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Applying for British citizenship by naturalisation
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Applying for British citizenship by naturalisation

Naturalisation is the legal process by which a non-British adult becomes a British citizen. An application has to be made to the Home Office and if the criteria set out in the British Nationality Act 1981 are met then the application will be granted and the person can attend a ceremony to become a British citizen and obtain a Certificate of Naturalisation. Around 160,000 foreign nationals became British citizens in this way in 2019.

The application is normally made and paid for online via the gov.uk website, although a paper form, Form AN, can still be used. At the time of writing the fee was £1,330, of which only £80 (the administrative cost for the citizenship ceremony) will be refunded if the application is refused.

The requirements for naturalisation include a set period of lawful residence in the United Kingdom, possession of permanent immigration status, passing the “good character” test, passing the “Life in the UK” test and taking an oath of allegiance to Her Majesty the Queen at a formal citizenship ceremony. In this blog post we’re taking a quick look through these core requirements to explain what they mean and how the good character test is interpreted by the Home Office.

The Home Office has the legal power to waive some of these requirements but will not generally do so without being asked and without there being a good reason. Looking at the circumstances where the requirements might be relaxed in individual cases is beyond the scope of this blog post but we do address that in our ebook (details below).

If you would like to take a look for yourself at the legal requirements in the British Nationality Act 1981, take a look at section 6 and Schedule 1. There is also internal Home Office guidance to caseworkers which includes further information about how the Home Office interprets and applies the law.

Qualifying period of residence in UK

Most people will need to live in the UK lawfully for at least five years before they can apply for naturalisation as a British citizen. There are different rules in the British Nationality Act 1981 for those who are married to a British citizen and those who are not: for those not married to a British citizen the period will usually be six years.

In either case, if a person has overstayed or otherwise broken their period of lawful residence, the clock is usually reset and the countdown to qualifying for naturalisation will begin again.

There are also rules on the maximum amount of time that a person can spend outside the UK during their qualifying residence period. These are referred to as absences from the UK.

If married to a British citizen

The British Nationality Act 1981 says that a person married to a British citizen can apply for naturalisation after three years of living in the UK lawfully (BNA 1981, Schedule 1, paragraph 3(a)). But the Act also requires a person married to a British citizen to have permanent immigration status before being able to apply (BNA 1981, Schedule 1, paragraph 3(c)). Since 2012 it has taken five years for the spouse of a British citizen to qualify for permanent status (called indefinite leave to remain). So, in effect, the period of residence is really five years even for spouses of British citizens.

If a person married to a British citizen somehow managed to get permanent status within three years of beginning residence in the United Kingdom, he or she would be eligible to apply for naturalisation at the end of that three-year period.

The maximum permitted number of full days absent from the UK for those married to a British citizen is 270 days in total during the three years leading up to the application for naturalisation, no more than 90 of which can fall during the final qualifying year.

If not married to a British citizen

The British Nationality Act 1981 says that a person not married to a British citizen can apply for naturalisation after five years of lawful residence (BNA 1981, Schedule 1, paragraph 1(2)(a)). But the Act also requires a person not married to a British citizen to have permanent immigration status and to have held it for at least one year before applying for naturalisation (BNA 1981, Schedule 1, paragraph 1(2)(c)). It takes most migrants five years to qualify to apply for permanent immigration status, meaning that in reality it will usually take six years before the person can apply for naturalisation.

The maximum permitted number of full days absent from the UK for those not married to a British citizen is 450 days in total during the five years leading up to the application for naturalisation, no more than 90 of which can fall during the final year.

Permanent immigration status

As we have said above, all applicants for naturalisation will usually need to hold permanent immigration status. For most people this will mean a status called indefinite leave to remain, often referred to as ILR. Indefinite leave to remain is sometimes referred to as “settled status”.

The technical language of the British Nationality Act 1981 actually refers to a person “not subject under the immigration laws to any restriction on the period for which he might remain in the United Kingdom”. There are some migrants who meet this requirement without formally being granted indefinite leave to remain, such as certain Commonwealth citizens and Irish nationals.

Physical presence in the UK

An odd quirk of naturalisation applications is that the applicant must have been physically present in the UK exactly three or five years prior to their application (depending on whether they are married to a British citizen or not). This is because of the wording used in Schedule 1 of the British Nationality Act 1981 to establish the qualifying period of residence:

that he was in the United Kingdom at the beginning of the period of three [or five] years ending with the date of the application…

This requirement of the legislation cannot be waived by the Home Office; if it is not met the application will be refused and the application fee will not be refunded. If this is a problem, the applicant will need to defer his or her application until later.

Knowledge of language and life in the UK

eBook Naturalising as a British citizen: a guide

Full guide to the requirements and process for naturalising as a British citizen, including where the Home Office will show flexibility and where not. Case studies included throughout.

ebook View Now

All applicants for naturalisation must show sufficient knowledge of English, Welsh or Scottish Gaelic, and “sufficient knowledge about life in the UK”.

To pass the English language requirement, applicants will need to come from an English speaking country, have a degree taught in English, or pass an approved English language test. For the life in the UK element, the applicant must have passed the Life in the UK test.

There is discretion to waive the language and life in the UK requirement where it would be unreasonable to expect the applicant to fulfil it because of age or physical or mental condition. The language and life in the UK requirement will normally be waived where the applicant is aged 65 or over.

Intention to live in the UK

Those not married to a British citizen have to demonstrate an intention for their principal home to be in the UK.

Home Office guidance used to succinctly sum up this requirement as the need to show that the person had “thrown in their lot” with the United Kingdom. Evidence of a home and a life in the UK will generally be enough to discharge this requirement, though the Home Office may investigate further.

If a person is abroad or about to go abroad it may be important to explain this and to provide sufficient evidence to show that there is an intention to live in the UK. For example, caring for a person overseas who is ill or dying is likely to be a temporary absence and should not be treated as evidence that a person has no intention to live in the UK.

The good character requirement

The Home Secretary will only naturalise a person of “good character”. There is detailed guidance to Home Office caseworkers on what this means. Checks will be made in relation to criminal offences and financial solvency. Certain immigration and nationality decisions are now exempt from section 4 of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974. This means that it does not matter whether a conviction is “spent” when assessing good character.

The following table sets out the policy in relation to criminal offences:

SentenceImpact on Nationality applications
Four years or more imprisonmentApplication should be refused, regardless of when the conviction occurred.
Between 12 months and four years imprisonmentApplication should be refused unless 15 years have passed since the end of the sentence.
Up to 12 months imprisonment in the last seven yearsApplications should be refused unless seven years have passed since the end of the sentence.
A non-custodial offenceApplications should be refused if the conviction occurred in the last three years.

Conduct that does not amount to a criminal offence (or which was not prosecuted or did not lead to a conviction) can also lead to refusal of a naturalisation application on character grounds. In 2014, the good character requirement was extended to refuse applications of those who have been in breach of the immigration laws in the past ten years. This includes use of deception or dishonesty in an immigration application.

The Home Office is obliged by law to consider positive evidence of good character which is submitted with an application, although this does not mean the Home Office is obliged to grant such an application.

There are three categories of people who are exempt from meeting the good character requirement. They are:

  • people who apply under the statelessness provisions in Schedule 2 of the BNA 1981, which is directed at those who would otherwise be left stateless
  • people who apply under section 4B of the Act, which is directed at those who have no other citizenship
  • people who apply under section 4C of the Act, which is directed and those who would have been British but for historic gender discrimination in British nationality law.

Citizenship ceremonies

Sections 42 to 42B and Schedule 5 of the 1981 Act provide that anyone over the age of 18 who acquires British citizenship, whether by registration or naturalisation, must do so at a public ceremony and is required to take the oath and pledge of allegiance. Ceremonies are normally held in groups and normally take place at the local authority closest to the applicant’s home address. People can invite guests. A fee is payable and this fee makes up a proportion of the naturalisation application fee.

In exceptional circumstances an exemption may be made for any or all of the following:

  • the requirement to attend a citizenship ceremony
  • the requirement to make an oath of allegiance and pledge
  • the time limit for attending a ceremony

Normally a person seeking naturalisation has a period of three months to attend a citizenship ceremony. Due to the coronavirus pandemic this period was extended to six months, and the first ever virtual citizenship ceremony took place on 20 July 2020.

Challenging nationality decisions

There is no right of appeal to a court against refusal to grant nationality. There is however a mechanism similar to administrative review where a formal reconsideration request can be made on Form NR. An application for reconsideration carries a fee.

Ultimately, if that is refused, the only remedy would be judicial review. Some applications for judicial review of naturalisation decisions have occasionally succeeded but generally it is very hard to challenge Home Office decisions in this particular area of law because the legislation gives the Home Office a lot of discretion about how to make decisions.

For more information, take a look at our ebook or, if you are a lawyer, you can take our CPD course on naturalisation.

Module 1 What is naturalisation?
Unit 1 What is naturalisation?  
Unit 2 Other types of British citizenship entitlement or application  
Unit 3 Other types of British nationality  
Module 2 Residence requirements and intention to settle
Unit 1 Residence requirements for naturalisation  
Unit 2 Free of immigration time restrictions: ILR or settled status  
Unit 3 Length of residence: spouse or civil partner of a British citizen  
Unit 4 Length of residence: non-spouses  
Unit 5 Physical presence in UK at start of qualifying period  
Unit 6 Breaches of immigration law in the qualifying period  
Unit 7 Intention to settle  
Module 3 Good character
Unit 1 Introduction  
Unit 2 Criminal convictions  
Unit 3 War crimes, terrorism and other activities contrary to the public good  
Unit 4 Financial soundness  
Unit 5 Deception or dishonesty  
Unit 6 Immigration issues  
Unit 7 Dealing with the guidance in practice  
Unit 8 Exceptions to the good character requirement  
Module 4 Age and the knowledge of language and life test
Unit 1 Age (and options for children)  
Unit 2 Life in the UK test  
Unit 3 Knowledge of English  
Module 5 Applying for and getting citizenship
Unit 1 Application process  
Unit 2 Oath and citizenship ceremony  
Unit 3 Bringing a legal challenge  
Unit 4 Feedback and final quiz  

Immigration and asylum barrister, blogger, writer and consultant at Garden Court Chambers in London and founder of the Free Movement immigration law website.

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