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What Does It Take to Be a Citizen?

I’ve been hearing a lot recently about immigration and what it takes to be a citizen. While I’m not prepared to spout off about what I do and don’t believe in that respect, I do think that this is a good time to examine the facts behind the citizenship/naturalization process in the United States.



The current Application for Naturalization, Form N-900, was implemented on October 1, 2009, though there were other iterations before then. Since that time (through September 30, 2016), more than 5,330,000 naturalization tests have been administered.


Left: Number of naturalization forms administered between January 2015 and September 2016. Right, number of new citizens by year between 1910 and 2014, categorized by type (civilian, military, or not reported.


The cost of the N-900 form is $725 total ($640 in citizenship application fees plus an $85 biometric services fee (background check)).



To become a citizen of the United States, you must pass a naturalization test, which consists of two parts. The first part, English, demonstrates the ability of the applicant to read, write, and speak in English. The second part, Civics, demonstrates the ability of the applicant to have a ‘knowledge and understanding of U.S. history and government’. If you fail either portion of the test, you will be given an opportunity to take that portion again, within 60-90 days after taking the initial test. The applicant will also be required to undergo a naturalization interview where they answer questions about their application and background, and they will be required to undergo a ‘period of lawful permanent residence’. The benefits of naturalization include higher wages and the ability to own a home, protection from deportation, access to government benefits, and the right to sponsor immediate family members for immigration.


Number of new U.S. citizens by country of origin for the top 10 countries. Inset: acquisition of U.S. citizenship by year between 1999 and 2015.


Civics Test

The civics test consists of 100 possible questions, of which the applicant will be asked 10 in multiple-choice form. If they get 6 or more correct, they pass the test. All 100 of these possible questions are listed in English, Spanish, and Chinese on the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Study Materials for the Civics Test webpage, though it should be noted that the test is presented solely in English.



Since its implementation, this version of the naturalization test has enjoyed a 91% pass rate for those taking the test for the first time. That means that of all of the people new to this country taking the exam, roughly 9 out of 10 get at least 6 of the 10 civics questions correct. So how does this compare to our own knowledge of our country? In 2012 Xavier University in Ohio polled just over 1000 voting-age-or-older U.S. citizens by phone and found that only 2/3 of those polled correctly answered at least 6 of the 10 random questions from this test. Whether or not you believe this exam is a good test of knowledge needed to become or be a good citizen (see Investigating the Reliability of the Civics Component of the U.S. Naturalization Test by Paula Winke), it’s clear that we (existing citizens) can do better.

As a result of studies like this, the Civics Education Initiative has issued a challenge to each state to pass a law requiring high school students to pass the U.S. citizenship test before being permitted to graduate. As of January 2017, 15 states have enacted a Civics Education Initiative, and in 19 others the initiative has been proposed for 2017. Curious about whether you would pass? Take a practice test of 20 questions here, or peruse through the English list of all 100 possible questions here.



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Thursday, 08 June 2023

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