European Union citizens’ rights post-Brexit

Since the result of the European Union (EU) referendum in June 2016, one of the biggest concerns for European Economic Area (EEA) and Swiss citizens (collectively referred to here as EU nationals) and businesses that employ them, is what their status will be post-Brexit.


On 31 December 2020 the UK completed its exit from the EU and freedom of movement ended.

EU nationals who were living in the UK by 11pm on 31 December 2020 were eligible to apply for an immigration status under the EU Settlement Scheme. The deadline to make an application was 30 June 2021, but the Home Office will still accept late applications if there was a good reason for missing the deadline.

From 1 January 2021, a new immigration system has been in force and new arrivals from the EU who entered the UK after this date to live, work and/or study will need to obtain immigration permission before they travel. Those wishing to visit the UK will not require visas.

EU Settlement Scheme

EU nationals resident in the UK by 11pm on 31 December 2020 are eligible to apply under the Scheme.

Successful applications under the Scheme will have one of two outcomes:

  1. Settled status (Indefinite Leave to Remain (ILR), also known as permanent residence or settlement) will be granted to those who have been resident for at least five continuous years. This means that they will be free to reside in the UK, to access public funds and services and eventually to apply for British citizenship.
  2. Pre-settled status will be granted to those who have been resident for less than five continuous years. This Limited Leave to Remain will be valid for five years and the applicant can apply for settled status once they reach the five year threshold.

Close family members (spouses, civil partners and unmarried partners, dependent children and grandchildren) who are living with or join an EU citizen in the UK after the UK leaves the EU, where the relationship existed on 31 December 2020, will also be able to apply for pre-settled or settled status.

Applicants will only be required to demonstrate their identity, their continuous residence in the UK and that they have not been involved in serious or persistent criminal behaviour for their applications to be approved.

Continuous residence means that applicants must not have been absent from the UK for more than six months in any continuous 12-month period. A single absence of up to 12 months is permitted for exceptional reasons such as pregnancy, childbirth, ill health, study or vocational training. Longer absences are permitted where someone is required to complete national military service overseas.

Successful applicants receive an e-mail with a Unique Application Number (UAN) confirming that they have been granted pre-settled or settled status plus access to an online account. Successful non-EU citizen family members are issued with Biometric Residence Permits.

Those with settled or pre-settled status will continue to have the same access as they currently do to the labour market, schools, healthcare, pensions and other benefits.

Anyone granted settled status will lose it if they are absent from the UK for more than continuous five years.

Irish citizens are not required to apply for settled/pre-settled status. Irish citizens’ rights to reside in the UK are not affected by Brexit as they are governed by separate law which pre-dates the EU.

Application process

Applications can be made online or through a mobile phone app developed by the Home Office.

The app is easy to use and takes an applicant through the process step-by-step.

The app scans a passport’s biometric chip to confirm the applicant’s identity which means that applicants do not have to surrender their passports. After some basic personal questions, the Home Office will use National Insurance numbers, where an applicant has one, to check records held by HMRC and the Department of Work and Pensions to determine how long someone has been in the UK. The results of this check are provided instantly.

Where an individual has made National Insurance contributions for the last five consecutive years, this should be sufficient to satisfy the Home Office that the individual meets the continuous residence requirements for settled status.

Where an EU national has no National Insurance number, or if government records are incomplete, an opportunity will be given to provide supplementary evidence, for example, utility bills or property documents, demonstrating the applicant’s residence in the UK. Applicants can use the app to take a photo of the document showing name, address and dates and can upload it onto the application.

It is important to note that applicants who do not use the mobile phone app will be required to send their passport to the Home Office or book an appointment at a support centre to have their identity verified. Where possible, we recommend using the app either on your own device or a borrowed one – the app stores no data.

After the application is submitted, a decision is generally made within a month and an e-mail is sent to the applicant confirming their status. An online account is created which the applicant can access to see their immigration status and update details, for example a new passport.

Pre-settled status cannot be extended so, if a future application for settled status is not made or is not possible, applicants will need to obtain permission in the appropriate category under the immigration system in place at the time.

British citizenship/naturalisation

Applications for British citizenship can be made 12 months after the date on which applicants are granted settled status, but do depend on some tight residence qualifications.

It is important to note that many EU nationals are unaware that they are already British citizens. EU nationals who were born in the UK may be British by birth depending on the date of their birth and the status of their parents at the time of their birth. 

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