“As an aspiring British citizen, will Meghan Markle be required to sit the complete Citizenship test, including the written questions on the role of the monarchy? Or will Britannia waive the rules” so asked Austen Lynch in a letter to The Guardian last week. (1)
A clever and humorous quote maybe, but one that will hit home with the tens of thousands of people in the UK who have not seen their family members for months or even years as they sit and wait for visa applications to be granted, or declined.
The recent news of Prince Harry’s engagement to US Citizen Meghan Markle no doubt evoked feelings of affinity amongst fellow Britons planning to marry a foreigner, but perhaps also feelings of sympathy as Jason Knauf, Prince Harry’s Communications Secretary, rushed to stress that Ms. Markle will be treated like anyone else and will be “fully compliant with immigration requirements at all times” going through a process which many know can take a number of years and blight the lives of ordinary British citizens who happen to fall in love with foreign nationals.
Prince Harry is in a privileged position as he celebrates his engagement, being a part of a percentage of the population who can afford to marry a spouse from outside of the European Economic Area (EEA).
Immigration rules introduced in 2012 under the then Home Secretary Theresa May MP set a minimum earnings threshold of £18,600 for UK citizens to bring a non-EEA spouse or partner to live in the UK with them. This figure rises to £22,400 for couples with a child and then an additional £2,400 for each additional child. Where the sponsor does not receive any earnings, this financial requirement can also be satisfied by holding over £62,500 in cash for over 6 months. (2)
The Migration Observatory in Oxford estimates that around 40% of British Citizens (3) don’t earn enough to meet this threshold and unfairly disadvantages minimum wage earners. Millions of nurses, teaching assistants, factory workers and those who work on zero-hours contracts will never be able to bring their foreign partners back to the UK.
Even if you are able to meet the financial requirements, (and I think we can assume Prince Harry can, although the source of his income and the ‘no recourse to public funds’ requirement could be debated separately) many applicants are hit by complex rules that limit what types of paperwork count as proof of your income or your relationship. Many fall at the first hurdle and cannot afford the fees charged by the Home Office for applying. For a single application, applicants are likely to pay between £1,000 and £2,000 just to apply and there is no guarantee that your application will be successful. Further fees are required for priority processing, which, as stated by the Home Office means: “the priority service does not guarantee that you will receive a decision within certain number of days. It only means that your application would be put in front of the queue.”
Thousands of people become victims of delayed or incorrect decision-making by the Home Office who stand accused of a “proprietary blend of indifference and incompetence” by Satbir Singh, Chief Executive of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (4), as more and more cases are reported of the need to spend hundreds of pounds to speak to UK Visas and Immigration helplines only to be informed that applications have been misplaced, or simply ‘in process’. Colin Yeo, an excellent and very experienced immigration barrister estimates that the total cost of an application process can rise to £7,000. (5)
The relentless pressure to keep immigration down at all costs is giving rise to an increasing number of non-EEA migrants facing the risk of deportation even if they have lived in the UK for many years, and this is particularly evident amongst foreign academics married to British citizens. Just this week, Jeremy Corbyn has intervened on behalf of Jennifer Wexler, a US citizen who is married to a British man. Jennifer has had continuous residence in the UK for the past 11 years and has been employed by some of the UK’s best universities and museums for all that time. Her recent application for indefinite leave to remain (ILR) in the UK has been denied. The reason cited is because the number of days she has spent out of the country even though many of her absences have been explicitly related to work sanctioned by UK institutions.
Jeremy Corbyn has said these policies are putting the UK’s global reputation for higher education and research at risk and Victoria Sharkey of MediVisas UK immigration service, has criticised the Home Office’s “incredibly subjective” rules which are not applied with any consistency.
However, side stepping these reports of bureaucratic inefficiencies, and assuming that Prince Harry and his fiancé will not be subject to any such ineptitudes, just what will Ms. Markle need to do to strive towards British citizenship and achieve her “Happily Ever After”?
First, she will have to apply for a family visa in order to remain in the country.
Non-EEA partners of British citizens coming into the country on a family visa also have to pass an English speaking test – unless they come from one of a list of countries where English is an official language, including the United States so US-born Ms. Markle will satisfy this requirement.
If someone comes to the country as the fiancé of a British citizen, they must marry within six months and with their wedding planned for May 2018, this requirement will also be met.
Generally, before someone comes into the country as the partner of a British citizen on a family visa, they must submit a range of evidence proving their relationship is real. Again, it is probably safe to assume they will not encounter too much onerous paperwork to satisfy this requirement.
After entering the UK on a family visa, individuals must wait five years before permanent residency is granted, also known as ILR. Only then can they apply for citizenship, provided they have spent no more than 270 days outside the UK in the past three years.
At this point, Ms. Markle will have to take a test with questions on life in the UK, and in case Ms. Markle needs any help, the Home Office produces an official handbook with everything she will need to know for the test which focusses on British culture, history and traditions as well as the events and people who have helped make Britain great. Detractors are quick to point out that the test would be a challenge even for those living in the UK with sample questions including:
- “Where is the five-day race meeting attended by members of the royal family and known as Royal Ascot celebrated?”
- “Who is the patron saint of Scotland?”
- “Who built the Tower of London after becoming King in 1066?”
To see how you would fare on the UK Citizenship test, answer the sample questions published courtesy of The Guardian and see whether you score the 75% necessary to pass:
Whilst we do of course offer heartfelt congratulations to the Royal couple on their engagement and wish them luck together in their future, perhaps it is poignant at this time of year to also remember the thousands of families who will spend Christmas apart from each other as their lives remain on hold until they successfully manage to navigate the complexities of becoming united as British Citizens.