Can you inherit UK citizenship if you have a British great-grandparent? While it's common to qualify for citizenship by descent, usually a great-grandparent is a degree too far. However, there are a few circumstances where this is not the case.


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Episode transcript

(This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity)

Tallulah van der Made:  Hello and welcome to the Sable International UK citizenship podcast. My name is Tallulah and I'm here with Mishal Patel. This is the first in a series of episodes we'll be doing on routes to British nationality for South Africans. Today we'll be discussing one of the questions we get most often. Is it possible for a South African to inherit British citizenship through a great-grandparent? Mishal?

Mishal Patel:  Welcome. Yes, absolutely. So what I'm going to take you through is basically two scenarios that have come up in the last couple of months. They’re quite rare so I'm surprised to see them one after the other. But it is very much possible.

Scenario 1

In scenario one, I'll start off with obviously our great-grandfather. In this particular instance, he was born in the UK.

So, with the UK at that point, we had a uniform form of British Nationality, called British Subject status that you could acquire by virtue of birth in the UK, or any UK colony.

Then his son, who would be the grandfather in this example, was born in South Africa. South Africa at that point, was also part of the UK colonies. So, again, the grandfather is also a British subject, just like his father, our great-grandfather.

The next generation happens to be born in Northern Rhodesia, which is now Zambia, and Northern Rhodesia at that time was slightly different. It was a British protectorate. Basically, it wasn't a full European colony, it had a treaty with the UK and everyone born there was afforded British Protection.

However, the interesting thing here was that the person who was born in Northern Rhodesia, the father in this example, actually had two forms of British nationality. So would have got British Protection, which is a form of British nationality in the period before 1983 and very much still alive now, and also would have got their father's British Subject status, which at that point was called Citizenship of the United Kingdom and Colonies (CUKC).

(The UK makes things slightly complicated by changing the terminology of what the nationality was called throughout each law change that took place in the history of British Nationality).

In summary, our father basically held two forms of British nationality:

  • Citizenship of the United Kingdom and Colonies – because of a connection that he had to the UK to our great-grandfather, and
  • British Protection – through his own birth in Northern Rhodesia.

Now, the person that approached us was actually his child. So now we're talking about the fourth generation here, that was born in South Africa. In this example, the person was born before 1983.

The reason why that's relevant is because on 1 January 1983, we had another British nationality law change and British Citizenship was introduced as a concept for the first time. It's important to be born before that for this solution to really work and you'll see why.

So we had a gentleman approach us. He was born in South Africa in about 1980, I believe. Now, at that point, he was born to a father who had Citizenship of the United Kingdom and Colonies. The British Protection would have been taken away by independence arrangements of Zambia in 1964. But, more importantly, the Citizenship of the United Kingdom and Colonies would have passed on, would you believe, from the father to his son who was born in South Africa in 1980.

Now, one thing that I didn't mention was we also had a paternal grandmother born in the UK, and I'll also explain why that's important for this solution to have worked. But at this stage, now we have the main applicant having Citizenship of the United Kingdom and Colonies by descent, which actually originated all the way from his great-grandfather's birth in the UK.

It is a UK grandparent who can give the Right of Abode to those who are Citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies, as our gentleman was.

Now he would have been a South African and Citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies and he would have carried that on ‘til about 1971. Now, around that time, the UK chose to differentiate between those seen as belonging to the Overseas Territories or those who are British belonging to the UK i.e. had UK ancestry (fathers or grandfathers born in the UK and so on). And, to make that distinction, they introduced a concept called the Right of Abode.

Now this is where the paternal grandmother's birth becomes quite important. Because it is a UK grandparent who can give the Right of Abode to those who are Citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies, as our gentleman was.

And it would have been automatic.

So now we have our gentlemen. At the time that he was born, Right of Abode was already a concept. So he would have acquired not just his great-grandfather's (or through that connection Citizenship of the United Kingdom and Colonies status, but also, through his paternal grandmother, he would have also held Right of Abode.

Now, he carried on having those two statuses until 1 January 1983, which I mentioned earlier – the date the current British Nationality Act came into force. And what the UK chooses to do there, at that point, is reclassify Citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies into British citizens if they had the Right of Abode, which in our case, our gentleman here did. And so, on 1 January 1983, unknown to him, obviously, he was reclassified automatically as a full British citizen and, hence, should be holding a British passport in the modern day.

So, when he approached us, you know, we were quite flabbergasted about all of this and no doubt he was as well! But without that paternal great grandfather being born in the UK, it wouldn't have been possible.

So that's scenario one that we came across, that we're still gonna go ahead and apply for that chap’s British passport.

TV: So it’s possible to be a British citizen without even knowing it.

MP: Without even knowing. Because, you see, a lot of people have this misconception that they become a citizen the day the passport is issued. The passport is just evidence of one’s citizenship. It’s not the grant of one’s citizenship. The grant of one’s citizenship would be when you’ve been registered or naturalised as a British citizen and are issued a Certificate of Registration or naturalisation. From that date, you are a citizen.

However, in this particular scenario, we are of the opinion that this person has been a British national from the day of birth and, hence, he just needs to go ahead and apply for a British passport.

TV: So you mentioned the importance of the maternal grandmother. That would have been the person who was married to the person who worked in Rhodesia?

MP: Yes. The woman who was married to the paternal grandfather. In this particular scenario, we don’t have movement of people. Rather, it’s more about where they were born.

I think it’s important to note that, for these sorts of very rare claims, you do need to have some sort of connection outside of South Africa.

I think it’s important to note that, for these sorts of very rare claims, you do need to have some sort of connection outside of South Africa. Although, in this instance, the applicant was born in South African and his grandfather was born in South Africa, the key was actually the father that was born in Northern Rhodesia. A mixed bag of connections is a better thing.

TV: So in general with great-grandparents, it’s not enough to just have a great-grandparent who was born in the UK and the rest of your family was born in South Africa. You need to have that other connection to either another colony or to the UK or somewhere in the British Empire.

MP: Absolutely and that kind of was the case for my second scenario as well, where we did have a great-grandparent born in the UK.

See also: 9 ways you can claim British citizenship

Scenario 2

MP:In this instance, it was a great-grandmother born in the UK. But the actual applicant is quite interesting. It’s actually a child. And this South African family approached us because the father had made an application for his child’s British passport that got refused on the basis that he was British by descent and had a child born outside of the UK.

So, for those who don’t know, a person who is British by descent cannot generally automatically pass the nationality to a further generation born out of the UK. However, a British by descent parent can register their children if certain conditions are met. We concluded that this child could be registered as a British citizen.

Now, we will start again, as we did with the other scenario, with the great-grandparent first. In this case the important one was the grandmother, because she was born in the UK and the great-grandfather, her husband, was born in South Africa.

Then you had the next generation – a boy – being born in a place that was a UK colony. This is the client’s paternal grandfather and he was born in Kenya. Now, anyone born there, just like in the other example, would have been a British Subject.

His son, the person who was British by descent, was born in South Africa. In this case around the 1980s.

Now, what happened here is between the father’s birth in South Africa in 1980 and his father’s birth in Kenya, Kenya gained independence. But, because none of the great-grandparents were born in Kenya, the grandfather who was born in Kenya could not become a Kenyan citizen. That’s quite important, because if he had, he wouldn’t have remained British, or what we call a Citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies, which he was at the time the father was born in South Africa.

He was then able to pass on his nationality to his son, and his son was then a Citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies and a South African at the time of his birth automatically.

As we saw in the earlier example, when the British Nationality Act 1981 came into effect on 1 January 1983, this father was then reclassified as a British citizen by descent. He then approached the passport office and they confirmed that he is British. He then has a child born to him in 2006 who is then not British automatically because that child was not born in the UK.

Now, the interesting part here is that, like I said earlier, a person who is British by descent cannot pass it on. But you can register that child born out of the UK, if one of the father’s relevant parents (the child’s grandparents) was British other than by descent on 1 January 1983.

So the short answer is, yes, you can inherit British citizenship if you’re South African and you have a great-grandparent born in the UK, but it’s not as easy as if you have a grandparent or parent born in the UK. It’s a much more complex route.

So, in this particular case, remember I said the father’s father was born in Kenya, with his own mother (the great-grandmother) born in the UK? Now, I won’t go into it in too much detail, but these connections meant the paternal grandfather was actually British other than by descent on 1 January 1983.

So we have a scenario here where the child was born to a British by descent parent, the child is under 18 and the child’s grandfather was actually British other than by descent and the father had spent more than three years in the UK before the child was born. These are all the right ingredients for registration as a British citizen for the child. But just one more example of where, without that paternal great-grandmother’s birth in the UK, none of this would have been possible. And this registration does not require the child to be resident in the UK or to have spent any time there. It can be done while the child is in South Africa and the child will get a British passport.

TV: Amazing. But as you said, it’s very rare. You can see how many stars have to align before it can actually be through a great-grandparent.

So the short answer is, yes, you can inherit British citizenship if you’re South African and you have a great-grandparent born in the UK, but it’s not as easy as if you have a grandparent or parent born in the UK. It’s a much more complex route.

If you are a South African planning to have dual citizenship with the UK, we have information on how to keep your South African citizenship.

Think you’re eligible for citizenship through a great-grandparent? Take our British citizenship assessment

So if you suspect you might qualify or you have no idea and you just want to see, we have a free online assessment that you can complete and Mishal and his team will go through your family tree and see what changes you have and will be completely honest with you if we don’t think that there’s a good chance, or if we thing that there is a chance but not much of a chance and you can try your luck, or if there’s a very good chance. And that is completely free of charge. Then from there, with that information, you can decide whether you’d like to engage our services to help you prove this very complicated route with the government.

MP: Absolutely. It’s quite important to get this looked at if you do have a great-grandparent born in the UK. Remember what I said earlier. Even if your father or great-grandfather did not have a British passport, or there’s no sign of it, that doesn’t mean that you aren’t British. Your child or yourself could have a claim.

Bear in mind that some of these claims are time sensitive. For a child, they have to be under 18 for registration to be done. So if you have a child under 18 and you have these UK connections, even if it’s a great grandparent, or you have these connections to a previous UK colony, it’s so important to fill out the assessment and give as much detail as possible. The more detail you give, the more accurate we can be with providing your likelihood.

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 Mishal and our citizenship team at or by calling +44 (0) 20 7759 7581 (UK) or +27 (0) 21 657 2139 (SA).

Catch up on the rest of the series

  1. How Mishal gained his UK citizenship
  2. The EU Settlement Scheme
  3. Routes to UK citizenship for Americans
  4. Complex UK nationality (with Philip Gamble)
  5. The EU Settlement Scheme – What now?
  6. Proposed changes to UK nationality law

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