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How long can Brits stay in the UK without losing their EU residency?

The coronavirus pandemic has seen many British nationals resident in the EU return to the UK, but those 'waiting out' Covid-19 back in Britain could lose their rights to live in their host country. Here's what you need to know to make sure you keep your EU residency status.

How long can Brits stay in the UK without losing their EU residency?
Brits waiting out the pandemic in the UK could have trouble returning to their homes in the EU. Photo: Eric Piermont/AFP

Brits living in the European Union who have returned to the UK until Covid-19 subsides are being urged not to stay away from their host country for too long – or they risk losing their rights to residence there, warns citizens’ rights group British in Europe.

READ ALSO: How the Brexit deal has changed daily lives of British residents in Europe

Since Britain left the EU on January 1st 2021, British nationals are covered by the Withdrawal Agreement (WA). This legislation sets out citizens’ rights, providing for entitlements to work, study and access public services and benefits on similar terms to when the UK was part of the EU.

Under this agreement, there is a limit to the amount of time Brits can be away from their host country – that is, the EU country they moved to. How much time you’ve been resident in your host country determines how long you can spend in the UK.

If you have permanent residence under the Withdrawal Agreement, the permitted absence from your EU country is five years. Permanent residence is granted for anyone who has “been living in a Member State continuously and lawfully for five years at the end of the transition period”, according to UK government guidelines.

Photo by PHILIPPE HUGUEN / AFP

What does continuously mean? The UK government advice is that “individuals will generally have been lawfully residing in their host state for at least six months in any 12-month period”.

That means you’re in the clear if you possess permanent residency under the Withdrawal Agreement. Unless you plan to stay in the UK for several more years from now, you aren’t in danger of losing your residency rights while you’re away.

READ ALSO: Brexit: Anger and frustration for Brits in Italy amid confusion over new biometric ID card

On the other hand, if this doesn’t apply to you and you have ordinary residence instead, the permitted absence is a total of six months in a 12-month period.

This can be extended, however, to “one absence of a maximum of twelve consecutive months for important reasons such as pregnancy and childbirth, serious illness, study or vocational training, or a posting in another Member State or a third country”.

Does Covid-19 count as an important reason?

The Agreement provides for cases of serious illness, so if you caught Covid-19 in the UK, you can argue this is valid for extending the six-month absence to 12 months.

It gets more difficult to define if your individual case falls outside of these allowances. You may personally believe your circumstances warrant staying away for longer than six months: difficulty of travel, looking after an ill relative, your struggling mental health if you return to an apartment to live alone are all good reasons to stay in the UK. However, it’s not clear cut whether this will be accepted and each country will have different rules.

As there are no clear guidelines on which Covid-related reasons would justify an extension, if you have ordinary residence, you could lose your residence rights if you are absent for more than six months.

Photo by Tolga Akmen / AFP

It can sometimes be tricky to calculate exactly how long your period of permitted absences is. EU rights service Your Europe Advice may be able to advise on your individual case – you can contact them here.

How can you prove how long you’ve been away from your EU residence?

On returning to your host country – or the EU transit country – you may be asked questions about your residence at the border. You will be required to explain that you haven’t been away from your host country for more than a six-month period, or that you have solid grounds for extending this to 12 months.

“You should, therefore, be ready to provide proof of your periods of absence and, if claiming more than six months’ absence for Covid-related reasons, to provide documentary proof of those reasons,” states British in Europe.

Proof of these absences can be in the form of travel tickets. Meanwhile the group says that any Covid-related documentation will need to be “convincing”. This could include test results and details of treatment.

And of course, you’ll need to prove that you’re resident in your EU country in the first place. Show border guards your residence card if you have one, or if your country doesn’t use them or hasn’t issued yours yet, carry documentation such as property deeds, rental agreements, employment contracts or utility bills that show you’re based there. 

More details and FAQs on UK nationals’ residence rights in the EU can be found on the European Commission’s website here.

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Member comments

  1. 20.3.2021 Spring Starts!

    Hello,

    If living in the EU then I think the best thing is to apply for Dual nationality. This was possible in Germany, but I am unsure if still available. It will certainly save a lot of problems.

    What do others think about this?

    1. Germany allows British citizens to keep their citizenship when applying for naturalisation as long as the application was submitted and all relevant requirements (length of residence, language level certificate and the citizenship test) were completed before 31 December 2020 – any applications made after that date would require you to renounce your British citizenship before the German authorities will grant you German citizenship. Germany only allows dual nationality with other EU member states or Switzerland, so as the transition period finished on 31 December 2020 so did this possibility.

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BRITS IN EUROPE

Brits in Europe won right to vote for life in UK but questions remain

After years of campaigns and promises British citizens living abroad finally won the lifelong right to vote in UK general elections in April 2022. But campaigners say more needs to be done to allow all those Britons abroad to be able cast their votes easily.

Brits in Europe won right to vote for life in UK but questions remain

What’s in the law?

The Elections Act 2022 introduced several changes to the current legislation on electoral participation. Among these, it removed the rule by which British citizens lose their voting rights in the UK if they have lived abroad for more than 15 years

The new rules also abolished the requirement to have been previously registered in the UK electoral roll to become an overseas voter. In addition, the registration in the electoral roll will now last up to three years instead of only one year.

It is estimated that these changes could increase the number of overseas voter registrations by some 3 million. But the way new measures will be applied in practice is still to be defined.

READ ALSO: ‘Mixed feelings’ – British citizens in Europe finally get right to vote for life

Defining the practicalities

Under the new law, Britons living abroad will have to register to vote in the last place they were registered in the UK. This means that people who have never lived in the UK will be ineligible to vote, regardless of how long they have been overseas, while those who left when they were children will be able to use a parent or guardian’s address.

But given that the UK does not require residents to register with local councils, how to prove previous UK residence? “Typical documents accepted as a proof of residence are Council tax or utilities bills, but not everyone will have them or will have kept them in an international move,” says Fiona Godfrey, co-founder of the British in Europe coalition.

Ballot papers are pictured in stacks in a count centre as part of the 2019 UK general election. (Photo by ANDY BUCHANAN / AFP)

Other questions concern how people will effectively cast their ballot. UK citizens overseas will be able to vote by post or by proxy or in person at their polling station if they are in the UK at the time of the election. However, few people are likely to travel to the UK for an election and in the past there have problems and delays with postal voting.

The Electoral Commission has recommended that overseas electors appoint a proxy to vote on their behalf. But who could that be for people who have been away from their constituency for a long time?

New secondary legislation will have to answer these questions, defining how to be included in the electoral roll and how to exercise the voting right in practice.

According to British in Europe, the government should present draft legislation in the first half of the year so that the parliament can adopt it before summer and registrations of overseas voters can start in the autumn.

British in Europe survey

British in Europe are currently running a survey to understand the difficulties UK citizens abroad may face in the registration and voting process, as well as their intention to participate in elections.

The survey asks for instance which documents people can access to prove their previous residence in the UK, what problems they had voting in the past, and if and how they plan to vote in the future.

“We need to get an up-to-date picture of British citizens living around the world and have information to make recommendations to the government, as it prepares secondary legislation,” Godfrey said. “If millions of people will exercise their voting rights, there will be consequences for council registration offices, post office and authorities that will manage the process, among other things” she argued.

The right to vote concerns only UK parliamentary elections and national referendums, not elections in the devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, or at local level.

The survey is open to UK citizens living anywhere in the world and is available at this link.

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