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Naturalization in the United States

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Naturalization in the United States

Source Spotlights are often updated as new data become available. Please click here to find the most recent version of this Spotlight.

This month's Spotlight examines naturalization in the United States, including recent changes in the number of immigrants obtaining citizenship and the rate of naturalization, as well as key characteristics of the pool of immigrants who are currently or will soon be eligible to naturalize.

Individuals who were not U.S. citizens at birth may become citizens through the naturalization process. In general, it takes six months to two years to become naturalized. Eligibility requirements include:

  • Legal residence in the United States for five continuous years (three continuous years if the individual is married to a U.S. citizen)
  • No criminal record
  • Ability to read, write, and speak simple words and phrases in English
  • Knowledge and understanding of American history fundamentals and U.S. government principles

The following information is derived from the Urban Institute's "Trends in Naturalization" by Michael Fix, Jeff Passel, and Kenneth Sucher.

Click on the bullet points below for more information:



Beginning in the 1990s, the number of naturalized citizens increased dramatically.

In the early 1990s there were only 6.5 million naturalized citizens in the United States, but by 2002 that number had nearly doubled to 11.3 million. In 1996, only 39 percent of the legal foreign-born population had naturalized. By comparison, in 2002, almost 49 percent had naturalized.

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Various factors have contributed to the recent increase in naturalizations.

Many factors have contributed to the growth in naturalization rates over the past decade, including: 1) the rapid growth of the foreign-born population in the U.S. during the 1990s, 2) the enactment of legislation that restricts public benefits for non-citizens, and 3) fee changes that made the cost of replacing a green card and applying for naturalization essentially the same.

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Different immigrant groups have different naturalization rates.

During the 1990s, the naturalization rate of different sending regions varied considerably. In 1995, only 19 percent of Mexican immigrants eligible to naturalize did so, compared with 66 percent of eligible immigrants from Europe and Canada, 56 percent from Asia, and 40 percent from other Latin American countries. By 2001, the percentage of eligible Mexican immigrants naturalizing increased to 34 percent. A similar increase in naturalization rates can be seen among immigrants from other Latin American countries—where the numbers rise from 40 to 50 percent during the same time period—while the numbers from Europe and Canada remained steady. Those most likely to naturalize, by 2001, were Asians and Europeans.

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The pool of legal immigrants eligible to naturalize remains quite large, despite rising naturalization rates.

Despite the rise in naturalization rates over the last decade, there remains a substantial pool of legal immigrants eligible for naturalization. According to the 2002 Current Population Survey (CPS), of the 11.3 million legal non-residents in the United States, approximately 7.9 million, or 70 percent, are eligible to naturalize. If immigration continues at its current rate, the number of individuals eligible to naturalize will continue to grow.

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Many immigrants who are eligible for naturalization have limited English skills.

About 60 percent of eligible immigrants are estimated to be "limited English proficient" and 40 percent report that they speak English "not well" or "not at all." Approximately 25 percent of those eligible to naturalize have below a 9th grade education, compared with only nine percent of the recently naturalized population.

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Immigrants who have not naturalized have significantly lower income than the recently naturalized.

Approximately one million or 17 percent of immigrants eligible to naturalize have incomes under the federal poverty level, compared to only 11 percent of the recently naturalized.

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Refugees are more likely to naturalize than other eligible immigrants.

While refugees comprise only seven percent of all immigrants and 14 percent of the currently eligible population, they represent 24 percent of the recently naturalized. These naturalization rates may be higher, in part, because there is a national resettlement program that assists with English lessons, introduces refugees to U.S. institutions and civic life, and provides guidance on how to enter the labor force. Furthermore, many states have developed vibrant support networks to welcome refugees.

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The population of those eligible to be naturalized is concentrated in six states.

The population of those eligible for naturalization is concentrated in California, New York, Texas, Florida, New Jersey, and Illinois. About three-quarters of the 7.9 million eligible immigrants live in these six states, with one-third or 2.7 million residing in California alone. These are the same six states with the largest foreign-born populations.