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Overseas voters

British citizens living overseas are currently entitled to be registered to vote in UK Parliamentary elections. These are known as overseas voters.

Overseas voters must register in the constituency in which they were registered before leaving the UK. Registration must be renewed annually for up to 15 years after leaving. People who left more than 15 years ago are ineligible to register.

Those citizens who never registered to vote before they left are also currently ineligible to be overseas voters regardless of how long they have lived overseas. The exception is for children who left before being able to register; they may use a parent or guardian’s registration address.

Overseas voters are not entitled to vote in UK local elections or elections to the devolved assemblies. There are different arrangements for the armed forces and these are covered in the Library briefing, Armed forces voting.

‘Votes for life’

The Elections Act 2022 received Royal Assent on 28 April 2022. It includes provisions to removing the 15-year rule.

Manifesto commitments have been included in each Conservative Party manifesto since 2015 to remove the 15-year limit on overseas voter registration. This is the so-called ‘votes for life’ policy. The Labour Party favoured maintaining the 15-year limit.

The new rules will allow all British citizens who had previously been resident in the UK to register, not just those who were registered before they left. Other changes are designed to make the renewal process easier for overseas voters.

It is expected newly eligible overseas voters will be able to register from 16 January 2024. Detailed secondary legislation is required to implement many aspects of the new provisions. This has been laid in draft form and must be approved by both Houses of Parliament before coming into effect.

How many are there?

Until 2015 the number of overseas voters registered to vote had never risen above 35,000. An overseas voter registration campaign in the run up to the 2015 General Election and interest in the 2016 referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU saw numbers increase.

At the December 2019 General Election 233,000 overseas voters were registered. This has since declined to 105,000 in December 2021 as overseas numbers tend to decline between elections. Many do not renew their registrations in years when no election is expected.

The Government estimates the changes, ending the 15-year limit and allowing all British citizens previously resident to be eligible, will mean around 3.5 million British nationals living overseas would be eligible to register to vote.

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