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Part III. European Union Directive on Family Reunification

Council Directive 2003/86/EC on the Right to Family Reunification[1] governs the conditions under which third-country nationals living legally in the European Union are permitted to bring in their families to a Member State in order to preserve family unity.  The Directive applies to third-country national sponsors who (1) have a residence permit, valid for at least one year or more, issued by a Member State and “reasonable prospects” of obtaining the right of permanent residence;[2] (2) have stayed lawfully in the Member State for a period not exceeding two or three years before applying for their family members to join them, depending on the capacity of the given EU Member State to receive the migrants;[3] and (3) comply with the Member State’s procedural requirements, such as filing an application and providing documentary evidence of the family relationship.  Either the sponsor or the family member may apply, but the applicant must also provide evidence of having health insurance and adequate accommodations.[4]  EU Members may also require third-country nationals to comply with integration measures, in accordance with national law.[5]

The Directive also applies to immigrants who have been granted refugee status.  EU Members are allowed to confine the reunification right to refugees who had families prior to their entry into the given state.[6]

EU Members had to provide in their national legislation that migrating family members must obtain a renewable first residence permit whose duration is to conform to the duration of the sponsor’s residence permit, but in any case the first residence permit should be of at least one year’s duration.  In addition, EU Members have leeway to adopt or retain more favorable provisions than those cited above.  The Directive does not affect more favorable provisions included in bilateral or multilateral treaties concluded between the EU or the EU and its Member States and third countries.[7]

The following family members are eligible for reunification with a third-country national relative resident in an EU Member State:

  • The sponsor’s spouse, including an unmarried partner who is in a stable long-term relationship with the sponsor or in a registered partnership.[8]  The sponsor and his/her spouse must be of a minimum age (in accordance with national family law), which cannot exceed the age of twenty-one, in order to avoid forced marriages.[9]  In the case of a polygamous marriage, if the sponsor has a wife with him in the EU, the Member State where he resides may not authorize the entry of another wife.[10]
  • Minor children, i.e., those under the given Member State’s age of majority and unmarried, of a sponsor and his/her spouse, including adopted children.[11]
  • Minor children and adopted children of the sponsor, or of the spouse, if the sponsor or spouse has custody and the children are dependent on him/her.  EU Members may allow reunification of children when custody is shared.[12]

In addition, EU Members may authorize the entry and residence of first-degree relatives in the direct ascending line of the sponsor or of his or her spouse if the relatives are dependent and lack sufficient family support in the country of origin and of adult unmarried children of the sponsor or his/her spouse when those children are genuinely unable to provide for themselves due to ill health.[13]

The EU Members were required to transpose the Directive by October 3, 2005, and to report back to the Commission on any measures taken (legislative or administrative) in compliance with the Directive.

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Global Legal Research Directorate Staff
July 2014


[1] Council Directive 2003/86/EC of 22 September 2003 on the Right to Family Reunification, 2003 O.J. (L 251) 12, http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/PDF/?uri=CELEX:32003L0086&from=EN.

[2] Id. art. 3, ¶ 1.

[3] Id. art. 8.

[4] Id. arts. 5, 6 & 7.

[5] Id. art. 7, ¶ 2.

[6] Id. art. 9.

[7] Id. art. 3, ¶ ¶ 4 & 5.

[8] Id. art. 4, ¶ 3.

[9] Id. art. 4, ¶ 5.

[10] Id. art. 4, ¶ 4.

[11] Id. art. 4 ¶ 1(b).

[12] Id. art. 4, ¶ 1(c)–(d)

[13] Id. art. 4, ¶ 2 (a)–(b).

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Last Updated: 09/16/2014