The UK Government has announced a new visa for holders of British National (Overseas) status in Hong Kong in response to political concerns arising from the decision of the Chinese Government to impose its national security legislation on Hong Kong.

From January 2021, BN(O) citizens, and their close family members, will be able to apply for a Hong Kong BN(O) visa. An estimated 3 million Hong Kong residents could be eligible under the new scheme.

What does this new visa mean?

Anyone with BN(O) status currently has the right to come and visit the UK for up to 6 months, They can do so without obtaining a visa. However, they do not have the right to live in the UK long term, and, importantly, they do not have the right to work here under this visa.

The new Hong Kong BN(O) visa will give individuals the right to enter or remain in the UK for up to 5 years. They will be able to work in almost any capacity (including being employed or self-employed). They will also be permitted to study.

At the end of the 5 year period they will then be able to apply for indefinite leave to remain (ILR) and citizenship 12 months after that, subject to meeting the relevant requirements for ILR/citizenship in place at the time. If they do not apply for ILR at the 5 year mark, they will have to leave the UK (or find an alternative visa status to stay here).

There are a number of eligibility requirements which individuals must satisfy, these will usually include:

  • Holding BN(O) status (although a BN(O) passport will not be required);
  • Being ordinarily resident in Hong Kong;
  • Having sufficient funds to support themselves for at least 6 months (further details to be confirmed)
  • Having a commitment to learning English, if appropriate;
  • Having a TB test certificate
  • Meeting relevant criminality standards; and
  • Not falling foul of any of the standard general grounds of refusal on which the Home Office can refuse to grant visas.

Under this visa, individuals will not be able to access public funds such as welfare benefits.

Importantly, there is no requirement for applicants to have a job offer prior to applying for the visa or to meet a particular level of English language capability when they make their application.

Applications will be made online and can be made from within the UK, Hong Kong or elsewhere. The Guidance specifically states that BN(O) citizens already in the UK on another type of leave will be able to apply to switch their visa status to the Hong Kong BN(O) visa from within the UK from January 2021. Successful applicants will be issued with a digital visa.

What about those who want to travel to the UK sooner than January 2021?

If Hong Kong nationals can travel under an existing visa route, they are free to do so before the new visa becomes operational. They may be able to extend that visa in line with the existing requirements of that route to enable them to stay in the UK and apply for the Hong Kong BN(O) visa when it becomes operational next year.

If that is not feasible, there is special provision made for Border Force Officers to grant a special form of immigration leave called Leave Outside the Rules (LOTR) for a period of six months. LOTR provides a fallback position for BN(O) holders who find themselves with no other visa options that would allow travel to the UK before the Hong Kong BN(O) visa starts. The eligibility requirements for LOTR are similar to what will be required for the Hong Kong BN(O) visa. If granted LOTR, individuals are also able to work and study.

Individuals who do not have BN(O) status

If individuals do not already have BN(O) status, they cannot now apply for it. This also means they will not be able to use the new visa route or apply for LOTR. If individuals in this category want to come to the UK, they will need to find an alternative visa route under the existing rules. This might, for example, be via the employer sponsorship under Tier 2/the new Skilled Worker route with effect from next year, or potentially, under the Youth Mobility Scheme, assuming they meet the relevant eligibility criteria.