The scheme will move to a public test phase from 21 January 2019, following successful private pilots with employees in the higher education, health and social care sectors. Individuals wishing to apply for the settlement scheme at this stage must be resident EU citizens, and their EU citizen family members, with a valid passport, or non-EU citizen family members of resident EU citizens holding a valid biometric residence card.
The UK government has also published agreements guaranteeing the rights of EFTA nationals from Norway, Iceland and Lichtenstein, and nationals of Switzerland, in the UK after Brexit. These individuals will be entitled to apply under the settlement scheme subject to the same criteria.
Corporate immigration law expert Euan Smith of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said that the opening up of the public test phase of the scheme would be welcomed by both affected EU nationals and their employers.
"The public test phase provides an opportunity for an employee to have their status in the UK confirmed now, rather than having to wait until March 2019 when the scheme should become available to all just ahead of Brexit," he said. "Even a few weeks is important when you are concerned about your ability to remain living and working in the UK."
"The Home Office may receive a greater number of applications than expected from 21 January," he said.
The UK's settlement scheme is available to qualifying EU citizens who have been living legally and continuously in the UK for five years. Those who have not yet met the five-year requirement are entitled to apply for pre-settled status, which they will be able to convert to settled status once they have been in the UK for five years.
The scheme will be open to individuals who arrive in the UK before 31 December 2020 should the UK leave the EU with a formal withdrawal agreement in place, or before 29 March 2019 in the event of a 'no deal' Brexit. Individuals will be able to apply until 30 June 2021 under the withdrawal agreement, or until 31 December 2020 if there is no deal.
Individuals applying for settled status will be asked to prove their identity and that they have been living in the UK for the past five years, and to declare that they have no serious criminal convictions. Applicants will also have to pay a fee, unless they have already obtained permanent residence status or indefinite leave to remain in the UK in which case they will be able to exchange this for settled status free of charge.
EU citizens granted settled status will be entitled to remain in the UK, with the same access to work, education, benefits and public services that they have now. They will also be entitled to bring "close family members", defined as spouses, civil partners and durable partners, dependent children and grandchildren and dependent parents and grandparents into the UK in future, provided that the relationship existed on 31 December 2020 should the UK exit the EU with a withdrawal agreement in place, or 29 March 2019 in the event of 'no deal'.
More than 15,000 applications for settled status until the private pilots had been made by 13 December 2018, according to the government. More than 12,400 of these applications had been concluded by this date, with 71% of the applicants granted settled status and the rest pre-settled status. Many of the applicants received their decision within 24 hours, according to the government.
The settlement scheme is due to be fully operational by 30 March 2019. The Home Office has indicated that EU citizens who do not currently hold a passport will not be able to apply for settled status until the scheme is fully operational.