Hong Kong - British National (Overseas) - British citizenship

28 October 2019

Hong Kong is in the news recently but not in a good way. As widely explained in the media, until 1997 a British colony, it is now part of the People’s Republic of China. Some Hongkongers are now favourably recalling the days of British rule which, they say, was less oppressive.

Well, maybe so, but whatever else the British Empire may have achieved it certainly created a lot of complexity in the field of British nationality, and Hong Kong is no exception. Most Hongkongers now hold Chinese citizenship and some but not all of them hold British National (Overseas) status which, as its name suggests, is a status granted by the British Government ("BN(O)", as it is often referred to). But it is not real British citizenship.

Immigration lawyers who work in this field may advise us with relish that there are six different types of British nationality and that it is all very complicated. These points are both true but there is one very important qualifying fact about the first one: "British citizen" is a far more useful status than any other kind of British nationality.

You may have heard, for example, of "British Overseas Citizen". But this status, like BN(O), is not really very strong. Both these statuses entitle you to something that looks like a British passport - same colour, same size, same royal coat of arms with funny French words written on it - but it provides strictly limited entitlements.

As we all know, a British citizen passport enables you to live in the UK for as long as you like and to enter the UK at any time. You could leave the UK for 20 years and then come back and (assuming your passport is not by this time out of date) the immigration authorities will let you in without issue.

But this is not so with a BN(O) passport or any of the other types of British passport. It does not entitle you to live in the UK for extended periods and so it does not enable you to migrate to the UK if you should want to. So here we may spot a very important difference between "British citizen" and "British national".

So what actually does BN(O) status entitle you to in terms of UK immigration law? Well, not that much really, but a brief (and highly simplified) examination of the history at least tells us how this status came about.

It was always understood and agreed that Hong Kong did not belong to the UK in perpetuity. It was effectively on loan and it was to be returned to China in 1997, which is what happened. But what was the UK Government to do about the citizenship rights of Hongkongers? Historically the British have conferred citizenship rights on the populations of its colonies but these rights have been very variable.

What happened in this case was that in 1986 the British authorities, in anticipation of the handover of Hong Kong back to China and after some negotiations with the Chinese authorities, created the new status of British National (Overseas) which supposedly provided some sort of continued "connection" with the UK.

This is a British status which is only relevant to Hongkongers or to those with a connection to Hong Kong, and such people could apply for this status, but they had to do so by 1997. No applications after 1997 were possible and this status cannot be transmitted to children. So BN(O)’s constitute a dwindling number of people.

But in any case by 1986 a large number of Hongkongers - and in practice most particularly ethnic Chinese - had already lost the right of abode in the UK (ie the right to come to live in the UK without let or hindrance) because of previous legislation. And, as we know, BN(O) status does not confer the right of abode either. And it is in most cases impossible for BN(O)’s to acquire British citizenship because this is not permitted for someone who holds another citizenship or is entitled to another citizenship, and most Hongkongers either hold or are entitled to Chinese citizenship.

So it is fair to say that ethnic Chinese Hongkongers have not done very well out of the situation. This is often a bone of political contention and especially at times like this. Many people believe that they should have much greater rights to full British citizenship and thus the right to emigrate to the UK.

In any event, to answer the question we posed as to what BN(O) status actually confers in terms of UK immigration law, we can only think of a few things. It makes you a Commonwealth citizen, which might make you feel good about yourself and, more specifically, might just potentially help you acquire a UK Ancestry visa (but a long shot in most cases).

And it makes you a non-visa national, if you are not one already (but you might hold a Hong Kong Special Administrative Region passport issued by the Chinese authorities , in which case you are), and you might be able to acquire a Tier 5 Youth Mobility Scheme visa (but, again, a Hong Kong SAR passport might suffice for this), but that is mostly it.

As we indicated, this is a very simplified account. Issues about entitlement to British citizenship, in Hong Kong and elsewhere, can be complex. But we at Garth Coates Solicitors can give you informed advice about this.

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