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Q&A: The new route to citizenship for (some) Hong Kong residents

07 Aug 2020

By Peter William Walsh

The UK government has said that it will create a special visa for British National (Overseas) citizens (BNOs), which will be available from January 2021.

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

  • What has been announced?
  • Who are British National (Overseas) citizens?
  • What special rights do BNOs have?
  • Why has this policy been announced?
  • How has China responded?
  • How many BNOs will come to the UK?

What has been announced?

The new route, to be laid down in the Immigration Rules in the coming months, will allow all British National (Overseas) citizens and their dependants to come to the UK for five years, including for work or study. After five years of residence in the UK, they will be entitled to apply for settled status, and after one further year of residence to apply for citizenship.

The government’s policy statement says that dependants will need to be usually resident in Hong Kong to qualify.

The cost of the visa has yet to be specified.

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. The best known is British citizenship, held by over 50 million people in the UK. 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 and include 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 in 1984.

Prior to the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to China, 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 status was in 1997. BNO citizens cannot pass their status onto their children.

The British government estimates that there are 2.9 million BNOs in Hong Kong, equivalent to 39% of Hong Kong’s estimated resident population of 7.5 million. This number excludes the family members of BNOs, who will also be eligible for the new route.

Although there are around three million BNO citizens, only 360,000 BNO passports were in circulation as of 17 April 2020 (Figure 1). This has more than doubled since 31 Dec 2018.

Figure 1

What special rights do BNOs have?

Currently, not many. Most importantly, BNO status does not confer the right to live in the UK, including to work or study indefinitely. If BNOs wish to live in the UK, they must do so via the same immigration routes that are open to all non-EU citizens, such as work or study visas.

With regard to visiting the UK, BNOs are entitled to come to the UK for six months without requiring a visa. This is a privilege 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’s residence. However, BNOs are eligible to acquire British citizenship via what is known as registration, rather than naturalisation as is the case for most other migrants. This is £124 cheaper (to register costs £1,206 for an adult while an application for naturalisation costs £1,330).

Why has this policy been announced?

In May 2020, the Chinese government announced that a new security law was to be passed that would apply to Hong Kong. Critics say that the policy will increase China’s control over the Special Administrative Region, in a way that violates the autonomy of Hong Kong as protected in the 1984 Joint Declaration, specifically the principle of “One country, two systems”.

China’s Parliament, the National People’s Congress, enacted the law on 30 June 2020.

How many BNOs will come to the UK?

It is impossible to say with any precision. The numbers that come will depend on several factors, such as China’s relations with Hong Kong, and how easy and affordable the British government makes the process.

The Financial Times reports that people working within the Foreign Office have estimated that between 180,000 and 200,000 BNOs could move over the next five years.

The high cost of the route could be a deterrent for some. Although the government has not confirmed how much a BNO visa might cost, commentators have speculated that it could resemble the existing UK Ancestry visa, which costs £516 and lasts five years. The government has confirmed, however, that BNOs will have to pay the immigration health surcharge, which from 1 October 2020 will cost £624 per year, and must be paid up front for each of the years that a visa will last. This would mean that a route to citizenship would cost over £7,000 for one adult (which includes settlement and citizenship fees), while for a family of three to become British citizens would cost over £20,000.

Conclusion

It is still too early to tell if the UK government’s announcement to offer a path to citizenship for BNO passport holders will result in substantial numbers coming to the UK.

With thanks to CJ McKinney of freemovement.org.uk, for helpful comments on a draft of this commentary.

This commentary was modified on 3 September 2020 to remove the incorrect statement that registration for British citizenship does not require taking the Life in the UK test and demonstrating sufficient knowledge of the English language. I am grateful to Man Yee Kan for bringing this error to my attention.

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