There are different ways to achieve British citizenship, although the most common route is through ‘naturalisation’.

The following guide sets out who is eligible to apply for British citizenship by way of naturalisation, including the criteria for nationals of member states of the European Economic Union (EEA) or Switzerland.

Who is eligible for British citizenship?

The law governing naturalisation is set out within the British Nationality Act 1981 and associated regulations. This legislative framework sets out the legal requirements when applying for British citizenship by way of naturalisation.

The rules differ depending upon whether or not you are married to or in a civil partnership with a British citizen at the date of application. In broad terms, to apply for British citizenship by way of naturalisation you must be:

  • aged 18 or over
  • of sound mind (so that you understand the step you are taking)
  • can communicate in English (or Welsh or Scottish Gaelic) and have sufficient knowledge about life in the UK
  • are of good character
    intend to continue to live in the UK (unless you are married to or in a civil partnership with a British citizen)
  • have lived in the UK for a minimum of 5 years before you apply (unless you are married to or in a civil partnership with a British citizen, in which case this period is reduced to 3 years) and you meet the residence requirements.

British citizenship sound mind requirement

In the event that an applicant is not of sound mind, the Home Secretary still has the discretion to waive this requirement in certain circumstances. If you are completing an application on behalf of someone who is not of sound mind and for whom you are responsible, you will need to explain the following:

  • the applicant’s mental condition
  • the fact that they are in your care
  • reasons why it is in the applicant’s best interests to be granted British citizenship despite their inability to understand fully what is involved.

You will also need to provide documentary evidence in support of the applicant’s mental condition and their care arrangements.

English language & knowledge of life in the UK requirements

Applying for British citizenship involves a commitment to respect the laws, values and traditions of the UK. The ability to communicate in English and have knowledge of life in the UK forms an integral part of this commitment.

You can satisfy these requirements by passing the ‘Life in the UK’ test, together with one of the following:

  • obtaining an approved English speaking and listening qualification
  • providing evidence of a UK degree or other academic qualification deemed to be equivalent to a UK qualification taught or researched in English.

If you are a national of a majority English speaking country, eg, Australia, Canada or New Zealand, you will not be required to obtain any qualification, although you will still have to pass the Life in the UK test. This test will need to be taken at a UK test centre where you will need to confirm your identity, eg, by way of a biometric residence permit, passport or other Home Office travel document.

You may be wholly exempt if you are aged 65 or over, or have a long-term physical or mental condition that prevents you from meeting the English language and knowledge of life in the UK requirements.

British citizenship good character requirement

To be of good character you must have shown respect for the rights and freedoms of the UK, observed its laws and fulfilled your obligations as a resident of the UK. This includes not having a recent or serious criminal record.

Your application for British citizenship may be refused if you have either tried to deceive the Home Office or, alternatively, have been involved in immigration offences in the last 10 years, eg, illegally entering the UK or assisting someone in so doing.

British citizenship residence requirements

For most cases, you must have been physically present in the UK for a minimum of 5 years (or 3 years where you are married to or the civil partner of a British citizen) before the day your application is received.

To satisfy the residence requirement you should not have been absent for more than 90 days in the 12 months prior to making your application. The total number of days absence for the whole 5-year qualifying residence period should not exceed 450 days (or 270 days for the 3-year qualifying period).

In either case, you must not have been in breach of the immigration rules, ie; you must have been here legally throughout the whole qualifying period. This is especially relevant if you came to the UK as an asylum seeker and your application for refugee status and any appeals were refused during this period.

You must also be free from immigration time restrictions, ie; have indefinite leave to remain, during the last 12 months of the 5-year qualifying period (or on the date of making your application where married to or the civil partner of a British citizen).

The Home Office has some discretion to disregard excess absences, immigration breaches and immigration time restrictions. For absences in excess of the normal limits, you will need to have been resident in the UK for longer than the normal qualifying period – in some cases up to 8 years, unless there are exceptional and compelling reasons.

British citizenship for Crown and designated service

If you are in Crown or specially designated service (ie; working overseas directly for Her Majesty’s Government), you may not have to meet the residence requirements for British citizenship if you were serving outside of the UK on the date 5 years before applying.

If you are applying for British citizenship by way of naturalisation on these grounds, you will need to show:

  • you are serving overseas on the date that your application is received
  • you have been the holder of a responsible post overseas
  • you have given outstanding service, normally over a substantial period
  • you have some close connection with the UK.

You may also be exempt from certain residence requirements if you are married to or the civil partner of a British citizen in Crown or designated service. In either case, you must still satisfy all the other requirements of obtaining British citizenship by way of naturalisation.

British citizenship for EEA & Swiss nationals

For an applicant who is a national of an EEA member state or Switzerland, or a family member of a qualified national, you will be free from immigration conditions having exercised EEA free movement rights in the UK for any continuous 5-year period. By exercising your Treaty rights, this will give you permanent residence status.

To prove this status you will need to apply for a permanent residence card before applying for British citizenship. Unless you are married to or the civil partner of a British citizen, you will normally need to have held permanent resident status for 12 months prior to your application for naturalisation. This means that you may need to wait until you have been in the UK for 6 years before you can apply for British citizenship.

By way of exception, Irish citizens are not normally subject to any form of immigration control on arrival in the UK because Ireland is part of the Common Travel Area. If you are an Irish national, you do not need to apply for a permanent residence document before you apply for British citizenship.

Attending the British citizenship ceremony

In the event that your application for British citizenship is successful, you will need to make immediate contact with the local authority as you only have 90 days in which to attend a Home Office citizenship ceremony.

At the ceremony you will be asked to affirm or swear an oath of allegiance to Her Majesty the Queen and to pledge your loyalty to the UK. This is a legal requirement such that if you do not attend – within the requisite timeframe and without good reason – your application for British citizenship will be refused and you will need to re-apply.

Following the ceremony you will be presented with your certificate of naturalisation under British citizenship.

Legal advice when applying for British citizenship

Whilst being a British citizen has significant advantages – not least it will allow you to apply for a British passport and participate more fully in your local community – under the nationality laws of some countries you may automatically lose your nationality if you become a British citizen.

Further, if you obtain British citizenship on the basis of incorrect or fraudulent information you will be liable to prosecution. It is a criminal offence to make a false declaration to the Home Office knowing it is untrue.

It is therefore important to seek expert legal advice from an immigration specialist. Your legal adviser can also provide guidance as to the best way to obtain British citizenship, eg, through naturalisation or via an alternative route such as registration.

Legal disclaimer

The matters contained in this article are intended to be for information purposes only. This article does not constitute legal advice and should not be treated as such. Before acting on any of the information contained herein, expert legal advice should be sought.

As Editor of Lawble, Gill helps business and individuals become better informed about their legal rights. Gill is a content specialist in the fields of law, tax and human resources.