British National (Overseas) status was created for people who lost their British Dependent Territories Citizenship upon the handover of sovereignty of Hong Kong in 1997. The government has responded to recent developments in Hong Kong by signalling a readiness to extend immigration options for people with British National (Overseas) status.

Download the full report

This briefing provides an overview of the background to British National (Overseas) status and what rights it gives under British nationality and immigration laws; previous government responses to calls to extend holders’ rights in the UK; and the government’s recent announcement on the possibility of offering a new visa route to enable them to come to live, work and study in the UK. The Library briefings on Hong Kong: the Joint Declaration and Hong Kong in 2019 might also be of interest.

Who has British National (Overseas) status?

The British National (Overseas) – ‘BN(O)’ – status was created as part of the arrangements relating to the handover of sovereignty of Hong Kong on 1 July 1997. It caters for people who, prior to the handover, had British Dependent Territories Citizenship (BDTC) through a connection with Hong Kong.

Put briefly, Hong Kong BDTCs lost that status on 1 July 1997. However, in the ten years leading up to the handover, they could apply for the newly created BN(O) status. It is no longer possible to apply for BN(O) status.

Although there was an entitlement to be registered, BN(O) status was not conferred automatically. Those eligible had to submit an application. Successful applicants were issued with a British passport displaying their BN(O) status. They were not issued with a stand-alone certificate of registration.

BN(O)s cannot pass on their British nationality status to future generations. Consequently, the status has been available to a fixed cohort of people which is gradually decreasing in size.

Slightly fewer than 360,000 people have a valid BN(O) passport, as at April 2020. The government estimates that there are around 2.9m BN(O)s currently living in Hong Kong. Hong Kong’s population is estimated to be around 7.5m.

Most people with BN(O) status are also likely to be Chinese nationals under Chinese nationality law.

What UK immigration and citizenship rights does BN(O) status give?

BN(O) is one of six different types of British nationality status. Of these, only British citizen status automatically gives the right of abode in the UK (i.e. the right to travel to, and live and work in the UK free from immigration controls).

BN(O)s can use a type of British passport and seek consular assistance and protection from UK diplomatic posts, apart from in China, Hong Kong or Macao. But they are subject to the same UK visa requirements as other non-EEA nationals.

British nationality law enables BN(O)s to register as British citizens, either on the basis of lawful residence in the UK, or by being otherwise stateless.

Successive governments have resisted calls to change the legal rights of BN(O)s, such as by automatically granting them the right of abode or British citizen status. They have argued that to do so would risk undermining the commitments made under the UK-China Joint Declaration on Hong Kong.

Recent developments: a new visa route for BN(O)s?

The government has responded to recent developments in Hong Kong by signalling a readiness to extend immigration options for BN(O)s, without going so far as to offer them a right of abode or British citizen status.

In late May it confirmed that, if China proceeds with imposing a new national security law on Hong Kong, the UK will open a new temporary visa route for BN(O)s. This would enable BN(O)s to come to live, work and study in the UK for 12 months at a time, with the possibility of extending their stay and eventually settling here permanently.  More detailed information is not yet available. Statements made so far suggest that the visa would be open to all those with BN(O) status and their dependant family members.

The announcement, which was broadly welcomed in Parliament, raises many questions about what eligibility criteria and conditions would be attached to the visa, and how it would operate in practice. The UK-based charity Hong Kong Watch has welcomed the announcement as “an important and courageous step”, whilst noting that “’a route to citizenship’ is a vague and imprecise commitment”.

Other pre-handover citizenship provisions for British nationals in Hong Kong

The UK government was unwilling to extend British citizenship or the right of abode to all Hong Kong BDTCs in advance of the handover of Hong Kong. But certain categories of people were given opportunities to acquire British citizenship through targeted provisions.

One of these, the Hong Kong Citizenship Selection Scheme, enabled 50,000 heads of household (and their dependants) to acquire British citizenship. Some veterans of the Hong Kong Military Service and Hong Kong Royal Naval Service consider that they were unfairly denied citizenship through the Scheme. Since 2016, the Home Office has been considering representations made on their behalf for British citizenship or the right of abode.

Through different provisions, non-Chinese BN(O)s, who would otherwise be left stateless, and a small group of Hong Kong war widows, were also given routes to be registered as British citizens.

Download the full report