The idea of British Citizenship is a concept that has meant very different things over the course of recent British history, particularly in the 20th and 21st centuries, and still means very different things to different people. At its core, it is a legal status, in the same category as being licensed to drive or being employed. These days, however, someone describing themselves as ‘British’ or ‘a British Citizen’ is not only a sign of their legal citizenship status but also indicates membership of a certain nation and part of a shared culture. It can provoke friendliness or hostility in some people and can even lead some people to second guess whether the British Citizen in question is genuinely so, due to their own subjective criteria for what does (or should) constitute a British Citizen.
As a result, while it is perfectly possible to live your entire life in the UK without becoming a British Citizen and still enjoy almost all of the rights and freedoms of a British Citizen, many foreign nationals who migrate to the UK, and who have £1,330 to spare, choose to acquire British Citizenship at some point when they are eligible to do so. This process is called Naturalisation and in this series of blog posts, I will examine in detail the ways one can naturalise as a British Citizen and the steps you have to take to do so.
I will begin with the road to Naturalisation for those foreign nationals with Indefinite Leave to Remain in the UK (ILR) or EU Settled Status, going through each requirement and highlighting the differences between those who are married to British Citizens and those who are not.
Whatever your marital status, you must be at least 18 years old to naturalise as a British Citizen. There is not any discretion that can be exercised for the age requirements in an application for Naturalisation, however there are options available for children to become British Citizens. As these options will be the subject of a post of their own in the near future, I will not go into them now.
If you are married to a British Citizen, you need to have been in the UK for at least three years and have been physically present in the UK exactly three years before the date of your application (i.e. if you make your application on 1 October 2022, you will have to have been in the UK on 1 October 2019). Without a British spouse, it increases from three to at least five years and must have been physically present in the UK exactly five years before the date of your application (i.e. if you make your application on 1 October 2022, you will have to have been in the UK on 1 October 2017). This period of three/five years is called the ‘qualifying period’, as this is the period of time from which you qualify for Naturalisation. Except for members of the armed forces, diplomats and/or their spouses, there is no discretion on the requirement to have been present in the UK at the start of your qualifying period. As for where you have been since then, this will be covered in the section on absences.
A requirement for Naturalisation is to be free from all restrictions on how long you can be in the UK. In other words, you do not hold a visa with an expiry date on it. In most cases, that means having ILR or Settled Status in the UK. This is another non-negotiable requirement and you cannot apply for Naturalisation unless you are free from time limits on your stay in the UK. There are, however, differences and discretions on how long you need to have held it for.
If you are married to British Citizen, you can apply for Naturalisation as soon as you are granted ILR or Settled Status. Otherwise, you have to wait for at least 12 months before you can apply. There is, however, some discretion that can be exercised here. If you applied after less than 12 months but by the time the application is considered by the Home Office 12 months have passed, then discretion may be exercised. The same may happen if you applied for ILR at least 15 months prior to your Naturalisation application but you have not yet reached the 12-month mark because your ILR application was delayed for reasons that were not your fault. There are also exemptions for those who are short of the 12-month mark because of an ILR application that was incorrectly refused, those who are less than 10 or fewer from reaching the 12-month mark, or those with other exceptionally compelling or compassionate grounds.
One thing about the requirement to be of time restrictions on your visa at the time of Naturalisation is that in effect people married to British spouses have to wait at least 5 years until they can apply for Naturalisation, as it takes that long to qualify for ILR or Settled Status.
This means that if you have been away from the UK for more than two years and consequently lost your ILR, you will need to regain it before you can apply for Naturalisation. There is slightly more flexibility if you have Settled Status as it takes five years (or four years if you are a Swiss national) of absence before you lose it, although if you lose ILR you can apply for a Returning Resident Visa whereas if you lose your Settled Status you will need to submit a new application.
During your qualifying period, you cannot have been absent from the UK for more than a certain number of days: 270 days in the last three years for the spouses of British Citizens, 450 days in the last five years for everyone else. Additionally, the maximum number of days absent in the 12 months before your application is 90 days.
When it comes to absences this is another area where a degree of discretion can be exercised, depending on how far you are over the limit and/or if there is a good reason for it. Absences of a few days over the limit will usually be overlooked, absences that amount to weeks and months over the limit may be waived depending on the strength of the rest of your application and your pattern of absences, and a very high number of absences (i.e. double the limit or more) will only be waived if you qualify for an exemption (working in a UK-based multinational with regular overseas travel or in the merchant navy, serving or have a partner serving in the British Armed Forces, the Diplomatic Service or some other government-mandated posting, if you were unlawfully removed or prevented from entering the UK, if you were unable to return due the recent COVID-19 pandemic, or some other exceptionally compelling reason). This applies to both the overall absences in the qualifying period and absences in the 12 months before the application.
Furthermore, if you have been away from the UK for more than two years and consequently lost your ILR, you will need to regain it before you can apply for Naturalisation. There is slightly more flexibility if you have Settled Status as it takes five years (or four years if you are a Swiss national) of absence before you lose it, although if you lose ILR you can apply for a Returning Resident Visa whereas if you lose your Settled Status you will need to submit a new application.
Breaches of Immigration Law
You also cannot have been in the UK in breach of the immigration laws at any time during your qualifying period in the UK. This does not mean that if you have breached the immigration rules you cannot apply for Naturalisation, just that it resets the clock so you will have to complete another three/five years of residence without breaking the rules before you can apply. To be in breach of the immigration rules is to enter or be in the UK without a visa that allows you to do so. This does not include people who submit a valid immigration application before their visa expires, as they have the right to remain in the UK until their matter is sorted, even if that is after the expiry of their previous visa.
Discretion can be exercised for those whose breach occurred when they were minors and was the fault of their parents, victims of domestic violence, those unable to leave or extend their visa due to the COVID-19 pandemic, those whose application for a visa was incorrectly refused, and those who arrived clandestinely but either presented themselves to or were detected by the authorities without delay (usually within a month but sometimes longer can be allowed). Discretion will not be exercised if the breach was substantial and deliberate, it is usually minor and/or unintentional breaches that will be waived.
You need to be able to speak one of the UK’s official languages to be able to apply for Naturalisation. The languages in question are English, Welsh or Scottish Gaelic. To prove it, you will need to take a language test from an organisation approved by the Home Office and achieve at least level B1 of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR). If you have taken the test within the last two years (for example as part of an ILR application), you do not have to take it again. Furthermore, you do not have to take it if you are from any of the following countries as English is the first language in them:
- Antigua and Barbuda
- The Bahamas
- New Zealand
- Republic of Ireland
- St Kitts and Nevis
- St Lucia
- St Vincent and the Grenadines
- Trinidad and Tobago
The language requirement can be waived on grounds of age (under 18 or over 65) or a long-term mental or physical health condition if they provide evidence from a medical doctor. Temporary illnesses, illiteracy or dyslexia do not count.
Life in the UK Test
The Life in the UK Test consists of a series of questions showing you have sufficient knowledge of history, culture and life in the UK and is a requirement for Naturalisation. It is another part of the process that will receive its own post in the near future as it deserves greater analysis, but suffice it to say that it is quite a hard test to pass. It can be waived on the same grounds as the language requirement.
With very few exceptions, anybody who applies for Naturalisation needs to meet the so-called “good character requirement”. Where a person is deemed by the Home Office not to be “of good character” then his or her application will be refused. This requirement will also be explored in its own post soon as it is important and quite complicated, as are the scenarios when it can be waived, but it covers terrorism, criminal convictions, bankruptcy and a host of other transgressions.
This criterion only applies to those who are not married to British Citizens, as it is assumed to be obvious that their intention is to make the UK their home. Those to whom it applies must show that they intend to make the UK their principal home going forward. As the requirement is quite vague and subjective, most applications are assessed on a case-by-case basis and a lot of discretion can be exercised.
The Home Office will take most applicants at their word if they have an established home and life in the UK, meet the residence requirements and do not have too many absences. Things can get more complicated for people who have homes, residencies and/or citizenships in one or more other countries and frequently spend time outside the UK for long periods of time that are not just holidays or work trips.
In those cases, the Home Office will investigate, and the length and nature of the absences, the number and nature of properties abroad owned, the amount of family living abroad, where they are domiciled for tax purposes and whether their spouse resides or plans to reside abroad will be assessed. There are special provisions for people who will be abroad for education or work placements for more than six months (if it is for a UK-based professional career) and for those whose professions make it difficult to maintain a home in the UK, such as famous actors or musicians, and the status of separated spouses will not count against you.
- The British Nationality Act 1981