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 new visa route for BN(O)s and dependent famiy members. The Library briefings on Hong Kong: the Joint Declaration and Hong Kong in 2019 might also be of interest.
A new visa route for people with British National (Overseas) status
The Government has created a new visa route for people from Hong Kong with British National (Overseas) – ‘BN(O)’ – status. This is in response to the passing of a new national security law for Hong Kong.
The ‘Hong Kong BN(O) visa’ is due to launch in January 2021.
The visa will enable BN(O)s and their dependent family members to come to live in the UK for up to five years. At that point they will be able to apply for permanent settlement and, in turn, British citizenship (subject to associated eligibility criteria).
It hasn’t been possible to get BN(O) status since 1997. This presents a barrier for people who wish to apply for the visa in their own right but don’t already have BN(O) status, including young adults. The Home Office has said that it doesn’t wish to split family units. It has indicated that there will be some discretion to grant a visa to BN(O)s’ dependent children who are over 18 and do not have BN(O) status, and to other adult dependents.
BN(O)s will not need to have a BN(O) passport or a specified level of English in to qualify for the visa. They will need to show an ability to accommodate and maintain themselves for their first six months in the UK. Successful applicants will be able to work and study in the UK, but they will not be eligible for benefits defined as ‘public funds’. Nor will newly-arrived BN(O)s or their dependents be immediately classed as “home students” for tuition fee purposes.
The Home Office is encouraging BN(O)s to wait until the new visa has launched before travelling to the UK. But Border Force officers will have discretion to grant people who travel before then six months’ immigration leave ‘outside the Immigration Rules’. This will be subject to similar conditions as the BN(O) visa.
BN(O)s who are already living in the UK in a different visa category won’t be able to switch into the Hong Kong BN(O) visa category before January 2021.
How many people might benefit?
Hong Kong’s population is around 7.5m. The UK Government estimates that around 2.9m people living there have BN(O) status. Slightly fewer than 360,000 people have a valid BN(O) passport, as at April 2020.
The Government hasn’t published an official estimate of the number of people who might take up the visa offer. According to reports, the Foreign Office has estimated that around 180,000-200,000 BN(O)s might come to the UK over the next five years.
Stakeholder reactions and commentary
The plans attracted broad cross-party support in Parliament and were welcomed by the UK-based charity Hong Kong Watch. Hong Kong Watch is calling on the international community to establish an international lifeboat policy to offer protection to everyone in Hong Kong who might need it.
Some people have suggested that the Government should go further, including by making provision for households that don’t have BN(O) status. For example, young pro-democracy activists whose parents don’t have BN(O) status (or don’t wish to travel as a family unit) will not be eligible for the BN(O) visa. Other temporary visa routes, such as the Youth Mobility visa, might be available to some people. These give different rights in the UK.
Some people have expressed concerns that the visa application fee and associated Immigration Health Surcharge might be too much for some people who are otherwise eligible.
The Foreign Secretary has described the UK scheme as a “very principled and generous approach”. He has said that the UK intends to play a leading role in the international response to the situation in Hong Kong. Various other countries, including Canada, Australia and EU Member States, are considering or launching immigration routes for Hong Kong residents.
Migration Watch has criticised the decision to create a bespoke visa route for BN(O)s. It argues that it is “utterly irresponsible” and potentially breaks the Government’s general election pledge to reduce overall immigration to the UK. It also questions the logic of the Government’s assertion that the UK has a historical responsibility to the people of Hong Kong.
The Chinese Government has strongly objected to the new visa offer. It has said that China will stop recognising BN(O) passports as valid travel documents. It is unclear how much this will affect BN(O)s’ ability to travel to and from Hong Kong. There are other ID documents that Hong Kong residents can use for travel purposes.
Who has BN(O) status?
The UK created BN(O) status as part of the arrangements for the handover of sovereignty of Hong Kong in 1997. It was made available to people who, before the handover, had British Dependent Territories Citizenship (BDTC) through a connection with Hong Kong.
Hong Kong BDTCs lost that status on 1 July 1997. But, in the ten years leading up to the handover, they could apply for the new BN(O) status. Although there was an entitlement to be registered, BN(O) status was not conferred automatically.
BN(O) status cannot be passed on to future generations. It has been held by a fixed cohort of people which is gradually decreasing in size.
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)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 do not have 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). Like other non-EEA nationals, they are subject to UK visa requirements.
British nationality law allows BN(O)s to register as British citizens, either on the basis of lawful residence in the UK, or by being otherwise stateless.
Successive UK 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 doing so would risk undermining the commitments made under the UK-China Joint Declaration on Hong Kong.
As summarised above, the Government has responded to recent developments in Hong Kong by extending immigration options for BN(O)s, without going so far as to offer an automatic immediate right of abode or British citizen status.
Other historical provisions for British nationals in Hong Kong
The UK Government was unwilling to extend British citizenship or the right of abode to all BDTCs living in Hong Kong before the handover. But certain categories of Hong Kong BDTCs were able to get British citizenship through some specific schemes.