South Africans have been flocking to the UK for decades, many on ancestral visas or by way of securing a British passport through proven ancestral ties. Even if you have no plans to leave South Africa, you may be wondering what your options are should you wish to emigrate one day.

Permanently emigrating is not as easy as it was 20 years ago, and often your only avenue out of South Africa is a direct route into a different country by way of a second passport. There are many South Africans who aren’t aware that they may be eligible for a UK passport without needing UK residence. For some, the claim is fairly straightforward, and they would have their British passport within four to six months from the application date.

Are you eligible for a British passport?

Below we look at, in chronological order from the youngest member in your family to the oldest, who may qualify for British citizenship.

Unborn children

If you are family planning or pregnant and hold British citizenship or are about to become a British citizen, there are certain conditions that must be met to ensure your child is a British citizen by decent.

British citizens by descent cannot pass their nationality to a further generation born outside of the UK, whereas those classified ‘otherwise than by descent’ can. For example, if you are British by descent and born in South Africa, but your mother or father was born in the UK, you won’t be able to pass on your citizenship to a child born outside of the UK.

In comparison, if you are born in the UK and hold British citizenship, you are a British citizen otherwise than by descent and any child born to you out of the UK can apply for a British passport from birth.

There are formal ways in which a British citizen ‘by descent’ can register children born to them out of the UK as British citizens. This registration needs to be submitted before the child’s 18th birthday, under specific set of laws.

We are able to conduct a free nationality status check on your British citizenship, to ensure you are giving birth in the correct place and what remedy, if any, can be put in place before the birth to guarantee British citizenship for your unborn child.

South African children under 18

The age of majority in the UK is 18, meaning that children cease to be minors with regards to the UK’s nationality rules when they turn 18.

As mentioned above, if you are a British citizen and have children born in South Africa, under the age of 18, who are not British citizens, there are several ways in which your child can gain British citizenship. One way is to register them before their 18th birthday.

Another way is that they may be eligible for immediate indefinite leave to remain in the UK. If they have indefinite leave to remain (ILR) and you want them to become British citizens while they’re under 18, you will need to relocate to the UK. This move must be made before the child in question is 15 years old. This allows the family to prove three years’ worth of UK residence before the application is submitted and before the child turns 18.

British passport claims for adults

There are several ways for someone to get British citizenship outside of naturalisation (where you spend the requisite amount of time in the UK on a valid visa). You can get it either by birth, descent, registration, double descent or, in rare cases, triple descent.

British nationality law is complex, and it all depends on when and where you or your parents were born. There were changes to the nationality laws in 1948, 1971, 1981, 2006, 2016, and the latest updates came into effect in 2022.


If you think you might have a claim, take our free British nationality assessment to see if you qualify.

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British citizenship by descent

As you can imagine, the simplest way to get British citizenship is by being born in the UK to British parents. However, if you are born outside of the UK that is when the complications arise.

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.

The British Nationality Act that came into force on 1 January 1983 introduced British citizenship as we know it in the modern day. Furthermore, those born on or after this date were able to equally claim British citizenship from either parent, provided their parents were married at the time of their birth.

As a result, if both you and your mother (or father, if your parents were married at the time of your birth) were born in the UK before 1983, then you are already British. Even if you grew up in South Africa, you are still a British citizen.

If your mother was born after 1983, then it will depend on her citizenship status at the time of your birth. If she was a British citizen, then you are too. If she wasn’t, then you may be able to apply for citizenship if you are under 18 and certain conditions are met.

Claiming citizenship from your British-born father is more complicated if your parents were not married at the time of your birth before 2006. Because of the discriminatory law, your father was not able to pass down citizenship if he was not married to your mother. However, if you were born after 2006, this has no bearing on your citizenship claim.

British citizenship by double decent

British citizenship by double descent would be inheriting citizenship from a grandparent. One common route is if your British-born grandfather was in Crown Service while your parent was born. For instance, your grandfather was part of the police service in what was then Rhodesia, was recruited in the UK and started a family there. In this instance you could have a claim to British citizenship.

Another common route for South Africans is if you were born between 31 May 1962 and 31 December 1982 (when South Africa was not part of the Commonwealth and was considered a “foreign country”) and have a maternal grandfather who was born in the UK. These people would be eligible for British citizenship.

Alternatively, if you were born before 1983 and your parents were married before 1949 and your paternal grandfather was born in the UK. Or if you or a parent were born in a former British Territory (other than Australia, Canada and New Zealand) and you have a UK-born grandparent.

These are only a few ways that you can get citizenship by double descent, but you should contact a citizenship professional if you have a familial connection to the UK that you wish to explore.


If feel that you may have a claim to British citizenship, we can do a Status Trace to help you discover your family tree.

Contact us


British citizenship by triple descent

If double descent was a complicated route, then triple descent through a great-grandparent is even more rare, but there are cases for it. 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.

For example, if you were born before 1983, and have a parent who was born in a former UK Territory, or was a Federal citizen of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, and they have a UK-born mother and paternal grandfather born in the UK, then you could qualify for British citizenship.

This gets a little more complicated of you are born after 1983. There is a route through Crown service again. If your British-born great-grandparent was in Crown Service and your grandparent was born out of the UK, then your parent will have been British by descent. You will be eligible for British citizen if your parent spent three years in the UK before you were born.

As you can see, this is all very complicated, and it helps to have a citizenship expert who has full knowledge of these routes to help you if you feel that you might have a claim.

British citizenship by special circumstances – New Section 4L of the British Nationality Act 1981

In an attempt to correct many historical wrongs, the UK has passed this progressive legislation to incorporate the principle of gender equality into British nationality law.

If you can argue that you would be British today if not for historical gender discrimination, you may be able to claim British citizenship under the new law.

The most common claims under this new Section 4L are if you:

  • have a maternal grandfather or maternal grandmother born in the UK and you were born between 1 January 1983 and 1 January 1988 in South Africa.
  • have a paternal grandmother born in the UK and you were born in South Africa between 31 May 1962 and 1 January 1983.
  • were born between 31 May 1962 and 1 January 1988 and you have a paternal grandfather born in the UK and your father was born out of wedlock.
  • were born before 13 January 1992 to a parent who became British after your birth and this parent spent three years in the UK before you were born.

We’ve recently had a client that qualified for the fourth example in the above list. He was born in South Africa in 1991 and his mother was also born in South Africa. She had lived in the UK before her son was born for three years, and her mother (i.e., the client’s maternal grandmother) was born in the UK.

The client’s mother recently registered as a British citizen through her mother’s birth in the UK. The argument therefore is, had his mother been British all along, she could have registered the client before his first birthday as a British citizen using her previous UK residency. So, the only reason our client is not British is because of the gender discrimination his mother faced in not being able to become British by descent through her own mother’s birth in the UK.

Our caseworkers are well versed in British nationality law and will be able to assist you if you have a claim to UK citizenship.

Take our free British nationality assessment if you have any familial ties to the UK that might afford you a route to UK citizenship. Alternatively, you can get in touch with us on +44 (0) 20 7759 4500 or at

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