I finally got around to submitting my US Citizenship papers a few weeks ago! It is a big step for me as I adopt this country as my permanent home, but something I feel very proud to do. It has taken about 7 years since I started the immigration process to finally becoming eligible and submitting for citizenship. The biggest hassle (and cost) was all the paperwork around the process which included gathering background documentation to filling in the many Unites States Citizenship and Immigration services (USCIS) forms. I am happy to say though that I did all of this without hiring an immigration lawyer and so saved several thousand dollars on an already expensive process. I am not saying that immigration lawyers aren’t necessary; if you have special/complex circumstances or a non-English background then it is probably best to get a lawyer. However I feel that if you are fluent in English (reading and writing), willing to put in some work and can pay attention to detail, you should be able to manage the whole immigration and citizenship process on your own using the numerous free online resources available to you. The USCIS provides a dedicated help line and resources which I am surprised people don’t leverage more. There are also a number of other tips I want to give prospective applicants to make the process easier and save you some serious time and money.
1. Forget the Lawyer. As mentioned above, start the process on your own and only hire a lawyer if things become complicated. From a quick search around the web, this could save you $3,000 to $10,000 in fees – which makes it a very worthwhile saving.
2. Start collecting background documentation now if you plan to apply and keep a record and files of all your key documentation. Staying organized and avoiding documentation clutter is key in this process. Also, if you go to most local libraries and say you want to photocopy some forms for immigration and citizenship purposes – they sometimes let you do it for free. This could save you a lot of money in copying costs.
3. Always keep multiple copies of your documents in separate places to protect from loss or accidental damage. Even better, scan them to a CD so you have portable copies. Don’t upload/store in on the internet or save the documents in your Yahoo or Gmail folders as this information is too sensitive and you want a 0% chance it will be compromised. If you need to keep it online, follow these security measures.
4. One document often requested is your Tax return filings. Rather than try to get a notarized copy from your accountant (which will cost money), you can get a free tax return transcript from the IRS using form 4506T. However rather than Fax the form back to the IRS, call up the toll free number – 1-800-829-1040 – and you will get the documents much faster. This is a good one to know for future reference, as you can use this method to get your tax return transcripts for free when required for anything (e.g. a mortgage or background check).
5. File as soon as you are eligible. Fees for immigration and citizenship are constantly going up as the government seeks out more ways to raise revenue and this is one area of inelastic demand. With fees for each process costing upwards of $1000 when you add in the cost of associated finger printing and paperwork, it is best to file earlier rather than later. I wish I had taken this advice as I could have saved a few hundred dollars had I filed last year.
6. Search the web for immigration forums or discussion sites to find people who are or were in a similar situation to you. Just goggle the relevant type of search (e.g. Immigrating to the US from Australia forum or How do I complete Form XYZ). However beware of any fraudulent sites and always verify information you use at the official USCIS website or call them to check. Seek out local ethnic community groups and normally they have people who can help you with the immigration process for free. Always, download forms for the process from the official USCIS website to ensure you get the latest legitimate version. The fees for the immigration and citizenship application are also posted on the website – double check this before sending in your application.
7. Take it one step at a time and give yourself a few weeks to complete the application process. There are tons of forms to fill in and doing it by yourself can get overwhelming, which is why it is important to break this big task down into smaller manageable components. While the forms may be long (after all they are getting your life’s details) they are quite easy to fill out. If you are not sure what to fill in, just call the USCIS help line (800) 375-5283 and the person at the other should be able to assist you. As a final resort just fill it in to the best of your knowledge, as I have not heard of someones immigration being rejected because of a missing data in a form. They will normally ask you to provide more information if they need it. However, under no circumstances, should you provide false or misleading information!
For all the details on the US immigration process, go to the USCIS website which has useful and easy to read how to guides. This should be your first step when starting the application process. It is a long process, with a lot of paperwork and immigration jargon. However, if you pay attention to detail and take in mind some of the above tips, you can get through this already expensive process by yourself and save a lot of money to boot. If you have any more tips or questions, just leave a comment on this post.