US & Canada

How hard is it to pass the US citizenship test?

Laura with the book

The BBC's Laura Trevelyan, who has lived in the US for the past 12 years, is applying to become a US citizen. That process includes a citizenship test. Here, she recounts her efforts to get up to speed.

It's more than 25 years since I last took a test, and so I'm more than a little out of practice. The brain cells are not what they were, and even the short-term memory is fading.

My initial attempts to study for the US citizenship test were a dismal failure. Pathetic, even. A large booklet called Learn About the United States: Quick Civics Lessons for the Naturalization Test has been sitting by my bedside for months.

Mostly, I spill coffee on the important document. Periodically, I transfer it to my handbag (that would be purse, in the American language) which only serves to make it even more crumpled and battered.

Image caption Laura's study book - coffee stains and all

Occasionally, I open said booklet on the train between New York and our nation's capital, spill red wine or more coffee on it, depending on the time of day, take a quick look, and close it again rapidly after getting a few questions wrong.

It seems middle age has diminished my ability to remember numbers correctly, which is a big problem when confronted with US history and the system of government.

Why does the US flag have 13 stripes? Why does the flag have 50 stars? Come on now - 13 original colonies, 50 states in the Union.

My three boys delight in picking up the booklet and torturing me with questions which I answer incorrectly - such as, how many amendments are there to the US constitution? The correct answer is 27. For some reason I inverted the numbers and came up with 72 - which would keep the Supreme Court busy. We'd probably need more than nine justices.

That's another question, by the way, the number of Supreme Court Justices. And who's the Chief Justice?

So back to those wretched numbers which are giving me so much grief. In which year was the Constitution written? No, 1776 is incorrect. That was the year of the Declaration of Independence.

At least I have no trouble answering why the colonists fought the British - no taxation without representation, a topic upon which I have waxed lyrical for over a decade now, as a non-voting tax-paying Brit in America. At times, I have been tempted to throw a tea chest into the Hudson river. Just kidding. As it happens, 1787 is the year in which the Constitution was written.

Not 1987, a year etched into my memory because I was a teenager in eighties Britain and everyone had wedge haircuts and listened to Spandau Ballet. But I digress. My kids thought 1987 was a hilarious answer but I suspect the US immigration official would take a dim view.

The hit Broadway musical Hamilton, about the founding father Alexander Hamilton, has proved extremely useful in studying for this test. I went to see that last year, little knowing how helpful it would be.

Question 67 in my booklet is "The Federalist Papers supported the passage of the US Constitution. Name one of the writers." So easy! Alexander Hamilton, AKA Publius, which was his pseudonym. Both answers are acceptable. There was a whole scene about that in Hamilton. That old adage - I see and I remember - is proving to be true.


Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Really important to know this chap if you'd like to be a US citizen

US citizenship test

  • 100 possible questions, asked 10
  • Can get no more than four wrong
  • 91.6% pass rate (as of May 2016)
  • More than five million tests taken between October 2009 and May 2016

Hamilton also helps with the following question - who is the "Father of our Country?" George Washington, of course, who has a starring role in the musical. He was also America's first president, which is question 70. Now we're off the races.

Except this one stumped me. Which territory did the United States buy from France in 1803? Clue: It's a large area west of the Mississippi river. It was 828,000 square miles and the US paid the French $15m for it (about $300m in today's dollars). Major shipping port, doubled the size of the United States?

Louisiana.

The Louisiana Purchase is not taught widely in British schools, or at least it wasn't when I was last in the classroom several million eons ago. But now I've nailed that one, and I can tell you a bit about the Mexican-American War of 1846. Naturally I know all about the War of 1812 because that was round two after the Brits lost the War of Independence. Seems like historians have chalked that one up as a draw between my old home and my new one.

Which brings me to question 53. What is one promise you make when you become a United States citizen? You have to give up loyalty to other countries, it says in my booklet.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption New Americans take the oath of citizenship in June

Here's what I'll pledge if I get to take the Oath of Allegiance. I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen.

Apologies to Queen Elizabeth II, I will still be one of your subjects, as I'll be allowed to keep my UK citizenship, but my loyalty will be to the United States and to the flag. On that note, I am trying to learn the words to the Star Spangled Banner, written appropriately enough during the War of 1812.

Just don't ever ask me to sing it. We can leave that one to Beyonce.

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