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.
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.
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.
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.
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.