The question of who can inherit British citizenship is a surprisingly complex one as it often relies on legislation that is in a constant state of flux. We simplify the most common forms of British citizenship through descent below.
British citizenship by descent (parent)
If you were born in the UK to a parent who holds British citizenship or settled status, you will automatically inherit British citizenship. British citizenship by descent becomes more complicated if you were born outside of the UK or if your parents were only visiting the UK.
Born outside of the UK to British parents
If you were born outside of the UK and one of your parents is British, your rights to citizenship will depend on when you were born and when your parents were born. This is because of two major law changes – one that came into effect on 1 January 1983 and one on 1 July 2006.
Your mother is British
If your mother was born in the UK before 1983, you qualify for British citizenship and you might even be British already depending on when you were born:
- You were born before 1 January 1983 – you can apply for British nationality
- You were born on or after 1 January 1983 – you are British already and may apply for a passport
If your mother was born in the UK after 1 January 1983, whether or not you qualify will depend on her citizenship status at the time of your birth.
- If she was British when you were born – you are already British and may apply for a passport
- If she was not British when you were born – you may be able to apply for British nationality if you are under 18 or provided certain conditions are met. You should speak to a citizenship adviser.
Your father is British
Prior UK citizenship legislation was discriminatory when it came to both sex and legitimacy. For this reason, receiving citizenship by descent from a British father is slightly different from inheriting citizenship through your mother. Your citizenship situation will depend on when you were born, when your parents were born and whether they were married at the time of your birth.
Parents married at the time of your birth
In this case, having a UK-born father is very similar to having a UK-born mother. The key difference is that, if your father was born before 1983, you are automatically British regardless of when you were born (whereas British mothers didn’t automatically pass down citizenship before 1983).
Parents not married at the time of your birth
Historically, you could not claim British citizenship through your father if your parents weren’t married at the time of your birth. This discrimination was partly fixed in legislation that came into effect on 1 July 2006. If you were born after that date, the fact that your parents weren’t married is not relevant.
If you were born before 1 July 2006, you will currently need to make a special application for citizenship. The UK is currently in the process of updating this legislation to make it easier for those born before 1 July 2006 to apply.
Born in the UK but parents weren’t settled there
If your parents were resident in the UK at the time of your birth but did not hold citizenship or permanent residency, you will not receive British citizenship at birth in the modern day. However, if you were born before 1 January 1983, you are British (unless your parents were in diplomatic service).
If you receive British citizenship through a UK-born parent, but were not born in the UK yourself, you are considered “British by descent” and cannot pass your citizenship on to future generations born outside of the UK.
British citizenship by double descent (grandparent)
British citizenship does not automatically pass down to multiple generations born outside of the UK, so routes to citizenship through a UK-born grandparent are rarer.
The primary ways of inheriting British citizenship through a grandparent are:
- If you were born before 1983 and your maternal grandfather (mother’s father) was born in the UK
- If your UK-born grandfather was in Crown service at the time of your parent’s birth
- If you or a parent were born in a former British Territory (other than Australia, Canada and New Zealand)
- If you or a parent held Citizen of the UK and Colonies (CUKC) status or were registered as a federal citizen of Rhodesia or Nyasaland
- If your parents were married before 1949 and your paternal grandfather was born in the UK
- If you were married to a British man before 1949
Every family tree is different, so if you have a UK-born grandparent, it’s a good idea to fill in our free British citizenship assessment to see where you stand. However, we’ll outline three of the most common routes below.
British citizenship through your maternal grandfather
As mentioned earlier, British mothers could not historically pass down citizenship. Even though this discrimination has since been rectified, there are still a number of people who are affected by this historical injustice. You could now qualify for British citizenship if:
- You were born between 1 January 1949 and 31 December 1982
- Your mother’s father was born in the UK or Northern Ireland
- You were born in a “foreign country” – i.e. a country that was not part of the British empire at the time of your birth. (South Africa was not part of the Commonwealth between 31 May 1962 and 31 December 1982, so South Africans born between those dates would qualify.)
UK citizenship through Crown service
If your grandfather was employed by the British government (and recruited in the UK), you could qualify for British citizenship in the modern day. Crown service can include, but is not limited to:
- British military
- Colonial service
- Overseas civil service
- Diplomatic corps
You might also be able to qualify if your grandfather served in other “designated” services such as:
- Red Cross/Salvation Army
- The YMCA and YWCA
- The Seaman’s Missions
- Roles within Civil Service or local colonial government
- The BSAP in Rhodesia
- The NAAFI
- The Australia, New Zealand and Malaya Defense Organisation
Whether or not you qualify for British citizenship through Crown service will depend on when and where the service was performed and when your parent was born. You would need to work through a British nationality expert to pursue this route and find out if you qualify.
British citizenship through a connection to the former British Empire
The British Empire once covered nearly a quarter of the globe. At its height, it ruled over 412 million people. Some descendants of those people now qualify for British citizenship in the modern day. This is largely due to the loopholes that were left as countries broke away from the Empire and new British nationalities were created.
For example, the status of Citizen of the UK and Colonies (CUKC) was given to some British subjects in the period between 1 January 1949 and 31 December 1982 (if they had UK-born ancestors). It was intended to be a temporary status until those subjects received citizenship in the newly independent nations where they lived. However, many people did not qualify for those new citizenships and ended up keeping their CUKC status, which later became British citizenship. If your parent was a CUKC, there’s a chance you could qualify for British citizenship in the modern day.
Many people don’t know that there are six different types of British nationality, of which British citizenship is only one. If your grandparent was British and your parent held one of these nationalities, it’s possible you could now be a British citizen.
The UK Ancestry visa
If you were born in a Commonwealth country and you have a UK-born grandparent, you could qualify for the UK Ancestry visa. This visa allows you to live and work in the UK for five years. Thereafter, you can apply for indefinite leave to remain and citizenship the following year.
British citizenship by triple descent (great-grandparent)
Usually a great-grandparent is a step too far for inheriting British citizenship. While there are exceptions, they are always complex as they involve proving that British citizenship passed through multiple generations “other than by descent”.
Your best chance of qualifying for British citizenship through a great-grandparent is if your family tree includes a variety of connections to the former British Empire, such as the types of nationality mentioned above.
Bear in mind that in some cases it’s essential that you apply for British citizenship before you turn 18. If you have a child under 18, and you have these connections to the UK, it’s worth exploring their options sooner rather than later.
Find out if you have a claim to British citizenship by taking our easy-to-use online British citizenship assessment. Alternatively, you can get in touch with our citizenship team at email@example.com or by calling +44 (0) 20 7759 7581 (UK) or +27 (0) 21 657 2139 (SA).
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