US citizenship v residency
As either a permanent resident or fully fledged citizen of the United States, you have made a decision to call America your home, and to respect and obey its laws, but there are some key differences between the rights and responsibilities of a US citizen and those with US residency.
What is US citizenship?
US citizenship is where you accept all of the responsibilities of being an American, in return for certain rights and privileges. The rights of all US citizens include:
- the freedom to express yourself
- the freedom to worship as you wish
- the right to a prompt and fair trial by jury
- the right to vote in all federal, state and local elections for public officials
- the right to undertake federal employment requiring US citizenship
- the right to run for elected office
When it comes your responsibilities as a US citizen, while some are legally required of every citizen, all are regarded by US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) as important to ensure America’s continued vitality and its democracy. USCIS is the government agency that oversees lawful immigration to the United States, including the grant of citizenship.
The responsibilities of all US citizens include:
- supporting and defending the US Constitution
- participating in the US democratic process
- respecting and obeying US federal, state and local laws
- respecting the rights, beliefs and opinions of others
- staying informed of issues affecting your community
- participating in your local community
- paying taxes honestly, and on time, to federal, state and local authorities
- serving on a jury when called upon
- serving the country as needed.
All citizens — including Americans by birth and by choice — are required to exercise, honour and respect these rights and responsibilities when it comes to US citizenship.
What is US residency?
US residency, also known as permanent resident status or immigrant status, means that you have certain rights and responsibilities over and above those that you would have as a nonimmigrant. This includes the right to live and work in the US on a permanent basis, provided you maintain your permanent residency status, as well as the right to apply to become a US citizen once you meet all of the qualifying citizenship requirements.
On the grant of immigrant status, permanent residents are issued with a valid Permanent Resident Card (or green card) as proof of their legal status in the United States. Your green card will show that you are allowed to permanently live and work in the US. You can also use your green card to re-enter the United States after travelling abroad.
As a US permanent resident, you have the right to:
- live permanently anywhere within the United States
- work in the United States
- own property in the United States
- attend public school in the United States
- apply for a driver’s licence in your US state or territory
- receive Social Security, Supplemental Security Income and Medicare benefits, if eligible
- join certain branches of the US armed forces
- request a visa for your spouse and unmarried children under 21 to live with you in the US
- leave and return to the United States under certain conditions
- apply to become a US citizen, once you are eligible.
However, to be able to enjoy the rights that come with permanent residency, you must:
- obey all federal, state and local laws
- pay federal, state and local income taxes
- register with the Selective Service (US armed forces), if you are a male aged 18-26
- maintain your lawful immigrant status
- carry proof of your status at all times if you are over 18, showing your green card to an immigration officer or law enforcement officer if asked for it
- change your address online or notify USCIS in writing within 10 days of moving.
How do US citizenship and residency differ?
Permanent residents share most of the rights of US citizens, although there are many important reasons to consider becoming a US citizen, not least avoiding the risk of losing your legal status, where a US citizen’s right to remain in the US cannot be taken away.
Other rights exclusive to US citizens, whether Americans by birth or by choice, include:
- voting: only US citizens are allowed to vote in federal elections and, in most states, only US citizens are allowed to vote in state and local elections
- serving on a jury: only US citizens can serve on a federal jury and, in most states, only US citizens are allowed to serve on a jury in a state court (where serving on a jury is also an important responsibility for US citizens)
- travelling with a US passport: a US passport enables US citizens to get assistance from the US government when overseas, if necessary
- bringing family members to the United States: generally, US citizens get priority when petitioning to bring family members permanently to America
- obtaining citizenship for children born overseas: in most cases, a child born overseas to a US citizen will be a US citizen automatically
- becoming eligible for federal jobs: certain job roles with government agencies require US citizenship
- becoming an elected official: only US citizens can run for federal office, and for most state and local offices
- becoming eligible for federal grants and/or scholarships: many financial aid grants, including college scholarships and funds given by the US government for specific purposes, are available only to US citizens
- obtaining government benefits: some benefits are available only to US citizens.
US citizenship v residency: differences in responsibilities
Again, permanent residents share many of the same responsibilities as US citizens although, to become a US citizen, you must be willing to swear your loyalty to the United States, give up your allegiance to any other country (unless you qualify under the rules for dual citizenship), and to support and defend the United States and its Constitution.
When you become a US citizen, you will be required to pledge an Oath of Allegiance. This oath includes renouncing “allegiance and fidelity” to any foreign state. The oath also requires you to promise to “support and defend the US Constitution and laws of the USA against all enemies” and to “bear arms on behalf of the US when required by the law”.
However, in return for your commitment as a US citizen, you will benefit from all the additional rights and privileges as set out above. In particular, you will not be at risk of losing your right to remain in the US. As a permanent resident, rather than a US citizen, you will be required to maintain your lawful immigrant status. This essentially means that you may be at risk of losing that status in a number of scenarios, including if you spend extended periods of time outside of the United States. In contrast, as a US citizen, you will be free to leave and re-enter the US whenever you like.
Some immigrants incorrectly believe that they can live overseas and retain their permanent resident status, provided they return to the United States at least once a year, but this assumption is incorrect. Travel to the US once a year may not be sufficient to maintain your immigrant status. Permanent residents may travel outside the United States, and temporary or brief travel will not usually affect your permanent residency. However, if you leave the country for too long, or indicate in another way that you do not intend to make America your permanent home, USCIS may determine that you have abandoned your status.
Other scenarios in which you may be at risk of losing your immigrant status include engaging in criminal activity, lying or presenting fake documents to get public benefits or defraud a government agency, failing to file your tax returns when required, or even if you are an habitual drunkard or regularly use illegal drugs — and this list is not exhaustive.
How do become a US citizen?
The most common way to obtain US citizenship is to apply to naturalize. Naturalization is the process to voluntarily become a US citizen if you were born outside the United States.
In general, you can apply for naturalization once you meet the following requirements:
- continuous residence: where you have lived in the US as a permanent resident for a specific amount of time (most people must be permanent residents in continuous residence for 5 years, or 3 years if married to a US citizen, before applying to naturalize)
- physical presence: show that you have been physically present in the US for specific time periods (in most cases, you must have been physically present in the US for at least 30 months in the last 5 years, or 18 months in the last 3 years if married to a US citizen)
time in a US state or USCIS district: show that you have lived in your US state or USCIS district for a specific amount of time (typically for at least 3 months)
- good moral character: show that you have behaved in a legal and acceptable manner
know basic English, plus information about US history and government: where you must pass an English and civics test (unless an exemption or disability exception applies)
- have an attachment to the US Constitution: where you must be willing to support and defend the United States and its laws.
Even if you meet the various requirements to naturalize as a US citizen, the naturalization process involves several steps. These include submitting an online form with USCIS, enrolling your biometric information, attending an interview (where you will be required to take your English and civics test) and, provided your application is approved, attending a citizenship ceremony where you will pledge your Oath of Allegiance. It is only once all these steps are completed that you will be given your certificate of naturalization.
How do you become a US resident?
There are various ways in which you can obtain permanent residency, both from overseas or when applying to adjust existing nonimmigrant status from within the United States. However, the highest number of green cards are issued annually to family members of US citizens, followed by foreign workers seeking permanent employment in the United States.
The family-based immigrant route is where you are applying for a green card on the basis of an immediate or close relationship with a US citizen or lawful permanent resident living in the United States who is prepared to file a petition on your behalf to sponsor you. The employment route also covers a number of different subcategories based, in most cases, on being sponsored by a US employer on the basis of your profession or skilled job role.
As with obtaining US citizenship, the permanent residency process can be complex and drawn out. It will also typically require you, or your US sponsor, to first file a petition with USCIS, before applying for your green card. Seeking expert advice from an immigration specialist is strongly advised prior to applying for permanent residency, to explore your available options and eligibility for a green card. Your advisor can also talk you through the benefits and drawbacks of US citizenship v residency, in the event that applying to naturalize as a US citizen is something that you may consider if granted a green card.
How do you decide between green card v citizenship?
There are various benefits and drawbacks when it comes to any green card v citizenship dilemma, where you may be content to remain a lawful permanent resident indefinitely.
However, with few exceptions, foreign nationals must start with a green card before obtaining US citizenship, as most paths to citizenship require permanent residency first. This means that becoming a permanent resident will provide you with the time needed to get involved in your local community and to learn about American culture, as well as the way in which the US government works and the key historical events that have shaped the United States. In this way, once you become eligible to apply to naturalize as a US citizen, careful consideration can be given to what this means for you and your family at that stage.
NNU Immigration are recognized specialists in US citizenship, nationality and visa applications. For expert guidance from our US attorneys, contact us.
US citizenship v residency FAQs
What is difference between green card and citizenship?
There are various differences between holding a green card and the grant of citizenship in the United States, not least the fact that a US citizen’s right to remain in the US cannot usually be taken away.
Do all green card holders get citizenship?
Not all green card holders get US citizenship, where they must apply to naturalize as a US citizen after meeting a continuous residence requirement. This also involves an online application, an interview and passing an English and civics test.
Is it better to be a permanent resident or citizen?
There are benefits and drawbacks both to being a permanent resident or citizen in the United States, although citizens will not be at risk of losing their right to re-enter the US if they spend extended periods of time overseas.
What are the disadvantages of having a green card?
When it comes to the green card v citizenship debate, and which is better or worse, the main disadvantage of having a green card is that the US Government can take away your permanent resident status under certain conditions.
This article does not constitute direct legal advice and is for informational purposes only.