Visas & Immigration

Paths to citizenship in the UK

Planning to settle in the UK? Find out about British passports, citizenship tests, and more with this guide to British citizenship.

British citizenship

By Gary Buswell

Updated 8-1-2024

If you’re a long-term foreign resident in the UK, there’s a good chance that British citizenship has crossed your mind. Becoming a British citizen takes a bit of time and money, as it does in most countries, but it comes with benefits such as full political rights and the chance to get a British passport.

This guide will look at the different routes to British citizenship, with sections on:

Citizenship in the UK

Current UK citizenship law is based on the 1981 British Nationality Act, which lays out the different paths to becoming a British citizen. Rules around citizenship and nationality in the UK are fairly liberal but also quite complex – a mix of jus soli (citizenship by birth) and jus sanguinis (citizenship by descent) as well as routes via long-term UK residence or nationality of current and former British overseas territories.

However, it has become tougher to become a British citizen in recent years. Applicants now have to pass a Life in the UK test, which became more stringent in 2014. Citizenship fees have also risen sharply over the last decade or so.

According to recent statistics, 39% of expats living in the UK are British citizens. This figure rises to over 75% among foreign-born residents in the UK for over 10 years. There were 130,568 grants of UK citizenship in 2020, down from a peak of 208,095 in 2013.

British citizenship certificate

The main paths to citizenship in the UK are through:

  • Birth in the UK, if at least one parent is a British citizen or long-term resident
  • Descent, if you were born abroad to a British citizen
  • Naturalization, if you are a long-term UK resident
  • Registration, if you are a national of certain overseas countries
  • Adoption

The Department of Visas and Immigration, part of the UK Home Office, is in charge of citizenship in the UK.

British citizenship by birth

You are not automatically a British citizen if you are born in the UK. It depends on when you were born and the citizenship status of your parents. Prior to 1 January 1983, anyone born in the UK or one of the British colonies was considered a citizen of the UK. However, since the start of 1983, you can only claim British citizenship by birth if you were born in the UK and at least one parent was any of the following at the time of your birth:

  • British citizen
  • EU/EEA citizen living in the UK
  • Non-EU/EFTA citizen with residency rights in the UK (indefinite leave to remain, right of abode, etc.)

The rules have been amended slightly a few times since 2000. The biggest change is that following Brexit, children of EU/EEA citizens born from 1 July 2021 only get British citizenship if at least one parent has EU settled status. You can find more detailed information about who qualifies for British citizenship by birth here.

How to apply for citizenship through birth

If you qualify for British citizenship by birth automatically, you don’t need to make an application. However, you can apply for citizenship by birth if either:

  • You were born in the UK, are under 18 and at least one parent became a UK citizen, got indefinite leave or permanent residence after you were born.
  • You were born in the UK and lived there until the age of 10, if you meet certain other conditions.

The fee for making an application is £1,012 (or £1,026 if you’re over 18) plus £80 citizenship ceremony fees if an adult. Applications usually take around six months. Visit the UK government’s website for full information, including application forms.

Citizenship by descent in the UK

You can claim British citizenship through descent if you were born outside the UK and one of your parents is a UK citizen through birth, naturalization, registration, or adoption. However, you need to meet certain criteria depending on when you were born. There are three main categories when it comes to citizenship by descent, depending on whether you were:

Prior to 1983, citizenship of the “UK and Colonies” was automatically transferred only through the father, if parents were married. Between 1983 and 30 June 2006, citizenship could be transferred through either parent but the marriage rule still applied if transferred through the father. Since 1 July 2006, you can acquire citizenship through either parent if they are a British citizen regardless of marriage.

uk crowds

How to apply for citizenship through descent

If you qualify for British citizenship by descent automatically, you don’t need to apply. However, certain other groups can make an application. These include:

  • Those born to at least one British citizen before 1 July 2006 when the parents were not married.
  • Those born since 1 July 2006 who have lived in the UK with their parents, and at least one parent was a British citizen through descent.

The application fee is £1,012 for those born since 1 July 2006. Those born before this date only have to pay the £80 citizenship ceremony fee. Applications can take up to six months to process. See more information, including application forms, here.

British citizenship by naturalization/residence

You can apply for UK citizenship by naturalization after five years of residence in the UK, as long as this includes at least 12 months of either indefinite leave or EU-settled status. This can be sooner under certain circumstances, such as if you are married to a British citizen.

You will also need to meet the following requirements:

  • Proof of sufficient knowledge of English, Welsh, or Scottish Gaelic
  • Pass the Life in the UK test
  • Have no serious criminal convictions
  • Spent no more than 450 days outside the UK in the last five years and no more than 90 days abroad in the last year

How to apply for citizenship through naturalization/residence

You can apply for British citizenship through naturalization in two ways:

You will need to attend an appointment at a UK Visa and Citizenship Application Services (UKVCAS) to provide your biometric data and scan copies of any documents not sent online.

Applications normally take up to six months to process. You will need to pay £1,330 (or £1,012 for children aged under 18) plus £80 citizenship ceremony fees (if an adult) and biometric data costs (just under £20).

Citizenship by marriage in the UK

You can apply for UK citizenship through fast-track naturalization if you are married to a British citizen and have been living in the UK for at least three years. Furthermore, you don’t need to fulfil the 12-month indefinite leave or settlement period. You will need to meet the same additional criteria as for standard naturalization applications, for example passing the Life in the UK test.

Newlywed couple at their wedding

Should you wish to apply for a divorce in the UK, rules vary depending on your residency status. Rules may also differ if you file for divorce abroad.

How to apply for citizenship through marriage

The application process, times and fees for citizenship through marriage are the same as they are for standard naturalization. See here for more information.

British citizenship by adoption

A child acquires UK citizenship automatically if legally adopted and at least one of the adoptive parents is a UK citizen and a habitual UK resident. The adoption order needs to be through a UK court. As the citizenship is automatic, there is no need to make a citizenship application.

British citizenship as a resident of an overseas territory

If you are a citizen of a British Overseas Territory or a citizen of a Commonwealth country born before 1 January 1983 with a parent born in the UK, you may qualify as a British national under current nationality law and be eligible for Right of Abode (ROA). Those eligible for ROA can register as a UK citizen and don’t have to go through the naturalization process. The following types of British national are eligible for ROA and registration for UK citizenship:

  • British overseas territories citizen
  • British overseas citizen
  • A British subject
  • British national (overseas)
  • A British protected person

There is also a Windrush Scheme that allows Commonwealth citizens who arrived in the UK before 1973 and their children, as well as nationals from any country who arrived before 1989 and are settled in the UK, to apply for settlement rights. This is free and doesn’t amount to full citizenship, however those eligible for the Windrush Scheme may be able to apply for free British citizenship.

How to apply for citizenship for overseas territory residents

To apply for ROA certificate of entitlement, you will need to complete an application form (also available online). The cost is £372 (or £388 if applying from outside the UK). You will need to renew the certificate when your passport expires.

For full UK citizenship as a British overseas national, you need to pay £1,206 (or £1,012 if aged under 18) plus £80 citizenship ceremony fees if an adult. You can apply online or complete this application form.

Citizenship as a refugee in the UK

The citizenship process for refugees in the UK is the standard naturalization process. Refugees can apply for indefinite leave to remain (ILR) in the UK five years after getting refugee status, and then apply for citizenship one year after getting ILR.

You can register as a UK citizen if you are officially classed as ‘stateless‘. The process differs depending on whether you were born before or after 1 January 1983.

How to apply for citizenship through refugee status

If you are applying through refugee status, this is exactly the same as applying by naturalization (see above).

If you are applying as a stateless person, you will need to use the following forms:

  • S3 form if born on or after 1 January 1983 (also available online)
  • S1 form if born before 1 January 1983 (also available online)

The fees are £1,206 (or £1,012 if under 18). Those 18 and over also have to pay £80 citizenship ceremony fees. Decisions can take up to six months.

UK citizenship as an EU/EFTA national

EU/EFTA citizens can continue living in the UK through the free EU Settlement Scheme as long as they or a family member were living in the UK by 31 December 2020. The deadline for applying for the scheme was 30 June 2021, however you can apply later if you have reasonable grounds (for example, medical reasons).

You will obtain either settled status (if you’ve been living in the UK for five continuous years) or pre-settled status (if in the UK for less than five years). You can switch from pre-settled to settled status after five years.

Once you have had full settled status for 12 months, you can apply for UK citizenship through the naturalization route. Irish citizens and EU/EFTA citizens who already have ILR in the UK don’t need to apply to the settlement scheme and can get British citizenship through normal naturalization.

Citizenship test in the UK

You will need to take the official Life in the UK test for both UK citizenship and ILR, unless you are aged under 18, aged over 65 or have a long-term physical or mental condition.

The test costs £50 and you take it at a UK test center closest to where you live. You can book the test online (at least three days in advance). You will need to provide ID, proof of address and an email address.

The Life in the UK test lasts for 45 minutes and consists of 24 questions based around traditions and customs in the UK. Questions are based on information in guide books and online resources associated with the test. You can purchase these online.

To obtain British citizenship, you will need to score 75% (or 18 out of 24). You can retake the test after 7 days but will need to pay the £50 fee again. If you book a test and need to cancel, you can get a refund as long as you give at least three days’ notice.

Passports in the UK

Once you become a British citizen, you will be able to apply for a British passport (currently ranked 36th on the Global Passport Index).

You can apply for a UK passport online or by picking up a form at your local post office. Costs for a standard passport if you apply online are £75.50 for an adult passport and £49 for a child’s passport. It usually takes between 4-8 weeks to get a British passport. However, you can use a fast-track service if you need your passport urgently.

Man traveling with a British passport

UK passports are valid for 10 years. All passports issued nowadays are biometric passports. See the UK government website for more general information.

Dual nationality in the UK

The UK allows dual citizenship. This means that you can gain dual nationality and take UK citizenship without having to give up the citizenship of your home country.

However, you will first need to check that your home nation permits dual citizenship. If not, you will have to renounce your home country citizenship in order to take British citizenship. Check with your country’s consulate or embassy in the UK to find out about dual nationality laws.

You don’t need to apply for UK dual citizenship. You will acquire it upon taking UK citizenship if you don’t renounce the citizenship of your home country, or if you are a UK citizen and you apply for citizenship abroad.

Those with UK dual nationality have the same rights as those with only UK citizenship. However, if you are a UK dual national, you will not be able to get diplomatic help from the British government when you are in the country where you hold your other citizenship.

Losing or renouncing British citizenship

You can be stripped of your UK citizenship if the UK Home Office deems that you have behaved in a way that is harmful to the public good. This doesn’t happen very often but it’s a possibility, even if you were born in the UK. This happened in the case of Shamima Begum, who was controversially stripped of her citizenship in 2019. Begum had previously left the UK as a schoolgirl in 2015 to join ISIS in Syria.

You can also choose to voluntarily renounce your British citizenship. This may be because, for example, you want to take up citizenship in another country that doesn’t allow dual citizenship. You can do this online or by completing an application form. The cost is £372.

In some cases, you can resume your UK citizenship after renouncing it. You will need to complete an RS1 form or fill the form in online. You will need to pay the registration fee of £1,206.

Citizenship appeals and complaints in the UK

There is no right of appeal if you are refused UK citizenship. All you can do is apply for your application to be reconsidered. However, this costs £372. If you want to make a general complaint about how your citizenship application was handled, you can do so about either UK Visas and Immigration or the UK Home Office.

Useful resources

  • GOV.UK – UK government website section on citizenship
  • Citizens Advice – UK charity with advice on British citizenship