A British subject is a member of a class of British nationality largely granted under limited circumstances to people connected with Ireland or British India born before 1949. The term itself has historically had several different meanings, but is currently used to refer to a nationality class which was created to accommodate individuals who held a status previously called British subject without citizenship. Individuals with this nationality are British nationals and Commonwealth citizens, but not British citizens.
The status does not automatically grant the holder right of abode in the United Kingdom but most British subjects do have this entitlement. As of the end of 2018, about 34,500 British subjects hold active British passports with this status and enjoy consular protection when travelling abroad; fewer than 900 do not have right of abode in the UK.
Nationals of this class without right of abode are subject to immigration controls when entering the UK. British subjects without right of abode in the UK who hold no other nationality are effectively stateless as they are not guaranteed the right to enter the country in which they are nationals.
Before the concept of nationality was codified in legislation, inhabitants of English communities owed allegiance to their feudal lords, who were themselves vassals of the monarch. This system of loyalty, indirectly owed to the monarch personally, developed into a general establishment of subjecthood to the Crown.Calvin's Case in 1608 established the principle of jus soli, that all those who were born within Crown dominions and allegiance were natural-born subjects. After the Acts of Union 1707, English and Scottish subjects became British subjects. Natural-born subjects were considered to owe perpetual allegiance to the Crown, and could not voluntarily renounce British subject status until it was first permitted in 1870.
Prior to 1708, foreigners could only be naturalised through Acts of Parliament. Although procedures were created after this point for aliens to become subjects, personalised naturalising legislation continued to be enacted until 1975. Additionally, the monarch could personally make any foreigner a subject by royal prerogative. A denizen created by this method was not an alien but could not pass subject status to children by descent and was barred from Crown service and public office. This mechanism was never used after 1873.
A distinction was made between subjects who naturalised in the United Kingdom and those who did so in other territories. Individuals who naturalised in the UK were deemed to have received the status by imperial naturalisation that was valid throughout the Empire, while those in colonies were said to have gone through local naturalisation and given subject status valid only within the relevant territory.
British subject status was codified in statute law for the first time by the British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act 1914, which formalised the status as a common nationality among the United Kingdom and its Dominions. Dominions that adopted this Act as part of their own nationality laws (Australia, Canada, Ireland, Newfoundland, New Zealand, and South Africa) were authorised to grant subject status to aliens by imperial naturalisation.
During this time, British subject status was the principal form of British nationality. There were certain territories that came under British jurisdiction but were not formally incorporated as Crown territory proper. These included protectorates, protected states, League of Nations mandates, and United Nations trust territories. Because they were foreign lands, birth in one of these areas did not automatically confer British subject status. Instead, most people associated with these territories were designated as British protected persons.
Following the First World War, the Dominions developed distinct national identities. Britain formally recognised this at the 1926 Imperial Conference, jointly issuing the Balfour Declaration with all the Dominion heads of government, which stated that the United Kingdom and Dominions were autonomous and equal to each other within the British Commonwealth of Nations. Legislative independence of the Dominions was given legal effect after passage and ratification of the Statute of Westminster 1931. Diverging developments in Dominion nationality laws and ever growing assertions of independence from London culminated with the creation of Canadian citizenship in 1946. Combined with the approaching independence of India and Pakistan in 1947, nationality law reform was necessary at this point to address ideas that were incompatible with the previous system.
The British Nationality Act 1948 redefined British subject as any citizen of the United Kingdom, its colonies, or other Commonwealth countries. Commonwealth citizen was first defined in this Act to have the same meaning. This alternate term was necessary to retain a number of newly independent countries in the Commonwealth that wished to become republics rather than preserve the monarch as head of state. The change in naming also indicated a shift in the base theory to this aspect of British nationality; allegiance to the Crown was no longer a requirement to possess British subject status and the common status would be maintained by voluntary agreement among the various members of the Commonwealth.
British subject/Commonwealth citizen status coexisted with the citizenships of each Commonwealth country. A person born in Australia would be both an Australian citizen and a British subject. British subjects under the previous meaning who held that status on 1 January 1949 because of a connection with the United Kingdom or a remaining colony became Citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies (CUKC). This was the principal form of British nationality during this period of time.
There was also a category of people called British subjects without citizenship. Irish citizens who fulfilled certain requirements could file formal claims with the Home Secretary to remain British subjects under this definition. Additionally, those who did not qualify for CUKC status or citizenship in other Commonwealth countries, or were connected with a country that had not yet defined citizenship laws, would transitionally remain British subjects in this group.
All British subjects initially held an automatic right to settle in the United Kingdom, though non-white immigration into the United Kingdom was systemically discouraged. This entitlement was part of a wider initiative to preserve close relationships with certain Dominions and colonies (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, and Southern Rhodesia) and to moderate nationalist attitudes within the Commonwealth. It was thought that only a limited number of non-white colonial migrants would ever seek to settle in the UK. However, strong economic conditions in Britain after the Second World War attracted an unprecedented wave of colonial migration. In response to growing anti-immigration sentiment, Parliament imposed immigration controls on subjects originating from outside the British Islands with the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1962. The Immigration Act 1971 relaxed controls on patrials, subjects whose parents or grandparents were born in the United Kingdom, and gave effective preferential treatment to Commonwealth citizens from white-majority countries.
Outside of the United Kingdom, the legal significance of British subject status varied depending on each Commonwealth country's legislation. At first, British subjects retained in some of these countries eligibility to vote in elections, for preferred paths to citizenship, and for welfare benefits. These privileges were removed on independence in most countries but still retained in some. British subjects were eligible to vote in New Zealand until 1975, Canada on the federal level until 1975 (not fully phased out in provinces until 2006), and Australia until 1984 (though subjects on the electoral roll in that year are still eligible).
Because each country now defined British subject in separate pieces of legislation and these definitions were not always updated or kept at parity, individuals could have been British subjects in one country at a given time but not another. For example, a South African citizen in 1967 would have been considered a British subject in Canada, but not the United Kingdom or South Africa. The country was included in the list of Commonwealth nations in Canadian law, despite South Africa having left the Commonwealth in 1961 and not rejoining it until 1994.
By the 1980s, most colonies of the British Empire had become independent. Parliament updated nationality law to reflect the more modest geographical boundaries of the United Kingdom. The British Nationality Act 1981 recategorised CUKCs into different nationality groups based on patriality and birthplace. CUKCs with the right of abode in the United Kingdom or were closely connected with the UK, Channel Islands, or Isle of Man became British citizens while those connected with a remaining colony became British Dependent Territories citizens. Those who could not be reclassified into either of these statuses and were no longer associated with a British territory became British Overseas citizens.
While all nationals under those categories continue to be Commonwealth citizens, the definition of British subject was limited to its present meaning. It currently only includes the category of people previously called British subjects without citizenship as well as women who married such persons and registered for the status. The term is no longer synonymous with Commonwealth citizen. British citizens are not British subjects as defined by the 1981 Act.
In other Commonwealth countries that still retained it, British subject status was progressively abolished. The status remained in law in South Africa until 1961, Canada until 1977, New Zealand until 1977, and Australia until 1987.
Though the British government has never conceded to suggestions that its policies and legislation concerning nationality were discriminatory or racist, Parliament has since revised nationality law to correct remaining cases of statelessness caused by deprivation of the right to settle in the UK after 1962. The Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 granted British subjects who do not hold and have not lost an alternative nationality the right to register as British citizens.
Naturalisation as a British subject is not possible. It is expected that British subjects will obtain citizenship in the country they reside in and that the number of active status holders will eventually dwindle until there are none. It is currently only possible to transfer British subject status by descent if an individual born to a British subject parent would otherwise be stateless. The status was granted in 1949 to British subjects who did not become CUKCs or citizens of any other Commonwealth country or the Republic of Ireland. Irish citizens born before 1949 may make formal claims at any time to retain status as British subjects based on: Crown service in the UK, passports or certificates of entitlement describing holders as British subjects, or proof of other associations with the UK or any former British territory. Women married to British subjects were also able to register for the status before 1983. Virtually all other individuals with this status hold it by virtue of their own or their father's birth in former British India.
British subjects not connected with Ireland automatically lose the status if they acquire any other nationality, including other British nationality classes. It can also be voluntarily relinquished by a declaration made to the Home Secretary, provided that an individual already possesses or intends to acquire another nationality. British subject status may be deprived if it was fraudulently acquired. There is no path to restore British subject status once lost.
British subjects who do not have right of abode in the United Kingdom are exempted from obtaining a visa or entry certificate when visiting the UK for less than six months. When travelling in other countries, they may seek British consular protection. British subjects are not considered foreign nationals when residing in the UK and are entitled to certain rights as Commonwealth citizens. These include exemption from registration with local police, voting eligibility in UK and EU elections, and the ability to enlist in the British Armed Forces. British subjects are also eligible to serve in reserved and non-reserved Civil Service posts, be granted British honours, receive peerages, and sit in the House of Lords. If given indefinite leave to remain (ILR), they are eligible to stand for election to the House of Commons and local government.
British subjects may become British citizens by registration, rather than naturalisation, after residing in the United Kingdom for more than five years and possessing ILR for more than one year. Registration confers citizenship otherwise than by descent, meaning that children born outside of the UK to those successfully registered will be British citizens by descent. Individuals who become British citizens automatically lose British subject status if they are not connected with Ireland. Otherwise, British subjects may also simultaneously be British citizens. British subjects who do not hold and have not lost any other nationality on or after 4 July 2002 are entitled to register as British citizens.
British subjects who hold no other nationality are de facto stateless because they do not have a right to enter the country that claims them as nationals. The Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 allowed these individuals to register as British citizens, after which statelessness was generally resolved for people who were solely British subjects.
British subjects without right of abode are subject to immigration controls when entering the United Kingdom. They are required to pay a "health surcharge" to access National Health Service benefits when residing in the UK for longer than six months and do not qualify for most welfare programmes.
British subjects without right of abode in the United Kingdom are not European Union citizens and do not have freedom of movement in the EU. However, they are exempted from obtaining a visa when visiting the Schengen Area.
British subject passport holders are unable to apply for entry into the US by using the Electronic System for Travel Authorisation (ESTA) programme to access the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), regardless of how many decades they may have permanently lived in the UK, ever being married or in a civil partnership with a British citizen passport holder, nor having the right of permanent abode by having "The holder has the right of abode in the United Kingdom" vignette printed inside their passport. This continues to cause confusion, as the ESTA website maintains contradictory information, allowing those who have "right of permanent abode" to use ESTA to obtain a VWP, yet at the same time denying British subject passport holders this privilege.
Under the Windrush scandal, and the subsequent "Windrush Scheme", holders of these passports who have lived in the UK before 1983 may be able to apply at no cost for British naturalisation, allowing them the right to apply and pay for full British citizen passports, thus giving them the same visa-free rights as current Citizen passport holders enjoy. (see British nationality law and the Republic of Ireland#British subject passports.)
NOTE: British citizens only with the unrestricted right of permanent abode in England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man.
NOTE: For citizens of the United Kingdom, only passports indicating British Citizenship are eligible to be used for travel under the Visa Waiver Program. A passport indicating that the bearer is a British Subject, British Dependent Territories Citizen, British Overseas Citizen, British National (overseas) Citizen or British Protected Person does not qualify for travel without a visa.