British Citizenship

UK Government may increase the time it takes foreign nationals to become British citizens

By Amer Zaman

on August 1, 2023

Read Time: 7 Minutes

On a backdrop of the UK Government seemingly continuing to flex its “toughness” on the subject of immigration control, there was an interesting report in The Mail on Sunday in early June, which suggested that foreign nationals might soon have to wait longer in order to become British citizens.

As things stand, it is possible for a migrant from another country to apply for British citizenship if they have spent five years living in the UK and have had “indefinite leave to remain” status for 12 months.

Foreign nationals who satisfy the same five-year requirement, and who have “settled status” (also referred to as “indefinite leave to remain under the EU Settlement Scheme”) or indefinite leave to enter the UK (permission to move to the UK permanently from abroad), are also able to apply for citizenship.

In order to get “indefinite leave to remain” (ILR) status as a first step to citizenship, a migrant will normally be required to have lived and worked in the UK for five years, although this period can be as short as two years for some tier 1 visa holders.

However, according to The Mail on Sunday political editor Glen Owen, the Home Office has been considering extending the five-year “continuous residence” criterion from five years to eight years, before ILR status can be granted. He wrote that the change was part of a Government effort to “make the United Kingdom appear less of a ‘soft touch’ on immigration.”  

How long does it take for immigrants to become citizens in the UK?

As aforementioned, a common first step to becoming a citizen in the UK, is obtaining “indefinite leave to remain” status, which is also known as “settling” in the UK.

There are various ways in which someone might be eligible to apply for ILR status. A foreign national who wishes to settle in the UK is normally required to have spent five years living and working in the UK. If they have a tier 1 visa, however, this period could be two or three years, and it could be three years for those who hold an Innovator Founder visa or Global Talent visa.

With regard to British citizenship, a foreign national can presently apply for this if they have lived in the UK for five years, and have had one of the following for a minimum of 12 months:

  • Indefinite leave to remain in the UK
  • “Settled status” (also known as “indefinite leave to remain under the EU Settlement Scheme”)
  • Indefinite leave to enter the UK (permission to move to the UK permanently from another country)

The timescale for securing British citizenship can be shorter for those who are married to a British citizen. Such an individual could apply for British citizenship by ‘naturalisation’, provided that they are married to, or in a civil partnership with, a British citizen, and have spent at least three years living in the UK prior to the date of their application. They must also be 18 years of age or older.

What else is the UK Government doing – or could do – to make life tougher for migrants?

The Mail on Sunday’s story was not concerned solely with the suggestion that some foreign nationals could soon be facing a longer wait for British citizenship.

The article – entitled “Foreigners might have to wait longer to become British citizens under plans to make the UK seem less of a ‘soft touch’ on immigration” – mentioned other potential changes that have apparently been under Home Office consideration, including:

  • Requiring applicants to have spent two years working or at school in the UK
  • Setting a strict criminality threshold, such as requiring an applicant to have been free of convictions for a minimum of 10 years
  • Taking away the exemption for over-65s from knowledge tests about British life.

This is without accounting for the steps that the Government has already taken to seemingly set out its “toughness” on immigration issues. Just recently, for example, huge increases have been announced in UK immigration fees and the immigration health surcharge.

The normal rate for the immigration health surcharge will go up from £624 a year to £1,035 a year, with this rate needing to be paid by workers who enter the UK for a period of at least six months, as well as the family members of both migrants and British citizens.

Meanwhile, the discounted rate for the immigration health surcharge – the one that students and Youth Mobility Scheme visa holders are required to pay – is set to be hiked from £470 a year to £776 a year.

The Government minister who announced the above changes also stated that there would be increases in immigration and nationality fees. Applying for a work or visit visa is expected to become 15% more expensive, while in the case of Student visas, Certificates of Sponsorship (CoS), entry clearance, leave to remain, settlement and citizenship applications, an “at least 20%” rise is anticipated. At the time of this article being written, there had not yet been any confirmation of when these increases would take effect. So, the advice of our UK immigration experts is that if you are in a position to make your desired UK immigration application sooner rather than later, it could be a good idea to do so.

Can you speed up the citizenship process in the UK?

One of the ways in which the process of seeking British citizenship differs from that of applying for a UK visa, is the lack of a “priority” or “super priority” service for the former.

In other words, if you would like to apply for British citizenship, there isn’t any option to pay more money in order to have your application processed more quickly or at an earlier stage.

If, then, you are anxious to obtain British citizenship as early as possible, you should be working to ensure you satisfy the relevant Home Office requirements as they are right now. As part of this, you should avoid doing anything that would cause your application – or the date on which you could potentially secure British citizenship – to be delayed.

For those who are seeking British citizenship having already secured “indefinite leave to remain” (ILR) or “settled status”, one potential cause of such delay could be a certain amount of time having been spent outside of the UK. So, it is important to be aware of the Home Office’s requirements with regard to time spent away from the country.

Specifically, at the time of typing, those with ILR or “settled status” who wish to apply for British citizenship should not have:

  • Spent more than 450 days outside of the UK during the five years prior to their application
  • Spent over 90 days outside of the UK in the last 12 months
  • Broken any UK immigration laws (for example, by living illegally in the UK)

If you are a foreign national with indefinite leave to remain or enter, time spent outside of the UK could even cause you to lose this status altogether. This could be the case if you have been away from the UK for:

  • Over two years at any time since you got your ILR or indefinite leave to enter status
  • Over five years if you have settled status
  • Over four years if you are a citizen of Switzerland, or the family member of a Swiss citizen, and you have settled status.

Our verdict: the rumours of changes to the British citizenship process might be well-founded 

While the immigration policy that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has become most associated with in his time in office so far has been his pledge to “stop the boats”, there are clear signs that his Government is determined to present its “toughness” on various other immigration issues.

Indeed, in the face of record net migration levels of 606,000 for the year ending June 2022, Mr Sunak has described immigration to the UK as “too high”, and indicated that he wishes to bring the numbers down to below the 500,000 level he “inherited”.

The Prime Minister’s desire to put forward a tough stance on immigration was further evidenced by his recent statement to a gathering of European leaders that addressing excess migration should be “at the top of the international agenda”.

In light of these positions, then, together with The Mail on Sunday’s report, it would not surprise us if suggestions of an extended path to British citizenship for foreign nationals turned out to be grounded in reality.

Turn to our experts for assistance with your British citizenship application

At the time of us writing this, any such changes to the process of gaining British citizenship were yet to be officially announced. Nonetheless, we will keep a close watch on this story, and if you place your trust in our team at Cranbrook Legal to project manage your application for citizenship, we will keep you informed of the state of the law as it stands.

Are you uncertain about any aspect of your immigration status in the UK, and/or the impact this might have on an application for British citizenship? Or perhaps you would appreciate us assisting you with every stage of your citizenship application for a pre-agreed fixed fee?

Whatever your concerns or needs may be in relation to British citizenship, please don’t hesitate to reach out to our award-winning specialists in UK immigration law. You can arrange a free consultation via email, or call our central London team on 0208 215 0053.

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