Hong Kong BN(O)s - the Government keeps its promise

30 July 2020

As we recently explained ("Hong Kong and British National (Overseas) status", 21 June 2020), the British Government has promised a new visa route to those residents of Hong Kong who hold BN(O) status such that they will be able to come to the UK on a long-term basis and eventually acquire settlement and full British citizenship. The Government has now published details of the scheme.

The new visa - which will be called the "Hong Kong BN(O) visa" - is quite generous in its terms. Anyone who holds BN(O) status (whether or not they hold a BN(O) passport) may be able to apply, if they are ordinarily resident in Hong Kong. Those who are ordinarily resident in Hong Kong but are temporarily in the UK will also be able to apply.

There will be no complex or onerous financial or earnings requirements and applicants will be allowed to come to the UK and look for work, as long as they will be able to support themselves in the meantime, and there is no English language test for initial visa applications.

And dependants (partner and children under the age of 18) may also be able to apply, whether they are BN(O)s or not. And children who are aged 18 or over may be able to apply if there are exceptional circumstances.

The rules about children are significant, because applications for BN(O) status closed as long ago as 1997, so anybody born after then could not apply. There are believed to be 2.9 million Hongkongers who hold BN(O) status and that number, plus eligible dependants, constitutes quite a good proportion of the population of Hong Kong, which is about 7.5 million.

The Hong Kong BN(O) visa - which should come into existence in January 2021 - will offer a five-year route to settlement, and in this way it is in line with working and family visas generally. It will permit work or study, and those who are well off will presumably be allowed to live here as financially self-sufficient people if they want to. Again in line with most other types of visa there will be no entitlement to state benefits.

The initial visa grant will be for 30 months, which will be potentially extendable for a further 30 months. After 60 months (ie five years) in total it may be possible to apply for indefinite leave to remain (settlement). As is a common and general rule, there will be criminality restrictions, and criminal convictions will be problematical, both for visa applications and settlement applications.

The rules for settlement are similar to those for working visas generally. Applicants must not have spent more than 180 days outside the UK in any 12-month period during the qualifying five years. And after having held settlement for 12 months the normal rule about British naturalisation applies: affected migrants may be able to apply for it if they meet all the relevant requirements.

The Hong Kong BN(O) visa is of course very "political" visa, its existence triggered by drastic and unusual political circumstances: "It will not set a precedent" as the Home Secretary sternly advises us. Some people have argued that it does no more than correct a historical injustice, and that Hongkongers should have been offered greater rights when Hong Kong returned to China in 1997. And many have argued (reasonably it would appear) that the BN(O) passport provided a rather false purported connection with the UK.

We can see how the immigration agenda seems to have changed since the days of ex-Prime Minister Theresa May’s "hostile environment"; these changing political debates do get rather confusing. But if you are a Hongkonger and you want advice about the new visa we are Garth Coates Solicitors will be able to help you.

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