British nationality law

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This article is for information only and is not a substitute for legal advice tailored to your personal circumstances. Readers who require advice on UK nationality or immigration law should contact a solicitor or an adviser registered with the Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner.

The United Kingdom has arguably the world's most complex nationality laws, because of its former status as an imperial power.


Main article: History of British nationality law

English and Scottish law has always distinguished between the Monarch's subjects and aliens. Until 1914 British nationality law was largely uncodified. The British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act 1914 codified existing common law and statute, with a few minor changes.

With the development of the modern Commonwealth of Nations in the 20th century, the single Imperial status of British subject was increasingly inadequate to deal with the realities of a Commonwealth with independent member states. In 1948, the Commonwealth Heads of Government agreed that each member would adopt a national citizenship, but that the existing status of British subject would continue to be a common status held by all Commonwealth citizens.

The British Nationality Act 1948 established the status of Citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies (CUKC), the national citizenship of the United Kingdom and those places that were still British colonies on 1 January 1949, when the 1948 Act came into force. However, until the early 1960s there was little difference, if any, in United Kingdom law between the rights of CUKCs and other British subjects, all of whom had the right at any time to enter and live in the United Kingdom.

Between 1962 and 1971, as a result of fears about increasing immigration by Commonwealth citizens from Asia and Africa, the United Kingdom gradually tightened controls on immigration by British subjects from other parts of the Commonwealth. The Immigration Act 1971 introduced the concept of patriality, by which only British subjects with sufficiently strong links to the United Kingdom and Islands (i.e. the United Kingdom, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man) had right of abode, the right to live and work in the United Kingdom and Islands.

Although there have been several amendments to the 1981 Act in the intervening years, the principle British nationality law today is the British Nationality Act 1981, which established the current system of multiple categories of British nationality, viz. British citizens, British Overseas Territories citizens, British Overseas citizens, British Nationals (Overseas), British subjects and British protected persons. Only British citizenship includes the automatic right of abode in the United Kingdom.

The 1981 Act also ceased to recognise Commonwealth citizens as British subjects. There remain only two categories of people who are still British subjects: some people (formerly known as British subjects without citizenship) who originally acquired British nationality through a connection with former British India, and also a number of people connected with the south of Ireland before 1949 who have made a declaration to retain British nationality. Those British subjects connected with former British India *lose* British natonality if they acquire any other.

Classes of British nationality

There are currently several classes of British national:

  • British citizens
British Citizens usually hold this status through a connection with the United Kingdom, Channel Islands and Isle of Man ("United Kingdom and Islands"). Former CUKCs who possessed right of abode under the Immigration Act 1971 through a connection with the United Kingdom and Islands generally became British citizens on 1 January 1983.
British citizenship is the most common type of British nationality, and the only one that automatically carries a right of abode in the United Kingdom.
BOTC (formerly BDTC) is the form of British nationality held by connection with an existing overseas territory. Nearly all are now also British citizens as a result of the British Overseas Territories Act 2002. It is possible to hold BOTC and British citizenship simultaneously.
BOCs are those former CUKCs who did not qualify for either British citizenship or British Dependent Territories citizenship. Most of these derived their status as CUKCs from former colonies, such as Malaysia and Kenya.
British subjects (as defined in the 1981 Act) are those British subjects who were not CUKCs or citizens of any other Commonwealth country. Most of these derived their status as British subjects from British India or Ireland.
BPPs derive from those parts of the British Empire which were not officially part of the Crown's dominions, but were instead protectorates or protected states with nominally independent rulers under the "protection" of the British Crown.
The status of BNO did not originally exist under the 1981 scheme, but was created by the Hong Kong Act 1985 and the British Nationality (Hong Kong) Order 1986. BNOs are those former Hong Kong BDTCs who applied for the status of BNO prior to the handover of Hong Kong to the People's Republic of China. Hong Kong BDTCs who did not apply to become BNOs, and who did not gain PRC nationality after the handover, became BOCs if they did not have any other nationality.

Of the various classes of British nationality, all except British citizenship and British Overseas Territories citizenship are residual categories. This means that they will become extinct with the passage of time, as they can only be passed down to the national's children in exceptional circumstances, e.g. if the child would otherwise be stateless. There is, consequently, little provision for the acquisition of these classes of nationality by people who do not already have them.

British nationality and Hong Kong

Main article: British nationality and Hong Kong

Most former BDTCs by virtue of a connection with the former dependent territory of Hong Kong will now either be British Nationals (Overseas) (with or without citizenship of the People's Republic of China), British Overseas citizens, or solely citizens of the PRC (The deadline for registering as a British National (Overseas) passed in 1997).

Most of these British nationals have been recognized by the People's Republic of China as its citizens before and after the handover of Hong Kong. These PRC citizens of Hong Kong origin have been categorised differently from other PRC nationals from Macau and Mainland China. See the aritcles HKSAR passport and Home Return Permit.

In some cases, former BTDCs from Hong Kong have been able to acquire British citizenship under special legislation passed in 1990, 1996 and 1997. In other cases, some former Hong Kong BDTCs hold British citizenship as a matter of entitlement or through acquisition under normal rules.

Acquisition of British citizenship

British Citizenship can be acquired in the following ways:

  1. lex solis: By birth in the United Kingdom to a parent who is a British citizen at the time of the birth, or to a parent who is settled in the United Kingdom
  2. lex sanguinis: By descent if one of the parents is a British citizen otherwise than by descent (for example by birth, adoption, registration or naturalisation in the United Kingdom)
  3. By naturalisation
  4. By registration
  5. By adoption

Leaflets and advice which give information about how British citizenship and other kinds of British nationality can be held, applied for or renounced are available from the Home Office Immigration and Nationality Directorate. Information is also available on provisions for reducing statelessness.

Persons acquiring citizenship by method (2) are called citizens by descent, while citizens acquiring citizenship by methods (1), (3) or (5) are called citizens otherwise than by descent. British citizens by registration, method (4), may be either, depending on the circumstances. Only citizens otherwise than by descent can pass on their citizenship to their children born outside the UK automatically; citizens by descent can only pass on citizenship to their non-UK born children by registering them.

British citizenship by birth in the United Kingdom

A child born in the UK to a parent who is a British citizen or 'settled' in the UK is automatically a British citizen by birth

  • only one parent must meet this requirement, either the father or the mother.
  • "settled" status usually means the parent is resident in the United Kingdom and holds Indefinite Leave to Remain (ILR) or Right of Abode. Irish citizens are automatically deemed to hold ILR.
  • For children born before 2 October 2000, most parents from EU or EEA states were considered "settled" automatically. From that date this applies only in exceptional cases for those not from the Republic of Ireland.
  • if only the father meets this requirement, the parents must be married. Marriage subsequent to the birth is normally enough to confer British citizenship from that point.
  • where the father is not married to the mother, the Home Office will usually register the child as British provided an application is made and the child would have been British otherwise. The child must be aged under 18 on the date of application.
  • where a parent subsequently acquires British citizenship or "settled" status the child can be registered as British provided he or she is still aged under 18
  • if the child lives in the UK until age 10 there is a lifetime entitlement to register as a British citizen. The immigration status of the child and its parents is irrelevant.
  • Special provisions may apply for the child to acquire British citizenship if a parent is a British Overseas citizen or British subject, or if the child is stateless.

Before 1983, birth in the UK was sufficient to confer British nationality irrespective of the status of parents, with an exception only for children of diplomats and enemy aliens. This exception did not apply to most visiting forces, so, in general, children born in the UK before 1983 to visiting military personnel (eg US forces stationed in the UK) are British citizens by birth.

British Citizenship by descent

Rules for acquiring British citizenship by descent depend on when the person was born.

From 1983

A child born outside the UK on or after 1 January 1983 will automatically acquire British citizenship by descent if either parent is a British citizen otherwise than by descent at the time of the birth.

  • only one parent needs to be British otherwise than by descent - either the father or the mother.
  • an unmarried father cannot pass on British citizenship automatically. Although if the parents marry subsequent to the birth the child normally will become a British citizen at that point if legitimated by the marriage and the father was eligible to pass on British citizenship
  • failing the above the child can be registered as British if it would have been British if parents were married and application is made before the child is 18.
  • where the parent is a British citizen by descent additional requirements apply. In the most common scenario, normally the parent is expected to have lived in the UK for three years and apply for the child to be registered as a British citizen within 12 months of the birth.
  • For British nationality purposes the Isle of Man and Channel Islands are fully part of the UK.
  • Before 21 May 2002, British Overseas Territories were treated as 'overseas' for nationality purposes. The exception was the Falkland Islands. For children born on or after 21 May 2002 in a British Overseas Territory (other than the Sovereign Base Areas of Cyprus) there is an entitlement to British citizenship on the same basis as UK born children.
  • Children born overseas to parents on Crown Service are normally granted British citizenship otherwise than by descent. In other words, their status is the same as it would have been had they been born in the UK.
  • In exceptional cases, the Home Secretary may register an child of parents who are British by descent as a British citizen under discretionary provisions, for example if the child is stateless.

Prior to 1983

Prior to 1983, as a general rule British nationality could only be transmitted from the father through one generation only, and parents were required to be married. See History of British nationality law

With effect from 30 April 2003, a person born outside the UK to a British mother may be entitled to register as a British citizen by descent if that person was born between 8 February 1961 and 31 December 1982. However those with permanent resident status in the UK, or entitled to Right of Abode, may instead prefer to seek naturalisation as a British citizen which gives transmissable British citizenship otherwise than by descent.

British citizenship by adoption

A child adopted by a British citizen only acquires British citizenship automatically if:

  • the adoption order is made by a court in the United Kingdom, Channel Islands, Isle of Man or Falkland Islands on or after 1 January 1983, or in another British Overseas Territory on or after 21 May 2002; or
  • it is a Convention adoption under the 1993 Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoptions effected on or after 1 June 2003 and the adopters are habitually resident in the United Kingdom on that date.

In both cases, at least one adoptive parent must be a British citizen on the date of the adoption.

In all other cases, an application for registration of the child as a British citizen must be made before the child is age 18. Usually this will be granted provided the Secretary of State accepts the adoption is bona fide and the child would have been a British citizen if the natural child of the adopters. Usually the adoption must have taken place under the law of a 'designated country' (most developed nations along with some others are 'designated' for this purpose) and be recognised in the UK. This is the standard method for children adopted by British citizens permanently resident overseas to acquire British citizenship.

The cancellation or annulment of an adoption order does not cause loss of British citizenship acquired by that adoption.

British children adopted by non-British nationals do not lose British nationality, even if they acquire a foreign nationality as a result of the adoption.

Requirements for naturalisation as a British citizen

The requirements for naturalisation as a British citizen depend on whether one is married to a British citizen or not.

For those married to a British citizen the applicant must:

  • hold indefinite leave to remain in the UK (or an equivalent such as Right of Abode or Irish citizenship)
  • have lived legally in the UK for three years
  • pass the Life in the UK Test unless exempted. Those aged 65 or over may be able to claim exemption, as are those who attend combined English language and citizenship classes. Proof of passing the test must be supplied with one's application for naturalisation.
  • meet specified English, Welsh or Scottish Gaelic language competence standards. Those who pass the Life in the UK Test are deemed to meet English language requirements.

For those not married to a British citizen the requirements are

  • five years legal residence in the UK
  • indefinite leave to remain or equivalent must have been held for 12 months
  • the applicant must intend to continue to live in the UK or work overseas for the UK government or a British corporation or association.
  • similar language and knowledge of life in the UK standards apply as for those married to British citizens

All applicants for naturalisation must be of "good character". Naturalisation is at the discretion of the Home Secretary but is normally granted if the requirements are met.

Citizens of EEA States and Switzerland

Since 2 October 2000, the Immigration (European Economic Area) Regulations have provided that with only a few exceptions, citizens of EU and European Economic Area states are not generally considered to be "settled" in the UK unless they apply for and obtain Indefinite Leave to Remain. This is relevant in terms of eligibility to apply for naturalisation or obtaining British citizenship for UK born children (born on or after 2 October 2000).

Irish citizens, because of the Common Travel Area provisions beween the UK and Republic of Ireland, are exempt from these restrictions.

From 1 June 2002, citizens of Switzerland are accorded EEA rights in the United Kingdom.

Children born in the UK to EU/EEA/Swiss parents who are not British citizens automatically may be registered as British citizens under the concessions provided in the law for UK born children. Most notably, the facility to be registered as British if a parent subsequently acquires settled status (or British citizenship), or if the child lives in the UK until age 10.

Registration as a British citizen

Registration is a simpler method of acquiring citizenship than naturalisation, but only certain people are eligible for it.

British nationals (other than British citizens) who have indefinite leave to remain in the UK or right of abode, are eligible for British citizenship by registration after five years' residence in the United Kingdom. This is an entitlement under s4 of the 1981 Act (section 4 registration).

Other cases where persons may be entitled to registration (either as a matter of law or policy) include:

  • children born in the UK where a parent obtains British citizenship or indefinite leave to remain after the child is born
  • children born in the UK who live in the UK until age 10.
  • children born to a British father who is not married to the mother
  • British Overseas citizens, British subjects and British protected persons who have no other nationality
  • certain British nationals from Hong Kong who meet the requirements of the Hong Kong (War Wives and Widows) Act 1996 or the British Nationality (Hong Kong) Act 1997
  • persons born outside the UK to a British born or naturalised mother between 1961 and 1982
  • certain children born outside the UK to a British citizen by descent
  • certain children born in the UK who are stateless
  • persons who acquire British overseas territories citizenship after 21 May 2002 (except those connected solely with the Sovereign Base Areas of Cyprus)
  • children under 18 who are adopted outside the United Kingdom by British citizens
  • former British citizens who renounced British citizenship

Acquisition of British Overseas Territories citizenship

The British Nationality Act 1981 contains provisions for acquisition and loss of British Overseas Territories citizenship (BOTC) on a broadly similar basis to those for British citizenship. See British Overseas Territories citizen

The Home Secretary has delegated his powers to grant BOTC to the Governors of the Overseas Territories. Only in exceptional cases will a person be registered or naturalised as a BOTC by the Home Office in the United Kingdom.

On 21 May 2002 any BOTC who did not hold British citizenship (except those from the Sovereign Base Areas) automatically acquired it under the British Overseas Territories Act 2002. Those acquring BOTC after that date are entitled to register as British citizens under s4A of the 1981 Act. History of British nationality law

Acquisition of other categories of British nationality

It is unusual for a person to be able to acquire British Overseas citizenship, British subject or British protected person status. They are not generally transmissable by descent, and nor are they open to acquisition by registration, except for certain instances to prevent statelessness

There is no provision to acquire British National (Overseas) although stateless children born to such persons may be entitled to British Overseas citizenship.

Any person who holds British Overseas citizenship, British subject status, or British protected person status, may register as a British citizen if they have no other nationality and have not lost or renounced any other nationality since 4 July 2002.

Persons connected with former British colonies

British Overseas citizenship is generally held by persons connected with former British colonies. The largest group are connected with Penang and Malacca (now part of Malaysia) before 31 August 1957. See British Overseas citizen

Persons born in the Republic of Ireland

Approximately 800,000 persons born before 1949 and connected with the Republic of Ireland remain entitled to claim British subject status under section 31 of the 1981 Act. See also British nationality and the Republic of Ireland

Descendants of the Electress Sophia of Hanover

Eligible descendants from the Electress Sophia of Hanover may hold British Overseas citizenship based on their status as British subjects before 1949. Where such a person acquired a right of abode in the UK before 1983, it is possible for British citizenship to have been acquired. See also History of British nationality law and Sophia Naturalisation Act

Loss of British nationality

Renunciation and resumption of British nationality

All categories of British nationality can be renounced by a declaration made to the Secretary of State for the Home Department. A person ceases to be a British national on the date that the declaration of renunciation is registered by the Home Secretary. If a declaration is registered in the expectation of acquiring another citizenship, but one is not acquired within six months of the registration, it does not take effect and you are considered to have remained a British national.

Renunciations made to other authorities are invalid: e.g., a general renunciation made upon taking up U.S. citizenship.

There are provisions for the resumption of British citizenship or British overseas territories citizenship renounced for the purpose of gaining or retaining another citizenship. This can generally only be done once as a matter of entitlement. Further opportunities to resume British citizenship are discretionary.

British subjects, British Overseas citizens and British Nationals (Overseas) cannot under any circumstances resume their British nationality after renunciation.

Automatic loss of British nationality

British subjects (other than British subjects by virtue of a connection with the Republic of Ireland) and British protected persons will lose their British nationality upon acquiring any other form of nationality, whether British, Commonwealth or foreign.

  • These provisions do not apply to British citizens.
  • British Overseas Territories citizens (BOTCs) who acquire another nationality do not lose BOTC status. However they may be liable to lose Belonger status in their home territory under its immigration laws. Such persons are advised to contact the Governor of that territory for information.
  • British Overseas citizens (BOC) do not lose BOC upon acquisition of another citizenship. However any entitlement to registration as a British citizen on the grounds of having no other nationality will no longer exist after acquiring another citizenship.

Deprivation of British nationality

Under amendments made by the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002, British nationals can be deprived of their citizenship if the Secretary of State is satisfied they are responsible for acts seriously prejudicial to the vital interests of the United Kingdom or an Overseas Territory. This provision only applies to dual nationals — it is not applicable if deprivation would result in a person's statelessness.

British nationals who are naturalised or registered may have their certificates revoked (and hence lose British nationality) if:

  • British nationality was obtained by fraud or concealment of material facts
  • the person, within five years of being granted citizenship, receives a prison sentence exceeding 12 months (although not if the person would otherwise be stateless).

Dual nationality and dual citizenship

In general there is no restriction, in United Kingdom law, on a British national being a citizen of another country as well. So, if a British national acquires another nationality, they will not automatically lose British nationality. Similarly, a person does not need to give up any other nationality when they become British.

Different rules apply in the cases of British protected persons and certain British subjects. A person who is a British subject otherwise than by connection with the Republic of Ireland will lose that status on acquiring any other nationality or citizenship. Similarly, a British protected person will no longer be a British protected person on acquiring any other nationality or citizenship. Although British Overseas citizens are not subject to loss of citizenship, a British Overseas citizen may lose an entitlement to register as a British citizen under s4B of the 1981 Act if he acquires any other citizenship.

Many other countries, however, do not allow dual nationality (see Multiple citizenship). If you have British nationality, and are also a national of a country which does not allow dual nationality, the authorities of that country may either regard you as having lost that nationality or may refuse to recognise your British nationality. If you are a British national, and you acquire the nationality of a country which does not allow dual nationality, you may be required by the other country to renounce (give up) your British nationality in order to retain the other citizenship.

Under international law, a State may not give diplomatic protection to one of its nationals in a country whose citizenship that person also holds. For example, if you are British and have another nationality, for example, American, and are visiting the United States, a British Consul in the United States cannot give you diplomatic help.

A British person who acquired a foreign citizenship by naturalisation before 1949 may have lost British nationality at the time. No specific provisions were made in the 1948 legislation for such former British subjects to acquire or otherwise resume British nationality, and hence such a person would not be a British citizen today. However women who lost British nationality on marriage to a foreign man before 1949 were deemed to have re-acquired British subject status immediately before the coming into force of the 1948 Act.

British citizenship ceremonies

With effect from 1 January 2004, all new applicants for British citizenship by naturalisation or registration who are aged 18 or over when the application is decided must attend a citizenship ceremony and take an Oath and Pledge to the United Kingdom.

Citizenship ceremonies are normally organised by:

  • local councils in England, Scotland and Wales
  • the Northern Ireland Office
  • the governments of the Isle of Man, Jersey and Guernsey
  • the Governors of British Overseas Territories
  • British consular offices outside the United Kingdom and Territories.

Persons from the Republic of Ireland (born before 1949) reclaiming British subject status under section 31 of the 1981 Act do not need to attend a citizenship ceremony. However should such a person subsequently apply for British citizenship by registration or naturalisation, attendance at a ceremony will be required.

For those who applied for British citizenship prior to 2004:

  • the oath of allegiance was administered privately through signing a witnessed form in front of a solicitor or other accredited person
  • those who already held British nationality (other than British protected persons) were exempt, as were those citizens of countries with the Queen as Head of State (such as Australia or Canada).

European citizenship

British nationals who are "United Kingdom nationals for Community purposes", namely:

  • British citizens;
  • British subjects with the right of abode; and
  • British Overseas Territories citizens connected to Gibraltar

are European citizens under European law.

However, British citizens who connected with the Channel Islands and Isle of Man do not have the right to live in other European Union countries (except the Republic of Ireland) unless they have connections though descent or residence with the United Kingdom itself.

Recent nationality legislation

Recent changes to the law include the British Overseas Territories Act 2002 and Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002. These have:

  • conferred full British citizenship on virtually all British overseas territories citizens
  • introduced a facility for otherwise stateless British Overseas citizens, British subjects and British protected persons to register as British citizens (by descent).
  • allowed those born overseas to British born or naturalised mothers between 1961 and 1982 to register as British citizens by descent.
  • introduced mandatory citizenship ceremonies for those applying for registration or naturalisation as a British citizen

See also History of British nationality law

Statistics on British Citizenship

The Home Office Research and Statistics Division publishes an annual report with statistics on grants of British citizenship broken down by type and former nationality. Since 2003, the report has also included research on take-up rates for British citizenship.

See also

External links