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I’m an EU citizen. If I leave the UK before Brexit, can I come back?

If an individual with an EU passport leaves the UK before Brexit, will they be allowed back into the UK after Brexit? It’s quite rare not to answer a Brexit-related question these days with “It depends…” but, fortunately, the question has an easy answer: Yes. Of course, it’s not Brexit if you’re not having to look at a few different scenarios, but in short, EU citizens will be allowed to come back into the UK fairly easily after Brexit.

To best understand the position regarding EU citizens returning to the UK post-Brexit, it’s helpful to first look at the position regarding new entrants into the UK under three different scenarios: (1) Brexit with a deal (2) no Brexit and (3) Brexit without a deal.

EU citizens coming into the UK for the first time after Brexit

Deal or No-Brexit

There are two scenarios in which it will be really easy for EU citizens to enter the UK after Brexit:

  1. If the UK leaves the EU with the deal that has already been agreed between the UK and EU (the Withdrawal Agreement).
  2. If the UK doesn’t leave the EU, or at least doesn’t leave any time soon.

In both scenarios, EU citizens travelling to the UK should have no problems coming in, because essentially very little will have changed:

  • Under the first scenario, the UK and EU would find themselves in the (inelegantly termed) “implementation period”, during which free movement will basically continue until the last day of 2020. After that, things will get a bit more difficult as we’ll have a new “skills-based” immigration system for all foreign nationals (including EU citizens). However, that’s still a way off and there are quite a few details that need to be sorted out first.
  • Under the second scenario, free movement of EU citizens would continue as long as the UK remains a member of the EU.


But what if there isn’t a deal? That is to say, if the Withdrawal Agreement can’t find its way through Parliament and there’s no extension or revocation of Article 50?

The government has laid out some plans for migration of new European arrivals into the UK after Brexit in a no-deal scenario. These plans, it has to be said, are fairly sketchy. Nevertheless, the headline points are:

  • Nothing will change for a little while, until the relevant regulations are changed so as to end free movement. The government has said that it intends for this to happen as soon as possible.
  • Then, EU citizens will be able to come into the UK without a visa for a maximum period of three months. If they want to stay longer than three months, they’ll need to apply for “European temporary leave to remain” which will be granted for up to 36 months. Apparently, this will not lead to settlement in the UK and cannot be extended. This seems a little odd, but it’s what the government has said.
  • From 1 January 2021, there will be a new UK immigration system governing the migration of EU citizens into the UK.

So, things may be a touch trickier for new entrants arriving into the UK after Brexit in a no-deal scenario. But, for EU citizens currently in the UK, there’s a very simple thing that they can do to ensure that there’s as little disruption as possible…

EU citizens returning to the UK after Brexit

So, what should EU citizens who are currently in the UK do, particularly if they are planning to leave before Brexit and return after Brexit? Well, EU citizens currently in the UK can stay in the UK if they apply for settled or pre-settled status under the new EU settlement scheme. This is regardless of whether the UK leaves the EU with a deal or not. The settlement scheme is now fully up and running. Applications tend to be processed within a matter of days, it is free to apply and applicants’ immigration status will be recorded electronically (for more information, see Practice note, The EU Settlement Scheme).

Certainly, the best advice to EU citizens currently in the UK is: apply for status under the EU Settlement Scheme now! There is so much unhelpful Brexit-related uncertainty, but applying now will mean that an individual has done everything that could possibly be expected of them. And doing so before travelling out of the UK will likely minimise any fuss at the border on their return post-Brexit, especially if there’s a no-deal Brexit.

For more immigration content, see Practical Law’s collection page: For immigration lawyers.

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