Prince Harry is engaged to the US actress Meghan Markle with most attention on when or where their wedding will be held. As all past and present brides and grooms know, wedding planning can cause a royal headache. Yet there is even more to keep in mind when marrying a non-British spouse.
It can surprise many people that British citizens do not have a right to bring their spouses to live with them in the UK. There are restrictions - even if the marriage is legally valid. British citizens must effectively “sponsor” their non-UK spouses. The government’s aim is to ensure that non-British citizens are not a drain on the public purse. UK citizens must earn £18,600 or more depending on any other dependents and circumstances to bring their spouses to Britain. This must be earned in Britain - a bar that Prince Harry will have no trouble meeting.
In writing my book Becoming British: UK Citizenship Examined, I cover a bigger hurdle for Her Almost Royal Highness - the Life in the UK citizenship test. This is a test that anyone wanting to live in Britain permanently must pass. It costs £50 a try and has 24 multiple choice questions - 18 or more must be answered correctly to pass.
I’ve likened the test to a bad pub quiz - and it’s easy to see why when you take a closer look.
I found the test impractical containing about 3,000 facts and 278 historical dates. These included information about the height of the London Eye (443 feet), the age of Big Ben’s clock tower (about 150 years) and the name of the first curry house and its proprietor (Hindoostane Coffee House by Sake Dean Mahomet).
The test is also incoherent. It does not ask about the number of MPs in Parliament, but does require applicants know how many sit in each regional government from the Welsh Assembly to the Scottish Parliament. No one need know there is a Supreme Court, but everyone must know about all others. Only five telephone numbers are listed and they do not include 999 or 112.
The last coalition government put a premium on increasing the test’s content around history and culture - but it seems at the cost of having common sense. And so all must know the name of Mahomet’s Irish wife he eloped with, but there is no requirement to know how to contact emergency services, report a crime or register with a GP.
And why is there is a test at all? It is intended to confirm that anyone wanting permanent residency or citizenship has “knowledge of life in the United Kingdom” required by statute. However, there has never been any proper consultation about its contents - even after over 2 million have sat the test. Instead of confirming knowledge about living here, it’s instead become a test about impractical trivia.
As my research uncovered, the test has also been counterproductive. Instead of helping foster a sense of belonging and inclusiveness, it has more commonly created disharmony as most immigrants have come to see the test as another excuse to charge more fees, imposing more hurdles that many citizens cannot pass that leaves many feeling disconnected.
But I have good news for Markle. Like her, I’m a US-born citizen that wanted to become a British citizen. After having passed the test in 2009 and becoming a citizen in 2011, I know first-hand on what must be done. With such a poor test of knowledge about life in the UK, she may need support in getting through this stumbling block to British citizenship. If her new in-laws are as good at passing these questions as much of the public is, this is support she may well appreciate.