Immigrants in the US Armed Forces

US Military Accepts Non-Citizens to Serve

Military members at a naturalization ceremony

 Joseph Sohm/Getty Images

Since 2001, over 120,000 military members who were immigrants became United States citizens. Immigrants serving in the United States military have deep historical roots. Non-citizens have fought in and with the U.S. Armed forces since the Revolutionary War.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) says that thousands of non-citizens enlist in the military each year. Naturalization through military service is a legitimate method of increasing recruitment and allowing immigrants to become citizens.

Requirements to Join

Military service for citizens as well as immigrants with documentation is voluntary. Each branch of service has different enlistment requirements, but there are some standard requirements that all the branches have.

Among these requirements is that only U.S. citizens can become commissioned officers or work in jobs that require special security clearances in the United States military.

Documented non-citizens are eligible to enlist in the military. They can also become commissioned officers once they achieve citizenship.

Residents of Puerto Rico, the Northern Marianas Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and the Republic of the Marshall Islands are all eligible to join the military as citizens (as long as they are citizens of those territories, republics, or states).

A non-citizen must meet specific requirements to be eligible to join the military. They must have a Permanent Residence Card (I-551 green card) or a valid foreign passport stamped "processed for I-551."

If non-citizens come from countries with a reputation of hostility toward the U.S., they may require a waiver. The federal government cannot petition on behalf of an undocumented immigrant to obtain legal status and be able to enlist in the military.

For an immigrant to join the United States military, they must first go through the immigration process of the USCIS (previously known as the INS, or Immigration and Naturalization Services) and then begin the enlistment process.

The green card and/or visa of the person desiring to join the military must be valid for the entire period of their enlistment.

On most military bases, there is a USCIS representative to discuss and assist with the administrative process of applying for citizenship.

Single Term Enlistments (Until Naturalized)

Individuals who enlist in the military and are non-citizens are limited to one service term. If non-citizens serving in the military become U.S. citizens, they are permitted to reenlist.

For an immigrant who joined the U.S. military, once they are on active duty, the process of going from a non-citizen to citizen can be expedited. Non-citizens are required to serve for 12 months before they can apply for citizenship in peace time.

Expedited Citizenship

Military services and the USCIS have worked together to streamline the citizenship application process for servicemembers. In July 2002, President Bush issued an executive order that made non-citizen members of the armed forces eligible for expedited U.S. citizenship.

Since September 2001, USCIS has granted posthumous citizenship to over 100 servicemembers. Posthumous awarding allows immediate family members to be eligible for naturalization.

Revisions in the U.S. citizenship law in 2004 allow the USCIS to conduct naturalization interviews and ceremonies for foreign-born U.S. armed forces members serving abroad.

According to USCIS data from April 2018, more than 7,200 foreign-born servicemembers have become citizens while serving overseas. Their military naturalization ceremonies were performed in countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kosovo.

Foreign-Born Servicemember Statistics

Between 2013 and 2018, more than 44,000 non-citizens enlisted in the U.S. Armed Forces. The top two countries of origin for foreign-born military personnel in the U.S. are the Philippines and Mexico, with 17% of those serving in the armed forces being of Hispanic origin. As of 2018, over 527,000 foreign-born veterans resided in the United States.

Additionally, statistics show that the difference between non-citizens and citizens who serve then leave are nearly 10 percentage points, with citizens being more likely to leave the service.

The military benefits greatly from the service of its foreign-born members. Non-citizen recruits offer greater racial, ethnic, linguistic, and cultural diversity than citizen recruits. This diversity is particularly valuable given the military's increasingly global agenda.