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British National (Overseas)

British Citizenship For Hong Kong Residents – What You Need To Know

Note: This briefing note is a revision of the information published by WH Solicitors on 17 July 2020 to reflect updated guidance issued by the UK government on 22 July 2020.

The Chinese Government has approved a new national security law for Hong Kong, further tightening its grip on the city despite its special administrative region status. Drawing widespread condemnation from the international community, many Hong Kong residents are now understandably anxious about their future under increasingly severe authority controls.

Acting with concern for the former British colony, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has brought forward plans to offer an estimated three million Hong Kong residents the chance to settle in the UK and even apply for citizenship. With a formal statement presented to the UK parliament by Home Secretary Priti Patel on 22 July 2020, the groundwork has now been laid down to secure a new immigration route for British National (Overseas) citizens currently residing in Hong Kong.

As specialist immigration lawyers, the team at WH Solicitors have been closely monitoring the situation in Hong Kong and in this article, we explain some of the key information that HK residents need to know about the British Government’s settlement and citizenship offer before applications open in January 2021.

 

What’s happening in Hong Kong?

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has tightened its control over the Hong Kong special administrative region with a new national security law. Enacted as the “Law of the People’s Republic of China on Safeguarding National Security in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region”, it was passed at China’s annual National People’s Congress on 28 May 2020.

Amongst its more concerning features, the new security law provides for the establishment of a new Beijing-controlled security force and the criminalisation of many behaviours including any ‘collusion’ with foreign powers. Perhaps even more concerning, however, is the fact that any interpretation of the new law will fall to the Chinese Government.

In the spirit of what the Foreign Secretary described as a “historic commitment to the people of Hong Kong”, the UK government has labelled the move a “clear and serious breach” of the 1985 Sino-British joint declaration on the rights and freedoms of the city. As international leaders move to condemn these steps, Hong Kong citizens are faced with the dilemma of whether they should move away or continue to live in a place that is gradually looking less and less like home.

 

What is the UK offering to Hong Kong citizens?

With growing concern for the residents of the former British Dependent territory, the UK Home Office has acted to “significantly improve” the entitlements of those living in Hong Kong with British National (Overseas) – or “BNO” – status.

Under the plans set out by the UK government on 22 July 2020, Hong Kong-resident BNO citizens and their dependants will have the opportunity to enter the UK with a valid visa yet without the need to satisfy any skills tests, the minimum income requirement, the English language requirement or any of the other tests that are typically required to secure visa status.

Following an initial visa period of five years during which BNO status holders will have the right to work and study, it will then be possible to apply for Indefinite Leave to Remain (ILR). If this is a granted, an application could be lodged for full British citizen just one year later. Whilst successful visa applicants will not be entitled to state financial support or recourse to public funds, they will be able to access healthcare on the NHS (subject to paying the Immigration Health surcharge) and free education for children under 18.

With no limits or quotas on the number of applicants to which visas can be granted, the Government has described the scheme as “special and bespoke”. At present, the Home Office plans to begin accepting BNO visa applications from January 2021.

 

What is BNO status?

British National (Overseas) – or BNO  – status was granted to Hong Kong residents that registered before control of the city was handed back to China in July 1997. BNO is a closed status, meaning that it is not possible to become one now if you are not already eligible. Both valid and invalid BNO passports are set to be accepted as proof of status by the UK Home Office. However, it may also be possible for applicants who do not have the relevant documentation to enter if the immigration authorities can find a record of their BNO registration.

Until now, BNO status has conferred a limited number of benefits including the chance to hold a British passport, seek consular assistance and protection from UK diplomatic posts and visit the UK without a visa for up to 6 months at a time.

With an estimated 2.9 million BNOs in Hong Kong, this new route to settlement and citizenship stands to be one of the most extensive immigration schemes in UK history.

 

What are the requirements for the UK’s BNO visa scheme?

BN(O) citizens and their immediate family dependants who qualify for the UK’s BNO visa will be granted leave to remain in the UK for a period of five years. This period will consist of an initial 30 months’ leave, which can be renewed by a second charged application for an additional 30 months. It will also be possible to apply for the full five years within the first application. Dependants will need to demonstrate and evidence the nature of their relationship with the primary BNO applicant – for instance by providing a wedding or birth certificate.

Notably, the Government has set out that BNO visa applicants will not be required to satisfy any skills tests, the minimum income requirements, or English language requirements in order to qualify.

To be eligible for the scheme, BN(O) status holders and their dependants must:

  • Be ordinarily resident in Hong Kong;
  • Be able to demonstrate the ability to accommodate and support themselves in the UK for at least six months (through an offer of employment, substantial savings, investments, pension income, or support from family or friends);
  • Show a commitment to learn English where appropriate (although there will not be an English language requirement for BNO visa applicants and their dependants);
  • Hold a current tuberculosis (TB) test certificate from a Home Office approved clinic (more information about this can be found on the UK government website);
  • Pay the relevant visa fee, the fee for biometrics enrolment and the Immigration Health Surcharge (the details of which are set out later in this article); and
  • Have no serious criminal convictions and not be subject to any of the general grounds of refusal for entry to the UK set out in the Immigration Rules.

 

Can the dependants of BNO passport holders come to the UK?

The new visa scheme will apply to both persons with BNO status and their immediate family dependants – including their spouse, partner and any children under the age of 18. Dependants will need to ordinarily be resident in Hong Kong to qualify, but do not need to have BNO status themselves.

As is the case for persons with BNO status, dependants will be eligible to apply for Indefinite Leave to Remain (ILR) in the UK after the initial five year visa period and British citizenship a year after this (subject to meeting the requirements specific to these applications).

Despite the criteria listed above, the UK government has also recognised that there are situations in which dependants who are not under 18 or in the immediate family unit of a BNO status holder will wish to come to the UK. In such circumstances, the immigration officials will have the discretion to grant a visa to dependants of BNO applicants aged 18 and over in compelling and compassionate circumstances, provided that they were born after 1 July 1997.

Other exceptional circumstances will be considered for adult dependants of BNO citizens, and decisions will be made at the UK Government’s discretion on a case by case basis.

 

Why come to the UK?

For those Hong Kong residents considering moving away from the city, the UK remains a top destination with plenty of advantages waiting for migrants. For one thing, as Hong Kong is a former British Overseas Territory, there are cultural similarities that could help new arrivals to settle into life with ease. With nearly 50% of Hong Kong residents able to communicate in English, Great Britain could be a natural choice for those seeking a new start away from the security law turmoil at home.

Hong Kong residents who are particularly concerned about the reach of the new security law may also feel reassured by the UK’s proactive approach to separating its legal system from the power of political decision-makers. In addition to this, becoming a legal resident of the UK can be hugely beneficial with access to free healthcare through the National Health Service (NHS) and a leading education system with some of the most well-regarded schools and universities in the world.

With a renowned professional services sector and growing activity in the science, technology and production industries, migrants to the UK also stand to benefit from coveted job opportunities and the chance to build a career in a centrally located, vibrant global economy.

 

How to get a BNO visa

With the BNO visa due to launch in January 2021, the Government has announced that applications will be made via a digital online process by applicants in the UK, Hong Kong or elsewhere. In the meantime, Hong Kong residents with BNO status can travel to the UK for an initial period of six months under existing BNO passport rules.

The Government has not yet announced the fee which will be charged for BNO visa applications, but is expected to do so during Autumn 2020. Whilst further guidance is required on this point, any future citizenship applications will be subject to fees. At present, the cost of registering for settled status or as a British citizen is as follows:

  • £2,389 to register for settled status within the UK
  • £1,206 for those with BNO status registering as British citizens;
  • £1,330 for naturalisation; and
  • £1,012 for child registration of a BNO dependant.

In addition to this, all citizenship applications are subject to a £19.20 biometric enrolment fee. Visa status for BNO applicants and their dependants is also conditional on the payment of the Immigration Health Surcharge, which currently costs £400 per year for most visa categories – with five years of cover costing £2,000.

 

What about non-BNO citizens?

If you do not have BNO status and therefore will not qualify for the BNO visa, you may still be eligible for a visa in another category. These alternative routes are likely to be of interest to any non-BNO Hong Kong residents along with non-eligible dependants of BNO status holders.

In their recent briefing, the UK government has drawn attention to the Youth Mobility scheme which may be of interest to any non-eligible dependants of BNO status holders aged between 18-30. The scheme offers Tier 5 visa status to up to 1,000 applicants each year. In addition to the age requirements, applicants must hold a genuine desire to live and work in the UK for up to 2 years, have £1,890 in savings and ordinarily be resident in certain territories (of which Hong Kong is one).

For those non-eligible dependants of BNO passport holders, it may be possible to enter the country with a family visa, drawing on their connections to relatives already living in the UK. In addition, the UK already sees an established flow of Hong Kong residents applying for visas each year, with the following categories amongst the most popular:

  • Tier 2 sponsored work visa – where a UK employer is willing to sponsor their employee to come to the UK, subject to minimum skill and salary levels);
  • Tier 4 student visa – available for who are sponsored by a qualifying educational provider;
  • Tier 1 Investor visa – for those able to make a £2 million investment in the UK; or
  • Sole Representative of an Overseas Business visa – available for those who come to the UK with the authority and resources to set up a branch of an existing overseas business;
  • Start-up/Innovator Visa – available for those who want to set up a business in the UK, which is innovative, scalable and viable;
  • Global Talent Visa – available to talented and promising individuals in the relevant field wishing to come to the UK for work;
  • Asylum – if you feel that you will be persecuted if returned to Hong Kong, you may be able to seek asylum.

 

Can BNO citizens come to the UK before January 2021?

Although the UK’s BNO visa scheme is not set to begin until January 2021, it follows that some Hong Kong residents will be anxious to avoid the effects of the new security law and any unrest it may bring.

For those wishing to leave Hong Kong for the UK sooner than January 2021, it will be possible for Border Force Officers to consider granted Leave Outside the Rules (LOTR) for a period of six months on a case by case basis.

Exceptional decisions of this kind will only be available to BNO citizens and any accompanying dependants who do not satisfy Border Force that they are eligible for entry via another route. Entry to the UK is not guaranteed and individuals may be refused entry to the UK if Border Force Officers have a good reason to do so.

 

How we can help

The UK’s settlement and citizenship offer could be a lifeline for the many BNO status Hong Kong residents who are rightly concerned about the implications of the new Beijing-led security law. As further details emerge, however, it is important to recognise that the UK immigration system can be complex, and it is not always clear how best to approach the challenges that may arise when making a visa application.

At WH Solicitors, we pride ourselves on the calm and considered care that we give to our clients. With years of experience covering every area of UK immigration law, our expert team are equipped to provide you with the guidance needed to secure the right status for you and your family. Backed by an extensive knowledge of the UK immigration system, we could help you to successfully apply for a BNO visa and otherwise are well equipped to make strong representations for non-BNO dependants and others who do not qualify for this new route of entry into the UK.

No matter what situation you face, we stand ready to provide you with clarity and peace and peace of mind.

For a discreet, no obligations discussion, contact our experts on (+44) 01483 608 786 or by emailing contact@whsolicitors.co.uk . We will listen to your concerns and find the solution to your immigration problems.

We will listen to your concerns and find the solution to your immigration problems.