British nationality law is the law of the United Kingdom concerning citizenship and other categories of British nationality. The law is complex owing to the United Kingdom's status as an imperial power.
English law and Scots law have always distinguished between the Monarch's subjects and aliens. Until 1914 British nationality law was uncodified. The British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act 1914 codified existing common law and statute, with a few minor changes.
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With the development of the modern British Commonwealth of Nations in the 20th century, the single Imperial status of British subject was deemed by some to be 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 British 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 1971 Act in the intervening years, the principal 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 Republic of Ireland before 1949 who have made a declaration to retain British nationality. Those British subjects connected with former British India lose British nationality if they acquire any other.
There are currently several classes of British national:
Of the various classes of British nationality and BPP status, 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.
Of all the six classes of British nationality, only the status of British citizen carries with it the right of abode somewhere (in this case the UK), and all British Passports include a note to this effect. However, in practice, BOTCs (except those associated with the Sovereign bases in Cyprus) were granted full British citizenship in 2002, BN(O)s have right of abode in Hong Kong, BSs and BPPs lose their statuses upon acquisition of another nationality (except BSs connected the Republic of Ireland, who have the right to live and work in the UK anyway because of EU treaties) and so should be eligible for registration as British Citizens under the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002.
This makes British Overseas Citizens unique in they their nationality status is not associated with the right of residence anywhere in the world.
British Citizenship can be acquired in the following ways:
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 UK Border Agency (Formerly known as Border and Immigration Agency or BIA). Information is also available from the Home Office 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.
Under the law in effect from 1 January 1983, 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.
Before 1983, birth in the UK was sufficient in itself 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 (e.g. US forces stationed in the UK) are British citizens by birth.
'British Citizenship by descent' is the category for the children born outside the UK to a British citizen. Rules for acquiring British citizenship by descent depend on when the person was born.
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.
Before 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 20 July 2009, the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act of 2009 provides that 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 before 1 January 1983. Before the 2009 changes, only persons born after 7 February 1961 and before 1 January 1983 were eligible for this provision. However those with permanent resident status in the UK or who are entitled to the right of abode may instead prefer to seek naturalisation as a British citizen which gives transmissible British citizenship otherwise than by descent. Requirements for successful registration are that the applicant be of good character and attend a citizenship ceremony.
A child adopted by a British citizen only acquires British citizenship automatically if:
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.
Naturalisation as a British citizen is at the discretion of the Home Secretary (i.e., in practice, his or her officials). The Home Secretary may grant British citizenship to anyone they "think fit".  Although the Home Office sets down a number of official requirements for naturalisation, the Home Office may waive any of these, and may refuse citizenship to a person even if they meet all of the requirements.  However, applications for naturalisation are normally granted if the requirements are met.
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:
For those not married to a British citizen the requirements are:
Those applying for British citizenship in the Channel Islands and Isle of Man (where the application is mainly based on residence in the Crown Dependencies rather than the UK) do not have to sit the Life in the UK Test. Instead, in the Isle of Man, there is a Life in the Isle of Man Test, consisting of certain questions taken from the Life in the UK Test syllabus and certain questions taken from a separate syllabus relating to matters specific to the Isle of Man. In due course, it is expected that Regulations will be introduced to that effect in the Channel Islands. The provisions for proving knowledge of English, Welsh or Scottish Gaelic remain unchanged until that date for applicants in the Crown Dependencies. In the rare cases where an applicant is able to apply for naturalisation from outside the United Kingdom, a paper based version of the Life in the UK Test may be available at a British diplomatic mission. Details (pdf)
As of 11 February 2009, wait times for naturalization applications were reportedly significant, taking up to 6 months to complete. The UK Border Agency stated that this was occurring because of the widespread changes proposed to the UK Immigration Laws likely to take effect in late 2009.
As of 6 April 2009, the fee for naturalisation (including Citizenship ceremony fee) is £720 for single applications, and £850 for joint application, for husband and wife (or civil partners living together) if applying at the same time.
The immigration status for citizens of European Economic Area states and Switzerland has varied since 1983. This is important in terms of eligibility for naturalisation, and whether the UK-born child of such a person is a British citizen. Details (pdf)
In general, before 2 October 2000, any EEA citizen exercising Treaty rights in the United Kingdom was deemed to be "settled" in the United Kingdom. Hence a child born to that person in the United Kingdom would normally be a British citizen by birth.
The Immigration (European Economic Area) Regulations 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 permanent residency. 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).
A further change took place on 30 April 2006 with the coming into force of the Immigration (European Economic Area) Regulations 2006. These provide that citizens of EEA states and Switzerland automatically acquire permanent residence after 5 years resident in the United Kingdom exercising Treaty rights.
Children born in the United Kingdom from this to EEA/Swiss parents will normally be British citizens automatically if at least one parent has been exercising Treaty rights for 5 years. If the parents have lived in the United Kingdom for less than 5 years when the child is born, the child may be registered as British under s1(3) of the British Nationality Act once the parents have completed 5 years residence in the United Kingdom.
Children born between 2 October 2000 and 29 April 2006 may be registered as British citizens as soon as one parent has completed 5 years residence exercising Treaty rights in the United Kingdom.
Irish citizens, because of the Common Travel Area provisions between the UK and Republic of Ireland, are exempt from these restrictions and are normally treated as "settled" in the United Kingdom immediately upon taking up residence.
Greek citizens did not acquire full Treaty rights in the United Kingdom until 1 January 1988 and citizens of Spain and Portugal did not acquire these rights until 1 January 1992.
Non-British children with an EEA/Swiss parent may be registered as British once the parent becomes "settled" in the United Kingdom under the terms of the Immigration Regulations dealing with EEA citizens.
There is a separate entitlement for any such UK-born child to be registered as British if he or she lives in the United Kingdom until age 10, irrespective of parent's (or child's) immigration status.
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:
The British Nationality Act 1981 contains provisions for acquisition and loss of British Dependent Territories citizenship (BDTC) (renamed as British Overseas Territories citizenship (BOTC) in 2002) on a broadly similar basis to those for British citizenship. 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 acquiring BOTC after that date are entitled to register as British citizens under s4A of the 1981 Act.
It is currently unusual for a person to be able to acquire British Overseas citizenship, British National (Overseas), British subject or British protected person status. They are not generally transmissible by descent, and nor are they open to acquisition by registration, except for certain instances to prevent statelessness.
The Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 granted British Overseas Citizens, British Subjects and British Protected Persons the right to register as British citizens if they have no other citizenship or nationality and have not after 4 July 2002 renounced, voluntarily relinquished or lost through action or inaction any citizenship or nationality. Previously such persons would have not had the right of abode in any country, and would have thus been de facto stateless. Despite strong resistance from Senior Officials at the Home Office, the then Home Secretary, David Blunkett, said on 3 July 2002 that this would "right a historic wrong" which had left stateless tens of thousands of Asian people who had worked closely with British colonial administrations (see UK to right 'immigration wrong', BBC 5 July 2002).
British Overseas citizenship is generally held by persons connected with former British colonies.
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). There is no provision to acquire British National (Overseas) although stateless children born to such persons may be entitled to British Overseas citizenship and can apply to register as British citizens.
In some cases, former BDTCs from Hong Kong have been able to acquire British citizenship (BC) 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.
Most of these British nationals (BC and BN(O)) aforementioned 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 articles HKSAR passport, Home Return Permit and Chinese nationality law.
In February 2006, in response to extensive representations made by Lord Avebury and Tameem Ebrahim, British authorities announced that six hundred British citizenship applications of ethnic minority children of Indian descent from Hong Kong were wrongly refused. The applications dated from the period July 1997 onwards. Where the applicant in such cases confirms that he or she still wishes to receive British citizenship the decision will be reconsidered on request. No additional fee will be payable by the applicant in such cases. A template to request reconsideration is available for those who wish a prior application to be reconsidered.
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
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 Naturalization Act 1705
All categories of British nationality can be renounced by a declaration made to the Home Secretary. 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 the person is 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. The forms must be sent through the UK Border Agency's citizenship renunciation process.
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.
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.
Under amendments made by the Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act 2006, British nationals can be deprived of their citizenship if the Secretary of State is satisfied "deprivation is conducive to the public good". This provision has been in force since 16 June 2006 when the Immigration, Nationality and Asylum Act 2006 (Commencement No 1) Order 2006 came into force. This provision only applies to dual nationals, and does not operate to render a person stateless.
Previously, since 2003, under amendments made by the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002, British nationals could 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.
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 a material fact.
Since the British Nationality Act of 1948, there is in general 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 a person has British nationality, and is also a national of a country which does not allow dual nationality, the authorities of that country may either regard the person as having lost that nationality or may refuse to recognize his British nationality. If a person is a British national, and he acquires the nationality of a country which does not allow dual nationality, he may be required by the other country to renounce his British nationality in order to retain the other citizenship.
Under international law, the Master Nationality Rule states that a State may not give diplomatic protection to one of its nationals in a country whose citizenship that person also holds. For example, if a person is both British and American, he cannot be given diplomatic help by a British Consul in the United States.
A British person who acquired 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 reacquired British subject status immediately before the coming into force of the 1948 act.
From 1 January 2004, all new applicants for British citizenship by naturalisation or registration aged 18 or over if their application is successful must attend a citizenship ceremony and either make an affirmation or take an oath of allegiance to the monarch, and also make a pledge to the United Kingdom.
Citizenship ceremonies are normally organised by:
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 before 2004:
British nationals who are "United Kingdom nationals for European Union purposes", namely:
are European Union citizens under European Union law.
However, by virtue of a special provision in the UK Accession Treaty, British Citizens who are connected with the Channel Islands and Isle of Man (i.e. considered "Channel Islanders and Manxmen") do not have the right to live in other European Union countries (except the Republic of Ireland, through the long-established Common Travel Area) unless they have connections through descent or residence in the United Kingdom.
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.