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Types of British nationality

The former British Empire spanned 127 different territories and, at one time, ruled over a third of the world’s population. The decolonisation process in the last century meant that many old forms of British nationality were passed down from one generation to the next and some are still available today.

Types of British citizens

Over the years there have been a variety of far-reaching changes to UK immigration law. As the British Empire grew and shrunk, territories once under its dominion often came to differing agreements with regards to citizenship and nationality.

The consequences of these agreements, in combination with UK immigration law and policy, determine the exact relation to the UK for people who were born in these territories and the children of people who were born in these territories. Depending on where and when you, or your parents or grandparents, were born, you could be eligible to apply to become a British citizen.

Below are sections on the various types of citizenship that have, and still can, transfer claims to British nationality to you or your descendants.

 

Citizen of the UK and colonies (CUKC)

A citizen of the UK and colonies was the old colonial status given to British citizens during the period 1 January 1949 to 31 December 1982. Before 1949, British citizens were called British subjects and in the modern day are referred to as British citizens.

Using CUKC to gain British nationality

If a person held the status of citizen of the UK and colonies before 1983, one needs to determine what happened to this person's status one or both of the following dates:

  • On the day that the former British territory from which this status was derived became independent

  • On 1 January 1983

The British Nationality Act 1948 provided for a new status of citizen of the United Kingdom and colonies (CUKC), consisting of all those British subjects who had a close relationship (either through birth or descent) with the United Kingdom and its remaining colonies. Each other Commonwealth country did likewise and also established its own citizenship (with the exception of Newfoundland, which had different arrangements).

CUKC

The Act also provided that British subjects could be known by the alternative title Commonwealth citizen.

It was originally envisaged that all British subjects would get one (or more) of the national citizenships being drawn up under the Act and that the remainder would be absorbed as CUKCs by the British government. Until they acquired one or other of the national citizenships, these people continued to be British subjects without citizenship. However, some British subjects never became citizens of any Commonwealth country.

India, Pakistan and the British Empire

Because the nationality laws of India and Pakistan did not provide for citizenship for everyone who was born in their countries, the British government refused to declare their nationality laws for the purposes of the Act. Therefore, those British subjects from these countries who did not become Indian or Pakistani citizens were never absorbed as CUKCs by the British government. They remained British subjects without citizenship.

The unique case of the Republic of Ireland

Due to the imminent withdrawal of the Republic of Ireland from the Commonwealth (which took effect 18 April 1949), special arrangements were made in section 2 of the 1948 British Nationality Act to allow British subjects from Ireland to apply to continue to hold British subject status independently of the citizenship of any Commonwealth country. Until 1983, the status of British subjects without citizenship was not affected by the acquisition of the citizenship of a non-Commonwealth country.

Acquisition of citizenship of the UK and colonies

Under the 1948 Act, CUKC status was acquired by:

  • Birth in the UK or a colony (which does not include birth in the dominions or children of enemy aliens and diplomats). The immigration status of the parents was irrelevant.

  • Naturalisation or registration in the UK or a colony or protectorate.

  • Legitimate descent from a CUKC father for children born elsewhere. Only the first generation acquired British nationality automatically. Second and subsequent generations could do so only if born outside the Commonwealth (or Ireland) and registered within 12 months of birth or if the father was in Crown service

  • Declaration

  • Marriage

Requirements for naturalisation or registration

Citizens of Commonwealth countries, British subjects and Irish citizens were entitled to register as citizens of the UK and colonies after one year's residence in the UK and colonies. This period was increased to five years in 1962.

Other persons were required to apply for naturalisation after five years residence..

Citizenship by descent

Prior to 1983, as a general rule, British nationality could be transmitted from only the father and parents were required to be married. Children born in Commonwealth countries or the Republic of Ireland could not normally access British nationality if the father was British by descent.

Those born in non-Commonwealth countries of second and subsequent generations born overseas could be registered as British within 12 months of birth. However, many such children did not acquire a UK right of abode before 1983 and hence became British overseas citizens in 1983 rather than British citizens.

On 8 February 1979, the Home Office announced that overseas-born children of British mothers would generally be eligible for registration as UK citizens provided application was made before the child reached age 18. Many eligible children were not registered before their 18th birthday due to the fact this policy concession was poorly publicised. Hence it has been effectively reintroduced by the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 for those aged under 18 on the date of the original announcement.

With effect from 30 April 2003, a person born outside the UK to a British mother (who was born or naturalised in the UK) may be entitled to register as a British citizen by descent if that person was born between 8 February 1961 and 31 December 1982. However, those with permanent resident status in the UK, or those entitled to right of abode, may instead prefer to seek naturalisation as a British citizen which gives transmissible British citizenship otherwise than by descent.

Citizenship by declaration

A person who was a British subject on 31 December 1948, of United Kingdom and colonies descent in the male line, and was resident in the UK and colonies (or intending to be so resident) was entitled to acquire CUKC by declaration under section 12(6) of the Act. The deadline for this was originally 31 December 1949, but was extended to 31 December 1962 by the British Nationality Act 1958.

Citizenship by marriage

Women married to CUKCs had the right to register as CUKCs under section 6(2) of the 1948 Act.

Citizenship by adoption

Before 1950 there was generally no provision to acquire UK citizenship by adoption:

  • Between 1 January 1950 and 31 December 1982, a person adopted in the UK by a CUKC acquired CUKC automatically if the adopter, or in the case of a joint adoption, the male adopter, was a CUKC.

  • Children adopted in the Channel Islands and Isle of Man on or after 1 April 1959 acquired CUKC on the same basis as UK adoptees on 16 July 1964, or the date of the adoption order, if later.

In general, a person acquiring CUKC by virtue of adoption in the UK, Channel Islands or Isle of Man, became a British citizen on 1 January 1983.

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British overseas citizen (BOC)

As a general rule, the British overseas citizen status is granted where an applicant or their father was born in a former British colony and was not granted nationality of that territory on independence. The British overseas citizen (BOC) status arose as a result of the independence day arrangements of former British territories (mainly former British colonies) and how nationality was granted in the newly independent country with regard to, amongst other things, where the parents were born.

Those eligible to apply for a British passport describing themselves as a BOC may gain advantages in applying for visas for other countries and are entitled to the protection of the British government in times of need overseas.

It is possible, in some circumstances, to upgrade a BOC to full British citizenship. This is sometimes possible even if another nationality is held. This is a complex area of British nationality law and requires specialist advice.

British protected person (BPP) passport

As a general rule, the British protected person status is granted where an applicant or their father was born in a former British protectorate or protected state and was not granted nationality of that territory on independence. The BPP status arose as a result of the independence day arrangements of former British territories (mainly former British colonies ) or British protected state and, in some cases, could be retained upon independence.

Those eligible to apply for a British passport describing themselves as a BPP may gain advantages in applying for visas for other countries and are entitled to the protection of the British government in times of need overseas. This status could been passed down the male line only (i.e. from fathers only) to children in certain circumstances before 16 August 1978. It is possible, in some circumstances, to upgrade a BPP to full British citizenship. This is sometimes possible even if another nationality is held. This is a complex area of British nationality law and requires specialist advice.

UK passports

British overseas territory citizen (BOTC)

These territories are current British overseas territories from their formation on 1 January 1983. Those with family links to a British overseas territory will probably become a British overseas territories citizen (BOTC). In the case of Hong Kong before 1 July 1997, residents could (in some circumstances) register as British nationals overseas (BNO).

 

Full list of British overseas territories

Africa

  • Gibraltar
  • The Americas
  • Falkland Islands
  • South Georgia and
    South Sandwich Islands

Asia

  • Hong Kong
  • Kowloon (now part of Hong Kong)
  • New Territories
    (now part of Hong Kong)

Europe

  • Akrotiri and Dhekelia
    UK Cyprus Military Bases

The Caribbean

  • Anguilla
  • Bermuda
  • British Virgin Islands
  • Cayman Islands
  • Montserrat
  • Pitcairn Islands
  • St Christopher, St Kitts and Nevis
  • Turks and Caicos

Other territories

  • Antarctic territory
  • British overseas territories
  • British Indian Ocean territory (Chagos)
  • St Helena Ascension Gough and Tristan da Cunha

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British national overseas (BNO)

British national overseas citizens, commonly known as BNOs, arose as a result of the transfer of sovereignty of Hong Kong to China on 1 July 1997.

Understanding the status of BNOs

The BNO status is one of the major classes of British nationality under British nationality law. Holders of this nationality are Commonwealth citizens, but not British citizens. They are not automatically granted right of abode anywhere, including the United Kingdom and Hong Kong through their British national (overseas) status.

History of BNO

The creation of the class of BNO was a response to the question of the future prospect for Hong Kong in the 1980s. Therefore, the nationality was tailor-made for the Hong Kong residents with British dependent territories citizen status by virtue of their connection with Hong Kong.

The nationality also served to retain an appropriate relationship with the United Kingdom after the transfer of sovereignty of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China in 1997. From 1 July 1987 to 1997, around 3.4 million of British dependent territories citizens of Hong Kong (mainly ethnic Chinese), successfully gained BNO status by registration. Hong Kong's British dependent territories citizenship then ceased to exist after 30 June 1997.

As of 2007, 3.44 million of Hong Kong residents had the status as BNO, although only 800,000 of them held a valid BNO passport. As the BNO nationality cannot be gained anymore, the number of them slowly decreases and will eventually disappear.

For a more detailed breakdown on BNO visit WhatPassport.

 

British subject passports

Prior to 1 January 1949, the primary form of British nationality was that of a British subject.

British subject status was given to those born within the British Crown’s dominions and, broadly speaking, most British subjects will have become citizens of the UK and colonies or citizens of independent Commonwealth countries in 1949. Those that didn't, became British subjects without citizenship.

Free British citizenship assessment

 

Discover if you qualify for British citizenship through your heritage. Our online assessment uses your personal circumstances, and those of your parents and grandparents, to let you know your chances of attaining a British passport.

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