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Q&A: The new Hong Kong British National (Overseas) visa

23 Nov 2020

By Peter William Walsh

This Q&A is an updated version of the commentary, Q&A: The new route to citizenship for (some) Hong Kong residents, originally published on 7 August 2020.


From 31 January 2021, a new visa will be available to Hong Kong British National (Overseas) citizens (BNOs) and their close family members. Under the new route, the UK government estimates that 5.4 million Hong Kong residents will be eligible to move to the UK and eventually become British citizens.

This commentary answers some common questions about the new policy and its implications:

  • What has been announced?
  • Who are British National (Overseas) citizens?
  • What special rights do BNOs have?
  • Why has this policy been announced?
  • How many BNOs will come to the UK, and what will be the impact of this migration?

What has been announced?

The new route, the details of which were presented to parliament on 22 October 2020 in a Statement of Changes to the Immigration Rules, will allow all British National (Overseas) citizens who normally live in the UK, Islands or Hong Kong, to come to the UK with their close family members for five years. After five years of residence in the UK, they will be entitled to apply for settlement (also known as indefinite leave to remain), and after one further year of residence to apply for British citizenship.

The government states that BNO visa holders will be able to work or study freely in the UK, including applying for higher education courses. They will be able to use the NHS, but will not generally be entitled to claim benefits, a condition known as No Recourse to Public Funds.

BNO citizens may also be able to be joined by their close family members, even if the family members are not themselves BNOs. Family members would usually have to live with the BNO citizen, and include:

  • a spouse, civil partner, or unmarried partner;
  • a child or grandchild who is under the age of 18;
  • an adult child born on or after 1 July 1997 (and their spouse, or child under the age of 18);
  • other family members – such as a parent, grandparent, brother, sister, son, or daughter – but only in “exceptional circumstances of high dependency”.

There is no limit on the number of eligible people who can come under the new route.

From July 2020, BNO citizens and their dependants have been able to enter the UK, ahead of the opening of applications for the BNO visa, at the discretion of Border Force officers. Known as a grant of ‘Leave Outside the Rules’, this permission to enter the UK allows the applicant and their close family to stay in the UK for up to six months, after which they can apply for the Hong Kong BNO visa when it becomes available in January 2021.

From 15 July to 14 October 2020, a total of 2,116 BNO citizens and their dependants were granted Leave Outside the Rules at the border (BNO Impact Assessment, p. 7).

How much will this new route to British citizenship cost?

The route will require both the main applicant and any dependants to each purchase a Hong Kong British National (Overseas) visa. The applicant can choose between two versions of the BNO visa, which are identical with regard to eligibility and entitlements, but are of different duration and cost:

  • £180 to apply to stay for 30 months (i.e., two-and-a-half years), which can be extended for a further two-and-a-half years, costing a further £180, to take the holder to a total of five years’ residence;
  • £250 to apply to stay for five years.

This is considerably cheaper than other visas. Notably, it is not much more the estimated cost to the Home Office of processing a BNO visa, which is £170 (BNO Impact Assessment, p. 15). By contrast, under the new points-based immigration system, a standard UK work visa lasting more than three years costs £1,220, which is almost ten times greater than the estimated £127 that it costs the Home Office to process it (Home Office visa fees transparency data).

BNOs and their family members will each have to pay the immigration health surcharge (IHS), up-front when applying for the visa, and for the visa’s duration. The IHS fee is £624 per year for an adult, with a lower per-year fee of £470 for a child. Therefore, an adult applying for the two-and-a-half year visa would pay £1,560 in IHS fees (and the same again on extension of the visa), while an adult applying for the five-year visa would be charged £3,120 in up-front IHS fees. Like most other migrants moving to the UK, BNOs will need to demonstrate that they can financially support themselves and any dependants for the first six months of their time in the UK.

The total cost in immigration fees for BNOs to become British citizens is presented in Table 1. It shows that the up-front cost for one adult Hong Kong BNO citizen to move to the UK under the route for five years is £3,370, with the total route to citizenship costing £6,965. For a family of three to become British citizens would cost almost £20,000.

Table 1

Who are British National (Overseas) citizens?

The terms nationality and citizenship are often used interchangeably. However, in British law, there are six types of British nationality, one of which is British citizenship.

British citizenship is the only type of British nationality that confers the right to live and work in the UK free of any immigration controls.

The remaining five types of British nationality are all residues of the British Empire. One of these is British National (Overseas) citizenship, which was created by the Hong Kong Act 1985. The creation of BNO status formed a part of the negotiations over the Sino-British Joint Declaration treaty of 1984.

Prior to the UK’s handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997, most residents of Hong Kong would have been classed as British Dependent Territories citizens (another kind of British nationality), which conferred the unrestricted right to live only in Hong Kong, and not the UK. In the ten years before the handover, these citizens were entitled to apply for BNO status, in order to retain a connection with the UK after the transfer of sovereignty over Hong Kong to China.

The deadline for applications for BNO citizenship was in 1997, and nobody else can obtain BNO status if they do not already have it. BNO status is valid for life, but cannot be passed on to spouses or children.

The British government estimates that 5.4 million Hong Kong residents will be eligible to come to the UK under the new route (BNO Impact Assessment, p. 3), and after six years’ residence acquire UK citizenship. This means that 72% of Hong Kong’s estimated resident population of 7.5 million will be eligible to come to the UK. This number comprises an estimated:

  • 2.9 million BNOs in Hong Kong;
  • 2.3 million dependants of Hong Kong BNOs; and
  • 187,000 18–23-year-olds who are not considered to be the dependants of BNOs (in view of being adults), but have at least one BN(O) parent and are a part of the same household. The government has stated that these people, as well as their close family members, such as a spouse and children, will be eligible because it does not want to split family units (BNO visa Impact Assessment, p. 3).

Although there are around three million BNO citizens, as at 28 August 2020, there were only around 400,000 ‘live’ BNO passports in circulation – with around 200,000 applications for BNO passports pending. However, the British government has stated that a BNO citizen will not require a valid BNO passport to demonstrate that they are a BNO citizen, and therefore will not require a BNO passport to move to the UK under the route.

What special rights do BNOs have?

Before the rights granted by the new BNO visa: not many. Most importantly, BNO status did not confer the right to live in the UK, including to work or study indefinitely. Before the changes come into effect, if BNOs wished to live in the UK, they had to do so via the same immigration routes as all non-EU citizens, such as applying for work or study visas.

With regard to visiting the UK, BNOs were already entitled to come to the UK for six months without requiring a visa. This is a privilege also enjoyed by people with regular Hong Kong passports who do not have BNO status, and by the citizens of 55 other countries, including the US, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Malaysia, and Japan.

Like other non-EU citizens, BNOs who acquire settlement after five years of residence in the UK can apply for British citizenship after one more year of residence. However, BNOs are eligible to acquire British citizenship via a process known as registration, rather than naturalisation, as is the case for most other migrants. Registration is £124 cheaper than naturalisation (to register costs £1,206 for an adult while an application for naturalisation costs £1,330).

Why has this policy been announced?

On 30 June 2020, China’s Parliament, the National People’s Congress, enacted a new National Security Law, to apply to Hong Kong. The British government has stated that the new law is a “clear and serious breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration and undermines the ‘one country, two systems’ framework” (Impact Assessment, p. 4). Elsewhere, it stated that, in response to the passing of China’s new security law:

“…the UK Government is changing the rights attached to BN(O) status and is introducing a bespoke immigration route for BN(O) citizens and their dependants that will open for applications from early 2021. This reflects the unique and unprecedented circumstances in Hong Kong and the UK’s historic and moral commitment to BN(O) citizens.” (Impact Assessment, p. 3)

How many BNOs will come to the UK, and what will be the impact of this migration?

The numbers

It is impossible to say with any precision. However, on 22 October 2020, the UK government published some indicative scenarios in an Impact Assessment for the Hong Kong British National (Overseas) visa. These scenarios, produced by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), estimate the proportion of BNOs lively to leave Hong Kong, and the share of those who could come to the UK.

The scenarios are guided by several assumptions regarding migratory ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors, and the propensity of different segments of the BNO population to migrate. As the Impact Assessment acknowledges, the estimates “are subject to a very high degree of uncertainty” (p. 5).

The FCDO’s estimate of the propensity of Hong Kong residents to migrate to the UK is based on the share of Hong Kong residents applying for BNO passports since protests began in Hong Kong in July 2019, and on historical Hong Kong emigration data, including in the five year period after the handover (1997–2002).

The Impact Assessment provides two scenarios, each with low, central, and high estimates, where the high estimates assume that people who recently applied for a BNO passport are very likely to come to the UK (Figure 1).

The first scenario is based on the current number of recent BNO passport holders, with assumptions made about how many of these will come to the UK. The second scenario is based on a forecasted rate of future applications for BNO passports, assuming that applications will continue at the present rate until the end of 2020.

Looking at the lowest and highest estimates across both scenarios, the Impact Assessment suggests that the number of Hong Kong residents that could come under the route in its first five years of operation is between 9,000 and 1,048,100 – a very wide range.

Figure 1

However, because the low and high estimates for each scenario are intuitively less likely, the Impact Assessment considers the central estimate in Scenario 1 as a plausible lower bound, and the central estimate in Scenario 2 as a plausible higher bound, creating a range of between 257,000 and 322,000 total BNO visa applicants (rounded to the nearest thousand), including dependants, over the first five years of the policy.

Fiscal impact

The Impact Assessment also provides estimates of the fiscal impact of BNO migration under the new route (Figure 2). Three scenarios are provided, each assuming a different volume of BNO migration. For these calculations, the central estimate in Scenario 1, above, forms the basis for the Low Scenario, hence assuming 258,000 BNO applicants over five years (this is higher than the central estimate in Scenario 1 because in addition to main applicants and dependants it also includes eligible 18–23-year-olds). The central estimate in Scenario 2 is used for the High Scenario and assumes 322,400 BNO applicants in five years (also including eligible 18–23-year-olds). A Central Scenario is calculated as the mid-point between these two estimates, thereby assuming a total of 290,200 applicants.

In addition to the volume of BNO migration, the fiscal impact analysis is based on several further assumptions about the age demographics of the whole population of Hong Kong (which may not be representative of the characteristics of BNOs who migrate to the UK), and average employment rates within the UK. The calculation weighs several fiscal costs and benefits: the cost to businesses of familiarising themselves with the policy; the cost to the Home Office of processing the visa route; the increase in the cost of public service provision (e.g., healthcare and education); the increase in the government’s revenue from the BNO visa fee and immigration health surcharge; and direct and indirect tax revenues from BNOs in UK employment. Many assumptions are based on the UK population, without taking account of the specific circumstances of the BNO migrant cohort. The estimates also make no allowance for the impact of COVID-19 in the first five years of the policy, which the Impact Assessment describes as “highly uncertain”. Like the migration estimates, the estimates of fiscal impact have a high degree of uncertainty.

Under the Central Scenario, the Home Office estimates that BNO migration under the new route will generate a net fiscal benefit of £2.65 billion in the first five years of the policy (from Q4 2020/21 Q4 to 2025/26 Q3).

Figure 2


Despite some media reports suggesting that millions of BNO citizens could come to the UK, it is still too early to tell if the UK government’s Hong Kong BNO visa and its path to citizenship will result in substantial numbers coming to the UK.

With thanks to CJ McKinney of freemovement.org.uk, for detailed comments on drafts of this commentary. 


The Migration Observatory’s work on post-Brexit immigration policy is supported by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust.

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