The United Kingdom is a popular immigrant destination. Over time, the large number of immigrants has led to increasingly restrictive immigration controls. In this context, citizenship has also become harder to acquire.
Until 2005, the United Kingdom provided liberal access to citizenship. Though viewed as inclusionary today, citizenship by birth — jus soli — has its origins in feudalism (what’s born within the realm of the lord belongs to the lord) and imperialism. From the early seventeenth century, anyone born within the realm of the British monarch was a subject of that monarch, and British-subject status was the basis of British nationality right up to 1981. This basic principle was carried over into the age of empire, and all those born within the British Empire were British subjects who enjoyed, in theory, full rights within the UK. This system was reaffirmed in 1948, and it meant that the 500,000 non-white British subjects who entered the UK before 1962 did so not as immigrants but as citizens. The UK ended pure jus soli in 1981, but there has otherwise been a high degree of continuity in citizenship policy. All those born in the UK to parents who are permanent residents, citizens, or recognized refugees are citizens at birth. Others may naturalize after three years of marriage to a UK citizen or after five years of residence in the UK. Dual citizenship is fully accepted.
In 2011, 53 percent of UK citizenship grants went to migrants who had fulfilled the five-year residency requirement (six years for non-EEA and Swiss nationals). Since 2005, prospective citizens have had to pass a “Life in the UK” test , which assesses the applicant’s knowledge of British history and culture, as well as an English-language proficiency test. However, if the applicant’s language ability is low, language classes may be taken instead. Finally, as citizenship has become harder to acquire, it has become easier to lose: the government has expanded its power to revoke people’s citizenship. The Home Secretary may strip dual nationals (naturalized, registered, and native born) of their citizenship if she thinks them holding citizenship is not “conducive to the public good” (a longstanding concept in British immigration policy). She can strip single nationals of their citizenship if they are naturalized citizens and then only if they have acted in a manner seriously prejudicial to the vital interests of the UK (generally, engaging in terrorist activities). Finally, in 2009 the British government passed the Borders, Citizenship, and Immigration Act, which raised from five to eight years (and from three to five for those married to a Briton) the residence requirement for naturalization. This requirement could, however, be reduced by two years (to six for regular applicants, or to three for those married to a Briton) through community service. According to Home Office websites, these requirements have now been reduced: the residency requirements are currently set at the previous thresholds of five and three years, respectively.
The British government has also made applications for permanent residency (indefinite leave to remain) more restrictive. Since 2007 applicants have been required to pass the “Life in the UK” test. Since autumn 2013, they also have to obtain a “Speaking and Listening Qualification in English for Speakers of Other Languages” (ESOL). The standard is intermediate, B1 in the Common European Framework for Languages.
Since the late 2000s, fees for adjustments to status (along with fees for visas and work permits) have been raised significantly. The fee for permanent residency (previously available after four years to those on work permits, then raised to five years in 2006) was increased from £335 to £1,093 in 2014. Naturalization, which previously cost £200, was raised to £906 (2014).
Dr. Randall Hansen is Full Professor at the Canada Research Chair in Immigration and Governance, and Director of the Centre for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at the University of Toronto, Canada. E-Mail Link: firstname.lastname@example.org