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British Citizenship for Children: A Guide from KIND UK

From KIND UK and We Belong

In this guide:

1. British Citizenship

> 2. Discretionary Citizenship

  • An Overview of Routes to Citizenship
  • The Discretionary Route
  • Not Eligible for British Citizenship Yet?
  • Going to University?
  • Case Examples

3. The Illegal Migration Act (2023)

4. The Good Character Requirement

5. Useful Resources & More Information

2.1 An Overview of Routes to Citizenship

These are some of the routes to citizenship for children under the British Nationality Act 1981:

  • British at birth (children born in the UK are automatically British citizens if a parent was British or ‘settled’ before the child was born)
  • British by entitlement (children born in the UK but not automatically British citizens can acquire citizenship if they meed certain requirements, for example having lived in the UK for the first 10 years of their life)
  • British by adoption (children can become British citizens if they are adopted by a British citizen)
  • Discretionary route (children with a strong connection to the UK may be eligible for British citizenship)
  • For more information, please see the full British Citizenship section of this guide here.

2.2 The Discretionary Route

The Home Office can grant British citizenship to a child where a child has strong ties to the UK. The application must be submitted before the child’s 18th birthday.

The criteria for this route are not fixed. The decision should be based on factors in Home Office guidance and judgments in relevant court cases, including:   

  • The child has lived in the UK for a significant period. If the child has lived in the UK for 10 years or more and meets other criteria, they should be granted citizenship; if less than 10 years, it depends on other factors. 
  • British citizenship would be in the child’s best interests. 
  • The child and their parents already have permission to stay in the UK (this is not an absolute requirement but weighs in the child’s favour). 
  • The child’s future lies in the UK (especially if in UK less than 10 years).  
  • The child is of ‘good character’ (if age 10 or older). 
  • Both parents consent, or any objections are not reasonable. 
  • Special circumstances mean that the child should be granted citizenship, e.g. a non-British orphan coming to live with British family members in the UK. These may override other factors in some cases. 

2.3 The Illegal Migration Act

The Illegal Migration Act became law on 20 July 2023. It changes whether those who entered the UK irregularly from 7 March 2023 and not coming directly from a country where their life and liberty were threatened can acquire leave to remain or British citizenship,

Those affected include but are not limited to: adults, children in the care of an adult, children not in the care of an adult, and victims of trafficking.

  • For more information please see the full Illegal Migration Act section of this guide here.

2.4 Not Eligible for British Citizenship Yet?

Some children and young people living in the UK who are not British citizens may need to apply for permission to stay before applying for citizenship. 

There are various options, depending on age, how long they have lived in the UK, and other circumstances. These include:

  • Permission to stay as a child who has lived in the UK for 7 years, if it would be unreasonable to expect the child to leave the UK
  • Permission to stay as a child in care
  • Permission to stay as a young person (age 18-24) who has lived in the UK more than half their life. 
  • There may be other options too! More info here and here

Permission to stay Vs British Citizenship

Children can apply for British citizenship as soon as they become eligible. 

This may be soon after being granted permission to stay, or it may be when they reach age 10, when they have lived in the UK for several years, when a parent becomes British or settled, or based on some other change of circumstance. 

It is not always necessary that a child has permission to stay in the UK before they are eligible for British citizenship. Adults are often eligible to naturalise as British citizens after a year with indefinite leave to remain. 

2.5 Going to University

Many young people of migrant backgrounds experience problems when they apply to university and student finance. We Belong, JustRight Scotland, and other organisations have been fighting for these young people to be treated fairly. 

Some children may avoid problems relating to student finance and immigration status if they are granted British citizenship before they begin their course. 

In England, student finance and ‘home fee’ status is generally restricted to students who are ‘ordinarily resident’ in England and have been ‘ordinarily resident’ in the UK for 3 years. Ordinary residence generally means lawful residence for a ‘settled purpose’ (and not mainly to pursue full-time education). 

Most people who have neither British citizenship nor Indefinite Leave to Remain (ILR) or EU Settled Status do not automatically qualify for student finance in England. They must also meet ‘long residence’ requirements set out in the Education (Student Support) Regulations 2011 (revised) (para 13): 7 years’ living in the UK if under 18 on the first day of their academic year; or living in the UK half their life (or 20 years) if over 18. 

There are some exceptions (for example, refugees, stateless people, and some people from or previously living in certain European countries, and others). Students must double-check their eligibility for home fees and student finance before beginning a course because eligibility cannot be changed after starting. 

There are Equal Access scholarships, generally known as Sanctuary Scholarships, for people who cannot access student finance because of immigration status. People without leave to remain in the UK may or not have a legal right to study at university and should get advice about this. 

For more information about eligibility for student finance and scholarships, We Belong has helpful resources here and the UK Council for International Student Affairs has lots of information here.  

In Scotland, the residency requirements relating to student finance were successfully challenged through litigation. A Scottish court found in September 2022 that the rules unlawfully discriminated on the basis of immigration status. 

As a result, the Scottish Government changed the requirements relating to student finance in Scotland.  

Children and young people who are having problems with student finance related to their immigration status can contact We Belong if in England or JustRight Scotland if in Scotland.

2.6 Case Examples

All names have been changed to protect privacy.


Discretionary route to citizenship

Ana’s mum settled in the UK and naturalised as a British citizen. Ana came to live in the UK at age 11. She had indefinite leave to enter, which means there was no time limit on how long she could stay.

Sadly, Ana’s mum was not able to take care of her properly, and she was taken into care by a local authority at age 14.

KIND UK began assisting Ana when she was pregnant and living in supported accommodation at age 17.

She had no documents to prove her immigration status. She was not entitled to British citizenship on a statutory basis because she was not born in the UK. But she had lived in the UK for 6 years and had strong ties to the UK, so she could apply for citizenship on a discretionary basis.

Her citizenship application had to be made urgently, because this route would have been lost after her 18th birthday. Her solicitors helped get documents proving her status and helped her apply for British citizenship.

Ana was granted British citizenship.


Atu was born in the UK. His parents were from another country and initially had permission to stay in the UK but later overstayed their visas due to difficult circumstances. 

When Atu was young, he went to live with his grandmother in another country for an extended time, which meant that he did not have an entitlement to British citizenship at age 10 because he had lived outside the UK for longer than permitted.  

But his solicitors also considered the discretionary route to British citizenship. They advised that it would be best to first apply for permission to stay in the UK for Atu, his brother Ebo, and their mum, Emma, under an Immigration Rule that allows children and their families to stay in the UK if they have lived here for more than 7 years and it is unreasonable to expect them to leave. These applications were successful. 

Next, after Atu’s brother Ebo was 10 years old, the solicitors helped Ebo apply for British citizenship (on a statutory basis, as he had always lived in the UK). Later, the solicitors helped Atu apply for British citizenship, on a discretionary basis, based on his long residence and strong ties to the UK. 

Atu’s citizenship application was granted in October 2023.