This briefing paper outlines the nationality requirements for Commonwealth citizens to join the UK's armed forces. It explores the immigration requirements for Commonwealth armed forces personnel on discharge, and the immigration requirements for non-EU family members of both Commonwealth and British armed forces personnel.Jump to full report >>
Applicants to join the UK armed forces must be either British, a Commonwealth citizen or from the Republic of Ireland, either as a sole or dual national.
To join the UK armed forces applicants must be either a British National, a British Citizen as defined by the British Nationality Act 1981, a Commonwealth citizen or a citizen of the Republic of Ireland. Gurkhas serve under special and unique arrangements and remain citizens of Nepal during their service in the Brigade of Gurkhas.
Holders of dual nationality are eligible to join the armed forces as long as one of those nationalities is British and they can prove they are not required for national service in their other country, either now or in the future.
Previously anyone who wished to join the armed forces had to also meet the requisite residency requirements.
The residency requirements for joining the armed forces are generally in line with the Home Office rules for attaining British citizenship under the British Nationality Act 1981. Under that legislation, applicants must have resided in the UK for a minimum of five years immediately prior to application or have resided in the UK for a minimum of three years if married to a British citizen.
However, the residency requirements have been changed by successive governments. In November 2018 the Government removed the five-year residency criterion for Commonwealth applicants to the regular Armed Forces.
While serving in the armed forces a Commonwealth citizen is exempt from immigration control under the Immigration Act 1971. This means that the Commonwealth citizen does not require immigration permission or a visa to enter and remain in the UK. Once service in the armed forces has ended the Commonwealth ex-serviceman will need to apply for immigration permission to remain in the UK or they will need to leave the country.
Non-EU family members of serving Commonwealth citizens are not exempt from the requirement to have immigration permission or a visa to enter and remain in the UK. The same applies for non-EU family members of serving British citizens. Family members may be eligible for family visas as a partner/spouse or child if they meet the requirements. The main requirement is that the ‘sponsoring’ partner/spouse meets the financial (minimum) income requirement of £18,600 per annum. In some instances, this income can be supplemented by assets and/or the partner/spouse’s UK income.
The impact of the minimum income requirement on serving armed forces members has been the subject of parliamentary, media and stakeholder criticism, with the Armed Families Federation (AFF) suggesting earlier in 2019 that at least 500 troops are affected.
Commonwealth ex-servicemen and their families may be eligible for settlement (known as ‘indefinite leave to remain’) in the UK after 4 years’ service if they meet the immigration rules.
Family members of both Commonwealth and British servicemen need to pay the relevant immigration fees for both the initial leave to enter or remain on a family visa, and for indefinite leave to remain if they choose to settle in the UK. The current fee for indefinite leave to remain is £2,389 per applicant – for a family of four non-EU citizens the total fees are almost £10,000.
The fees for indefinite leave to remain have come under substantial criticism, with campaigners and MPs arguing that they do not reflect the nation’s respect for the service and sacrifice of troops. A cross party group of MPs is calling on the Government to abolish the fees for indefinite leave to remain for ex-serviceman and their families. The Royal British Service Legion is also running a campaign called ‘Stop the service charge’ which encourages individuals to write to their MP against fees for indefinite leave to remain for Commonwealth personnel.
 ‘Commonwealth soldiers don’t earn enough to bring families with them’, The Times, 9 February 2019
Commons Briefing papers CBP-8625
Authors: Hannah Wilkins; Louisa Brooke-Holland