Before immigrants to the United States seeking citizenship can take the Oath of U.S. Citizenship and begin enjoying the benefits of citizenship, they must pass a naturalization test administered by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), formerly known as the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). The test consists of two parts: the civics test and the English language test.
In these tests, applicants for citizenship are, with certain exemptions for age and physical impairment, expected to demonstrate that they can read, write, and speak words in ordinary daily usage in the English language, and that they have a basic knowledge and understanding of U.S. history, government and tradition.
The Civics Test
For most applicants, the most difficult part of the naturalization test is the civics test, which assesses the applicant's knowledge of basic U.S. government and history. In the civics portion of the test, applicants are asked up to 10 questions on American government, history and "integrated civics," like geography, symbolism and holidays. The 10 question are randomly selected from a list of 100 questions prepared by the USCIS.
While there may be more than one acceptable answer to many of the 100 questions, the civics test is not a multiple choice test. The civics test is an oral test, administered during the naturalization application interview.
In order to pass the civics portion of the test, applicants must correctly answer at least six (6) of the 10 randomly selected questions.
In October 2008, the USCIS replaced the old set of 100 civics test questions used since its old INS days, with a new set of questions in an attempt to improve the percentage of applicants passing the test.
The English Language Test
The English language test has three parts: speaking, reading and writing.
The applicant's ability to speak English is evaluated by a USCIS official in a one-on-one interview during which the applicant completes the Application for Naturalization, Form N-400. During the test, the applicant will be required to understand and respond to directions and questions spoken by the USCIS official.
In the reading portion of the test, the applicant must read one out of three sentences correctly in order to pass. In the writing test, the applicant must write one out of three sentences correctly.
Passing or Failing and Trying Again
Applicants are given two chances to take the English and civics tests. Applicants who fail any part of the test during their first interview will be retested on only the part of the test they failed within from 60 to 90 days. While applicants who fail the retest are denied naturalization, they retain their status as Lawful Permanent Residents. Should they still wish to pursue U.S. citizenship, they must reapply for naturalization and repay all associated fees.
The current (2012) application fee for U.S. naturalization is $680, including an $85 "biometric" fee for fingerprinting and identification services.
Test Exemptions and Accommodations
Because of their age and time as legal permanent U.S. residents, some applicants are exempt from the English requirement of the test for naturalization and may be allowed to take the civics test in the language of their choice. In addition, seniors who have certain medical conditions can apply for waivers to the naturalization test.
- Applicants age 50 or older when they filed for naturalization and have lived as a lawful permanent resident (green card holder) in the United States for 20 years are exempt from the English language requirement.
- Applicants age 55 or older when they filed for naturalization and have lived as a lawful permanent resident (green card holder) in the United States for 15 years are exempt from the English language requirement.
- While they may be exempt from the English language requirement, all senior applicants are required to take the civics test, but may be allowed to take it in their native language.
How Many Pass?
According to the USCIS, more than 1,980,000 naturalization tests were administered nationwide from October 1, 2009 through June 30, 2012. USCIS reported that as of June 2012, the overall nationwide pass rate for all applicants taking both the English and civics tests was 92%.
In 2008, the USCIS redesigned the naturalization test. The goal of the redesign was to improve overall pass rates by providing a more uniform and consistent testing experience while effectively assessing the applicant's knowledge of U.S. history and government.
Data from the USCIS report Study on Pass/Fail Rates for Naturalization Applicants, indicates that the pass rate for applicants taking the new test is "significantly higher" than the pass rate for applicants taking the old test.
According to the report, the average annual pass rate for the overall naturalization test has improved from 87.1% in 2004 to 95.8% in 2010. The average annual pass rate for the English language test improved from 90.0% in 2004 to 97.0% in 2010, while the pass rate for the civics test improved from 94.2% to 97.5%.
How Long Does it Take?
USCIS reports that as of June 2012, the average total processing time for an application for U.S. naturalization was 4.8 months. If that seems like a long time, consider that in 2008, processing times averaged 10-12 months and have been as long as 16-18 months in the past.