Explainer: Why It Costs Immigrants $680 to Apply for Naturalization

Critics argue that the fee is too high, discouraging green card-holders from becoming full-fledged citizens

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Keith Bedford / REUTERS

A woman stands on the steps of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services offices in New York, August 15, 2012.

Immigration reform is a numbers game. And one of those numbers is $680—the price of applying for naturalization, the process that turns green card-holders into citizens. Politicians like Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel are decrying that number, saying the cost is too high. Non-profits, encouraging the country’s 8.5 million permanent residents to go down that path, are subsidizing that fee. So where does that total come from, and where does the money go?

The money goes into the coffers of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, a part of the Department of Homeland Security that oversees lawful immigration to the U.S. The total of $680 comes from a $595 application fee and a $85 “biometric fee” that is funneled toward background-check costs like fingerprinting. Applicants have to pay the $680 regardless of whether their application is successful—and sometimes it isn’t. In April, about 65,000 immigrants swore their oaths after being approved by the USCIS, while about 8,000 applications were denied.

The fee is both a practical and political issue. Practically, while many government agencies get cash through appropriations of taxpayer funds, the USCIS is primarily a “fee-based” agency. Today, a DHS official says, more than 90% of USCIS operating costs are covered by fees, so an immigrant paying the $680 can expect that moola to be spent on things like the salary of the employee adjudicating their case or the computer software that employee is using to crunch numbers. Fees like this also include a surcharge to help cover services that the USCIS provides for free, like naturalizing members of the military.

Politically, those who oppose fee hikes typically say that the cost discourages legal immigrants from becoming full-fledged citizens. In a 2012 Pew survey, Latino permanent residents who had not yet applied for naturalization were asked why. The top reason, cited by 26%, was difficulty with the English language (there’s a test) and other personal barriers; financial and administrative barriers came in third, at 18%. Those who support higher fees are likely to argue that American citizens shouldn’t be footing the bill for processing immigrants’ applications. The USCIS says they simply need that money to run the shop. “We’re not in the business of making a profit,” says USCIS Press Secretary Chris Bentley. “We’re certainly not in the business of losing money either. We’re in the business of breaking even.”

The USCIS is supposed to do a fee study every two years and propose fee levels proportional to the costs they’re incurring; those fees then get set through federal rulemaking. In 1997, the fee for a naturalization application was $95, less than 15% of what it is today. The most recent jump came in 2007, when the USCIS proposed increasing the naturalization application fee about 85%, from $320 to the current rate. “We must be able to recover the costs necessary to administer an efficient and secure immigration system,” then-USCIS Director Emilio Gonzalez said at the time. One promise the USCIS made in 2007 was that with additional money, the average time it takes to process an application would drop from seven months to five months; today, the average turnaround time is just under six.

Groups like the New Americans Campaign are pushing for naturalization, arguing that it’s good for the people—as citizens, they are more likely to have higher incomes and become homeowners—and the economy, which benefits from the extra money those immigrants will spend. Though the NAC doesn’t pay fees, they do donate legal counsel so that poor green card-holders can apply for waivers. Eric Cohen, who helps run the campaign, says those waivers are easy to get if the applicant is clearly in poverty. “We realize that when fees stay the same, when they go up … that has an impact on people’s lives,” USCIS’s Bentley says. “We don’t want the fee to be a hindrance.”

84 comments
czafiro
czafiro

I just recently found out from a relative how much she paid to get US citizenship.  $680!  That's way too high!  I remember getting mine back in 1992 and only paid about $60!

BalutParadise
BalutParadise

Who cares if the fees are $6000? 


If you can't afford it, it is free anyway.

aussiebach
aussiebach

I have a green card and pay taxes but cannot afford to become a citizen. Taxation without representation is alive and well thanks to Mr. Obama.

simonaco
simonaco

To me, the fact that the government agency processing citizenship (and permanent residency) applications has to fund itself from fees and does not get money from the, well, government, to operate is proof of an anti-immigrant attitude. The fees for permanent residency are more than twice as high as those for citizenship and the vast majority of people getting it have been taxpayers for many years (meaning, they have been supporting the functioning of the US government). Their taxes should be sufficient for this and fees should be similar to those for other government services.

Timeisnotnews
Timeisnotnews

Not even close. I have a friend who's wife is getting US citizenship. They are well over $2500 in costs so far.

Gitiac
Gitiac

Too expensive??!!  Cry me a river.  I moved out of the US to the UK 2 years ago and have my Indefinite Leave to Remain this October...

£1300.00

Then I have my Naturalization fees next October
.  Too expensive... ha.

jefnvk
jefnvk

Please, it was going to cost me nearly that to go study for a year in Australia on visas.  Not to sound crass, if people can't come up with $680 to apply for citizenship, likely one of the single most important decisions they will make, they probably aren't the people we should be approving for citizenship.

coolguru75
coolguru75

I have never understood why one department pays for another department's benefit. E.g. Why does USCIS offer free citizenship to US Military members? (I can understand why it should be free,but then the fee should be paid by US military for its deserving members)


I have also never understood why people do not understand difference between illegal and legal immigration. 


I am okay with the fees being charged, as long as it is being spent reasonably and in most efficient way. Government's spending should be open to public scrutiny. I have heard so many incidents of people getting "notice in mail" even when they had "applied" to postpone their citizenship ceremony - it appears that USCIS can not perform basic scheduling tasks correctly.

savviecat63
savviecat63

Hi folks, I hope my comments are relevant to the discussion as I am a recently sworn in new American citizen after many years as a LEGAL green-card holding immigrant from Canada.  I became an American citizen because I love this country, I am patriotic and proud of its history and heritage and yes, I dearly wanted the privilege of voting.  Moreover, I felt a responsibility to become a citizen and put my money where my mouth is so to speak. 

$680 is not a small amount the process is not particularly easy to complete but I consider that an honest investment in the commitment I made.  At my swearing in ceremony there were 47 new citizens from 19 different countries and I can tell you that just based on my observation of some of those individuals and their attending family members not all were well off.  I'm sure $680 was a big financial bite for them.  The pride and joy on the faces of these people however was undeniable.

My only suggestion is this:  I'm not overly concerned how much the fee is but I absolutely believe, based on my experience, that efficiencies in the process could dramatically reduce costs and improve the overall process.  There is an unfortunate amount of waste and inefficiency that does not serve the American taxpayer well and a critical eye towards improvement could dramatically benefit USCIS.

Thank you and if you are a citizen...count yourself blessed and fortunate!

bemuuused
bemuuused

There's really not much of a reason for a permanent resident (green card holder) to take the extra step to become a citizen.  The only thing they can't do as a permanent resident is vote.  If they don't care about voting, it's a bigger advantage to stay as a permanent resident--no citizenship/American history classes to take, they don't have to build their English fluency (which is very difficult as an adult), and they don't have to pay hundreds of hard-earned dollars.

Right-wing_Nuts_take_Ur_meds
Right-wing_Nuts_take_Ur_meds

Why is it whenever these nuts hear immigrants they assume they're illegal?  Read the article, they're talking about green card holders - they're in America legally.  Stop with the uneducated nonsense.

RichardHung
RichardHung

They'll get it back in welfare benefits, never fear.

BenIncaHutz
BenIncaHutz

$680 to become a citizen of the most powerful and generous country in the world? If they cant afford it then they are welcome to go back to their native country. Let us know how that works out for them.

NoyTeally
NoyTeally

@aussiebach  God bless America. Freedom of speech etc. I can not wait for the Tea Party to take over so they can tighten up immigration's belt. The Tea Party hates the fact that Obama is handing the country over to the immigrants, illegals etc. I can see why. .. And you hate him for? I love to see idiots biting the hand that feeds them. I am voting Republican next time around. See you! Wouldn't want to be you!

Hasta la bye bye!

BalutParadise
BalutParadise

@aussiebach Everyone can afford to be a citizen. If you can't afford the fees, then Naturalization is FREE. As the article states...

BalutParadise
BalutParadise

@simonaco How are the fees NOT similar to other government services? 


You want something. You pay the fee. It is the same in any agency and department.


What government agency gives you free stuff because you have paid taxes?

BalutParadise
BalutParadise

@Timeisnotnews That is impossible, since the fees are $680 to be naturalized.


BTW-My wife just Naturalized. It was free.

RobertDupuy
RobertDupuy

@Gitiac You missed understood the article because you are comparing apples to oranges.

$680 is the last fee in a long line of fees.  It's after you have a permanent green card - just before you get citizenship - that final hurdle is $680.

If you want to talk about the whole process - that depends upon the process and the person, I've seen people spend up to $10,000.  My wife and daughter are from Ukraine, we've spent about 3 or 4 thousand dollars so far.

rhesus303
rhesus303

@jefnvk The visa alone cost you nearly $680?  I'm highly skeptical.

hmbguy
hmbguy

@savviecat63 

I became a US citizen in 2009 after 22 LEGAL years in this country. I love this country, but wanted to wait until a non-crazy and non-stupid person became President before I made the commitment.

I don't think $680 is a huge amount of money, sorry. If one is committed, one will find the way. The USCIS staff here in SF were incredibly efficient and polite.

At my swearing in ceremony I sat next to a woman who was crying her eyes out throughout. Turns out she escaped from some backward dictatorial dump in Eastern Europe and waited decades to become a citizen. I don't think she regretted paying $680 to become a citizen. This is a priceless thing. Pretty sure she wasn't crying because she had to pay $680 :-)

BradMadiuk
BradMadiuk

@savviecat63 I became an American citizen in 2010 and the ceremony was amazing. It was one of the proudest moments of my life. I too am Canadian by birth but American by choice. The whole process is much more expensive and time consuming, not to mention absolutely horrifyingly nerve wracking. We felt like I was being treated like a criminal the entire process. But we made it, I made it and I am proud to be an American.

hmbguy
hmbguy

@bemuuused 

So in 2008, I was stuck in a car during a long ride in OC with a friend who is very Republican. We were having an intense political discussion, and I mentioned that I wasn't a US citizen, My friend paused, and then said that I should become a citizen. I was surprised: in an election, my vote would almost certainly cancel his.

His response was something to the effect of how I cared about the country. Even though my political views were 100% opposite his.

This was when I realized what an incredible country this is. Probably the biggest reason I became a US citizen. I also like the idea of having a stake in the society I live in. Otherwise whats the point of being in a democracy?


coolguru75
coolguru75

@bemuuused There are certain benefits. E.g. you can not be deported and you have to pay double-tax if you make money in other country :)

sandpa
sandpa

@bemuuused But what if after being a permanent resident for a while and building my life and family here I feel a part of this country and want to be a proud  citizen ? I feel there is a lot more intangibles to becoming a citizen than just getting the right to vote. Just my opinion though. One more tangible advantage ( depending on your country of origin ) is the ability to travel internationally with relative ease.

ifarid1964
ifarid1964

@bemuuused I am now an American citizen but as a permanent resident then, I still paid the same taxes as any citizen. As a green card holder you are not allowed to vote and can't get a federal job. Other than that, everything else is the same.

ClintonHDavis
ClintonHDavis

@Right-wing_Nuts_take_Ur_meds There's no such thing, your either an immigrant or your an illegal alien.  You can't be both.

Sorry, that's just how it is. 

Unfortunately, the government and news agencies like to use the term immigration to talk about aliens.  If your already an alien, the only way to become an immigrant again is to leave the US and then come here legally.  Combining the two groups is nothing more than an attempt at confusing people on the issue.  (and apparently it's working on a few of you)

VioletWeed
VioletWeed

@Right-wing_Nuts_take_Ur_meds Excuse me but when I hear 'immigrant' I think 'legal', but when I hear dirty stinkin' fourth-world ALIENS I think 'shoulda shot 'em at the border'.

ramon
ramon

In your ignorance you didn't realize that the article is about LEGAL IMMIGRANTS, many of whom are millionaires.  They want more of them to take the last step, from RESIDENT to CITIZEN.

JohnSmikle
JohnSmikle

@BalutParadise @aussiebach  THAT IS NOT TRUE.


Your fee may be waived if you are IN POVERTY, DESTITUTE.


If you have a job/income and all of it goes to food/rent etc, you probably will make too much to qualify for that exemption.
 ( PS I know you are a troll and dont care about any answers, this is for the benefit of any other readers)

BalutParadise
BalutParadise

@RobertDupuy @Gitiac $10,000 is not possible. You are a worthless liar. Naturalization is ONLY $680. Not a penny more.

FYI-My wife naturalized last week. Did not cost one red cent!

coolguru75
coolguru75

@RobertDupuy @Gitiac Compare that with Government of India charging $385 to "leave' citizenship. You pay separate to get Visa to India (once you become US citizen).

coolguru75
coolguru75

@rhesus303 @jefnvk Australian Visa for non-US citizen tourist is about $115 AUD in government fees. If you go thru agents, you pay additional.

if you apply for work permit or other types, it can go upward of $2100. 

I believe US work permits cost more than that.

fgoodwin
fgoodwin

@hmbguy Let me offer late congratulations on your citizenship.  You did it the right way and did not cut in line.  

You wrote: "I love this country, but wanted to wait until a non-crazy and non-stupid person became President before I made the commitment."  In that one sentence you expose why the Dems are pushing so hard for amnesty for millions of illegal immigrants.  Thanx for doing that.  

I hope you support the current process rather than allowing others to cut ahead of those who, like you, waited their turn.

VioletWeed
VioletWeed

@hmbguy @savviecat63 I don't understand why you didn't sign up when REAGAN was president, or either of the BUSHes. Instead you sign up while that foreign citizen, h0m0, america hating o but head is potus? Huh??

BalutParadise
BalutParadise

@BradMadiuk @savviecat63 What are you talking about? 

Naturalizing is easy and cheap! ESPECIALLY if you are from Canada! 

You have to fill out a few pages of paperwork about your name and address, etc. Not hard. 

You pay $680. Or pay nothing, if you cannot afford it!

What is hard or nerve-racking about that?

BalutParadise
BalutParadise

@ramon He never said they were not legal. Besides, all immigrants are legal. How do you thing they immigrated here?


In your ignorance you didn't realize that 98.5% of all immigrants are on welfare and food stamps. Not millionaires.

coolguru75
coolguru75

 I do not disagree with  @RichardHung. There are several "immigrants" who use welfare benefit (even when they don't need it, shouldn't have qualified for it). But what it means is that welfare system is broken. Another topic for another day.

hmbguy
hmbguy

@fgoodwin @hmbguy Its a complex issue. On the one hand it seems like so many appear not to have bothered to follow the law. I was lucky. I had the right education, background, spoke English etc and knew enough to do the right thing.

On the other hand I know some illegals (children of illegals actually) for who this is a stigma their entire lives. One was a 40 year old German national who had been here since he was 5 years old. Obviously plenty from our southern neighbor as well.

I've read some of the 600 odd pages of the immigration reform bill. I generally support it. Happy to explain why.


cjh2nd
cjh2nd

@hmbguy

"I love this country, but wanted to wait until a non-crazy and non-stupid person became President before I made the commitment."

well you failed there


hmbguy
hmbguy

@VioletWeed @hmbguy @savviecat63 

When W was President I seriously considered giving up my green card and leaving the country. If O hadn't won in 2008 I would have.

What did you like about W's presidency?


Gitiac
Gitiac

Wow, get a grip there...

alynesmith
alynesmith

@BalutParadise @BradMadiuk @savviecat63  YOU ARE TROLLING 


Before naturalization you need to be a permanent resident for either 3 or 5 years. Here are a few of the forms you will need to become a permanent resident. I-130, I-797, I-485, etc... these alone will run around $3,000. I would know. I PAID THEM. 


ramon
ramon

You neglected to divide each total by the number of inhabitants.