The Hong Kong British National (Overseas) visa launched on 31 January 2021. It is a new visa route available to people from Hong Kong who have British National (Overseas) – ‘BN(O)’ – status and their close family members. It has been created in response to the passing of a new national security law for Hong Kong, which the UK considers violates agreements made between the UK and China at the time of the Hong Kong handover.
The visa will enable BN(O)s and their dependent family members to come to live in the UK for up to five years. They will then be able to apply for permanent settlement and, in turn, British citizenship (subject to associated eligibility criteria).
There are two broad application categories (‘routes’) within the visa. They cater for different groups of people but have the same general conditions.
- BN(O) Status Holder route – for BN(O)s and their dependent partners or minor children. Other adult family members with a high degree of dependency may also apply under this route.
- BN(O) Household Member route – for BN(O) citizens’ adult children (born on or after 1 July 1997) and the adult child’s dependent partner and minor children. All applicants must form part of the same household as the BN(O) citizen (i.e. normally live together) and be applying alongside the BN(O) family member.
As indicated above, adults born after the 1997 cut-off date for acquiring BN(O) status are not independently eligible for the visa. They can only apply if they have a BN(O) parent in their household who also wishes to move to the UK at the same time.
Applicants do not need to have a BN(O) passport or a specified level of English. 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 but will not automatically be eligible for taxpayer funded benefits defined as public funds. Nor will they be classed as home students for tuition fee purposes immediately upon arrival in the UK.
How many people might benefit?
The number of Hong Kong residents who might take up the visa offer is unknown.
An estimated 5.4 million Hong Kong residents (2.9m BN(O)s and their dependant family members) are potentially eligible, according to Home Office figures. Hong Kong’s population is around 7.5 million.
But decisions to move to the UK are likely to be influenced by a range of push and pull factors, and people might also have options to move to other countries.
The Home Office’s central range analysis estimates that between 123,000 and 153,700 people might come to the UK in the first year, and between 258,000 and 322,400 people over the first five years. These figures are subject to a very high degree of uncertainty.
Stakeholder reactions and topical issues
The visa plans attracted broad cross-party support in Parliament when they were first announced. The UK-based charity Hong Kong Watch has also welcomed the plans. It wants everyone in Hong Kong to have an “insurance policy” against a deterioration of their rights.
Some Parliamentarians, amongst others, are concerned that young pro-democracy activists are not eligible for the visa if their parents don’t have BN(O) status or aren’t willing to move to the UK.
Some people have suggested that the Government should go further, such as by re-opening a BN(O) application scheme, giving all BN(O)s the right to enter, live and work in the UK free from immigration controls (the ‘right of abode’), or making alternative provision for households that don’t have BN(O) status.
The Government disagrees, saying that there is a limit to the number of people that the UK can absorb. It says that it is liaising with international partners to coordinate immigration schemes for Hong Kong residents. Some of the measures announced by Canada and Australia fill some gaps in the UK’s offer.
The Government also points to the fact that people who are ineligible for the Hong Kong BN(O) visa might still be able to apply for a different category of temporary visa, such as a youth mobility visa, or in a work or study route. These have different conditions and entitlements to the BN(O) visa.
Migration Watch has strongly 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 Government’s assertion that the UK has a historical responsibility to the people of Hong Kong.
Who has BN(O) status and what rights has it historically given?
BN(O) status is held by a fixed cohort of people which is gradually decreasing in size. It cannot be passed on to future generations.
BN(O) status was offered to people who, before the 1997 Hong Kong handover, had British Dependent Territories Citizenship (BDTC) through a connection with Hong Kong. They lost their BDTC status on 1 July 1997 but could apply for BN(O) status in the ten years before the handover.
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. Like almost all other nationalities, they are subject to UK visa requirements.