: The Free Library of Philadelphia has free online English classes at different levels. Some are run by the University of Pennsylvania, others are pronunciation and conversation virtual groups. Check their events calendar to find a class and level that best works for you. 🌐 freelibrary.org

The civics test changed in 2020. In order to pass the new test, you have to study a list of 128 civics questions: The USCIS officer will ask you up to 20 questions, and you need to get at least 12 right to pass.

Unless you have a medical disability exception, everyone needs to pass the civics test. If you didn’t have to take the English test, you are allowed to take the civics test in your native language, and must bring an English interpreter to your interview. If you are 65 years old or older, and have lived in the U.S. as a permanent resident for at least 20 years, you can get a simplified version of the test.

USCIS offers online resources for you to study, even flashcards, here are some local resources that can help you for free:

  • Museum of the American Revolution: The museum has a free citizenship initiative to help you learn about American history and government, using objects in the museum’s collection. Classes run online during winter, and in-person during spring and fall. If you go in-person, the Museum’s historical objects, paintings, and stories will be part of your classes. If you finish the program, you will get a one-year individual membership to the Museum for free. You need to be at an intermediate English level to join these classes. 🌐 Register at amrevmuseum.org

  • HIAS Pennsylvania: HIAS PA also offers free virtual citizenship classes. To sign up, you need to be at least 18 years old and have a green card, live in Philadelphia, have no criminal record, be able to read, write, and speak English, and have access to a smartphone, laptop or tablet. 📞 215-832-0912, 🌐 hiaspa.org

The Pennsylvania Department of Human Services has a list of service providers for people in Allentown, Erie, Harrisburg, Lancaster, Pittsburgh, and Scranton.