Deadline looms for 'undocumented' expats in Spain to return to UK under new Brexit rules

  • Video report by ITV News Europe Editor James Mates

A Brexit deadline is looming that could see thousands of Britons who made EU countries their homes forced to return to the UK.

With the UK no longer an EU-member, British citizens are allowed to live in Schengen countries for up to 90-days in a six-month period without a visa.

With the coronavirus pandemic causing delays at regional authorities, thousands of Brits who made countries like Spain their home for several years are still waiting to hear whether they can stay in the country, telling us they fear being forced to return to the UK.

John Shiers (right) tells ITV News Europe Editor James Mates that 'naivety' caused him to miss the deadline. Credit: ITV News

John Shiers, who has lived in Spain for more than two years, was one of those that missed the deadline to apply for residency and faces having to return to the UK.

"It was naivety on my behalf," he said. "I didn't put mine in until just after [the deadline]. And then it has been knocked back, shall we say."

He is appealing against the decision but should that not succeed, he will have to leave the country. He says he is one of thousands of other UK nationals in the same position.

Abby Wallwork is to return to the UK before March 31 or face penalties. Credit: ITV News

Abby Wallwork has volunteered at the Donkey Dreamland sanctuary in Mijas, near Malaga in southern Spain since the beginning of the year.

And now, like any non-resident British citizen, her 90-day stay is nearly up.

"My time's up," she said. "The clock started ticking on the first of January, and there isn't really an easy way round it unfortunately."

If she does not return before March 31, she faces a fine or even a ban from returning to the country.

She didn't have a home in Spain but hundred and thousands of Brits do and many are worried about their ability to stay.

Spain has been rolling out a new system to register permanent foreign residents with biometric cards called TIE but it’s suffering a backlog due to the high number of requests.

Around 300,000 British citizens are registered as permanent residents in Spain, although before Brexit, many more had been living full or part-time in the country without officially registering.

An estimated 300,000 UK nationals live in Spain. Credit: ITV News

  • Why is there a March 31 deadline?

When Britain left the EU’s single market and customs union at midnight on New Year's Eve, Brits became third-country nationals, imposing more checks and limitations on travel and introducing a new scheme for accessing healthcare. 

It means that UK citizens who arrived abroad this year are only allowed to live for leisure purposes in a Schengen country for a maximum of three months in a six month period without a visa.

  • What happens if I stay for longer than the 90 days allowed?

UK residents who stay longer than the 90 days in any 180-day period in an EU Schengen country will be an 'undocumented immigrant' and could face a fine or even be deported.

Anyone deported from an EU country would usually face a ban of returning for up to five years.

People planning to stay longer than allowed, must apply for an extension.

  • How do I apply for an extension to stay longer than 90 days?

An extension beyond the 90-day limit is usually only granted if there is ill health or if someone has been in an accident.

Otherwise, a visa or work permit must be obtained and periods of time authorised by these will not count towards the 90-day visa-free limit.

The EU has urged member countries to be flexible but ultimately it is at the country's discretion.

I have lived in Spain for years, does this apply to me?

People who have lived in Spain or other Schengen states before January 1 are entitled to apply for residency under the Withdrawal Agreement. This does not retain full EU citizen rights but provides extra security and access to healthcare.

British nationals will have to prove that they lived in the country before the 31st of December 2020 and may have to provide evidence of an income or pension.

However, due to a surge in applications, compounded by the coronavirus pandemic, there have been delays causing many people to miss the opportunity to clarify their status.

UK citizens still have time to apply to the Spanish government for residential status.

  • What about other countries?

Thirteen other European countries, including Portugal, will also grant Britons who can prove their residence before December 31 the right to stay.

Other countries have tougher post-Brexit requirements, asking all Britons to apply for a new residence status.

  • Can I apply for residency in Spain if I arrived after January 1?

The Spanish guidance states that British citizens arriving in Spain as of January 1, 2021 can also apply for residency in certain situations.

This includes if they have a family link with a beneficiary of the Withdrawal Agreement.

To obtain residency, you must have a registered address, be able to support yourself financially and have access to healthcare.