In 2019 I shared with you fellow New Europeans my personal struggle with the UK Home Office and how Brexit affected and changed my life.
For those of you who have not read my first article, I will quickly summarise it.
I am originally from Bulgaria, a country which joined the EU in 2007, a monumental event in our modern history and a successfully completed national goal. Since my early teenage years, I was passionate about the EU and its values and vision. I also always saw the UK as a progressive, global country whose culture I admired. We in Eastern Europe had a long and difficult path to democratization in the 1990s and we always admired the UK as an example of a successful democracy where the rule of law prevails and people from all over the world are accepted. Thus, I decided to pursue my higher education in the UK: to challenge myself, immerse myself into a new culture, make friends from all over the world and just learn about British society customs and culture.
Unfortunately, things didn’t go quite the way I expected. When I first arrived in the UK in 2012, as a Bulgarian citizen I wasn’t legally allowed to work in the UK unlike the rest of the other EU nationals and also nationals from all of the rest of the world. My rights as an EU citizen were severely restricted. In order to be able to work, I had to send my original passport ID to receive a so-called yellow card which was against the law in my native country. I had to live without my personal ID for eight months in order to be able to receive a work permit.
The reason why I had to go through this tedious and bureaucratic process is that the then coalition government of David Cameron and Nick Clegg imposed temporary seven-year restrictions on the UK labour market for Bulgaria and Romania, the latest EU member states, lasting from 2007 to 2014. And then when the restrictions were finally lifted, the assault from Daily Mail and other tabloids started. They were warning the British public of a flood of migrants from Bulgaria and Romania who were going to take the jobs of low paid British workers. Nigel Farage and the Eurosceptic right-wing media spread fear about a potential new influx of migrants from Eastern Europe. This campaign created a fertile soil for the 2016 Brexit referendum where half-truths and other misconceptions were spread to the general public. When on the 23rd June 2016 the public voted for Brexit, I was deeply saddened and shocked. I wanted to live in the UK for the long-term but when Brexit was voted I didn’t have any single document that could guarantee my right to reside and work in the UK.
I was really anxious about my future and at the time I was in Bulgaria, having just graduated from University. I had plans to travel around the world, stay in my country or teach English in China. But when Brexit was voted, I knew that maybe if I am away for a year and then go back to the UK in 2017, there might be visas or I wouldn’t be able to apply for a Permanent Residence as I would have been absent from the country for a year. I knew that I simply would not enjoy the rights of freedom of movement and I was very anxious about the potential visa regime and other restrictions for my country, having had the bitter experience in 2012 with my work permit. So, I decided to completely change my plans and go back to the UK and acquire UK citizenship in order to be safe and have the same rights as British people and residents in the UK.
Of course, before applying for a UK citizenship, I needed to apply for a permanent residence. Unfortunately, there was another obstacle. In order to acquire the permanent residence, I needed to have a CSI or ‘Comprehensive Sickness Insurance’ something I was never told of. I always had my European Health Insurance Card but again I was never made aware of that technicality about a CSI requirement. In that period, I heard a lot of stories in the media about people who applied for a Permanent Residence Card but were rejected because of this loophole. At that point, there was a talk in the government headed by Theresa May about the guaranteeing of the rights of EU citizens in the UK. There were discussions of an online system of application. However, it was all still a talk and there were no concrete measures. In that point, I had no Permanent Residence to live in the UK and no document to prove my right to reside here. It is not even necessary to mention that brought me a great deal of anxiety and uncertainty.
In the mid of 2018, the government had announced that there were going to open a new online system for EU citizen giving them ‘settled status’. Again, they didn’t give concrete days and that brought even more uncertainty and difficulty for any future plans. Finally, the system was opened at the beginning of 2019 via an Android app. The process for acquiring a settled status was very quick in that first initial phase. However, there were two major challenges. First, the system was only working on Android phones, not on iPhones. Second and more important, there was actually no physical proof of the Settled Status unlike the Permanent Residence Card even though both of them guaranteed an indefinite leave to remain in the UK. The only proof I had about my settled status was a digital letter from Home Office confirming my indefinite leave to remain. From the moment Brexit was voted, I was determined to apply for British citizenship no matter how many years it would take. And it took a very long time. Once I had acquired my settled status, I was able to apply for naturalisation exactly a year after the date I acquired my settled status.
To call the process of application complex, tedious, over-complicated, slow and bureaucratic would be an understatement. And of course-expensive. The application for naturalisation costs £1,400. Of course, there are extra costs like posting, scanning and paying for a UKVCAS appointment. And I forgot to mention: expensive phone bills. I did call UKVAS and Home Office at least fifty times during the application process. I would not like to tire you with technical details about the application process but I would rather try to very quickly outline it in the simplest way possible. The first step of the process for naturalisation involves an online form that needs to be filled. The information that needs to be put includes your names, address, all of your previous addresses, previous employers with start and end date, all of the days you have been in and out of the UK and the length of your stay away. The form also requires you to show a proof you speak English and two adults above the age of 25 who have known you for more than two years and are of a listed profession to guarantee that you are of a good character. And that bit is not even the hardest part. After this form is completed and sent, you need to book an appointment with UKVCAS, a Sopra Steria service where you give fingerprints and all of the proof that you have lawfully resided in the UK for a qualifying period of five years.
Long story cut short, because of the coronavirus all of these UKVCAS centres were shut since March 2020 exactly around the time I had applied. So because of the extraordinary circumstances, I just had to wait for months for a process which would normally take a week. I waited for three months before the UKVCAS centres were open. Meanwhile, I had to collected bills, rental agreements, P45s, P60s and all sorts of other contracts to prove my residence in the UK. After successfully booking an appointment for the end of July 2020 and having collected most of the required documents and scanned them, I was all happy. Until three days before my appointment, I was told by the UKVCAS service that I need to include a proof of Comprehensive Sickness Insurance. No need to mention that I was petrified when I heard this three day before my appointment. I was extremely worried because I had no CSI.
I immediately contacted free legal services and the helpline of the Home Office and it was suggested to me to write a letter to the Home Office and attach it in my documents to explain why I didn’t have CSI. Sadly, there was no guarantee that they were going to accept it as proof. I had some European Health Insurance Cards but they were not all covering parts of my qualifying period when I was a student. So my only option left was to say that I have worked part-time as a student and in that way I exercised my treaty rights instead of having a CSI. I took a risk and this time it paid off. After three long months of wait for the Home Office to process my documents in late November, I received the good news that my application was successful and that now after long years of anxiety and struggle I was a British citizen.
The moment was very joyful and long-waited. Now finally having become a British citizen, I want to see fewer people having to go through this painful process and I would like to inform and educate fellow EU citizens about these bureaucratic processes. I will do my best to campaign for a closer relationship between the EU and Britain after Brexit and less painful bureaucracy for students and other citizens who want to live abroad. I am extremely content that after so much struggle I have managed to acquire my British citizenship and I would like to help other fellows Europeans in the UK who need some help with this incredibly long process. Unfortunately, after Brexit, the government might make this process even more complicated to put off people from applying or make it most costly. There needs to be more advice centres and helplines for people wishing to apply for UK citizenship. The government definitely needs to reform the naturalisation process and at least scrap the extortionate fee of £1400.