7 alternative ways to become a British citizen

Many people are aware of the standard ancestry, work and business routes to UK citizenship, but most don’t know about the other, uncommon ways to become a British citizen. John Dunn, director of citizenship & immigration at Sable International, discusses the lesser known routes to a UK passport.

The complexities of British citizenship

At the start of the 20th century, British nationality law was simple: Anyone born in the British empire was a British subject, and any British subject had the right to live in Britain. As the empire evolved into a Commonwealth, newly independent states created their own nationalities.

Until the passage of the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1962, there was a basic principle that “any citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies” (CUKC) had the right of free entry.

Then, through a series of acts between 1962 and 1971, this right dissolved into a narrowed down set of statuses – not technically nationalities – reserved for those who had at least one UK-born grandparent.

Contemporary UK immigration law and policy now determines the exact relation to the UK for people who were born in these territories and their children. As such, depending on where and when you, or your parents or grandparents, were born, you could be eligible to apply for British citizenship.

1. British National Overseas (BNO) – Hong Kong

British National Overseas (BNO) citizenship is a type of British nationality created in 1985 that people in Hong Kong could apply for before the 1997 handover to China, in order to retain a link with the UK.

Holders of this nationality are considered Commonwealth citizens, but not British citizens. They are not automatically granted the right of abode anywhere, including the UK and Hong Kong, through their BNO status.

The lifelong status, which cannot be automatically passed down to family members, did not give holders any special rights, other than that they could visit the UK for six months without a visa. But a new system, put in place from 31 January 2021, allows these BNO citizens and their close family to apply to live and work in the UK.

Immediate dependants can include a spouse who doesn’t hold a BNO passport or children under the age of 18.

This visa permits holders to live and work in the UK for two periods of 30 months (or five years) with the potential to gain British citizenship.

2. British Overseas Territories Citizen

British Overseas Territories (BOT) are, quite frankly, the last vestiges of the British Empire. These territories are under the sovereignty and formal control of the UK, but are not an actual part of the country.

Most BOTs are self-governing but rely on the UK in crucial matters of foreign policy. Since they are separate jurisdictions, there is no BOT representation in the British parliament. The UK also exerts control through a governor of each territory, appointed by the British Monarch.

Each BOT has the capacity to legislate and make provision for its own immigration law and thus to define who belongs to the territory and who has the right of abode. Both the immigration law and the nationality law of a BOT must be consulted in order to determine who may live and work in that territory free of immigration controls.

British Overseas Territories Citizenship (BOTC) is a class of British nationality that references the legal attachment or “bond” for persons who may belong to overseas territories with constitutional and historical links to the UK.

These territories are considered British Overseas Territories from their formation on 1 January 1983. Those with family links to a British overseas territory are either considered a BOTC at birth, or they have a right to apply to be.

BOTC status does not give the holder right of abode in the United Kingdom, but since 2002 almost all BOTCs simultaneously hold British citizenship, except for those connected only with the territory of Akrotiri and Dhekelia. Nationals of this class who are not also full citizens are subject to immigration controls when entering the UK.

3. British Protected Person – Protectorates & Protected States

British Protected Person (BPP) status is a class of British nationality associated with former British possessions outside the United Kingdom that were either protectorates, protected states, United Kingdom mandates or United Kingdom trust territories.

BPP status describes a legal attachment or bond for persons considered by the UK to be British nationals, albeit that they may not live and work in the UK free of immigration controls by virtue of that status.

The BPP status arose as a result of a treaty (agreement) between the Ruler of a certain State/Country and the UK itself. In the Morden day, certain classes are people can claim a British passport confirming them as British Protected Person.

As a general rule, the status is granted where an applicant or their father was born in a former British protectorate or protected state and was not granted the nationality of that territory on independence.

BPP status could have been passed down the male line only (i.e. from fathers only) to children in certain circumstances before 16 August 1978. In some circumstances, BPP status can be upgraded to full British citizenship. This is sometimes possible even if another nationality is held. However, this is a complex area of British nationality law and requires specialist advice.

4. Crown service

Crown service refers to employment in the service of the Crown under His Majesty’s Government. It includes the British military, the Overseas Civil Service, the Colonial Service and the Diplomatic Corps.

The most common situation where this nationality solution would apply (but there are others) was where your father was on war duty (and recruited in the UK) between 1939 and 1945. So, an obvious indicator of eligibility in this instance is if you were born during these years.

The position is complicated further with the definition of ‘Crown service’ and what we term as ‘designated service’.

Regardless, claims are possible if you were born:

  • Between 1 January 1949 and 31 December 1982, your parent was recruited in the UK and must have been employed in Crown service at the date of your birth.
  • After 1 January 1983, a UK-born grandfather must have been employed in Crown service at the date of your relevant parent’s birth.

Claims can only come from a UK-born grandfather, as gender discrimination in the grandparent generation has not yet been eliminated. We anticipate that legislation will be passed to allow claims to come from a UK-born grandmother.

5. Citizen of the UK and colonies

The British Nationality Act (1948) provided for a new status of Citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies (CUKC), consisting of all those British subjects who had a close relationship (either through birth or descent) with the United Kingdom and its remaining colonies during the period 1 January 1949 to 31 December 1982.

Prior to 1949, every Commonwealth established its own citizenship (with the exception of Newfoundland, which had different arrangements). The act also provided that British subjects could be known by the alternative title of Commonwealth citizens.

A person born outside what is now the United Kingdom before 1 January 1983, but in what was at the time part of the United Kingdom and Colonies would have been born a CUKC. Most such people will have lost that status upon the independence of the relevant country; however, some either retained their original status or became British citizens on 1 January 1983.

If you have CUKC status, and you were born before 1983 to a British mother, you may be able to register as a British citizen. However, each case requires careful analysis.

6. British Overseas Citizen – Former colonies

As a general rule, British Overseas Citizen (BOC) status is granted where an applicant or their father was born in a former British colony and was not granted the nationality of that territory upon independence. The BOC status arose as a result of the independence day arrangements of former British territories (mainly former British colonies).

Those eligible to apply for a British passport describing themselves as a BOC may gain advantages in applying for visas for other countries and are entitled to the protection of the British government in times of need overseas.

It is also possible for a BOC to gain full British citizenship both with and without UK residence. This is sometimes possible even if another nationality is held. However, this is a complex area of British nationality law that requires specialist advice.

7. British subject – India and Ireland

Until 1949, nearly everyone with a close connection to the United Kingdom was called a British subject. All citizens of Commonwealth countries were collectively referred to as British subjects until January 1983. However, this was not an official status for most of them. Since 1983, very few people have qualified as British subjects.

British subjects derive the status from association with pre-1949 Ireland, or from being British subjects associated with either India or Pakistan who did not acquire the citizenship of that country following independence, or from being wives of (male) British subjects.

Changes to the law have created many more opportunities for children to acquire British citizenship through a father or mother, including adopted children and children of unmarried parents. There are hundreds of ways to potentially qualify through a parent or grandparent or colonial connection today. Each situation has to be assessed individually.

  • By John Dunn, director of citizenship & immigration at Sable International

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7 alternative ways to become a British citizen