In 1948, The British Nationality Act introduced the concept of citizenship of the United Kingdom and the colonies.  Citizens of other Commonwealth nations became British subjects or Commonwealth citizens and their right to enter and reside in the United Kingdom was protected. All citizens of Commonwealth countries were British subjects until January 1983.

The Commonwealth Immigrants Acts 1962 and 1968 imposed restrictions on entry.    Controls distinguished between the right of entry of citizens who had family and ancestral links with the United Kingdom and others.  The 1968 Act, limited rights of entry for those with no parental or grandparental connections to the United Kingdom.

The Immigration Act of 1971 distinguished between subjects who were free to enter the United Kingdom and those who needed permission to enter.    It reduced the distinction between aliens and Commonwealth citizens.  The principal classifications were between those with rights of residence in the United Kingdom and others who may be aliens or Commonwealth immigrants who were subject to immigration control and needed permission to enter and remain.

On 1st January 1973, the United Kingdom acceded to and became a member of European Communities.  This introduced immediate rights for other European Union citizens.  See generally the separate sections on European Union law.

British Citizenship

A person may become a British citizen by birth, adoption, registration, descent or naturalisation. A legitimate child born in the United Kingdom, one of whose parents is a British citizen or are settled in the United Kingdom at the time of the birth becomes a British citizen.

A child born outside marriage takes citizenship through his mother.  He may be subsequently legitimated, in which case his status is the same as a legitimate child.  The Nationality Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 removed the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate children.  The father is either the husband of the birth mother or certain other categories of persons who give proof of paternity or are deemed to be the father under human fertilisation legislation.

A child who is adopted becomes a British citizen from the date of the adoption order if one of his adopting parents is a British citizen.

Prior to the 1981 Act, nearly all persons born in the United Kingdom with relatively few exceptions became British citizens.

A person born outside the United Kingdom becomes a British Citizen if one or both of his parents are British citizens.  This is provided the parent has not also acquired British citizenship through descent.  In this latter case, he will only become a citizen if the parents are Crown employee or employees of other designated services.

Citizenship by Registration

A person may acquire citizenship through registration.  Persons born in the United Kingdom, who are not automatically citizens are entitled to be registered as citizens at the age of 10 provided they have not been absent for more than 90 days in each of the first 10 years.  A child may be registered if one of his parents acquires citizenship or become settled in the United Kingdom while he is under 18.

Citizens of British dependent territories, British overseas citizens and British protected persons (a relatively narrow class), who are resident for five years are entitled to registration.

More generally, the Home Secretary has the discretion to register any child as a citizen.  Applicants for nationality must show that they are of good character.

A person who has been resident for five years may apply for naturalisation.  This is subject to the discretion of the Home Secretary.  He must be satisfied he is of good character.  He must have command of English or alternatively the Welsh and Gaelic language and intend to have his principal place of residence in the United Kingdom. He may be employed in a designated employment.

Naturalisation may be granted to a spouse of a British citizen.

A certificate of naturalisation requires that the applicant makes the prescribed oath of allegiance and pledge his loyalty to the United Kingdom and agrees to uphold its democratic values and obey its laws.

There is provision for citizenship ceremonies and formal pledges of allegiance.  The applicant must also, under 2002 legislation, have sufficient knowledge about life in the United Kingdom.

British Overseas Citizens

A person is  a British overseas citizen on 1 January 1983 if both of these apply:

  • he was a citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies (CUKC) on 31 December 1982
  • he has not  become either a British citizen or a British overseas territories citizen on 1 January 1983

A British overseas citizen can hold a British passport and get consular assistance and protection from UK diplomatic posts.

However, unless he is also a British citizen he is

  • still subject to immigration controls
  • does not have the automatic right to live or work in the UK
  • is not considered a UK national by the European Union

British overseas citizens may be able to register as a British citizen if they meet certain conditions.

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