Who Wants To Be an American?

How often do they change the nation’s citizenship quiz?

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The Department of Homeland Security released sample questions from a new version of the naturalization test on Thursday. In the current system, immigration officers quiz would-be citizens on a set of 10 civics questions, chosen from a list of about 100. (Click here for a pdf of the list.) How often does the test change?

Every few decades. The list of questions used today dates back to the last large-scale amnesty for illegal immigrants in 1986. Before then, the process wasn’t nearly as standardized as it is today. Each immigration officer could ask whatever questions (and however many) he deemed appropriate during a naturalization interview. This loosey-goosey system wasn’t equipped to handle the large number of naturalizations that resulted from the 1986 amnesty. So, a pair of officers at the INS got together and came up with the standard questions used today.


The new list didn’t make the test predictable. Individual officers could still decide exactly which questions to ask, and they sometimes strayed from the samples. As late as the 1990s, testers were still inconsistent in the way they administered the test: Some might ask 10 questions, for example, and others 12.

Until the beginning of the 20th century, judges in state and federal courts handled naturalization testing, and they could ask whatever they wanted. Progressive Era politicians tried to eliminate some of the potential for corruption by shifting the responsibility for testing from the judicial system to government bureaucrats. Examiners began to draw up lists of sample questions that would make the process more rational.

One list from the 1910s focused on the differences between a republic and a monarchy, like “How do kings and emperors get their offices?” Some testers posed tricky thought experiments about the nature of democracy. In 1923, the chief naturalization examiner from Seattle proposed asking immigrants this doozy: “What would happen if Congress would now make a new law saying that all persons born in the country from which the candidate arrived and are now living in the United States should become slaves on the first day of the next month?”


In the next few decades, the focus of the questions shifted from political science to national loyalty. In the 1950s, the testers were preoccupied with Communist ideology. Even today, the naturalization form includes questions about membership in the Communist Party, the Nazi government, or any other totalitarian regime. (Click here for a pdf.)

Today’s test tends toward plain factual information rather than philosophical issues—for example, “How many stripes are on the American flag?” There’s also a special list of questions designed just for applicants who are over the age of 65 and have been residents for more than 20 years. For some reason, their test focuses more on geography—e.g., “What two oceans border the United States?” They might also have to answer, “What famous American invented the electric lightbulb?”

The revision proposed this week will try to add some historical context to the factual questions. “How many stripes are on the American flag?” might be changed to “Why are there 13 stripes on the American flag?”

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Explainer thanks Noah Pickus of Duke University.