In general, a naturalization applicant must demonstrate an understanding of the English language, including an ability to read, write, and speak words in ordinary usage. An applicant must also demonstrate a knowledge and understanding of the fundamentals of the history and principles and form of government of the United States (civics). These are the English and civics requirements for naturalization. See INA 312. See 8 CFR 312.
Prior to 1906, an applicant was not required to know English, history, civics, or understand the principles of the constitution to naturalize. If the court determined the applicant was a “thoroughly law-abiding and industrious man, of good moral character,” the applicant became a U.S. citizen. See In re Rodriguez, 81 F. 337 (W.D. Tex. 1897). As far back as 1908, the former Immigration Service and the Courts determined that a person could not establish the naturalization requirement of showing an attachment to the Constitution unless he or she had some understanding of its provisions. See In re Meakins, 164 F. 334 (1908). See In re Vasicek, 271 F. 326 (1921).
In 1940, Congress made amendments to include an English language requirement and certain exemptions based on age and residence, as well as a provision for questioning applicants on their understanding of the principles of the Constitution. See the Nationality Act of 1940, Pub. L. 76-853, 54 Stat. 1137. In 1994, Congress enacted legislation providing an exception to the naturalization educational requirements for applicants who cannot meet the requirements because of a medical disability. Congress also amended the exceptions to the English requirement based on age and residence that are current today. See the Immigration and Nationality Technical Corrections Act of 1994, Pub. L. 103-416 (October 25, 1994).
On October 1, 2008, USCIS implemented a redesigned English and civics test. With this redesigned test, USCIS ensures that all applicants have the same testing experience and have an equal opportunity to demonstrate their understanding of English and civics.