British Overseas Citizens: An Introduction
Updated: May 29
A British Overseas Citizen ("BOC") is a person who holds a British passport but who has no automatic right to live in the UK and is subject to immigration control (i.e. they are required to apply for a visa to enter and remain in the UK).
How did people become British Overseas Citizens?
During the Britain's colonial period, all people who owed allegiance to the British Crown were called British subjects. That included not only people living in Britain but also people all over the world who lived in countries that had been colonised by Britain.
In the 1940s, with many countries gaining their independence from the British Empire, the British Nationality Act 1948 led to the introduction of a new status: Citizens of the UK and Commonwealth (or “CUKCs”). Former British Subjects generally either became citizens of the newly independent Commonwealth country where they lived or they became a CUKC. Some people were also able to retain both statuses.
All CUKCs and all citizens of those newly independent Commonwealth counties who had been British Subjects, continued to have the right to enter and reside in the UK freely.
As Britain began to distance itself from its former colonies, new legislation developed which separated the “right of abode” (i.e. the right to enter and reside in the UK) from British nationality. The Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1962, removed the right of abode from all of those Commonwealth Citizens (including CUKCs) who were not either born in the UK or holding a UK passport (as opposed to British passports issued by colonial authorities).
There began, therefore, to be tiers of British nationality whereby a person could be a CUKC but have no right to live or reside in the UK itself.
Further and far more restrictive immigration controls were introduced in the UK in 1971, shortly after Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech.
The British Nationality Act 1981 put an end to the use of the term “Citizen of the UK and Commonwealth” and for the first time introduced a formal notion of British Nationality. This Act differentiated between the tiers of British Nationality, introducing:
British Citizenship for those who were closely connected with the UK,
British Dependent Territories Citizenship (“BDTC”) for those connected with the Dependencies and
British Overseas Citizenship (“BOC”) for CUKCs who did not acquire either British Citizenship or British Dependent Territories Citizenship at commencement.
People who had previously been CUKCs but who did not have a right of abode in the UK prior to 1983 became BOCs at this point.
The BOC category was also designed to incorporate all people affected by the changes who did not become British Citizens or BDTCs so as to comply with the UK’s obligations under the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness.
The majority of people who had been CUKCs but who were born and lived outside of the UK would have obtained the nationality of their newly independent Commonwealth Country. There were, however, a group of approximately 200,000 people who, for various reasons, never obtained the nationality of any other country. These persons would have been BOCs with no other nationality.
What rights do British Overseas Citizens have now?
British Overseas Citizens are subject to immigration control which means that they have no right of abode in the UK (or in any other country if this is the only nationality that they possess) and must apply for a visa to enter and remain in the UK.
The benefits of BOC status are that they have the right to apply for a British passport (denoting them as British Overseas Citizens) and they are eligible for some consular services.
If certain conditions are met it is also possible for a BOC to apply for full British Citizenship pursuant to s.4B of the British Nationality Act 1981. This additional right was introduced in 2002 to assist people who were BOCs but held no other nationality and were, for all intents and purposes, therefore stateless.