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How to apply for a UK Ancestry visa
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How to apply for a UK Ancestry visa

People from Commonwealth countries often ask whether they can get a British visa on the basis of their country’s historical ties to the UK. The answer is, generally speaking, “no”. But there is one route which is open only to, although not to all, Commonwealth nationals: the UK Ancestry visa.

This post sets out the main requirements of the UK Ancestry route and gives some tips on making a successful application. When I refer to Home Office guidance, I mean this document, which is also a good starting point for anyone looking at making a visa application on the basis of ancestry. 

Who can apply for a UK Ancestry visa?

As mentioned above, the Ancestry visa route is only open to Commonwealth nationals. Not all Commonwealth nationals qualify, though. The basic eligibility criteria are found in paragraphs 186 to 193 of Part 5 of the Immigration Rules.

The applicant must:

  1. Be a Commonwealth national
  2. Be 17 years old or over
  3. Have at least one grandparent born in the UK or Islands; Ireland (if before 31 March 1922); or, in certain circumstances, on a British-registered ship or aircraft
  4. Be able to work and intend to seek employment or work in the UK; and
  5. Be able to “maintain and accommodate” himself or herself and any dependant in the UK, without recourse to public funds

In addition, as with most routes, applicants must ensure that they do not fall foul of the general grounds for refusal, found at Part 9 of the Immigration Rules (interested members can access our training on the general grounds for refusal here)

We’ll quickly run through those five main requirements in turn.

1. Commonwealth citizenship

Commonwealth nationals are citizens of the countries listed in Schedule 3 to the British Nationality Act 1981

2. Minimum age

Applicants must be over the age of 17. For those aged 17 but not yet 18, the Home Office may want the consent of their parent(s) to the application. There is no upper age limit: while 

3. British ancestry

As the visa’s name suggests, applicants must have British ancestry. In particular, they must have at least one grandparent born in one of the following jurisdictions:

  • the UK
  • the “Islands” (Guernsey, Jersey or Isle of Man)
  • Ireland, if the grandparent was born before 31 March 1922
  • in certain circumstances, on a British-registered ship or aircraft. To check what those circumstances are, see the Home Office guidance General information: all British nationals.

The grandparent can be a biological grandparent, or grandparent by adoption. In adoption cases, it can be either the applicant who has been adopted by a parent whose own parent was born in the UK; or the applicant may be the biological child of a parent who was adopted by someone who was born in the UK. In all cases, the adoption must be a recognised adoption.

Example

Josh was born in Bristol on 1 February 1940. In 1965, he moved to Australia and, in 1980, he legally adopted Olivia, an Australian national. In the year 2000, Olivia gives birth to Peter in Australia.

Peter is an Australian national, and therefore a Commonwealth citizen. He is now 2020. His mother was adopted in Australia, whose adoptions are recognised by the UK. Her adoptive father is Josh, who was born in the UK. Peter is therefore eligible for a UK Ancestry visa (provided he meets the other requirements). 

4. Employment intention

Unlike other immigration routes, Ancestry visa applicants do not need to show that they have a job offer in the UK at the time of their initial visa application. They simply need to show that they are “able to work and intend[s] to take or seek employment in the United Kingdom”. Of course, a job offer will meet this requirement. But even in the absence of that, an intention to seek work in the UK, and a realistic ability to find one, is sufficient. We’ll cover the sort of evidence that might be submitted to prove this below. 

“Work” can be employed work, self-employed work or even voluntary work. In the latter case, applicants should be extra careful to show that they have sufficient funds to continue maintaining themselves in the UK without recourse to public funds despite not having employment income. 

5. Maintenance and accommodation 

Similar to the employment requirement, the maintenance and accommodation requirement at the initial visa application stage is relatively liberal (by Home Office standards at least!). There isn’t a set amount of savings one must hold, or a minimum income requirement. There also isn’t a set amount of time the money relied on must have been held for (such as six months). Instead, the rules simply say that the applicant must show that s/he “will be able to maintain and accommodate himself and any dependants adequately without recourse to public funds”. 

That said, it would be advisable to at least try to meet the maintenance and accommodation requirements for a family visa, as set out in the guidance on Appendix FM. This would mean showing that:

  1. the applicant has more money available than a British family would receive in Universal Credit, or that their savings exceed the Universal Credit level; and
  2. that the proposed accommodation would be owned or legally occupied by the applicant and their dependants, and not be overcrowded. 

But there is no need to stick rigidly to the Appendix FM rules. For example, third party support (such as money from a parent) is acceptable in Ancestry visa applications.

What documents do I need to submit?

The first point to make is that there are no specified documents. In other words, the rules do not dictate which documents which must be submitted and which, if not submitted, will result in the application being refused. This is again unlike other types of UK visa where there are hard and fast rules about evidence.

All the same, an applicant must satisfy the Home Office that they meet all of the requirements of the rules, even if there is no prescribed way of doing so. In practice, this means submitting:

1. Evidence of identity and Commonwealth citizenship

Like most applications, applicants must submit their passports. This will be evidence of their identity and Commonwealth citizenship.

2. Evidence of ancestry

The easiest pieces of evidence are birth certificates for the three relevant generations: the applicant; their relevant parent’s; and their relevant grandparent (to show birth in the UK). 

In addition, when an applicant or their parent has been adopted, the legal adoption papers will also need to be submitted. 

Example

In Peter’s example above, he would want to submit his birth certificate, showing his mother as Olivia; Olivia’s adoption certificate, showing she was adopted by Josh; and Josh’s birth certificate, showing birth in the UK.

If any of the parties involved has changed their name, it is also important to submit evidence of it, such as change of name deed or marriage certificate.

Example

Peter’s mother, Olivia, was born with the surname Olivia Bennett. When she was adopted by Josh, her surname was changed to his surname, Smith. She went on to marry Peter’s father, and changed her surname to his, Williams. Her name on Peter’s birth certificate appears as Olivia Williams.

With his application, Peter should submit Olivia’s adoption certificate, which should show her surname as Smith; and Olivia’s marriage certificate, which should show that she married Mr Williams.

Importantly, this evidence must be resubmitted to extend an Ancestry visa or to apply for indefinite leave to remain. Applicants should retain that evidence, which may have been difficult to obtain the first time around, so that they don’t have to unearth it all again. 

3. Evidence of ability to work in the UK

As mentioned above, there is no legally required evidence for here. But the Home Office guidance suggests the following:

  • job offers from employers
  • evidence of registration with a recruitment agency
  • evidence of job applications they have made or any steps they have undertaken to improve their chances of finding employment – for example, relevant training courses
  • a business plan, if they intend to be self-employed

I also tend to submit the applicant’s CV and, if they have previously worked, evidence of previous work such as payslips, contracts of employment or reference letters. 

In addition, when there is something about the applicant which may make the Home Office doubt their ability to work in the UK, then more evidence may need to be submitted to satisfy the caseworker.

Example

Jeremy is a 60-year-old New Zealander. In New Zealand, he was a successful lawyer. He decided to retire early, aged 50. Ten years on, he now wishes to move to the UK. Jeremy’s only daughter moved here while a student, and where she has stayed since and started a family of her own.

The Home Office may doubt that Jeremy will work in the UK, due to his age and the fact that he already retired. However, Jeremy does in fact intend to dedicate the next decade to give back to the community by volunteering, teaching English to refugees who recently arrived in the UK. He will be able to maintain and accommodate himself thanks to the savings he accumulated during his work, and the rental income he will generate from his New Zealand property, which he will be renting out.

In support of his application, Jeremy submits evidence of email communications he has had with charities providing English classes to refugees; evidence that he did a one-year course to be able to teach English last year; and a statement from him setting out his motivations to volunteer in the UK.

He also submits three months worth of bank statements showing his savings, and a draft tenancy agreement with evidence of communication with his letting agents showing how much he will make from renting the property once he moves out. His application is successful.

4. Evidence of maintenance

For this requirement, the Home Office guidance suggests that caseworkers want to see evidence covering a period of three months prior to the application. How does this square with what I’ve said above about there being no set time period? The guidance explains:

Applicants are advised to submit evidence covering at least 3 months. However, you must not refuse an application solely because the evidence covers less than this. You may accept evidence covering a shorter period if you are nonetheless satisfied that the applicant will be able to maintain and accommodate themselves. 

The guidance also lists examples of types of evidence which could be submitted:

  • payslips
  • bank statements
  • building society pass book
  • P60s 
  • evidence of any other source of income – for example, income from rental property
  • tenancy or mortgage agreement

5. Evidence of accommodation

When it comes to accommodation, the easiest piece of evidence would be a tenancy agreement or mortgage statement. But, naturally enough, visa applicants may not be in a position to arrange either of those before coming to the UK.

In those cases, if they will be living with a friend or family member before getting a place of their own, a letter from that person with evidence of their own ownership or right to live at the property would be a good piece of evidence. If the applicant is intending to stay in an Airbnb to start with, evidence of reservation would also serve as evidence for an initial application, alongside evidence showing the applicant has sufficient funds to pay for that accommodation. 

What about my family members?

Spouses, unmarried partners (who have cohabited for two years or more) and children of the main applicants are allowed to apply at the same time, or join the main applicant in the UK.

In an interesting twist of the rules, unlike many others, family members are eligible to apply for indefinite leave to remain at the same time as the main applicant — even if they have not, by then, lived in the UK for five years themselves. 

How much does it cost?

Visa fees have a depressing tendency to increase on a regular basis. At time of writing, an Ancestry visa application costs £516.

In addition, applicants must pay an Immigration Health Surcharge for five years at a rate of £400 a year, coming to a total of £2,000. This is due to increase to £624 a year on 1 October, so the up-front payment for the Immigration Health Surcharge will be £3,120 plus £516 for the headline application fee.

What will I get if my visa is approved?

Ancestry visas are valid for five years. During those five years, applicants are allowed to (of course) work in the UK. They are also allowed to study. Like most routes, applicants cannot access public funds.

All in all, this is quite a liberal route — there are few requirements at entry and, once in the UK, applicants are not tied to an employer, a course of study or, indeed, to a relationship. 

What happens after five years?

Applicants can apply for indefinite leave to remain after five years. For the application to be successful, they will need to show that: 

  • they still meet the requirements above. Importantly, with regards to evidence of ancestry, the documents must be submitted again. With regards to employment, if an applicant is working at the date of application, then it is obviously accepted that they intend to work in the UK. If an applicant is not working, the Home Office will expect to see evidence of previous work in the five years. If there has been little to no work, applicants should be prepared to explain how this is consistent with an intention to work at the date of application.
  • they have spent a continuous period of five years in the UK. Continuity of leave is broken by absences of more than 180 days in any 12 month period. You can read more about the intricacies of this rule in this post. The point is for applicants to be aware of this from the beginning if they both intend to apply for indefinite leave and to travel a lot during their initial stay.
  • they have valid leave at the date of application; in other words, they haven’t overstayed their visa. There are limited exceptions to this, but it is always best to try and avoid relying on them. Another interesting point to note is that the applicant’s leave at the time of the application does not need to be on the basis of their ancestry, as long as they previously had five-year continuous leave on an Ancestry visa.
  • they have passed the Life in the UK Test.
  • they speak English at level B1, either because they come from a majority-English country, they have passed an approved English language test, or they have a degree taught in English.
  • they do not fall foul of the general grounds for refusal .
Example

Peter arrives in the UK on his Ancestry visa in January 2020. A recent graduate in hospitality management, Peter looks for a job in a hotel but does not manage to find one due to COVID-19. Frustrated by his inability to stand out, Peter decides to pursue a Master’s in Business Management, hoping this will increase his chances of getting a job. He pursues his MBA between September 2020 and June 2022.

After graduating, Peter finds a job as a general manager of a hotel, which he works at for a year. During that year, Peter marries and has a child, born in July 2023. He and his wife decide that his wife will return to work while Peter stays at home, which he does until the child turned 1, in July 2024. Peter then starts a temporary job for the summer season, which ends in October 2024. In January 2025, Peter is looking for a job but also applies for indefinite leave to remain.

The fact that Peter only worked for short periods of time during the period of his Ancestry visa, and that he is not working at the time of application, will need to be explained but will not necessarily be fatal to the application. If Peter can satisfy the Home Office that he intends to work, he can be granted indefinite leave to remain.

Of course, Peter must also ensure that he can meet the maintenance requirement, which he may be able to do by relying on his wife’s employment income.

Although most applicants will be able to apply for indefinite leave to remain after five years’ residence in the UK, some may not be eligible to do so. This may be, for example, because they have exceeded the number of allowable absences, or because they haven’t been able to pass the Life in the UK test.

In those cases, it is possible to apply to extend an Ancestry visa. Applicants will need to meet the requirements they met the first time they applied. The applicant will be able to then apply for indefinite leave to remain as soon as they meet the rules; they do not have to wait until a further five years have passed. 

Example

Peter does not apply for indefinite leave to remain in January 2025 after all because he has exceeded his absences in the UK, having spent six months in Australia in 2021. He instead applies for further leave, which is granted, giving him until 2030. In 2027, once he has had leave for a continuous period of five years, he applies successfully for indefinite leave to remain.

Applications for indefinite leave to remain are made on form SET(O), and cost £2,389. Application for further leave to remain are made on form FLR(IR), and cost £1,033, in addition to the Immigration Health Surcharge mentioned above.

Tips and troubleshooting

All in all, UK Ancestry is a relatively easy route. However, there can be some “pain points”. Here are some that I have seen arising in applications I have assisted with in the past:

Switching in-country from another visa on to Ancestry

This does not often happen, because the Ancestry route is such a generous route that most applicants will enter the UK the first time relying on it. However, it is important to note that an initial Ancestry visa can only be submitted from abroad. It is not possible for someone who is already in the UK on a different route to “switch” to Ancestry. Instead they will need to return to their home country before applying for their Ancestry visa.

Never having worked before

As mentioned above, Ancestry visa applicants just need to show that they intend to work in the UK, not that they are working at the date of application or have a job offer. That said, some applicants will find it easier than others to show their ability to work in the UK.

For first-time applicants who have never worked (eg recent graduates), I would suggest treating the Ancestry application like a job application: what makes you hire-able? Submit evidence of your studies; evidence that you speak English; your CV including any unpaid work experience, internships etc. Also submit evidence that you have already started looking for a job in the UK, and have done your research on what kind of jobs you can aspire to get.

Also remember that volunteering counts as work, so you can start applying for volunteering positions if you can afford to do so and would find it easier to get into the job market that way.

Evidence, evidence, evidence

Although there are no specified documents, you must be able to show that you meet the rules with… documents! This should not, therefore, be approached lightly. The onus is still on you to show that you meet the requirements.

You also need to be sure that your documents are genuine. This is of course the case for any visa application, but applicants really should not be tempted to submit forged documents because they struggle to find the originals. Perhaps because of how generous this route is, the Home Office seem to look at the documents submitted with particular interest.

Its guidance states that caseworkers will “record the birth certificate reference numbers” to then cross-reference them with any previous applications (if any), and with other birth certificate reference numbers they have on record. The Home Office will also “check carefully for any signs a document has been altered”. If they have any concerns, they may “ask the relevant issuing authority, such as the General Register Office or equivalent overseas department, to verify the document”.

I don’t have my granny’s birth certificate

Fair enough — not many people do! Thankfully, it is possible to request certified copies of birth certificates from the UK authorities. If your grandparent was born in England or Wales, you can order it on the General Registry Office website. For grandparents born in Scotland, it is the ScotlandsPeople website. And for those born in Northern Ireland, head to the General Register Office Northern Ireland (GRONI) website.

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I am not an expert on the Republic of Ireland but I understand their birth certificates can be ordered on the Health Service Executive website. Remember this only works if your grandparent was born before 31 March 1922 and Ireland was still part of the UK.

Finally, although I do not have experience of this, the government website suggests that those born on registered ships can ask the Marine section of the Department of Transport for birth certificates. Birth in registered aircraft is recorded by the General Register Offices mentioned above.

My evidence documents aren’t in English

All documents submitted must be in English or Welsh. If some documents are in another language, they must be accompanied by a certified translation. The translation must:

  • confirm that it is an accurate translation of the original document
  • be dated
  • include the full name and signature of the translator or an authorised official of the translation company
  • include the translator or translation company’s contact details
  • if submitted for an extension or indefinite leave to remain application, be certified by a qualified translator and include details of the translator or translation company’s credentials

Last but certainly not least – could you be eligible for British citizenship?

Regular readers of Free Movement may remember the landmark case of Romein, which aimed at rectifying historic gender discrimination in UK nationality law.

As this is outside the scope of this post, I will keep it brief: if you were born between 1949 and 1983, your maternal grandfather was born in the UK, and your mother was born outside of the UK, then you may have an entitlement to be registered as a British citizen. Do seek legal advice if you think you may fit within this category. It would mean that you don’t need a visa at all.

Nath Gbikpi

Nath is a solicitor and has worked with Wesley Gryk Solicitors since June 2014. Nath read Development Studies and Politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), before obtaining an MSc in Refugee and Forced Migration Studies at the University of Oxford and an LLB at the University of London. She tweets: @NathGbikpi.

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