Physical Presence Requirement for Naturalization

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

What does it take to become a citizen of the United States as an immigrant? It's a complex process, and in this lesson we'll explore one of the major requirements.


Say that you came into the United States as an immigrant. You've got a green card legally permitting you to live and work here, you spend some time in the United States, and you know what? You decide you like it here. In fact, you decide that you like it so much that not only do you want to stay here permanently, you want to do so as an honest-to-goodness citizen of the United States of America. The process of becoming legally recognized as a citizen of a nation is called naturalization and it can be a complicated process. For your sake, I hope you enjoy filling out paperwork. For starters, you'll be filling out Form N-400, Application for Naturalization. The date you file that form is considered the official date you started applying for naturalization, which is important because some of the requirements for naturalization are related to that date. Specifically, we're talking about the requirements to be present in the United States. You want to be a citizen, you've got to live here. That's just how it works.

Immigrants celebrate being naturalized as U.S. citizens

Continuous Residence

Applying for naturalization comes with two main requirements in terms of actual presence in the USA. Our focus today is on physical presence, but before we can talk about that we need to discuss continuous presence. The continuous presence requirement is the obligation to have formally resided in the United States. To become naturalized you must have claimed somewhere within the USA as your place of residence for five years prior to the date that you submitted that Form N-400 for naturalization. If you're married to an American citizen, however, you only have to have resided in the USA for three years. Get how that works? Okay, now we can talk about physical presence.

Physical Presence

If continuous presence is the number of years you have formally resided within the United States, then physical presence is the actual number of days you spent here. You see, even if you've legally claimed to be residing in the USA, you can still come and go. The physical presence requirement states that you must actually physically be inside the borders of the United States for half the length of the continuous presence requirement. So, if the continuous presence requirement is that you must have resided in the USA for five years before filing the Form N-400, for 30 months or 913 days of that time you must have actually been inside the USA. Not visiting family, not vacationing abroad, but standing on American soil. If you are married to an American citizen, then that means you only have to have been in the USA for 18 months' worth of the last three years. This does not have to be all in one stretch, you can come and go, but you must be able to prove that you were physically in this country for the minimum number of days.

Now, of course this begs the question: How do you prove that you were physically in the United States for every one of those required days? Apart from your personal testimony, the case reviewers will ask for any and all documentation that can legally prove your whereabouts. Rent payments, bank statements, pay stubs, employment records, school records, religious ceremony records, tax receipts, insurance policies, and military records can all be used to establish proof of physical presence. If your kids were born in the USA, even their birth certificates can be used to prove your whereabouts. Case reviewers also will examine your passport, and record the dates you left and reentered the country.

That is not quite enough to prove physical presence

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