In Adrian Berry’s excellent blogpost, the author and barrister helpfully summarises the ways in which people automatically become British citizens. The complexity of this area of law means that some people may believe they are British when they actually aren’t, and others may already be British citizens without knowing it, especially since one can be a British citizen without having a British passport - a passport doesn’t give you nationality, it is only evidence of nationality.
The law in this area is particularly pertinent for those who may need to apply for the EU Settlement Scheme, but do not realise they need to do so because they mistakenly believe they are British citizens. These individuals must still apply to the EUSS before the deadline, which is the 31 December 2020. So how can you find out if you’re British, or if you need to apply?
You are automatically a British citizen if you were born in the UK or in British overseas territories to a British citizen parent or a parent with indefinite leave to remain. This means that even if you were born in the UK to parents who are EU nationals, you are not automatically a British citizen unless one of your parents had indefinite leave to remain at the time of your birth. Indefinite leave to remain means being ordinarily resident in the UK (i.e. not a visitor) and having no time restrictions on the permission to be in the UK. EU citizens can automatically acquire such a permanent residence status after five years of residence if they are working, self-employed or self-sufficient/student with comprehensive health insurance.
The parent could be either your mother or father. Prior to 2006, parents had to be married before fathers could pass on their British citizenship, so if you were born before 2006 to a British father you may have to register for citizenship. The parent passing on their citizenship could also be your adoptive parent if you were adopted in the UK or a Hague Convention country.
Those born in a foreign country can be British citizens by descent if they have a British citizen parent. However, this is only the case for one generation: British citizens by descent (those born outside the UK) cannot pass citizenship on automatically to children born outside the UK and British overseas territories. So, if you and your British parent were born outside the UK, you may not be a British citizen unless you have been registered.
Other people automatically became British citizens on 1 January 1983 if they were previously Citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies with a right of abode in the UK, because this is when the British Nationality Act 1981 came into force. Similarly, some people in British overseas territories were automatically made British Citizens through the British Overseas Territories Act 2002.
British nationality comes in different forms so people without British Citizenship could still have British nationality. For example, British Protected Persons are British nationals who have connections to former British colonial possessions. British Protected Persons can be found in now independent countries such as Kenya, Uganda, Zambia and Malawi. People who were born pre-1949 in India or Pakistan but who did not become an Indian or Pakistani citizen after independence will have retained their British Subject status. Alternatively, under the British Nationality Act 1981, people acquire nationality if they were born Stateless and would remain stateless unless given British nationality.
Even if you don’t automatically possess British nationality, you could still acquire it if you register or apply for naturalisation.
If you’re European and unsure whether you hold British nationality, it is worth checking soon. You need to check so, if necessary, you can apply for the EUSS scheme before the deadline on the 31 December 2020, and ensure you remain in the UK legally after Brexit.