The new system will be "streamlined, low-cost and user-friendly", according to a technical document sent by the UK to the European Commission as part of the Brexit negotiations. The government has also offered assurances that EU citizens who apply to stay in the UK "will not have their applications refused on minor technicalities".
EU citizens will be given a two-year "grace period" after the UK leaves the EU to make an application for settled status, and will not be charged more than the cost of a British passport to make an application, according to the document. Decisions will be made solely on the criteria set out in the UK's final EU withdrawal agreement, and EU citizens will be given a statutory right to appeal if their application is unsuccessful, the government is said.
Applicants will, however, be required to declare any criminal convictions, and their details will be checked against UK security databases as part of the application process. The government said that this was "a reasonable measure to keep the country safe from those who have abused our hospitality by committing serious crimes".
The UK announced previously that qualifying EU citizens who have been living legally and continuously in the UK for five years will be eligible to apply for settled status, while those who have not yet met the five-year requirement will be entitled to apply for continued residence in the UK on a temporary basis until they reach the threshold. Settled status will not be granted automatically.
The government intends that EU citizens who acquire settled status will have the same rights as UK citizens to bring family members into the UK. The implication is that they will only have the right to do so if they meet the same £18,600 minimum income threshold which is currently applied to UK citizens, but not those from the EU.
"The document recognises that the current system in place for processing registration certificates and residence cards is not fit to deal with the situation once the UK has left the EU," said immigration law expert Hannah Eades of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com. "It commits to introducing a 'streamlined, user-friendly, digital application process', with EU citizens not being asked to provide biometric data such as fingerprints."
"Subject to getting an early agreement with the EU, individuals may be able to apply for their new status in UK law before the UK leaves the EU. However, concerns remain over whether the Home Office is adequately resourced to deal with this new process," she said.
According to the document, individuals holding a permanent residence document will be able to apply to exchange this for a settled status document subject to ID verification, submission of a photograph, a security check and confirmation on ongoing residence. The more detailed residence assessment, done as part of the permanent residence application, will not need to be repeated.
Applicants will not be required to prove that they hold comprehensive sickness insurance or supply fingerprints as part of the application process, while the Home Office will not attempt to seek detailed documentary evidence of residence status during undocumented periods provided that the residence requirements appear to have been met overall. Caseworkers will be able to exercise appropriate discretion when considering applications, and the government expects "the majority of cases to be granted".
The final method by which the continuing rights of EU citizens living in the UK and UK nationals living in Europe will be recognised remains subject to negotiations between the UK and the European Commission. The UK government has previously stated that agreement on this issue is its "first priority" for negotiations.
Eades said that the new document was "silent" on some issues of concern for UK employers, including "how the new immigration categories will impact on right to work checks".
"This therefore remains an area of uncertainty for employers, particularly in relation to existing staff, and we hope there will be further clarification on this in due course," she said.
"Our advice to EU citizens and their family members continues to be to document your status as far as possible, according to how long you have resided in the UK. The latest communication suggests that this will be valuable when looking to apply for an immigration status in UK law," she said.