Each year U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services schedules naturalization oath ceremonies around the Fourth of July holiday. This year there will be nearly 200 ceremonies for 11,000 new citizens in the days around the holiday. In recent years, I’ve been posting on naturalization around this time of year as a reminder for permanent residents who might be eligible to apply for citizenship.

Sometimes there is confusion about applying for lawful permanent resident status and naturalization. Applying for lawful permanent resident status (to obtain a green card to reside in the United States indefinitely) often involves sponsorship by an employer or a family member. Applying for naturalization (to become a U.S. citizen) is an individual application that does not require sponsorship.

The basic requirements for naturalization are fairly straightforward. If you became a permanent resident through sponsorship by your U.S. citizen spouse, and you still are living with that spouse, you can apply for citizenship after three years of residence in the United States. If you became a permanent resident through another route, you need five years of residency in the United States. In both situations, you need to have been physically in the United States for at least half of the time.

Next, you need to demonstrate that you’ve been a “person of good moral character” for the three- or five-year period. While it would be a nice gesture, a letter from your primary school teacher will not help. Rather, what you need is the lack of a criminal record anywhere in the world. Also note that a more serious crime outside the required period still could be a problem and lead to losing your green card. Any criminal past therefore deserves a careful examination before applying for naturalization.

Finally, you need to pass a basic civics and English language test during the local office interview that you will attend. You need to know key events in the nation’s history, important historical figures, and the names of current political leaders at the national and local level. There are some exemptions to the English language requirement if you have been a permanent resident for a long time. For example, if you are over 50 years of age and have been a permanent resident for 20 years, or if you are over 55 and have been a resident for 15 years, you may take the civics test in your native language.

After you pass the civics and English language test, you will attend an oath ceremony. That is when you officially become a citizen. You then can register to vote and apply for a passport, both of which you’ll want to do right away.

A common question about becoming a U.S. citizen is whether you will lose your current country’s citizenship. That question is one that only your country can answer. While some countries consider the acquisition of U.S. citizenship as abandonment of their citizenship, others do not. Some countries, such as Germany, allow you to maintain your current citizenship only if you first request permission to become a U.S. citizen. The best resource on this question is your country’s embassy in the United States.

Becoming a citizen of the United States is a major and important step for many permanent residents. Only citizens can vote in local, state, and national elections. Review your situation and see if you can apply now.