A Commonwealth citizen is a citizen or qualified national of a Commonwealth of Nations member state. Most member countries do not treat citizens of other Commonwealth states any differently from foreign nationals, but some grant limited citizenship rights to resident Commonwealth citizens. In 16 member states, resident non-local Commonwealth citizens are eligible to vote in elections. The status is most significant in the United Kingdom, and carries few or no privileges in many other Commonwealth countries.


See also: British Nationality Act 1948 and British subject

Commonwealth citizenship was created out of a gradual transition from an earlier form of British nationality. Before 1949, all citizens of the British Empire were British subjects and owed allegiance to the Crown.[1] Although the Dominions (Australia, Canada, Ireland, Newfoundland, New Zealand, and South Africa) created their own nationality laws following the First World War,[2] they mutually maintained British subjecthood as a common nationality with the United Kingdom and its colonies.[1] However, divergence in Dominion legislation and growing assertions of independence from London culminated in the creation of Canadian citizenship in 1946 and its separation from British subject status.[3] Combined with the impending independence of India and Pakistan in 1947, nationality law reform became necessary.[4]

The British Nationality Act 1948 redefined British subject as any citizen of the United Kingdom, its colonies, or other Commonwealth countries. Commonwealth citizen was also defined in this Act as having the same meaning.[5] This change in naming indicated a shift in the base theory of British nationality, that allegiance to the Crown was no longer a requirement to hold British subject status.[6] The change was also necessary to retain a number of newly independent countries that wished to become republics rather than retain the monarch as head of state.[7] The common status of Commonwealth citizenship would instead be maintained voluntarily by the various members of the Commonwealth.[6]

At first, all Commonwealth citizens held the automatic right to settle in the United Kingdom.[8] This was first restricted by Parliament with the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1962, which imposed immigration controls on subjects originating from outside the British Islands.[9] The Immigration Act 1971 relaxed controls on patrials, those whose parents or grandparents were born in the United Kingdom,[10] and effectively gave preferential treatment to Commonwealth citizens from white-majority countries.[11]

Outside the United Kingdom, in some member states Commonwealth citizens also initially retained eligibility to vote in elections, to preferred paths to citizenship, and to welfare benefits. These privileges were removed on independence in most countries but retained in some. British subjects/Commonwealth citizens were eligible to vote in New Zealand until 1975,[12] Canada at the federal level until 1975 (not fully phased out in provinces until 2006),[13] and Australia until 1984 (though subjects on the electoral roll in that year are still eligible).[14]

By the 1980s, most colonies of the British Empire had become independent. Parliament updated nationality law to reflect the more modest geographical boundaries of the United Kingdom and its remaining territories.[15] The British Nationality Act 1981 redefined British subject in such a way that it no longer also meant Commonwealth citizen.[16]

Acquisition and loss

Map showing countries listed in the British Nationality Act 1981, which makes citizens of these countries Commonwealth citizens in the UK

Commonwealth citizenship is acquired by virtue of being a citizen of a Commonwealth member state[17] or, in the United Kingdom, a country listed in Schedule 3 of the British Nationality Act 1981. This list closely follows the composition of the organisation, but is not always the same.[18] For example, the Maldives left the Commonwealth in 2016[19] before rejoining in 2020.[20] The country was removed from Schedule 3 in 2017,[21] but legislation was not updated to relist it until 2021.[22] Conversely, although Zimbabwe has not been a part of the Commonwealth since 2003,[23] Zimbabwean citizens retain Commonwealth citizenship because the country remains on Schedule 3.[18]

Most classes of British nationals other than British citizens are also considered Commonwealth citizens. British Overseas Territories citizens, British Overseas citizens, British subjects, and British Nationals (Overseas) all have this additional status. However, British protected persons[16] and non-citizen nationals of other Commonwealth countries (such as Overseas Citizens of India) are not considered Commonwealth citizens.[24]

Acquisition and loss of Commonwealth citizenship is tied to the domestic nationality regulations of each member state;[17] there is no separate process for obtaining this status. It is automatically lost if an individual is no longer a citizen or qualified national of a member state,[25] or if their country is removed from Schedule 3.[26]

Rights and privileges

Commonwealth citizens have different entitlements in each Commonwealth country, which individually have separate legislation specifying what, if any, rights they are afforded.[27] The organization does not have a permissive system of free movement or labour[28] and in over half of the member states, Commonwealth citizens do not receive substantially different treatment than foreign nationals.[29]

In 16 countries and all three Crown Dependencies of the United Kingdom, Commonwealth citizens may register to vote after fulfilling residence requirements. In Australia, Bermuda, and the Cayman Islands, they no longer have the right to register as electors, but voters who were already registered before that right was ended may continue to participate in elections.[30][31][32] Commonwealth citizens are also eligible to serve in one or both houses of the national legislature in Jamaica, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and the United Kingdom.[16][33]

All Commonwealth citizens may receive consular assistance from British embassies and consulates in foreign non-Commonwealth nations where their home countries have not established diplomatic or consular posts.[34] They are eligible to apply for British emergency passports, if their travel documents have been lost or stolen and permission has been given by their national governments.[35] Additionally, Australia issues Documents of Identity in exceptional circumstances to resident Commonwealth citizens who are unable to obtain valid travel documents from their countries of origin and must travel urgently.[36]

When residing in the United Kingdom, Commonwealth citizens may be employed in non-reserved Civil Service posts[37] and are eligible to enlist in the British Armed Forces.[38] In addition, Commonwealth citizens were generally exempt from the requirement to register with local police. However, this is no longer required in general, as the police registration scheme was abolished in August 2022.[39]

Right to vote

See also: Right of foreigners to vote

The following jurisdictions allow citizens of other Commonwealth countries to vote:[33]

Access to voting in these countries is open to all permanent resident foreign nationals and is not exclusive to Commonwealth citizens:



  1. ^ a b Karatani 2003, p. 29.
  2. ^ Historical background information on nationality, p. 10.
  3. ^ Karatani 2003, pp. 114–115.
  4. ^ Karatani 2003, pp. 122–126.
  5. ^ British Nationality Act 1948.
  6. ^ a b Karatani 2003, pp. 116–118.
  7. ^ Weis 1979, p. 17.
  8. ^ McKay 2008.
  9. ^ Evans 1972, p. 508.
  10. ^ Evans 1972, p. 509.
  11. ^ Paul 1997, p. 181.
  12. ^ McMillan 2017, p. 31.
  13. ^ Maas, Willem (July 2015). Access to electoral rights: Canada (PDF) (Report). European University Institute. pp. 13–14. Archived (PDF) from the original on 28 July 2018. Retrieved 5 April 2019.
  14. ^ Chappell, Chesterman & Hill 2009, p. 98.
  15. ^ Paul 1997, pp. 182–183.
  16. ^ a b c British Nationality Act 1981.
  17. ^ a b Bloom 2011, p. 640.
  18. ^ a b British Nationality Act 1981 Schedule 3.
  19. ^ "Maldives leaves Commonwealth amid democracy row". BBC News. 13 October 2016. Archived from the original on 2 May 2019. Retrieved 18 May 2019.
  20. ^ "Maldives rejoins Commonwealth after evidence of reforms". The Guardian. 1 February 2020. Retrieved 27 April 2020.
  21. ^ The British Nationality (Maldives) Order 2017.
  22. ^ The British Nationality (Maldives) Order 2021
  23. ^ White, Michael (8 December 2003). "Mugabe quits Commonwealth". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 18 May 2019. Retrieved 18 May 2019.
  24. ^ G Musgrave (14 July 2016). "Freedom of Information Request" (PDF). Letter to A Fernandes. United Kingdom: Home Office. Retrieved 27 April 2020.
  25. ^ Karatani 2003, p. 30.
  26. ^ "Electoral Administration Bulletin 185" (PDF). United Kingdom: Electoral Commission. 11 May 2017. pp. 1–2. Retrieved 27 April 2020.
  27. ^ Belton 2019, p. 97.
  28. ^ Bloom 2011, p. 642.
  29. ^ Bloom 2011, pp. 653–654.
  30. ^ "British Subjects Eligibility". Australian Electoral Commission. Archived from the original on 4 April 2019. Retrieved 19 May 2019.
  31. ^ "Election Overview". Bermuda: Parliamentary Registry. Retrieved 19 May 2019.
  32. ^ "Elections Law (2013 Revision)" (PDF). Cayman Islands: Elections Office. Archived (PDF) from the original on 15 February 2017. Retrieved 19 May 2019.
  33. ^ a b Belton 2019, pp. 100–101.
  34. ^ "Support for British nationals abroad: A guide" (PDF). United Kingdom: Foreign and Commonwealth Office. p. 6. Archived (PDF) from the original on 30 March 2019. Retrieved 15 May 2019.
  35. ^ "The new UK Emergency Passport" (PDF). United Kingdom: Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Archived from the original (PDF) on 12 December 2012. Retrieved 15 May 2019.
  36. ^ "Travel related documents". Australia: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Archived from the original on 27 March 2019. Retrieved 15 May 2019.
  37. ^ "Civil Service Nationality Rules" (PDF). United Kingdom: Cabinet Office. November 2007. p. 5. Archived (PDF) from the original on 21 August 2018. Retrieved 2 April 2019.
  38. ^ "Nationality". British Army. Archived from the original on 3 April 2019. Retrieved 2 April 2019.
  39. ^ "UK visas and registering with the police". gov.uk. Government of the United Kingdom. Archived from the original on 1 January 2019. Retrieved 2 April 2019.
  40. ^ "Constitution of Mauritius" (PDF). Mauritius: Electoral Commission. Archived (PDF) from the original on 21 June 2015. Retrieved 20 May 2019.
  41. ^ Representation of the People Act 1983.
  42. ^ "Elections & Electoral Roll". States of Guernsey. Archived from the original on 13 November 2018. Retrieved 20 May 2019.
  43. ^ "Registration of Electors Act 2006". Article 3, Act No. 12 of 12 July 2006 (PDF). Tynwald. p. 6.
  44. ^ "Public Elections (Jersey) Law 2002". Article 5, Law No. 12 of 2002. States Assembly.
  45. ^ "Voters Registration Act, 2013". Article 7, Act No. 4 of 2013 (PDF). Parliament of Eswatini. p. 8.
  46. ^ "Constitution of Malawi" (PDF). Malawi: National Assembly. Retrieved 20 May 2019 – via Constitute Project.
  47. ^ "Who can and can't enrol?". New Zealand: Electoral Commission. Archived from the original on 8 May 2019. Retrieved 20 May 2019.