British Overseas citizen

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In British nationality law, the status of British Overseas citizen (BOC) is one of several categories of British national. A British Overseas citizen does not have an automatic right to live in the United Kingdom.

British Nationality Act 1981

The British Nationality Act 1981 came into force on 1 January 1983, and divided Citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies (CUKCs) into three categories:

British citizens
CUKCs with the right of abode in the United Kingdom and Islands (i.e., the United Kingdom, the Channel Islands, and the Isle of Man) by virtue of a close connection therewith; e.g. by birth or descent from a person born in the UK and Islands, became British citizens.
British Dependent Territories citizens
CUKCs with a close connection with one of the United Kingdom's Dependent Territories became British Dependent Territories citizens (BDTCs), subsequently renamed British Overseas Territories citizens (BOTCs). It was possible for a person to acquire British citizenship and BDTC at the same time. For example, a person born in Bermuda before 1983 with a parent born in the United Kingdom would have acquired both nationalities.
British Overseas citizens
All other CUKCs became British Overseas citizens.

There are categories of British national other than these three, but these consist of persons who were not CUKCs before 1983 or who were connected with Hong Kong before 1997.

British Overseas citizenship is a residual category of British nationality, in that there is very little provision for the acquisition of British Overseas citizenship after 1983; and with the passage of time the category will become extinct. However, when Hong Kong reverted to Chinese rule in 1997, Hong Kong BDTCs who had not applied for the status of British National (Overseas), and who were not already considered Chinese citizens by the PRC government at the time of the handover (such as Indians and other non-Chinese), became British Overseas citizens.

Sources of British Overseas citizens

CUKCs before 1983

As British Overseas citizenship is a "mop-up" category for CUKCs who did not acquire British citizenship or BOTC in 1983, there are many ways in which someone may have acquired that status.

These include:

  • persons holding CUKC by connection with a former colony or protectorate who did not acquire that country's citizenship on independence. This applied particularly to some former colonies, such as Kenya, that did not grant citizenship to all CUKCs born or naturalised in that colony.
  • persons who retained CUKC on independence of their colony based on a connection to another colony which subsequently became independent before 1983
  • British subjects born before 1949 who did not acquire citizenship of any Dominion (Australia, Canada, India, Pakistan, Ceylon, South Africa), Ireland or Southern Rhodesia when these countries introduced citizenship laws, and were not connected in any way with India or Pakistan.
  • persons registered as CUKCs by descent before 1983 based on birth in a non-Commonwealth country to a CUKC father (there was no limitation on the number of generations provided the child was less than 12 months old)
  • eligible descendants of the Electress Sophia of Hanover; see Sophia Naturalization Act 1705.
  • women who acquired CUKC by marriage after 28 October 1971, unless married before that date and with a husband who had right of abode in the UK
  • minor children who acquired CUKC by registration at the British High Commission in an independent Commonwealth country on or after 28 October 1971
  • persons who were allowed to retain their CUKC statuses even though they acquired the citizenship of a newly independent Commonwealth country (see Penang and Malacca and Cyprus immediately below)

Penang and Malacca

Several early independence acts did not contain any provision for the loss of citizenship of the United Kingdom and Colonies by citizens of the newly independent states. A notable case is that of the former Settlements (colonies) of Penang and Malacca in what is now Malaysia. These were combined in 1948 with the nine Malay states (which were protected states rather than colonies) to form the Federation of Malaya. On independence on 31 August 1957, British protected persons from the Malay states lost their BPP status. However, as a result of representations made by the Straits Chinese, known as the "Queen's Chinese", it was agreed by the Governments of the United Kingdom and Malaya that no provision should be made for the withdrawal of CUKC status from the inhabitants of Penang and Malacca, who would consequently be allowed to remain CUKCs as well as citizens of Malaya.[1]

On 16 September 1963, the colonies of North Borneo, Sarawak and Singapore were joined with Malaya to form Malaysia (Singapore subsequently left Malaysia in 1965). CUKC was withdrawn from those acquiring Malaysian citizenship in 1963, but this did not affect existing citizens of the Federation.

Hence, persons connected with Penang and Malacca prior to 31 August 1957, together with those born before 1983 in legitimate descent to fathers so connected, form the largest group of British Overseas citizens (estimated at over 1 million). Most also hold Malaysian citizenship.


Cyprus became an independent Commonwealth country on 16 August 1960 (the Sovereign Base Areas of Akrotiri and Dhekelia were formed into a new colony at that point), although a nationality law was not enacted until 16 February 1961.

Persons resident in any area of the Commonwealth (excluding Cyprus) immediately before 16 August 1960 retained CUKC even if they acquired Cypriot citizenship.

After 1983

CUKCs who did not qualify to become British Citizens or British Dependent Territories Citizens (later named British Overseas Territories Citizens) became British Overseas Citizens on 1 Jan 1983 according to the British Nationality Act of 1981. While the BOC category was intended to be a residual category of British Nationality that will disappear when all current holders die, it is still possible to acquire BOC status after 1983:

Hong Kong

British Dependent Territories citizens connected to Hong Kong who did not register as British National (Overseas) and did not have another citizenship (this therefore excludes those with Chinese ancestry who are considered by the People's Republic of China as citizens) became British Overseas Citizens on 1 July 1997.

St. Kitts and Nevis

Descendants of BOCs with no other nationality

Descendants of British Overseas Citizens who do not qualify for any other nationality may be allowed to register as British Overseas Citizens.

Eligible descendants of Electress Sophia of Hannover

Acquisition of British citizenship in 1983

A CUKC who acquired right of abode before 1983 would have become a British citizen on 1 January 1983, instead of (or as well as) a British Overseas citizen. Most commonly this was through:

  • descent from a United Kingdom and Islands born or naturalised parent or grandparent (either paternal or maternal)
  • residence in the United Kingdom and Islands for five years before 1983 together with acquisition of settled status
  • if a woman, marriage to a man who possessed right of abode.

Acquisition of British Overseas citizenship under the 1981 Act

Save for some transitional arrangements made under the 1981 Act (which expired on 31 December 1987) it is normally only possible for a person to acquire British Overseas citizenship if otherwise stateless.

A British Overseas citizen parent does not in itself give rise to a claim to British Overseas citizenship, or any other form of British nationality. This applies whether one is born in the UK or elsewhere.

Access to British citizenship

British Overseas citizens may normally become British citizens through one of the following routes:

Residence in the United Kingdom

  • After five years' residence in the United Kingdom, and holding Indefinite Leave to Remain (ILR) or its equivalent for at least 12 months, a BOC may apply for registration as a British citizen under section 4 of the British Nationality Act 1981.
  • If married to a British citizen, it is possible to apply for naturalisation as a British citizen after three years' residence in the United Kingdom provided ILR is held on the day of application.

Both of these options confer British citizenship otherwise than by descent and hence children born subsequently outside the United Kingdom will normally have access to British citizenship.

Holding no other nationality

The Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 granted British Overseas Citizens, British Subjects and British Protected Persons the right to register as British citizens if they have no other citizenship or nationality and have not after 4 July 2002 renounced, voluntarily relinquished or lost through action or inaction any citizenship or nationality. Previously such persons would have not had the right of abode in any country, and would have thus been de facto stateless. Despite strong resistance from senior officials at the Home Office,[2] the then Home Secretary, David Blunkett, said on 3 July 2002 that this would "right a historic wrong" which had left stateless tens of thousands of Asian people who had worked closely with British colonial administrations.[3] The Government of India has also issued clarifications in respect of people with these citizenships to assist with consideration of applications under the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002.

Future of British Overseas citizenship

As British Overseas citizenship cannot be transmitted by descent except where the child would otherwise be stateless (in which case the child will be eligible for registration as a British citizen under the 2002 Act), BOC is a residual category, and will gradually become extinct as existing BOCs (the vast majority of whom were born before 1983) eventually die. The 2002 Act resolved the issue of de facto statelessness for most existing BOCs; however, BOCs who lost their other nationalities after 4 July 2002 are not eligible. This means that de facto statelessness can still be an issue for BOCs in situations like the following:

  • A BOC acquires a BOC passport after 4 July 2002, and the country of his other nationality (e.g. Malaysia) considers the acquisition of a foreign passport to be grounds for deprivation of that country's citizenship.
  • A BOC holds citizenship of a country (e.g. Japan) that permits dual citizenship only for minors, and that requires such minors to renounce all other nationalities at the age of majority. (For example, those with BOC and Japanese citizenship as minors might lose their Japanese citizenship at age 20 if they do not renounce their British Nationality then.) Such BOCs will be de facto stateless if they reach the age of majority after 4 July 2002 as they cannot benefit from the 2002 Act.

Of all the six classes of British nationality, only the status of British citizen carries with it the de jure right of abode in a specific place (in this case the UK). However, in practice:

  • British Overseas Territories Citizens (except those solely associated with the Sovereign bases in Cyprus) were granted full British citizenship in 2002. Those who are solely associated with Sovereign Base Areas are entitled to Cypriot citizenship under Cypriot law.
  • British Nationals (Overseas) status was only granted to persons who had right of abode in Hong Kong before 1997. Such persons will still have the right of abode or the right to land in Hong Kong indefinitely and, if they have no other nationalities, are eligible to register as British citizens under section 4B of the British Nationality Act since 2009.
  • British subjects and British Protected Persons lose their statuses upon acquisition of another nationality (except British subjects connected with the Republic of Ireland, who have the right to live and work in the UK anyway because of EU treaties) and so should be eligible for registration as British citizens under the 2002 Act.

This makes British Overseas citizens unique in that their nationality status is not associated with the right of residence anywhere in the world.

In 2007–2008, Lord Goldsmith suggested in his Citizenship Review that the category of British Overseas citizenship (along with other residual classes of British Nationality) be abolished, and existing BOCs be given a window to register as British citizens.[4] However, this suggestion was never made into law.

In 2004, Sanjay Shah a British Overseas citizen of Kenyan-Indian descent, was detained by UK airport immigration authorities and sent back to Kenya. But since he had given up his Kenyan nationality (and passport), he could no longer be admitted into Kenya unless he reapplied for Kenyan citizenship. After spending 13 months in Nairobi airport, he was eventually granted full British citizenship in 2005.[5]

Loss of British Overseas citizenship

Acquisition of another country's citizenship does not cause loss of British Overseas citizenship. However, if an entitlement to registration as a British citizen under section 4B is held it will be lost if the person acquires another nationality before becoming a British citizen.

British Overseas citizens may be deprived of British Overseas citizenship on terms similar to those applicable to British citizens.

A British Overseas citizen may renounce British Overseas citizenship on the same basis as a British citizen. However, there is no provision to resume British Overseas citizenship after renunciation.

Benefits of British Overseas citizenship

Because the status of British Overseas Citizen is not associated with the right to live or work anywhere in the world, it is often considered a useless citizenship (unless the holder has no other nationality, in which case he or she may register as a British Citizen). In fact, during the 2017–18 Australian parliamentary eligibility crisis, the High Court of Australia effectively ruled that British Overseas Citizenship was not a real citizenship.[6]

However, there are some minor benefits to having British Overseas Citizenship.

Some of these rights are common to all Commonwealth citizens (i.e. British Overseas Citizens with another form of Commonwealth citizenship already have these rights):

  • Right to vote in the UK if resident in the UK.

Other rights are specific only to British Overseas Citizens but not to Commonwealth citizens (holders of some other classes of British nationality may also qualify for some of these rights):

  • Acquiring British Citizenship is simpler and cheaper (registration instead of naturalization), although residency requirements are the same as for other nationalities.
  • Indefinite Leave to Remain is valid for life, regardless of time spent outside the United Kingdom.
  • Ability to hold certain jobs and offices in the UK that are restricted to British Nationals (although positions restricted to British Citizens remain off-limits).
  • Ability to benefit from the Youth Mobility Scheme with no quotas.
  • Ability to claim personal exemptions on UK income if considered non-resident for UK tax purposes. (Prior to 6 Apr 2010 this was available to all Commonwealth Citizens).
  • Consular protection from the UK government if outside the UK and travelling on a British passport.
  • Visa-free access to the UK for visits up to 6 months, if travelling on a BOC passport. (Many other nationalities, commonwealth and non-commonwealth, also have this benefit.)

Some rights that British Overseas Citizens used to have are no longer effective:

  • Before 2002, British Overseas Citizens with work permits or entering as persons of independent means were given Indefinite Leave to Enter/Remain immediately.


  1. ^ "Malaysian Citizens (Hansard, 13 November 1972)".
  2. ^
  3. ^ UK to right 'immigration wrong', BBC 5 July 2002.
  4. ^ "Lord Goldsmith QC Citizenship Review", UK Ministry of Justice, March 2008, Retrieved 9 January 2011
  5. ^ "Kenya airport dweller is British". 12 July 2005 – via
  6. ^ "Why did High Court rule Nick Xenophon and Matt Canavan were eligible to stay in Parliament?" – via

See also

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