The History and Process of Taking the US Citizenship Test

The History & Process of Taking the U.S. Citizenship Test

Connor Bostek, December 2016

“In 1887, in a series of public lectures, economist Edward Bemis proposed adopting a literacy test as a means to filter out idle, vicious, and other undesirable aliens in order to block the entry of immigrants illiterate in their own native language. The literacy test, introduced by anti-immigrant groups to exclude southern and eastern Europeans in a “respectable” way, aimed at reducing the immigration rate of these immigrants by 50%” [1].

The citizenship test is one of the most important and difficult part of the whole naturalization process and becoming an American citizen. This test is one of the most well-known parts of the naturalization process, even for people who are already citizens. It is talked about in the news and other sorts of social media. It is brought up because certain people think it should be looked over and revised. “It is the door to becoming a citizen because it all depends on this test. The first creation of a formal set of 100 test questions was in 1986” [2]. The most recent revision of the test was in 2008. The people taking this test prepare for it for months on months, maybe even years because they know they need to pass the test first in order to become a citizen. “The citizenship test emphasizes the founding principles of American democracy as well as the rights and responsibilities of U.S. citizenship” [3]. There shouldn’t be any “two-answer questions” where questions have two correct answers. They need to be straight up and in detail for the questions so the people taking it know what they are being asked. This can be the most important thing for a person who has been working years for this test so they want no confusion and to have straight forward questions. There aren’t much classes or groups where people who need to take the test can go to try and learn more about the United States so they have a better chance on passing and becoming a citizen. Every year there is an average of around one million people that become a citizen and get naturalized so it is important for there to be help for the people who take the test. There are barely, if any, classes at colleges or high schools that teach you about the citizenship test or help you take it if you need to become a citizen.

“For roughly 100 years, naturalization, like many other government processes, was administered on the local level with little federal oversight. The process was handled in local courts, and judges were the ultimate arbiters. Some judges, appointees of political machines, transformed hundreds of petitioners into newly minted Americans in a single day” [4].

Before 1802, a requirement for the naturalization process was that you had to be a resident of the U.S. for fourteen years but in April of 1802, it was reduced down to five years of being a resident.

“In addition, the new law required that prospective citizens give three years’ notice of intent to renounce previous citizenship, swear or affirm support of the Constitution, renounce all titles of nobility, and demonstrate themselves to be of “good moral character.” The Naturalization Act was supplemented on March 26, 1804, by exempting aliens who had entered the United States between 1798 and 1802 from the declaration of intention. The three year notice was reduced to two years on May 26, 1824” [5].

The USCIS, which is the United States Citizenship & Immigration Services, is the agency that is in the Department of Homeland Security and is responsible for providing useful information and services for immigrants and foreign tourists, like beginning the naturalization process. The process of becoming a citizen is very long and before you can even take the citizenship test you have to qualify to take it. First, you have to be 18 years or older. For green card holders they have to be a permanent resident for at least five years. For green card holders who are married to a U.S. citizen, they have to be a permanent resident for at least three years, have been living together and can also prove that the spouse is a U.S. citizen too. Then they have to fill out and send in an application for naturalization called the “Form N-400”. With the Form N-400, there has to be pictures (passport if available), certain documents and a certain fee amount too. After that is sent in, the government requires the person to go in and get fingerprinted for the purpose of conducting FBI criminal background checks. All applicants must have background checks completed before USCIS will schedule an interview. If the person is 75 years old or older at the time of filing, they are not required to get fingerprints, but are subject to all other background checks. Once those are complete, USCIS will schedule an interview with the person to complete the naturalization process. If they miss their interview, rescheduling an interview may add several months to the naturalization process. At the interview is where they will take the citizenship test. If the person fails the test then the USCIS will schedule them to come back for another interview within 90 days and they will only retest the person on the part they failed. If failed again the USCIS will deny the Form N-400. If it is passed they’ll be a decision from USCIS on the Form N-400, application for naturalization and then the person will receive a notice to take the “Oath of Allegiance” and will participate in the oath ceremony, most likely on the same day. The person isn’t a citizen until they take the “Oath of Allegiance” at a naturalization ceremony. Right after taking the oath they receive their “Certificate of Naturalization”.

“The general requirements for all people trying to apply for the naturalization process are that they have had to live within the state for at least 3 months prior to filing for the application, the person has demonstrated physical presence within the U.S., continuous residence in the U.S., is able to read, write, and speak English, to have knowledge and understanding of U.S. history and government, to be a person of good moral character, attached to the principles of the Constitution of the United States, and well-disposed to the good order and happiness of the United States during all relevant periods under the law” [6]. The citizenship test is mandatory but there are some exceptions for some people trying to take it. Even for an average person it is hard to learn a different and new language, as you get older it gets even that much harder so there are some exceptions to becoming a citizen for people older in age. One exception, or exemption you could say, “If you are age 50 or older and have lived in the U.S. as a green card holder (permanent resident) for at least 20 years, you can have the citizenship interview conducted in your native language. This is commonly referred to as the “50/20” waiver. These 20 years of permanent residence do not need to have been continuous. If you have been outside the U.S. for short periods of time (fewer than six months at a stretch, to be safe), that is okay, so long as all your time living in the U.S. totals 20 years” [7]. There is another exception that is similar but different, if the person is 55 or older and has been living in the United States permanently for 15 years, they are also allowed to take the citizenship test and interview in their native-born language. For those 65 or older, who are green card holders and have been living in the United States for at least 20 years have the option to take an easier part of the history and government test. No one is allowed to skip it entirely, some are just allowed to get an easier version depending on their age and amount of years they have been living in the United States.

“Each year, tens of thousands of would-be American citizens set out to conquer the U.S. citizenship test. To do so, they must be prepared to answer 10 fact-oriented questions about American government, history, and geography selected by a naturalization examiner from a master list of 100. A score of six correct answers earns citizenship” [8].

“Native-born citizens fared best on questions related to history and geography and struggled most with questions about the function of government, specifically on questions about the Constitution and those that asked to identify current policy-makers. Other parts of the study show respondents were overwhelmingly confused about powers granted to the federal government and those granted to individual states” [9].


2. J. Schneider, (n.d.). Memory Test: A History of U.S. Citizenship Education (2002) and … Retrieved October 27, 2016, from
3. USCIS Citizenship Education: Resources and Initiatives. (2016, August 5). Retrieved October 27, 2016, from
4. Ibid
5. Naturalization Act (United States) (1802). (n.d.). Retrieved October 26, 2016, from
6. 10 Steps to Naturalization – (n.d.). Retrieved October 31, 2016, from
7. Bray, J. B. (n.d.). Age-Related Exceptions to the U.S. Citizenship (Naturalization) Exam Requirements | Retrieved October 27, 2016, from
8. Ibid
9. Greene, B. (2012, April 30). “Study: One in Three Americans Fails Naturalization Civics Test”. Retrieved October 26, 2016, from

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