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Becoming a British citizen

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There are six forms of British citizenship, some of which are defined in the British Nationality Act 1981. They are:

  • British citizenship;
  • British overseas citizenship;
  • British overseas territories citizenship;
  • British national (overseas);
  • British protected person; and
  • British subject.

Of these, only British citizens have an automatic right to live and work in the UK and to apply for a British passport. You can be a British citizen by descent or through adoption by British parents or if you were born in the UK after January 1983 and at least one of your parents is British, or settled here at the time of your birth. Anyone else who wants to become a British citizen must go obtain permission.

Becoming a British citizen

You may be eligible to apply for naturalisation as a British citizen if you have been living in the UK for the last five years (three years if you are married/civil partnered to a British citizen); or you or your spouse/civil partner is in crown or designated service outside the UK.

There are seven eligibility requirements. You must be:

  • aged 18 or over; and
  • of sound mind; and
  • intending to continue living in the UK, or to working in crown service, the service of an international organisation of which the UK is a member, or the service of a company or association established in the UK; and
  • able to communicate in English, Welsh or Scottish Gaelic to an acceptable degree; and
  • sufficiently knowledgeable of life in the UK; and
  • of good character; and
  • able to meet the residential requirements.

Residential requirements

The residential qualifying period will be worked out from the day your application is received by the UK Border Agency. To show you meet the residential requirements for naturalisation you need to have:

  • lived in the UK for at least five years; and
  • been in the UK five years before the date of your application; and
  • not spent more than 450 days outside the UK during the five year period; and
  • not spent more than 90 days outside the UK in the last 12 months of the five-year period; and
  • not breached any immigration rules during the five-year period.

If you are a European Economic Area (EEA) or Swiss national or family of such, you will automatically have permanent residence status if you’ve exercised EEA free-movement rights in the UK for a continuous five-year period. You must have held permanent residence status for 12 months before you apply for naturalisation.

If you’re a spouse/civil partner of a British citizen you’ll need to have been resident in the UK for at least three years; and have been here three years before the date of your application; and have not spent more than 270 days outside the UK during the three-year period; and have not spend more than 90 days outside the UK in the last 12 months of the three-year period; and have not been in breach of the immigration rules at any stage during the three-year period.

If you don’t meet the five-year residence requirement, you may be eligible to register as a British citizen on the basis of your own crown or similar service. You will need to show that you’ve been in crown service under the government of a British overseas territory; or you’ve been in service as a member of a body established by law in a British overseas territory, the members of which are appointed by or on behalf of the crown.  

Sound mind requirement

Also known as the full capacity requirement, the sound mind requirement means you must have the ability to make you own decisions. You must be able to comprehend the step you are taking in applying for British nationality.  

Good character requirement

Checks will be made with the police and other government agencies to ensure that you show respect for the rights and freedom of the UK, have observed its laws and fulfilled your duties and obligations as a resident. Applications will normally be refused if you have an unspent criminal offence.

As well as your criminal record – including any pending criminal proceedings against you – details of any civil action brought against you must be revealed, as must the fact that you’ve been declared bankrupt at some point. Your financial background will be looked into with checks made that you pay income tax and National Insurance contributions.  

Knowledge of language and life in the UK

If you speak English to a passable level, you’ll need to get through a Life in the UK test. If you’re not an English speaker, you’ll need to pass a course in English and citizenship.

  • Non-English speakers - If English isn’t your main language, you need to do English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) courses. The course must include citizenship materials to allow you to gain sufficient knowledge of the UK at the same time as developing your knowledge of the English language. Before you apply for citizenship, you will need to show that you have moved up from one ESOL level to the next.
  • English speakers - For those whose English skills are higher than ESOL Entry 3, you’re required to pass the Life in the UK test. This is composed of 24 multiple choice questions based on the information in the handbook Life in the UK: A Journey to Citizenship. Make sure you have the most recent version of the handbook before you sit the test. You can take the test at one of the many test centres around the country. You’ll need to send your pass certificate in as part of your application. You can take the test in Welsh or Scottish Gaelic if you choose.
  • Exemptions to language and knowledge requirements - If you’re aged 65+, or have a long-term physical/ mental condition that permanently stops you learning English or being tested on your knowledge of life in the UK, you may be exempted from both the language and the knowledge of life in the UK requirements.

How to apply

From 16 July 2012 applicants outside the UK must send their application to the UK Border Agency (UKBA) in the UK.

There are three ways to apply for British citizenship or nationality if you are in the UK:

  • Nationality Checking Service - Local authorities (eg, county or city councils) provide the nationality checking service (NCS). A local authority can accept and check your application and forward it to the UKBA. It will also copy your documents and return them to you.
  • Agents or representative - If your case is complex, you can appoint a representative to give you advice and act on your behalf. Make sure the representative is registered with the Office of the Immigration Service Commissioner. If you use an agent or representative you’ll need to submit original documents rather than copies.
  • Individual applications - You may apply directly to the UKBA without using the nationality checking service or a representative. You must submit either original documents, or a fully certified photocopy of your documents. The application form and guide tells you what documents need to be submitted.

The UKBA may ask for additional documentation while it processes your application (you will have three weeks to provide this) and/ or may invite you for an interview. While the application is being processed, you must inform UKBA if there are any changes in your:

  • marital or civil partnership status; or
  • address; or
  • people acting on your behalf.

You also need to tell UKBA if you become involved in a police investigation or anything that may result in criminal charges.

Citizenship ceremony

If your application for British citizenship is successful, you will be invited to go to a citizenship ceremony, which you will need to attend within 90 days. At ceremony you have to make an oath of allegiance (or an affirmation) and a pledge. When the ceremony is over, you will be presented with your certificate of British citizenship and a welcome pack.

Getting legal advice

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Useful links

UK Border Agency - British citizenship

Useful articles

Overview of immigration to the UK
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