When making an application to become a British citizen, one of the most important requirements that will be encountered is in relation to the rules surrounding the selection of referees. Given the nature of this application, and the Home Office's view (expressed in their guidance) that applying for citizenship "is not an entitlement" but rather a privilege, it should come as no surprise that strict requirements are placed on who is eligible to act as a referee in this type of application. As such, the purpose of this article is to provide an explanation of the rules and requirements that govern referees for British citizenship, including who can act as a referee in a British Citizenship application.

Overview of British Citizenship

Becoming a British citizen carries with it a significant degree of importance, as is made abundantly clear by the Home Office, who have stated in their published guidance that aside from the practical benefits of making such an application (namely the ability to later make an application for a British passport – a process discussed in previous blog posts), it also "gives you the opportunity to participate more fully in the life of your local community".

Given the significance placed on being granted citizenship, it may be helpful to first provide a brief explanation of the routes to 'British citizenship', before turning to consider the specific requirements imposed on referees. It should be noted from the outset that naturalisation is not the only means through which an individual could obtain British citizenship. As has been explained in prior blog posts, it is possible for an individual to obtain citizenship through automatic acquisition, through registration, and of course through naturalisation.

Each of these routes imposes their own requirements and as such, full consideration of the exact rules which must be followed in each route is beyond the scope of this article, and in any event has been outlined in depth in all three of the separate posts linked above. However it is worth emphasising that determining which specific application route is most appropriate will require careful consideration of all the facts at hand in order to avoid making mistakes which could impede an individual's citizenship application.

Home Office Guidance on Referees for British Citizenship

The Home Office's Guidance on referees for British Citizenship (Nationality Policy: general information – all British nationals) outlines that all applicants for British citizenship are required to provide two referees who can establish the applicant's identity.

Who Can Act as a Referee for a British Citizenship Application?

The guidance goes on to outline the following requirements that all referees must adhere to. These include the following points:

  1. The referee must have know the (adult) applicant for at least 3 years;
  2. The referee must be a British passport holder and either a;
    1. Professional Person; or
    2. Aged over 25

The guidance then explains that the referee must also not fall into one of the following categories:

  1. The referee must not be related to the applicant or the other referee
  2. They must not be the applicant's representative
  3. They must not be employed by the Home Office
  4. They must not have been convicted of an imprisonable offence in the last 10 years for which the sentence is not spent under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974

The Home Office's 'Guide AN: Naturalisation booklet' builds upon this latter point by providing that "Checks may be carried out to ensure that the referees do not have unspent convictions", again highlighting the strict nature of these requirements.

Do Both Referees Have to Be British Citizens?

A key ambiguity that arises when selecting referees is the fact that the guidance and the Referee Declaration itself appear to say two different things in respect of the nationality requirements imposed on referees. As we saw above, the Home Office's 'Nationality Policy' document refers to referees needing to be a "British passport holder and either a professional person or aged over 25". In contrast, the Home Office's 'Guide AN' document explicitly states that "One referee can be of any nationality", as is also stated in the Referee Declaration itself (which says that "one referee should be a person of any nationality" and the second "must normally be the holder of a British citizen passport")

As of the time of writing this article, this inconsistency between the 'Nationality Policy' guidance on the one hand, and 'Guide AN/Referee Declaration' on the other still appears to be present. In the absence of clear direction from the Home Office, if it is possible to do so, it may be that the safest option for an applicant is to provide two British referees. However, if this is not possible, then an applicant may be able to rely on the provisions in both the referee declaration and Guide AN to provide one referee who is not a British citizen, and another referee who is a British citizen.

What is an 'Acceptable Professional Person'?

Another key requirement in both the 'Referee Declaration' and the guidance is that at least one of the referees must be a 'professional person'. The declaration describes this as a person who "has professional standing, eg minister of religion, civil servant, or a member of a professional body e.g. accountant or solicitor (who is not representing you with this application)".

The guidance builds on this by providing a non-exhaustive list of what constitutes an 'acceptable professional person'. The full list can be found here and from this, we can see that there are a wide array of professions which would be acceptable for the purposes of acting as a referee. This list should be consulted prior to submitting a citizenship application in order to ensure that at least one of the chosen individuals is in a suitable profession. It is also worth remembering that when selecting potential referees, only one of them needs to be a professional person for these purposes. However this does not preclude an applicant from relying on two professional persons should they choose to do so.

What Does a British Citizenship Referee Need to Do?

Once an applicant has identified suitable referees and confirmed that they satisfy the criteria detailed above, both referees will be required to provide a 'referee declaration' (an example of which can be found here) confirming that they are:

  • Qualified to act as a referee;
  • That the photograph of the applicant (which will need to be enclosed along with the application) is a 'true likeness' of them;
  • That to the best of their knowledge, the details provided by the applicant in their citizenship application are correct;
  • That the details which the referee has provided in the citizenship application are also correct.

The Home Office retains a power to contact referees but the guidance expressly states that caseworkers must only do so "if this could resolve concerns about the application" and they have "authority from a senior caseworker to do so". Therefore, it is important to explain to chosen referees that they may be contacted by Home Office officials and ensure that they are willing to do so in the event that they are contacted.

If the Home Office comes to the conclusion that a referee does not meet one or more of the requirements detailed above, the guidance directs a caseworker to ask the applicant to provide alternative referees. Given the potential delays and additional inconvenience that this could entail, it is again worth emphasising that applicants should carefully consider who they are selecting as their referees in order to avoid such an outcome.

Finally, Guide AN brings specific attention to the fact that it is a criminal offence for a referee to provide false information (either knowingly or recklessly) and where such an offence is committed the guidance outlines that it is "punishable with up to 3 months imprisonment or by a fine not exceeding £5,000 or both under section 46(1) of the British Nationality Act 1981."

Conclusion

As will hopefully have been seen from this article, selecting a suitable referee to support your British citizenship application may not be a straightforward endeavour. As has been explained, there are many requirements and restrictions on who is able to act as a referee as well as certain duties being imposed on referees. Given the importance of obtaining British citizenship, it is vital that both applicants and the referees themselves carefully consider the requirements and responsibilities detailed above in order to avoid any undue issues.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.