N-400 Prep: Understanding the Questions

Do you want to understand the questions on the N400 form? It is important to know what the words mean when you fill out the form and when you go for your citizenship interview.

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Photo: iStock/Martine Doucet

Filling out the N-400 form

Do you need help filling out your application? There are many good resources to help you. Learn how to fill out the N-400 form.

Questions about the N-400 in your citizenship interview

During your citizenship interview, the USCIS officer will ask lots of questions. Many of the questions will be about the information you wrote on your N-400 form. You may have practiced how to answer the questions. But do you really understand the words in the questions? The interviewer may ask you the meaning of a question, or even the meaning of one word.

Why will I be asked what a question means?

There are two reasons. First, USCIS wants to make sure you understood the question well enough to answer it correctly. The second reason is to test your English skills. It is much harder to explain something than to say “yes” or “no.” If you can explain what something means in English, it shows that your English skills are good.

Which questions will the USCIS officer ask me to explain?

Section 12 of the N-400 application form has a lot of “yes” and “no” questions. All the questions are testing to see if you are a person of good moral character. Good moral character means:

  • you treat other people well
  • you have good values
  • you follow the law
  • you behave well

The USCIS officers usually ask people to explain a word or phrase in Section 12. Here is an example: one question in Section 12 asks, “Have you ever been convicted of a crime or offense?” If you answered “no” on your form, the interviewer may ask you, “What is a crime?” or “What does convicted mean?” You will want to explain in English that a crime is an action that can be punished by law. You can say that convicted means found guilty in a court of law.

Difficult words on the N-400 form

Here are some difficult words and terms that you will see in Section 12 and in other sections of the N-400 form. The meanings we give here are the meanings of the words as they are used on the N-400 form. The terms are listed in the same order as you’ll see them on the form.

At the top of the form

  • naturalization – becoming a US citizen
  • not applicable – not about you. For example, if you have no children and the form says “children’s names,” it is not applicable and you can write N/A.
  • failure to answer  – not answered or filled out properly
  • legal – official under the law, or allowed by law
  • biological or legal adoptive mother or father – parents

Part 1

  • eligibility – able to receive citizenship
  • lawful – allowed by law
  • spouse – husband or wife

Part 2

  • current – being used now
  • physical or developmental disability or mental impairment – anything about your body or mind that makes it difficult to do normal activities

Part 3

  • accommodation – extra help

Part 5

  • residence – where you live
  • physical address – the address of the building where you live
  • mailing address – the address where you receive letters (for most people, it is the same as their physical address)

Part 7

  • biographic information – personal information about what you look like

Part 10

  • marital – to do with marriage
  • deceased – dead

Part 11

  • biological child – child who is yours by birth

Part 12, questions 1–21

  • claimed to be a U.S. citizen – lied about citizenship or said you are a citizen when you are not yet
  • registered to vote – signed up to vote in an election
  • federal, state, or local election – an election to do with the whole country (for example choosing the US president) or with the state you live in, or with the town or county you live in
  • hereditary title or order of nobility – a title, such as chief or king, that you have because your father was chief or king
  • legally incompetent – mentally ill or not able to think properly or make decisions for yourself
  • confined to a mental institution – kept in a hospital for people who are mentally ill
  • federal, state, or local taxes – money you pay that is your share of the costs of national, state or city services, such as schools, roads, or the military
  • tax return – a form you must send every year to the government to show how much tax you will pay
  • any organization, association, fund, foundation, party, club, society, or similar group – groups such as social clubs, churches, trade unions, and political organizations
  • communist – system in which there is no private ownership of land, housing, or businesses and in which the government controls the money system
  • totalitarian – a system of government run by a dictator and in which citizens don’t have any say about leaders or laws
  • terrorist – a person who uses fear and violence to control people or get what they want
  • advocated – speak up for a cause or work towards making something happen
  • directly or indirectly – to do something in an obvious way (directly) or in a more hidden way (indirectly)
  • persecuted – punish, bully, or make a victim of someone just because of who they are or what they believe
  • genocide – the killing of many people because of who they are or what they believe
  • torture – hurting a person more than any human can bear
  • military unit – part of an army or other group that acts like an army
  • self-defense unit – group of fighters that fight to protect themselves or their community
  • rebel group – group that protests or fights against the government
  • armed force – organized group of people with weapons
  • combat – fighting, usually by soldiers with weapons

Part 12, questions 22–29

  • sealed, expunged, or otherwise cleared – something taken off your official record but that you must tell about anyway on your N-400 form
  • disclose – tell
  • commit – do
  • cited – ordered to go to a court of law
  • convicted – found guilty in a court of law
  • alternative sentencing or a rehabilitative program – punishment or training or other program decided by law but not in a prison or jail
  • suspended sentence – a court decision that says you are guilty of a crime but you do not have to go to prison for that crime unless you do something else wrong
  • probation – a period of time in which you must do nothing wrong or you will be punished
  • parole – pardon from a prison sentence

Part 12, questions 30–44

  • habitual drunkard – person who drinks too much alcohol on most days
  • prostitute – person who has sex with another person for money
  • procure – get
  • smuggle – carry across a border in secret
  • gambling – playing games for money or making bets
  • dependent – someone who needs you to support them, such as a child or elderly relative or disabled family member
  • alimony – payments you must make to a former spouse to support your children
  • misrepresentation – giving false information or telling lies
  • false, fraudulent, or misleading – not true
  • deported – sent out of the country
  • removal, exclusion, rescission, or deportation proceedings – legal meetings or decisions to send you out of the country
  • deploy – sent to serve as a soldier
  • court-martialed, administratively separated, or disciplined, or other than honorable discharge – fired from or punished by the US military
  • alien – someone who is not a citizen
  • drafted – ordered to serve in the military
  • exemption – excused from doing  something, maybe because of health or religious reasons
  • deserted – ran away or left without permission
  • register – put your name on a list

Part 12, questions 45–50

  • constitution – document that describes a country’s basic laws and type of government
  • form of government – the democratic system used in the USA
  • oath of allegiance – promise to be loyal
  • bear arms – use weapons
  • noncombatant – being in the military but not fighting
  • civilian direction – orders from someone who is not in the military

Part 13

  • penalties – punishments or fines for doing something wrong
  • authorized – gave permission for someone to do something
  • records – information that USCIS has about you
  • other entities or persons – people or officials outside of USCIS
  • oath – a serious promise under the law

Part 16

  • swear (affirm) and certify under penalty of perjury – promise under the law that something is true

Part 17

  • renunciation – giving up the right to something

Part 18

  • allegiance – loyalty
  • abjure – reject

The USCIS official N-400 instructions

The N-400 form comes with official instructions. You can view or download the N-400 instructions as a pdf. The instructions do not explain all the words, but they do explain some of the terms in the form, such as “Asian” or “Alaska Native”.

Videos that explain the vocabulary in the N-400 Part 12

These videos are the best resource to help you understand the vocabulary (words used) in Part 12 of the N-400 questions. The videos are in English, but you can use the “cc” button and then “settings” to see captions in your language.

Websites that explain difficult legal and immigration words

There are some good websites that will help you understand the words on the form:

NOLO has line-by-line instructions for filling out the N-400

NOLO is a legal website. It offers services for a fee, but it has some good free information too. NOLO’s line-by-line instructions explain what the questions mean in clear, simple English. Note: these instructions are not for the latest (2019) form, but the questions are the same.

Immi.org has a glossary for immigrants

Immi has a glossary (list of terms) for immigration topics. Use the glossary to find a definition or explanation for words you do not understand. You can search for a term or click on the letter your word begins with.

Merriam Webster has an English learners’ dictionary

This dictionary was made for people learning English. It is easy to use and explains words in simple terms.

Google Translate changes English words and sentences into your language

Type or paste any word or even long texts into Google Translate and select the language you want. It works better for some languages than others. For example, it is good at Spanish but not very good at Arabic.

The information on this page comes from USCIS and other trusted sources. It is intended for guidance and is updated as often as possible. USAHello does not give legal advice, nor are any of our materials intended to be taken as legal advice. If you are looking for a free or low-cost lawyer or legal help, we can help you find free and low-cost legal services.