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Family reunification

The purpose of this Directive is to determine the conditions under which third-country nationals residing lawfully on the territory of the Member States may exercise the right to family reunification.


Council Directive 2003/86/EC of 22 September 2003 on the right to family reunification.


The Directive aims to establish common rules of law relating to the right to family reunification. The intention is to enable family members of third-country nationals residing lawfully on the territory of the European Union (EU) to join them in the Member State in which they are residing. The objective is to protect the family unit and to facilitate the integration of nationals of non-member countries.

The Directive does not apply to Ireland, Denmark and the United Kingdom. In addition, it does not preclude any more favourable conditions recognised by national legislation.


Third-country nationals who hold a residence permit valid for at least one year in one of the Member States and who have the genuine option of long-term residence can apply for family reunification.

However, this Directive does not apply to family members of a Union citizen, or to third-country nationals applying for recognition of refugee status whose application has not yet given rise to a final decision or who are under a temporary form of protection.

The following are eligible for family reunification:

  • the sponsor's spouse;
  • the minor children of the couple (i.e. unmarried children below the legal age of majority in the Member State concerned), or of one member of the couple, where he or she has custody and the children are dependent on him or her, including adopted children.

The Member States remain free to authorise, under certain conditions, family reunification of:

  • first-degree ascendants in the direct line (father and mother of the foreign national);
  • unmarried children above the age of majority;
  • unmarried partners.

Polygamy is not recognised; only one wife can benefit from the right to reunification. Likewise, children of the ineligible wives are excluded from the right to reunification, unless their greater interest warrants it (pursuant to the 1989 Convention on Children's Rights).

Member States are also permitted to require the third-country national and his/her spouse to be of a minimum age (subject to a maximum of 21 years), before they can exercise the right to family reunification.


The Member States determine whether it is the foreign national, or the family members who wish to join him/her, who is to submit the application for family reunification. Except in special cases, the family member to be reunited must remain outside the EU during the procedure. The application must be accompanied by documentary evidence of the family relationship and of compliance with the conditions laid down. The application must be examined within six months after submission.

The person concerned may be required to have accommodation that meets general safety and health standards, sickness insurance and stable resources sufficient to maintain himself/herself and the members of his/her family. Furthermore, he/she may be required to abide by integration measures under national law, as well as to have resided in the Member State in question for a certain period of time (two years maximum) before being joined by the family members.

A family member may be refused entry or residence on grounds of public policy, internal security or public health. This also applies in the case of fraud (falsification of documents, marriage of convenience, etc.). The same grounds may justify the withdrawal or non-renewal of a permit that has already been granted.

Persons whose permit is refused, withdrawn or not renewed must have the right to mount a legal challenge.

Particular conditions are applied to the family reunification of refugees, especially regarding the concept of “family member”, the documents required to prove family links, conditions relating to housing, sickness insurance, stable resources and compliance with integration measures.

Rights of family members

Family members of the foreign national are entitled to a residence permit of the same duration as that of the person they have joined and, on the same terms as that person, to access to education, employment and vocational training.

After five years of residence (not later), the spouse or unmarried partner and any children who have reached majority are entitled to an autonomous residence permit.

The conditions relating to the granting and duration of the autonomous residence permit are established by national law. Member States may limit the granting of the permit in cases of breakdown of the family relationship.


ActEntry into forceDeadline for transposition in the Member StatesOfficial Journal

Directive 2003/86/EC



OJ L 251 of 3.10.2003


Report from the Commission to the European Parliament and the Council of 8 October 2008 on the application of Directive 2003/86/EC on the right to family reunification [COM(2008) 610 final – Not published in the Official Journal].
This report indicates that the directive has been transposed in almost all of the Member States concerned. However, in certain cases, the transposition or the application of the directive has been incorrect, particularly regarding the facilitation of the obtaining of visas, the granting of an autonomous residence permit, regard for the best interests of the child, the right of redress and more favourable conditions for family reunification of refugees, Overall, the harmonisation of national legislation on family reunification remains rather limited. The Commission intends to follow-up this report to ensure correct implementation in the Member States. It will also launch a green paper on family reunification with a view to allow for a broad stakeholder debate.

Last updated: 27.10.2011
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