Eight common routes to British citizenship through ancestry

Sable International’s British nationality experts were recently in South Africa for a Global Citizenship and Emigration expo. While we were there, we met with over 2,000 individuals looking to find out if they could inherit rights to a British passport through family connections.

While British nationality law is complex and there are a wide variety of routes available, these were the most common successful claims we encountered at the expo.

1. British citizenship by double descent

People born in South Africa between 31 May 1962 and 1 January 1988, with a paternal grandmother, maternal grandmother or maternal grandfather born in the UK, could have a claim to British citizenship. During these dates, South Africa was considered a “foreign country” as it was not part of the Commonwealth.  

2. Crown service

It’s possible to claim British citizenship if you were born in South Africa after 1 January 1983 and have a grandparent who was in Crown service at the time of your parent’s birth. Being in Crown service is defined as someone who was a civil servant or performed a service in a country that the UK was responsible for. Examples we saw of this at the expo included someone whose grandfather was in the British South Africa Police service, teachers in Rhodesia and other types of civil servants like postmasters in places like Southern Rhodesia and Nyasaland.

There are a few conditions for this claim though. The relevant grandparent must have been recruited in the UK and sent out from there. Original paperwork is also required for this claim to be accepted.

3. Born in a previous UK territory

You can claim British citizenship if you were born in a UK territory before its independence from the UK and have a paternal grandmother, maternal grandmother or maternal grandfather who was born in the UK. The new 4L amendments that came into law in June 2022 mean that you can now inherit from your maternal line where this wasn’t possible before.  

4. Parent born in a previous UK colony

If one of your parents was born in what was a UK colony at the time and either their mother or father was born in the UK, then they could have the status of Citizen of the UK and colonies (CUKC). It’s possible for you to inherit this status from your parent. CUKC status became full British citizenship in 1983. This means that you may be able to inherit full British citizenship from your parent in the present day.

5. British citizenship by adoption

One of the more common cases we saw were children under the age of 18 adopted outside of the UK by British citizens. A child adopted outside of the UK after 1 January 1983 by a parent who was British at the time got the same rights as natural children and can claim British citizenship.

6. UK citizenship through parent’s marriage

If your mother married a British man (even outside of the UK) before 1949, then she would be eligible for British passport and any of her children born before 1983 would be eligible for British citizenship.

If your mother was born in a Commonwealth country and married a British man after 1949, but before 1983, she could claim Right of Abode. This allows someone to live and work in the UK without restriction and to eventually naturalise as a UK citizen.

7. Born out of wedlock with a UK father

British nationality law before 2006 did not allow for a British citizenship claim through your biological father if he wasn’t married to your mother. This law was amended in 2006 and anyone born after that time, or who was under the age of 18, could claim citizenship if they could prove, either through a birth certificate or a DNA test, the relationship to their biological father.

This law wasn’t applied retroactively though, so if you were born before 2006 or had already turned 18, you could not benefit from this law change. However, in 2016, a law that not many people were aware of was passed. It meant you could claim citizenship if you were born out of wedlock, even if you were over 18, so long as you could prove the biological link between you and your father. However, you were required to make an expensive manual application.

The 2022 4L amendments to British nationality law aims to remove this discrimination and so, if you can prove that you would have been British had your parents been married at the time of your birth, it’s now easier to apply.

8. Immediate UK permanent residency status

This is not exactly a case for citizenship, but we saw many families with children under 18, where both parents are British by Descent (i.e., their mother or father was born in the UK) but live in South Africa. While you are not able to pass on British citizenship to a further generation if you are British by Descent, your children can qualify for immediate leave to remain in the UK, otherwise known as permanent residency.

Subsequently, if you would like (and this is not a necessity) your children to become British citizens whilst being under the age of 18, you would need to relocate to the UK. This move must be made at the latest 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 this must be before the child turns 18.

However, the main point here is that your children don’t have to spend five years in the UK before gaining indefinite leave to remain (ILR), as is the general requirement. All the children would have to do to maintain this status, which allows them to live and work in the UK indefinitely with no restrictions, is visit the UK for a couple of weeks every two years. What’s more, you can apply from within South Africa.

Once these children are over 18, they can go to the UK and live there for three to five years without a visa then naturalise as British citizens.

If your children miss the deadline for applying for ILR, then they could apply for an Ancestry visa and take that route in order to gain British citizenship.

These were eight of the most common routes we saw at the Global Citizenship and Emigration expo, but they were certainly not the only ones. British nationality law is complex, and it can be quite confusing to navigate. If you have any ties to the UK, the best thing to do would be to take Sable International’s free British nationality assessment. If you have a claim, we make the process of researching your options and applying for British citizenship as simple as possible.

You can get in touch with our OISC-registered advisers on [email protected] or call us on +27 (0) 21 657 2139.

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