Residents of Hong Kong who are British National (Overseas) passport holders can now apply for a new visa offering them an opportunity to become British citizens. This is a significant change for BNO passport holders, who, historically, could receive consular protection from UK diplomatic posts, but could only remain in the United Kingdom for up to six months at a time visa-free.
About 2.9 million Hongkongers retain BNO status, with 469,000 of them holding British passports with the status.
The move comes in response to China imposing its national security legislation on Hong Kong, which the United Kingdom believes to be in breach of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration.
China, in turn, has recently declared that persons with BNO status would no longer be able to use their BNO passports to travel in and out of China.
China has also been cracking down on its dual nationals, starting to enforce a little-used Chinese law that also applies to Hong Kong, and that denies Hongkongers the right to hold two citizenships. In a recent incident involving a Canadian and Hong Kong dual national, China said the individual had to declare himself either Canadian (thereby losing residence rights in Hong Kong) or Chinese (thereby losing Canadian consular protection).
What is the new British National (Overseas) visa?
From Jan 31st, 2021, Hongkongers with a BNO passport, together with their dependants, will be able to apply online for a BNO visa allowing them to live, work, and study in the United Kingdom. After five years, they will be able to then apply for citizenship.
Who holds British National (Overseas) status?
British National (Overseas) is a class of British nationality that was granted by voluntary registration to Hong Kong residents who had been British Dependent Territories citizens before the transfer of sovereignty to China in 1997. It cannot be inherited by descent.
Rights as a British National (Overseas) status holder who does not apply for the new British National (Overseas) visa
As a British National (Overseas) status holder, a person is entitled to consular assistance and protection from UK diplomatic posts, as well as to visa-free travel to the United Kingdom for up to six months at any one time.
However, unlike British citizens, upon arrival at the UK border, BNO status holders are subject to immigration controls. They also do not have the automatic right to live, work, or study in the UK. Finally, they are not considered UK nationals by other countries, including the Member States of the European Union.
Obtaining British citizenship with a British National (Overseas) visa
The UK’s visa scheme is a response to Beijing’s decision last year to impose a sweeping national security law on Hong Kong, a former British colony, to douse out pro-democracy protests.
The UK Government said the law – which punishes subversion, collusion, terrorism and conspiracy with foreign forces – breaches the terms of the agreement under which Hong Kong was handed back to China in 1997. London has argued it has a moral duty to the people of Hong Kong.
On Friday, the British Prime Minister hailed the scheme, which offers a route to British citizenship, saying it honoured the UK’s commitment to its former citizens.
“I am immensely proud that we have brought in this new route for Hong Kong BNOs to live, work, and make their home in our country,” Boris Johnson said.
“In doing so we have honoured our profound ties of history and friendship with the people of Hong Kong, and we have stood up for freedom and autonomy – values both the UK and Hong Kong hold dear.”
China’s Response to the New UK Visa Scheme
China says the path to citizenship is a violation of international law and interferes with its sovereignty and internal affairs. It announced BNO passports would no longer be recognised as a legitimate travel or ID document on Friday.
“From Jan 31st, China will no longer recognise the so-called BNO passport as a travel document and ID document, and reserves the right to take further actions,” a Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Zhao Lijian, told reporters, according to AFP.
Additionally, there has been a stricter enforcement of dual nationality rules in Hong Kong. China does not allow dual nationality, but many Hongkongers with close ties to other nations were generally allowed to retain their dual status. Now, however, it seems many Hongkongers who are dual citizens must choose which citizenship they’d like to keep. “Renunciation of citizenship – the voluntary act of surrendering one’s citizenship – is most likely to occur when a person holds multiple citizenships, as there are strict international conventions against statelessness,” says Natasha Jones, a legal assistant at CS Global Partners.
“While countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States allow their citizens to hold dual citizenship, under Chinese nationality law, dual citizenship is not permitted,” she said. “This means that Chinese individuals who wish to become citizens of another country […] must relinquish their citizenship of origin.”
Thousands forecasted to flee Hong Kong
Under the new scheme, the UK estimates that nearly 3 million Hongkongers and their dependants will be eligible to move to Britain for five years and apply for full citizenship, bringing an estimated “net benefit” of up to 2.9 billion pounds (US$4bn).
The British Government recently said some 7,000 Hong Kong people with BNO status have arrived in the country since July. They migrated under the UK’s separate ‘Leave Outside the Rules’ system and can also apply for the pathway-to-citizenship visas.
Political turmoil around the world has resulted in many looking for security elsewhere. BNOs and non-BNOs alike have another “means of obtaining a different citizenship: citizenship by investment,” added Jones.
Citizenship by investment programmes confer citizenship status without causing any major disruptions to an investor’s life, as many can be applied to remotely. They can grant citizenship in a matter of months, provided applicants provide the correct forms and documentation, pass all the due diligence checks, and make a qualifying investment.
Only a few countries currently offer citizenship by investment. There is a high concentration of CBI programmes in the Caribbean, the region that is considered the cradle of citizenship by investment.