It is often assumed that once a foreign national obtains lawful permanent residence (a “green card”) in the United States, acquiring U.S. citizenship is simply a matter of waiting a period of five years. What many naturalization applicants may not realize is that eligibility for naturalization entails much more than residing in the U.S. as a green card holder for five years. This article will address some of common issues arising in naturalization applications that are nonetheless overlooked by many applicants.

Good moral character — what is it?

Did you know that individuals applying to naturalize must establish to the satisfaction of the U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services that they possess “good moral character?” Although good moral character is not explicitly defined in immigration law, the statute makes clear what kinds of individuals cannot establish good moral character: habitual drunkards; prostitutes; drug traffickers; individuals who have been convicted of an aggravated felony; individuals who have provided false testimony for the purpose of obtaining an immigration benefit; individuals who have made a false statement or claim of citizenship; and non-U.S. citizens who have registered to vote, or who have voted in an election.

Moreover, the determination whether an individual is a person of good moral character for purposes of naturalization is not only limited to whether or not that individual has avoided certain disqualifying behaviors, such as those outlined above. Rather, the USCIS’ finding of good moral character (or lack thereof) is also a discretionary determination. As such, the inquiry into whether someone possesses good moral character can be far-reaching in naturalization examinations.

For instance, the USCIS has found that as regards to male applicants who have children to whom they have not provided financial support, this leads to a finding of lack of good moral character. As another example, if an applicant for naturalization has committed adultery, this can also be a bar to naturalization, if the adultery tended to destroy a marriage.

Males applying for naturalization should also be aware of the requirement to register with Selective Service. Men who lived in the United States between the ages of 18 and 26 are required to register with Selective Service. Failure to register with Selective Service — if knowing and willful — can lead to a denial of naturalization based on failure to show good moral character.

How long may the USCIS inquire into good moral character?

In general an applicant must establish that he or she is a person of good moral character during the five-year statutory period (or three-year period, if applying as the spouse of a U.S. citizen or one-year period if applying under the provisions for military naturalization) preceding the filing of the naturalization application.

However, the USCIS is entitled to look beyond the requisite period, and may inquire into time periods beyond this scope. For instance, if an applicant was convicted of a criminal offense 10 years before applying for naturalization, the USCIS will take this conviction into consideration when adjudicating the naturalization application.

However, the USCIS may not use this conviction as the sole basis to deny an application, unless it can be tied into current conduct.

Consequences of a finding of lack of good moral character — how bad can it get?

Let’s say an applicant for naturalization has been found to lack good moral character, and the USCIS denies the naturalization application. Is this the worst case scenario? What many applicants may not realize is that when an application for naturalization has been filed, that individual is not merely applying in the hopes to become a U.S. citizen, but they are “opening themselves up” to an investigation by the USCIS into their immigration history. If during the examination of the naturalization application, the USCIS discovers that an applicant has committed an act which renders them deportable, then the USCIS may seek to remove or deport that individual.

For instance, if a person was granted permanent residence, but subsequent to obtaining their green card, they commit or are convicted of a crime which makes them removable, applying for naturalization may jeopardize that individual’s permanent resident status. Similarly, a permanent resident whose alien registration card (green card) is expiring would be well-advised to consult with an immigration attorney before filing an application to renew their permanent resident card.

As can be seen from the above, applying for naturalization is not always a straightforward process. Because the concept of good moral character is not specifically defined in the immigration statute or regulations, it can therefore be open to interpretation. It is always advisable to seek the advice of an experienced immigration attorney if you have any questions regarding your naturalization application.


Tsui H. Yee is a partner at The Guerrero Law Firm. She is a Co-Chair of the Immigration and Nationality Committee of the Asian American Bar Association of the City of New York. She is also the Vice Chair of the Solo and Small Firm Practice Committee of the New York County Lawyers Association. Tsui is an active member of many bar associations, including the American Immigration Lawyers Association and the Korean American Lawyers Association of Greater New York. She has successfully represented numerous individuals and companies in complex immigration matters.

Tsui can be reached directly at (212) 481-2744 or This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . The above information is not, nor is it intended to be, legal advice. Nothing within this publication creates an attorney-client relationship with the reader. Applicability of the legal principles discussed above differs upon individual facts and circumstances.

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