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How long can Brits stay in the UK without losing their EU residency?

The coronavirus pandemic has seen many British nationals resident in the EU return to the UK, but those 'waiting out' Covid-19 back in Britain could lose their rights to live in their host country. Here's what you need to know to make sure you keep your EU residency status.

How long can Brits stay in the UK without losing their EU residency?
Brits waiting out the pandemic in the UK could have trouble returning to their homes in the EU. Photo: Eric Piermont/AFP

Brits living in the European Union who have returned to the UK until Covid-19 subsides are being urged not to stay away from their host country for too long – or they risk losing their rights to residence there, warns citizens’ rights group British in Europe.

READ ALSO: How the Brexit deal has changed daily lives of British residents in Europe

Since Britain left the EU on January 1st 2021, British nationals are covered by the Withdrawal Agreement (WA). This legislation sets out citizens’ rights, providing for entitlements to work, study and access public services and benefits on similar terms to when the UK was part of the EU.

Under this agreement, there is a limit to the amount of time Brits can be away from their host country – that is, the EU country they moved to. How much time you’ve been resident in your host country determines how long you can spend in the UK.

If you have permanent residence under the Withdrawal Agreement, the permitted absence from your EU country is five years. Permanent residence is granted for anyone who has “been living in a Member State continuously and lawfully for five years at the end of the transition period”, according to UK government guidelines.

Photo by PHILIPPE HUGUEN / AFP

What does continuously mean? The UK government advice is that “individuals will generally have been lawfully residing in their host state for at least six months in any 12-month period”.

That means you’re in the clear if you possess permanent residency under the Withdrawal Agreement. Unless you plan to stay in the UK for several more years from now, you aren’t in danger of losing your residency rights while you’re away.

READ ALSO: Brexit: Anger and frustration for Brits in Italy amid confusion over new biometric ID card

On the other hand, if this doesn’t apply to you and you have ordinary residence instead, the permitted absence is a total of six months in a 12-month period.

This can be extended, however, to “one absence of a maximum of twelve consecutive months for important reasons such as pregnancy and childbirth, serious illness, study or vocational training, or a posting in another Member State or a third country”.

Does Covid-19 count as an important reason?

The Agreement provides for cases of serious illness, so if you caught Covid-19 in the UK, you can argue this is valid for extending the six-month absence to 12 months.

It gets more difficult to define if your individual case falls outside of these allowances. You may personally believe your circumstances warrant staying away for longer than six months: difficulty of travel, looking after an ill relative, your struggling mental health if you return to an apartment to live alone are all good reasons to stay in the UK. However, it’s not clear cut whether this will be accepted and each country will have different rules.

As there are no clear guidelines on which Covid-related reasons would justify an extension, if you have ordinary residence, you could lose your residence rights if you are absent for more than six months.

Photo by Tolga Akmen / AFP

It can sometimes be tricky to calculate exactly how long your period of permitted absences is. EU rights service Your Europe Advice may be able to advise on your individual case – you can contact them here.

How can you prove how long you’ve been away from your EU residence?

On returning to your host country – or the EU transit country – you may be asked questions about your residence at the border. You will be required to explain that you haven’t been away from your host country for more than a six-month period, or that you have solid grounds for extending this to 12 months.

“You should, therefore, be ready to provide proof of your periods of absence and, if claiming more than six months’ absence for Covid-related reasons, to provide documentary proof of those reasons,” states British in Europe.

Proof of these absences can be in the form of travel tickets. Meanwhile the group says that any Covid-related documentation will need to be “convincing”. This could include test results and details of treatment.

And of course, you’ll need to prove that you’re resident in your EU country in the first place. Show border guards your residence card if you have one, or if your country doesn’t use them or hasn’t issued yours yet, carry documentation such as property deeds, rental agreements, employment contracts or utility bills that show you’re based there. 

More details and FAQs on UK nationals’ residence rights in the EU can be found on the European Commission’s website here.

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Member comments

  1. 20.3.2021 Spring Starts!

    Hello,

    If living in the EU then I think the best thing is to apply for Dual nationality. This was possible in Germany, but I am unsure if still available. It will certainly save a lot of problems.

    What do others think about this?

    1. Germany allows British citizens to keep their citizenship when applying for naturalisation as long as the application was submitted and all relevant requirements (length of residence, language level certificate and the citizenship test) were completed before 31 December 2020 – any applications made after that date would require you to renounce your British citizenship before the German authorities will grant you German citizenship. Germany only allows dual nationality with other EU member states or Switzerland, so as the transition period finished on 31 December 2020 so did this possibility.

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BREXIT

Anger grows as no solution found yet for in limbo UK drivers in Spain 

British drivers living in Spain are becoming increasingly disgruntled at the lack of solutions two weeks after they were told their UK licences were no longer valid, with the latest update from the UK Embassy suggesting it could still take "weeks" to reach a deal. 

Anger grows as no solution found yet for in limbo UK drivers in Spain 

There is growing discontent among UK licence holders residing in Spain who are currently in limbo, unable to drive in Spain until they either get a Spanish driving licence or a deal is finally reached between Spanish and UK authorities for the mutual exchange of licences post-Brexit.

Since May 1st 2022, drivers who’ve been residents in Spain for more than six months and who weren’t able to exchange their UK licences for Spanish ones cannot drive in Spain.

There are no official stats on how many Britons of the 407,000 UK nationals who are residents in Spain in 2022 are affected; according to the UK Embassy the “majority exchanged” as advised.

But judging by the amount of negative comments the last two updates from the British Embassy in Madrid have received, hundreds if not thousands are stuck without being able to drive in Spain.  

May 12th’s video message by Ambassador Hugh Elliott left many unhappy with the fact that the forecast for a possible licence exchange agreement will be in the “coming weeks”, when two weeks earlier Elliott had spoken of “rapidly accelerating talks”. 

Dozens of angry responses spoke of the “shocking” and “absolutely ridiculous” holdup in negotiations that have been ongoing for more than at least a year and a half, and which the UK Embassy has put down to the fact that Spain is asking the British government to give them access to DVLA driver data such as road offences, something “not requested by other EU Member States”.

Numerous Britons have explained the setbacks not being able to drive in Spain are causing them, from losing their independence to struggling to go to work, the hospital or the supermarket, especially those in rural areas with little public transport.  

“I know personally from all the messages you’ve sent in, just how incredibly disruptive all of this is for many of you,” Elliott said in response. 

“If you are struggling to get around you may find additional advice or support from your local town hall, or charities or community groups in your area and the Support in Spain website is another very useful source of organisations that can provide general support to residents.

“And if your inability to drive is putting you in a very vulnerable situation, you can always contact your nearest consulate for advice.”

There continue to be disparaging opinions in the British community in Spain over whether any pity should be felt for UK licence holders stuck without driving, as many argue they had enough time to register intent to exchange their licences, whilst others clarify that their particular set of circumstances, such as arriving after the December 2020 ‘intent to exchange’ deadline, made this impossible. 

OPINION: Not all Brits in Spain who didn’t exchange UK driving licences are at fault

So is there any light at the end of the tunnel for drivers whose UK licences aren’t valid anymore in Spain or soon won’t be?

“The agreement we’re working towards now will enable UK licence holders, whenever they arrived in Spain or arrive in the future, to exchange their UK licence for a Spanish one without needing to take a practical or a theory test,” Elliott said on Thursday May 12th of the deal they are “fully committed” to achieve.

READ ALSO: How much does it cost to get a Spanish driving licence?

And yet it’s hard for anyone to rest their hopes on this necessarily happening – sooner or later or ever – in part because the embassy advice for those with UK licences for whom it’s imperative to continue driving in Spain is that they should take steps to get their Spanish licence now, while acknowledging that in some places there are “long delays for lessons” and getting your Spanish licence “doesn’t happen overnight”.

READ ALSO: What now for UK licence holders in Spain?

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