The Commonwealth has its roots in the days of British colonialism, during the height of the British 'Empire' and global power. Today, the Commonwealth is an association of 54 former British territories and includes nations across the globe both small and large, including Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, Bangladesh, Barbados, Belize, Botswana, Brunei, Cameroon, Canada, Dominica, Kingdom of eSwatini, Fiji, The Gambia, Ghana, Grenada, Guyana, India, Jamaica, Kenya, Kiribati, Lesotho, Malawi, Malaysia, Maldives, Malta, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Nauru, New Zealand, Nigeria, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Cyprus, Rwanda, Samoa, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Solomon Islands, South Africa, Sri Lanka, St Christopher and Nevis, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, The Bahamas, Tonga, Trinidad and Tobago, Tuvalu, Uganda, United Kingdom, United Republic of Tanzania, Vanuatu, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

Given this unique connection between the 54 nations, it is useful to understand the benefits enjoyed by Commonwealth citizens in the UK.

Right of Abode in the UK

The 'right of abode' provides the ability to live or work in the UK free of immigration controls (as would be the case for a visa holder). Not only do those with the right of abode not need a visa to enter and stay in the UK, but there is also no set time limit on how long they can remain. Not all Commonwealth citizens have the right of abode, but many do, either through their parents or marriage. In order to have the right of abode through parents, the following must all apply:

  • one of your parents was born in the UK and was a citizen of the United Kingdom and colonies when you were born or adopted
  • you were a Commonwealth citizen on 31st December 1982
  • you did not stop being a Commonwealth citizen (even temporarily) at any point after 31st December 1982

The right of abode through marriage is only available to female Commonwealth citizens, who must:

  • have been married to someone with the right of abode before 1st January 1983, and;
  • not stopped being a Commonwealth citizen (even temporarily) at any point after 31st December 1982

According to Home Office rules, however, female Commonwealth citizens typically don't have the right of abode if the person they were married to has another living wife or widow. It may be possible if they entered the UK while married before 1st August 1988 (even if their husband has other wives in the UK), or if they have been in the UK since their marriage and at that time were their husband's only wife to have legally entered the UK.

UK Ancestry visa

Some Commonwealth citizens are also eligible for UK Ancestry visas. One of the real benefits of this visa type is that holders can remain in the UK for five years without having to apply for an extension to their leave. After five years in the UK, the Commonwealth citizen can then apply to settle permanently in the UK (referred to as indefinite leave to remain or ILR).

To be eligible for a UK Ancestry Visa, the Commonwealth citizen will need to:

  • apply from outside of the UK
  • be over 17 years old
  • prove that one of their grandparents was born in the UK, including the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, or before 31st March 1922 in Ireland, or on a British-registered ship or aircraft
  • be able and planning to work in the UK
  • have sufficient funds to support themselves while in the UK
  • provide evidence of a clear a tuberculosis test result (this does not apply for all countries)

It is also possible to apply for an Ancestry visa if either you or the relevant parent were adopted or were born within or outside marriage in the UK. It is, however, not possible to apply for a UK Ancestry visa through step-parents.

The UK Ancestry visa costs £516, however, applicants also need to pay the healthcare surcharge, which is currently £400 per year (per person on the application) but will increase to £624 per year from October 2020. This can add significantly to the overall cost of applying for an Ancestry visa as this must be paid at the time of application for all five years of the duration of the visa.

Applications cannot be made more than three months before travelling, and decisions on UK Ancestry visa applications are typically made within three weeks. As a UK Ancestry visa holder, you will be able to work, study, and bring family members with you. Eligible family members include dependants living outside of the European Economic Area (EEA); i.e. the applicant's partner, children under 18 years, and children over 18 years who do not yet live an independent life (e.g. they are married, have children, or live away from the parental home and are financially self-sufficient).

Visa-free travel

Some, but not all Commonwealth citizens can travel, work, visit, and study for up to six months in the UK without the need to apply for a visa prior to arriving. It is important to check on the UK Home Office website if you are expected to show a visa for entry on arrival at the UK border, as unfortunately, this is not consistent across all Commonwealth nations.

Exemption from the English language test

Another of the benefits enjoyed by some Commonwealth citizens is the exemption from the English language test when applying for a visa. Again, this does not apply to all Commonwealth countries, but it does apply to citizens of Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, The Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Canada, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, New Zealand, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, and Trinidad and Tobago.

Final words

The benefits for Commonwealth citizens in the UK vary according to the country of origin and the individual's family background. Some may benefit from visa-free travel for stays of up to six months, allowing them to work, travel, study. Others may have the right of abode or be eligible for an Ancestry visa.

If you are unsure of your rights as a Commonwealth citizen, it is recommended that you seek the advice and guidance of immigration Solicitors in the UK who will be able to assess your eligibility and rights. This may mean you can avoid the time consuming, costly, and often stressful process of making a visa application to enter and stay in the UK. If you do have special rights as a Commonwealth citizen, use them; sometimes we need to use every advantage we have at our disposal.

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