If you have resided lawfully for five years continuously you have acquired the ‘right of permanent residence’ in the UK, by virtue of the Citizens’ Directive (2004/38/EC). The UK's EEA regulations extends this right to all qualifying EEA and Swiss nationals and their family members who have lived in the UK ‘in accordance with the regulations’. Time spent in the UK as a student can count towards this five years’ residence, as long as you have resided in the UK in accordance with the directive, and have met the criteria laid out in them.
Periods spent in the UK not exercising a right of residence do not count towards the five years of ‘continuous lawful residence’ required for the right of permanent residence. It is therefore very important if you are exercising a right to reside in the UK as a student to ensure that you are fulfilling all the requirements of the directive, including having comprehensive sickness insurance for the duration of your time in the UK as a student to ensure you do not break the continuation of the five years needed to gain the right of permanent residence. However, if you were issued with a registration certificate on the basis of being in the UK as student before 20 June 2011 transitional arrangements in Annex B of this guidance will apply.
Guidance issued by the Home Office provides information on page 49 about what are considered acceptable gaps in the continuity of residence.
Once you have this right, it can only be lost through absence from the UK for a period exceeding two consecutive years unless the Home Office chooses to cancel it because they believe serious grounds of public policy, public security or public health require cancellation.
Family members of the EEA or Swiss national who have resided with the EEA or Swiss national for five years, in line with you also gain the right to permanent residence.
Your family member’s right of permanent residence, once acquired, is independent of yours.
You are not required to obtain a certificate, as the right of permanent residence is acquired regardless of obtaining this, but it would help educational institutions (if you wish to study) and employers (if you wish to work) if you do. In addition, having the document is evidence you have met the requirements of the Citizens' Directive, which could in turn help with any documenting which might be required of EU nationals and their family members when the UK leaves the European Union. Furthermore, from 1 August 2016 unless you have a document certifying a right of permanent residence or a permanent residence card, any application for naturalisation as a British citizen on this basis will be refused.
To apply to have the right of permanent residence certified on a document, use form EEA (PR) which is available on the Home Office website and costs £65. This is the form for all EEA nationals and for the family members of EEA nationals. From 1 October 2016, there will be a European passport return service for those applying under the EEA(PR) route or under the EEA(QP) route.
EEA and Swiss nationals will receive a document certifying permanent right of residence in the UK.
Non-EEA/Swiss national family members will receive a permanent residence card.
There are some circumstances where the right of permanent residence can be acquired in fewer than five years, but these are related to those who were ‘workers’ or ‘self employed’, and their family members, for example, those who may be retiring at pensionable age or ceasing work because of permanent incapacity or industrial injury. Family members will also gain the right of permanent residence in line with the worker or self-employed person, or in some circumstances where the worker or self-employed person dies before acquiring the right of permanent residence.