If you have family connections to the UK, you might be surprised to find that you can claim UK citizenship. These routes are some of the most common ways Sable International sees clients qualify.

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1. You, your parents or your grandparents were born in the UK

A direct ancestral connection to the UK is the simplest way to claim UK citizenship and perhaps not that surprising. However, it can be surprisingly complex.

You were born in the UK

If you are born in the UK, your status depends on that of your parents. If your parents are citizens or hold settled status, you’re British at birth. If they were only visiting the UK, or on non-permanent visas, or there illegally, then you won’t generally be British.

The main exception to this rule is if you were born in the UK before January 1983 (when the current British Nationality Act came into force). Unless your parents were in diplomatic service, you would have received UK citizenship automatically at birth, even if you didn’t know it, and you may now claim a British passport.

Even if your parents were in diplomatic service, there are always exceptions. We worked on one case where a woman received UK citizenship because we were able to argue that her father (who was in the US Air Force, stationed in the UK) only had partial diplomatic immunity.

Your parents were born in the UK

If one of your parents holds UK citizenship through being born in the UK, they can possibly pass it down to you. This is known as citizenship by descent.

It’s common to receive British citizenship through a UK-born mother. However, up until as recently as July 2006, the rules were different for UK-born fathers. You could only receive citizenship through your father if your parents were married at the time of your birth. The UK government has been working to fix this type of gender discrimination and so you can now register as a British citizen if you were born out of wedlock to a UK-born father prior to the law change in 2006.

If you are British by descent, you can’t automatically pass citizenship to your own children born outside of the UK. However, if you live in the UK for at least three years, you can register your children as citizens before they turn 18, even if you spent that time in the UK before they were born.


If you were adopted by a British citizen in the UK after 1 January 1983, you will automatically be British.

If you were adopted by a British citizen outside of the UK, it is possible to apply for discretionary registration of a child under the age of 18 if you can prove that:

  • British nationality would be in the child’s best interest
  • Had the child been the biological child of the British adopter, the child would be a British citizen or be able to become a British citizen.

Your grandparents were born in the UK

Many people know that if you are South African and have a UK-born grandparent, you can qualify for a UK Ancestry visa that lets you live and work in the UK for five years and then claim citizenship. However, you may not be aware of the more direct route: citizenship by double descent.

This is a complex area of British nationality law, and each case needs to be assessed on an individual basis, as it will depend on what laws were in effect when your parents and grandparents were born.

An example of a route through double descent is if your grandmother was born in the UK, you were born after 1 January 1983 and your parent was registered as a British citizen between 2 February 1979 and 31 December 1982.

For more information, visit our page on British citizenship by double descent.

2. Ancestor born elsewhere in the British Empire

The British Empire once ruled over a third of the world’s population. The ensuing decolonisation process resulted in no fewer than six different types of British nationality, due to the varying agreements that Britain made with different territories. In addition to British citizenship, there’s also:

  • Citizen of the UK and colonies (CUKC)
  • British overseas citizen (BOC)
  • British protected person (BPP)
  • British overseas territory citizen (BOTC)
  • British national overseas (BNO)

Over time, as laws changed and independence agreements were signed, some people ended up losing their British subject status, but were denied citizenship of the newly independent country.

For instance, some people who were born in India or Pakistan were not provided for by the new laws at the time of British Independence and the British government refused to acknowledge them as CUKCs. Meaning they were regarded as stateless, while in actual fact they remained British subjects even though this form of British nationality was not intended to exist in the period after 1948.

Now, in a more enlightened time, their descendants might qualify for full citizenship.

Another example is someone who was born in Kenya before independence to parents who were foreigners, who’d settled in Kenya but weren’t born there themselves and therefore didn’t qualify for Kenyan citizenship.

Such cases are far more common than many realise. Our own citizenship and immigration director, Mishal Patel, gained his British citizenship through this route.

3. British Crown service

What if James Bond was actually a South African? His descendants might be able to claim British citizenship due to the service he did for the British Crown.

While spies do count (provided you can produce proof they were spies), more common examples of Crown service are the British military, the Colonial Service, the Overseas Civil Service and the Diplomatic Corp.

To claim, you’d need to have been born between 1 January 1949 and 31 December 1982. Your parent must have been recruited in the UK and must have still been employed in the Crown service at the time of your birth.

However, if your UK-born grandfather was employed in Crown service on the date of your parent’s birth, there’s still a route for you if you were born after 1 January 1983.

For South Africans, the situation we see most often is that your grandfather was on war duty (and recruited in the UK) between 1939 and 1945.

Read more about the Crown service route to British citizenship here.

Proposed changes to UK nationality law

A new piece of legislation, currently being debated in British parliament, sets out a number of provisions that seek to correct discrimination in historical UK nationality law. These provisions are in line with other corrections the UK government has made in recent years, so we fully expect them to pass into law.

The changes would mean that if you failed to qualify for any form of British citizenship (including the five mentioned above) because your ancestor was of the wrong gender, or because your parents weren’t married at the time of your birth, you might now qualify.

These are only a few of the complex routes to British nationality that Sable International works with on a daily basis. If you think you might qualify or are curious to see your options, fill in our free online British Citizenship assessment. We will also alert you of any changes in UK nationality law as they happen.

You can get in touch with our OISC-registered advisers on citizenship@sableinternational.com or call us on +27 (0) 21 657 2139


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