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Joining the Military as a Non-U.S. Citizen

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Non-U.S. Citizen joining the U.S. Military
West Point - The U.S. Military Academy/Flickr
Updated May 28, 2014

I get lots of email from non-U.S. citizens asking about joining the U.S. Military. It may surprise some of you to learn that you do not have to be a U.S. citizen in order to join the U.S. Military, but there are certain restrictions.

Non-Citizen Enlistments

First of all, in order to join the U.S. military as a non-citizen, you must be currently living permanently (and legally) in the United States. Tourist visas and student visas aren't good enough. You must be categorized as a "legal permament immigrant," with permission to work in the U.S. That means the individual must have an I–551 (Permanent Residence Card). I–551 cards issued after 1989 are only valid for 10 years and must be renewed. Applicants with expired cards keep their permanent residence status; however, they must apply for renewal of their permanent residence status I–551 card and must obtain verification in the form of an original receipt from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) indicating that the applicant has paid for an I–90 (Application to Replace Permanent Resident) renewal application prior to enlistment. Applicant must have a valid I–551 Card prior to shipment to training. Any I–551 card with an expiration date within 6 months of joining must be renewed and be valid for at least 6 months after the applicant’s enlistment date.

The U.S. Military will not assist in the immigration process. In order to join, you must immigrate first, using the normal immigration procedures, and then - - after immigration is complete - - you can apply to enlist in any branch of the U.S. Military by visiting the nearest Military recruiting office.

You may wish to visit http://immigration.about.com/ for information about immigrating to the United States.

Non-Citizen Commissioning

Federal Law requires that all U.S. military officers be a U.S. Citizen. That means that non-U.S. citizens cannot join the U.S. Military as an officer or warrant officer -- only as an enlisted member.

Accelerated Citizenship

At the beginning of the first Gulf War, the President signed an executive order which allows any military member (active duty, Reserves, or National Guard) to apply for citizenship, without any residency requirement. The normal (non-military) rules are that one has to be a permament immigrant for at least five years. That executive order is still in effect. While technically, you could apply for citizenship immediately after joining the military, in actual practice, the citizenship process requires you to be physically present during many aspects of the process, and you won't be able to do that while in basic training or military job school. Most wait to apply until they arrive at their first permament duty station after military job school. The accelerated processing/approval process for military members takes about 8 to 10 months from start to finish.

Job Availability

Federal Law prohibits granting a security clearance to non-citizens. That means non-citizens are not eligible for many military jobs and assignments, as they require a security clearance. Non-citizens (at least initially) will have to accept a military job that doesn't require a clearance. Later, once they obtain their U.S. citizenship, they can apply to re-train into a military job that requires a clearance.

 

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