The U.S. Citizenship Test, Explained
As part of the naturalization process, applicants for U.S. citizenship must pass a two-part naturalization test. The first component is an English test that assesses the applicant’s ability to read, write, and speak in the language. The second, a civics test, evaluates the applicant’s knowledge of U.S. history and government.
Most naturalization applicants are required to take both components of the exam, but some applicants may be eligible for an exemption based on their age and time as a green card holder or certain medical conditions. Each applicant has two chances to take the exam, which usually takes place on the same day as the citizenship interview.
In this guide, we’ll discuss which specific groups of applicants are exempt from the U.S. citizenship test, what types of questions to anticipate, how to prepare, and what to expect after completing this important step of the naturalization process.
1. WHAT TO EXPECT
It’s important to do your best on the naturalization exam (also known as the “citizenship test”). But more importantly, don’t be intimidated! With enough preparation, you should perform well. Keep in mind that you’ll have just two opportunities to pass, so the harder you study for the exam, the sooner you can start your life as a U.S. citizen.
Here’s what to expect from each section of the test:
The English exam will consist of three parts: a speaking test, a reading test, and a writing test. The reading and writing tests will be conducted using a digital tablet, which an immigration officer will show you how to use before you begin.
Although it’s helpful to have flawless English pronunciation and excellent spelling and grammar skills, it’s okay if you aren’t perfect in some of these areas. The English test uses basic grammar and vocabulary, and immigration officers administering the exam expect that most people will make common mistakes.
As you’re taking the test, don’t be shy to ask for clarification about some questions from the immigration officer. They’re instructed to repeat certain words or rephrase questions at your request.
For this part of the English test, the immigration officer will ask you questions specifically about your citizenship application and eligibility, in order to evaluate your ability to speak and comprehend the language. You will not be expected to understand every word or phrase on your application.
It’s a good idea to review the answers on your application prior to attending your exam appointment.
During the reading test, you will be given a digital tablet. A sentence will appear on the tablet, and the immigration officer will ask you to read it aloud. Until you’ve read one successfully, you will be asked to read three sentence in total.
USCIS provides the complete list of vocabulary words used in the reading test. Examples of words you’ll encounter include names of presidents and places (such as “Abraham Lincoln” and “United States”), simple verbs (for example, “can” and “lives”), and some longer terms (such as “Father of Our Country” and “Bill of Rights”).
It’s important to avoid pausing extensively while reading aloud. Generally, you’ll be allowed to leave out short words, mispronounce some words, or use non-standard intonation (the rising and falling of a person’s voice). You may not use a word you’re familiar with in place of an actual word in the sentence. The important thing is to convey to the immigration officer that you understand the meaning of the sentence.
To successfully complete this part of the English test, you must write one out of three sentences correctly as the immigration officer reads each sentence aloud to you. You will use a stylus to write each sentence on a digital tablet. (A stylus is a pen-like tool that’s used to draw lines on the touchscreen surface of a digital device.)
USCIS provides the complete list of vocabulary words used in the writing test. Many of the words overlap with the vocabulary used in the reading test (see above). The list includes last names of presidents (such as “Adams” and “Washington”), months (for instance, “February” and “July”), as well as short and long terms (including “one” and “freedom of speech”).
Generally, you will be allowed to misspell some words and make some capitalization, grammatical, or punctuation errors. You may spell out numbers (in the same example, “fourteen”) or write the numeral (for example, “14”). You must not, however, abbreviate (use a shorter form) of any word. You also must write legibly. The immigration officer will keep moving on to the next sentence until you’ve written one successfully.
To pass this component of the citizenship test, you must be able to demonstrate sufficient knowledge and understanding of U.S. history and government, by answering at least six out of 10 questions correctly. The immigration officer will randomly select the questions, read them aloud to you, and stop the test once you’ve provided the right answer to six questions. You’ll be allowed to phrase your answers in any way as long as they are correct.
USCIS provides the complete list of questions asked in the civics test (you may be able to find them in your language, as well). You must study all 100 questions on the list — unless you’re aged 65 or older, in which case you’ll need to study only the 20 questions marked with an asterisk (*) or the ones listed here. (Make sure to check this page of the USCIS website for answers to some questions that have changed based on recent historical events.)
More than half of the questions are about the U.S. government; the rest are about American history. For some questions, the answers will be provided in the study materials. For instance, “Who is in charge of the executive branch?” (Answer: the President). Others will require you to do some research. As an example, you might encounter the question, “Who is one of your state’s U.S. Senators now?” (The answer will depend on the state you live in.)
You can also expect the complexity of the questions and the evaluation process to be based partly on:
Your educational attainment
How long you’ve lived in the United States
Study opportunities that were available to you
Other factors concerning your knowledge and understanding
2. HOW TO PREPARE
Studying adequately for the naturalization test is critical to successfully achieving U.S. citizenship. To help you prepare, USCIS provides study materials for each component of the exam, including the English test and the civics test.
You can follow these helpful tips to help you ace your exam:
Start studying now. This might seem obvious, but the sooner you begin familiarizing yourself with the questions and answers in the citizenship test, the more time you’ll have to learn and memorize the information. Starting early will also give you more opportunities to work on particular areas of weakness.
Read children’s books. Much of the vocabulary used in the English test will be simple words encountered in children’s books. Reading books for kids can help you become familiar with basic English words and how they’re used in a sentence.
Watch and listen. If you’re a visual learner (a person who learns best by watching) or an auditory learner (one who learns best by listening), you may find video and audio study materials more engaging and effective for learning.
USCIS provides such materials, as well as printed guides in large print, which are helpful if you have low vision. Another resource called USA Learns also provides free videos and other multimedia content as alternative ways to learn the citizenship testing materials. Questions about civics, for instance, include images representing the concepts to serve as memory aids and an audio feature that lets you listen to the same questions and answers.
Ask for help. Some people learn best when they can practice what they’ve studied with others. If you’re more comfortable with this learning method, you may want to enlist the help of a friend or family member, especially one who’s proficient in spoken English so they can help you with pronunciation. They don’t have to be civics experts, either, as most of the answers to the civics questions will be provided in the study materials — though prior knowledge certainly helps! Ask them to quiz you now and then, to make sure you’ve retained what you’ve learned.
Take the practice tests. You’re likely to feel more confident on the day of your actual exam if you know what to expect. That’s why it’s important to take the practice exams provided by USCIS that simulate the real tests.
Slow down. If you’re easily overwhelmed by a lot of information — or if you just don’t have much time on your hands — you may find it easier to study small amounts of the material at a time and gradually build on what you already know. For example, you might focus just on the names of holidays until you’ve mastered their spelling. The next day, you might add another category of words (verbs, for example) and so on until you’re comfortable with the entire list.
Take notes. USCIS provides flash cards that include lines on the back of each card for note-taking. It’s a good idea to use these to your advantage. Write information about each vocabulary term or civics-related topic that will help you remember it. For “Abraham Lincoln,” for example, you could jot down that he was the 16th U.S. president, that he led the Union in the Civil War to end slavery, or that he was 6-foot-4-inches tall — whatever will help you recall what you’ve learned!
Group questions together. As you’re studying, you may find it helpful to study words or questions that are related to one another. Scientific research tells us that people remember some information better when they study it in smaller, related chunks.
For example, when you’re memorizing the spelling of “Presidents’ Day,” the next vocabulary term you might focus on could be “Thanksgiving,” also a holiday. As another example, when you’re trying to remember the answer for “We elect a president for how many years?” (answer: four), you might then study the answer for “In what month do we vote for president?” (answer: November). Both of these civics questions are related to the U.S. presidency. Conveniently, vocabulary words and civics questions are already grouped together by category in many of the study materials from USCIS.
3. WHAT'S NEXT
Once you’ve completed your citizenship test, you can expect to hear back from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) about the results on the same day. Here’s what you can expect to happen afterward, based on your exam results:
If you passed
Congratulations! You’re almost finished with the naturalization process.
If you did not pass
You’ll be able to retake the whole exam (or just the portion you didn’t pass), but the questions on the second test will be different from those on the first. USCIS will schedule your re-examination, which will usually take place about 60 to 90 days (two to three months) from the date of your first exam appointment.
If you do not show up for re-examination
Unless you’re excused by USCIS from attending your re-examination appointment — for example, if you were hospitalized — you must not miss your second exam appointment. Otherwise, USCIS will consider your absence a failed attempt, and your U.S. citizenship application will be denied.
If you do not pass the re-examination
USCIS will deny your naturalization application. You’ll have a chance to appeal the denial, by writing to USCIS within 30 days of receiving the letter stating their decision. If they grant your request, USCIS will schedule a hearing to take place within 180 days of receiving your request. During the hearing, a USCIS officer will re-test you on the portion of the exam that you did not pass on your second attempt.