A beginner’s guide to earning your citizenship through military service
Let's break it down.
Since the Civil War, people without U.S. citizenship have been able to naturalize upon joining the military. Enlistment is not only a way to earn citizenship, but it can expedite the process for service members and their families. The government allows rapid naturalization of military members for two reasons, one noble and one practical. The first is that those fighting for the United States Armed Forces, no matter their country of origin, should enjoy the same privileges of citizenship as those who are United States citizens by birth. The other reason is that naturalization eliminates many legal problems, including limitations on the jobs these service members can take on and bars to their deployment to their countries of origin.
For non-citizens considering joining the military and for citizens alike, it’s important to know the statutes and rules governing military naturalization. There are pros and cons to going this route. For example, non-citizens who naturalize while in the military could lose US citizenship because of bad behavior after being naturalized, or if they are dishonorably discharged before they complete five years of honorable service. So, if you’re planning on behaving badly, steer clear of trying to earn your citizenship through military service.
We’re going to go through the three main statutes that regulate military naturalization for non-citizens: Immigration & Nationality Act (INA) sections 328, 329, and 329A. Sounds thrilling, doesn’t it? Let me break them down a little more because behind these numbers are some interesting distinctions. Respectively, these statutes regulate peacetime naturalization, wartime naturalization, and posthumous naturalization. Most of the time, you don’t have control over what statute you’re applying through – especially with the last one. Still, it’s important to know the differences because they will affect the application process.
First, let’s go over some basic requirements for military naturalization. These apply no matter what statute is in place when you file for citizenship.
Military Naturalization Requirements
Many of the military naturalization requirements are the same for those applying as civilians. For example, applicants must be “attached to the principles of the Constitution and well-disposed to the good order and happiness of the United States.” So, basically, a citizenship applicant can’t hate the United States. That’s a pretty good rule. There are other basic citizenship requirements like the requirement to speak English and demonstrate a knowledge of our history and government. And applicants must be willing to bear arms for the United States.
But there are some looser rules for military personnel that should be noted as well. There are continuous residence and state residence requirements for civilians that are waived for military members. Also, for military members, all application and biometric fees are waived. There is also, just like for civilians, a requirement to show good moral character. However, military personnel only have to show a year of good moral character, while civilians must typically show five years. And that’s not to say try to be good for a year and you’re in. There are a few examples of veterans being denied citizenship because of the totality of their behavior even outside that particular one-year window.
Now let’s dig a little deeper and look at what it means to apply for naturalization in the military through each of the statutes, and what will be required of you. And we’ll start with…
Peacetime Naturalization (INA 328)
You can consider the peacetime naturalization statute the baseline for naturalization in the military. The wartime naturalization statute is like an addendum that can only be implemented by executive order, so at all other times, section 328 is how non-citizens in the military will apply for citizenship. And because of the nature of these two distinct statutes, the requirements for peacetime naturalization are a bit more stringent.
The first requirement is that the person applying must have LPR status. LPR stands for Lawful Permanent Resident, and is popularly called “green card” status. Today, most people must have a green card just to enlist, and it can be very difficult to get one—but to apply under this statute you must have your green card. If you were applying to naturalize as a civilian, you’d also need a green card—but civilians seeking naturalization generally have to have had a green card for five years before they can apply to naturalize. If you are in the military, and you have a green card, section 328 says you don’t have to have a green card for any particular period of time, as long as you apply to naturalize while still serving or within six months after serving. In addition to having a green card, you must have had one year of service—any kind of service, including service in the Delayed Entry Program or inactive Reserve. There’s also, of course, the general requirements that apply to all applicants for citizenship, to show good moral character.
The peacetime naturalization statute applies to anyone on active duty, and anyone in any reserve component, including the National Guard. This is important because Reserve and National Guard members who have difficulty showing that they have served on active duty or in the Selected Reserve during wartime are among the service members who still use this statute. The reason for this is that in 2002, President George W. Bush issued an executive order invoking the wartime naturalization statute, which has much less stringent requirements, and that statute is still in effect today. Therefore, while INA 328 is only used in select cases today, it is still the baseline statute, and when that executive order is rescinded, the peacetime statute will be the main path towards citizenship in the military.
Wartime Naturalization (INA 329)
The wartime naturalization statute has been in effect by way of statute or executive order for most major conflicts since World War I. Most of these conflicts have only lasted a few years, notwithstanding the Vietnam War. However, the current executive order has been in place since July 3, 2002, and it applies retroactively to all military personnel who have had one day of active duty or Selected Reserve service after September 11, 2001. For most non-citizens who are serving now, this is the statute to look to.
There are several obvious benefits to the wartime statute. First of all, you do not need LPR status to apply. In fact, your immigration status does not matter at all when you apply. In addition, there is no requirement in terms of length of time in service, as long as you have one day of documented active duty or Selected Reserve service (including a day of National Guard service) during a specific “wartime” period. All of this makes for an expedited and what is supposed to be a more lenient pathway to citizenship.
But despite this leniency, this is still the military. And along with that come a whole lot of requirements:
- The first is that this statute only applies to certain designated periods of time. Therefore, one will have had to serve at least one day of active duty or Selected Reserve service during that period covered by the executive order in order to qualify.
- Though you don’t have to have LPR status, if you don’t, you will have to enlist or re-enlist while you’re physically in the U.S. There is an exception here with people from certain Pacific Island countries, who are allowed to enlist based on a treaty. The workaround is that once they’re brought to the U.S. to report for basic training, they must re-enlist on American soil. The military has so much red tape, it has to get around its own red tape.
- You have to show good moral character for one year before filing an application. So, if you’ve got an Article 15 for something bad, you will need to wait a year after your Article 15 before applying.
- Although you are not required to have LPR status when enlisting, undocumented immigrants technically cannot enlist in the Armed Forces today and therefore, cannot take advantage of the statute. However, there are past cases of a few undocumented immigrants who used false documentation to enlist, and were granted citizenship anyway. A famous case involved an Army soldier named Juan Escalante who, despite using a false document to enlist, spent years serving honorably, and was permitted to naturalize under the wartime statute. If you have a similar situation, be sure to see a lawyer before you try to apply; you are going to need a good one. Obviously you can potentially face a bad discharge and possible deportation if you’ve been using fake documents.
- Unlike the peacetime statute, INA 329 requires active-duty service, or service in the Selected Reserve of the Ready Reserve. The Selected Reserve includes reserve units that are deemed essential to the military and they include most National Guard and Reserve units that hold regular drills. You’ll know if you are in the Selected Reserve because you will have a Common Access Card (CAC) and will be getting paid to drill.
Many service members have found the wartime naturalization statute to be a helpful path towards naturalization because it eliminates barriers to entry. For example, people without green cards are not eligible to apply for citizenship as civilians. However, if they serve in the military during wartime, INA 329 will allow them to apply.
No matter what type of statute is used to apply for citizenship, one thing that is of utmost importance in any application is whether you served honorably. If the person applying is still serving, then an officer of grade O-6 or higher will have to certify, with the use of a complicated form, that your service so far has been honorable. If the service member has been discharged, then USCIS (US Citizenship and Immigration Services) will look at your discharge papers. The possible discharges can be described in six levels and only the top two are accepted in processing a military naturalization application – “honorable” or “under honorable conditions.”
If DHS is Trying to Deport You, These Statutes Can Help
If you are a civilian, and DHS has decided to try to remove you from the country, there’s normally no way to naturalize. However, both military statutes remove that barrier, allowing for current military personnel or veterans to naturalize even if removal proceedings have begun. Navy Sailor Karla Rivera found this particularly helpful when she had neglected to file the proper immigration paperwork in time to keep her green card. Through the wartime naturalization statute, despite the fact that DHS had begun the process for her removal, she was able to naturalize as a U.S. citizen, at which time an immigration judge stopped removal proceedings. She was saved by the statute.
Because of this leeway and the favorable consideration given to those who have served in the military, ICE (Immigrations and Customs Enforcement) will often look to any military background when considering putting anyone into removal proceedings. In fact, many times they will go so far as to check if a person is eligible to naturalize under these statutes (whether they’ve applied or not) before moving forward. ICE will not normally proceed if the person is eligible to naturalize. There has even been a mandate from the director of ICE stating that any current or former military member’s case should be considered with particular care.
How Avoiding Military Service Can Hurt Your Naturalization
There are lots of penalties for abandoning your post or deserting your squad, not the least of which is the inability to be naturalized as a U.S. citizen. A different statute, INA 314, states that any non-citizen who deserted or left the U.S. to avoid a draft, is no longer eligible to be a U.S. citizen. However, this doesn’t apply to anyone who was convicted but never charged with desertion, or anyone merely charged with going AWOL.
This bar to obtaining citizenship also applies to anyone who requests an “alienage” exemption from duty. This is a convoluted way of saying that you can be denied citizenship if you ask to be discharged on the grounds that you are a citizen of another country. During the Vietnam War, for example, there were immigrants who were drafted who said “Hey, I don’t want to serve, I’m not an American” and they asked to be exempted from the draft—but this made them ineligible for US citizenship. You can also be denied citizenship if you claim to be a conscientious objector and refuse to serve for that reason. Remember that those seeking US citizenship must be willing to bear arms for America. The “alienage bar” to citizenship is interesting because it does not apply unless the military member is voluntarily looking to be discharged for this reason. So, even if a Soldier is found to have produced false documents in order to join the military and is removed from service, this does not bar him from naturalization if he didn’t ask to be discharged. If he wanted to serve, he can naturalize. This is exactly what happened to Lennox Watson, a Guyanese citizen who was eligible to naturalize even after being kicked out of the National Guard when they found his green card to be fake.
There are, however, a few ways around these bars to naturalization. For deserters, if you were never charged with desertion because you were administratively discharged instead of being court-martialed, you may still pursue citizenship as a civilian. And for the “alienage” bar, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that even people who voluntarily leave the military citing alienage could still apply as civilians as long as they were not aware of the consequences of asking for an alienage discharge from the military.
What’s the Procedure?
Now that we know who is and isn’t eligible, as well as which statutes work for whom, let’s get into what it’s actually like applying for naturalization through the military. For peacetime naturalization (INA 328), you’ll have to wait a year into your service and have LPR status before starting your application. However, if you’re applying through wartime naturalization (INA 329), which you would be if you are applying now, all you need is one day of active duty or Selected Reserve service before you can start your application—if you find an O-6 to certify that you are serving. So, as soon as basic training, you might be able to get things moving. And starting last year, you can now apply online if you have access to a computer. Military applications were previously all done by mail.
After filing, the next step is to get your biometrics done. This means going to an ASC (Application Support Center) and letting them put your fingerprints into the system. Applicants should bring military ID, because the fingerprinting will be free of charge. People serving outside the country who aren’t able to get to an ASC may petition the Department of Homeland Security to use their enlistment fingerprints. But this could take a while, so it might be easier to get your fingerprints taken at a U.S. military installation, an embassy, or a consulate.
Now, it wouldn’t be the military without some forms, so apologies for getting into the nitty gritty. This part may only be of interest to those who are planning to apply. If not, feel free to skip over the bullet points.
Here are the documents you will have to include in your application:
- Form N-400, and be sure to specify in a cover letter whether you are applying under INA 328 or INA 329.
- Form N-426 verifies dates of military and honorable service. This must be certified by an O-6 unless you’ve been discharged, and if you’ve been discharged, send the uncertified form with your Form DD-214 or NGB Form 22 or other proof of an honorable type of discharge.
- Other documents that prove your military status, such as a copy of your enlistment contract, your military ID, and your retirement points statement or Leave and Earnings statements to show when you served and where you enlisted.
- Your foreign birth certificate and (if applicable) marriage certificate and birth certificates for any children.
- Any other documents required by the Form N400 instructions, such as proof of payment of any traffic tickets over $500.
Naturalization beginning in boot camp used to be common during wartime, and was also previously common in the post-9/11 period. Basic training naturalization saved the Government a lot of money, and DHS was quite proud of its Naturalization at Basic Training Initiative, which allowed military members to become U.S. citizens on the same day they graduated boot camp. This program unfortunately ended in 2018. However, and although this specific program may be gone, one can still apply and may even be able to become a U.S. citizen before graduating from basic training if one can figure out a way to get that O-6 signature and file the application.
Naturalization of Veterans
Unlike active military members, veterans have often had a hard time getting through the naturalization process. One of the major hang-ups was getting someone to certify the pesky Form N-426. Now, however, veterans may submit an uncertified Form N-426 along with a DD-214, which validates their honorable active duty service. If people applying do not have that form, they can get it online at eVetRecs or at a local Veterans Administration office. Reserve Component members who don’t have a DD-214 can use alternative evidence such as a NGB-22 form or discharge orders from the Reserve. Of course, naturalization is contingent on the fact that they were discharged honorably or “under honorable conditions.”
Posthumous Naturalization (INA 329A)
It may be surprising to learn that you can be naturalized as a U.S. citizen even after you’ve passed away. The same executive order signed by President Bush in 2002 that activated the wartime naturalization statute also allowed posthumous citizenship, as long as a military member dies “as a result of injury or disease incurred in or aggravated by” military service.
You may be asking yourself, what’s the point? Well, if you’re a non-citizen who is related to a deceased military member, you might be looking to get a green card or be naturalized yourself, despite the tragic death of your loved one. Therefore, this law is extremely helpful for families of the deceased who plan to go through the application process but would ordinarily need the military member to be their sponsor.
What’s the Hold-Up?
USCIS tends to process naturalization cases relatively quickly, with a turnaround time of about six months in many cases. However, certain circumstances can cause it to take a bit longer. Here are some reasons more time may be needed for processing military cases, and, in certain cases, why a military naturalization application may end up being denied:
- The person applying is member of an auxiliary organization (e.g., the Civil Air Patrol or a civilian defense contractor) and not the U.S. Armed Forces. Therefore, the person is not eligible for military naturalization.
- The person has applied for wartime naturalization but served during a time when INA 329 was not in effect, or had no “active duty” or “Selected Reserve” service and doesn’t have a green card.
- Background checks have not been completed. These can get held up for any number of reasons, including having open DOD investigative files.
- The person submitted an uncertified N-426 without a Form DD-214 to confirm active military service.
- Fingerprints have not been completed.
- USCIS will sometimes send a Request for Evidence that will need to be completed before the application can continue.
- The person moved and didn’t tell USCIS. There can also be a delay if the person moved and told USCIS, but the move was to a place where there’s no USCIS office.
- The person is deployed overseas and USCIS has been unable to coordinate with the DOD to arrange for an overseas interview and naturalization ceremony.
As you can see, there can be many reasons an application is taking longer than it should. If you are playing the waiting game, we’ll include some resources below where you can check on the status of your application.
Appeals of Denials
For any military members who have gone through the military naturalization process and believe the application was wrongly denied, there is something you can do. Form N-336 will help you request a hearing on a naturalization decision. This form can be filed online or by mail and there’s no filing fee for military members. Many military members have been denied naturalization initially but have overcome the denial by filing this form.
For years, the military naturalization statutes have provided and continue to provide an excellent path towards citizenship for those serving the United States Armed Forces. Though the ins and outs of the various statutes and their rules may be a bit complicated, the opportunity to apply for naturalization is nevertheless a key benefit of the military for non-citizens who choose to serve.
To check the status of a military naturalization application, send an email to:
And be sure to include the alien number of the service member.
Margaret D. Stock is an immigration attorney and retired lieutenant colonel who served the United States Army Reserve
Made possible with support from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.