China, Hong Kong, and the United Kingdom: Changes in China's recognition of the British National Overseas (BNO) [British National (Overseas) (BN(O))] passport for Hong Kong residents (2020–March 2021) [ZZZ200577.E]

Research Directorate, Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada

1. BNO Status and Passport
1.1 Background

A February 2021 BBC article reports that the BNO citizenship "is a type of British nationality created in 1985 that people in Hong Kong could apply for before the 1997 handover to China to retain a link with the UK" (BBC 1 Feb. 2021). According to the GOV.UK website of the UK government, an individual "who was a British overseas territories citizen by connection with Hong Kong was able to register as a British national (overseas) before 1 July 1997" (UK n.d.a). The same source notes that British overseas territories citizens from Hong Kong who did not register and had no other nationality or citizenship on 30 June 1997 became British overseas citizens on 1 July 1997 (UK n.d.a). The GOV.UK website also states that individuals who are not already a BNO citizen cannot apply to become one (UK n.d.a). The February 2021 BBC article notes that BNO citizenship is a lifelong status that cannot be passed down to family members and that "did not give holders any special rights"; however, before the new system came into effect on 31 January 2021 (see section 1.2 of this Response), individuals with BNO citizenship were permitted to visit the UK for six months without a visa (BBC 1 Feb. 2021). The GOV.UK website indicates that BNO citizens have the right to hold a British passport and to receive consular assistance and protection from UK diplomatic posts but are subject to immigration controls and do not have the automatic right to live or work in the UK (UK n.d.a).

1.2 BNO Visa

According to a July 2020 BBC article, the UK announced plans to allow holders of BNO passports to come to the UK for five years and then, after an additional year, to be eligible to apply for citizenship following the adoption of a new national security law by Hong Kong authorities on 30 June 2020 (BBC 1 July 2020). For information on the Hong Kong national security law, see Response to Information Request ZZZ200321 of September 2020.

The foreword to a UK government guidance document on the BNO visa policy, written by the UK's Home Secretary, notes that the introduction of national security legislation in Hong Kong "constitutes a clear breach of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, undermining the 'one country, two systems' framework" and that, in response, the UK government is changing the entitlements attached to BNO status "to reassure BN(O) citizens that they have options to live in the UK if they decide that is an appropriate choice for them" (UK 22 July 2020). The UK government guidance document on the BNO visa policy states that BNO citizens will be given "the opportunity to apply for a visa which will enable them to come to the UK with a view to settling here permanently and then applying to become British citizens if they so wish" (UK 22 July 2020). The same source notes that the visa will be valid for up to five years (UK 22 July 2020). The UK guidance document adds that after five years in the UK, BNO visa holders who have a clean criminal record, who have supported themselves financially, and who "otherwise complied with the term of the visa" will be able to apply for "settled status"; after one additional year, they are eligible for naturalization as British citizens (UK 22 July 2020). The same source also notes that BNO visa holders will be required to pay the Immigration Health Surcharge, which allows them access to the UK National Health Service, but "will not otherwise have access to public funds such as unemployment and housing benefit" (UK 22 July 2020).

According to the UK guidance document on the BNO visa policy, "approximately" 3.4 million people obtained BNO status [between 1987 and 1997] and it is estimated that "there may be 2.9 million" living BNO citizens [as of July 2020] (UK 22 July 2020). The February 2021 BBC article indicates that the UK government estimates that "5.4 million Hong Kong residents are eligible for the scheme" (about 72 percent of Hong Kong's population of 7.5 million), including individuals with BNO status and their dependents (BBC 1 Feb. 2021).

Sources report that applications for the BNO visa opened on 31 January 2021 (AFP 31 Jan. 2021; UK 29 Jan. 2021). According to a UK government factsheet on the BNO visa, as of 23 February 2021, applicants with a biometric passport do not need to visit a visa application centre and can apply through a fully digital process using the "'UK Immigration: ID Check'" smartphone application to scan their passport (UK 29 Jan. 2021).

According to the GOV.UK website, a BNO citizen can apply along with their [dependent (UK 22 July 2020)] family members for a BNO visa that allows them to live, work, and study in the UK (UK n.d.b). The GOV.UK website notes that to be eligible, the applicant must be 18 years of age or older and they must be a BNO citizen (UK n.d.b). The GOV.UK website adds that for those applying from outside of the UK, the applicant's permanent home must be in Hong Kong; for those applying in the UK, the applicant's permanent home must be in the UK, Channel Islands, Isle of Man, or Hong Kong (UK n.d.b). The same source indicates that the family members of a BNO citizen can apply as their dependent if they normally live with the BNO citizen (UK n.d.b). The same source notes that a dependent of a BNO citizen can include:

  • Husband, wife, civil partner, or unmarried partner;
  • Child or grandchild under 18 years old;
  • Child 18 or older, born on or after 1 July 1997 (and their partner or child under 18 years old);
  • Parent, grandparent, brother, sister, son, or daughter (18 years old or older) if they live with the BNO citizen and are "very dependent" on the BNO citizen for their care (UK n.d.b).

The GOV.UK website indicates that the dependent will need to apply for a BNO visa with the same duration of stay as the BNO citizen and that each family member must make their own application as the BNO citizen's dependant (UK n.d.b).

2. Non-Recognition of BNO Passports by China and Hong Kong

Sources report that China announced on 29 January 2021 that it will no longer recognize BNO passports as a travel or identity document as of 31 January 2021 (The Guardian 29 Jan. 2021; DW 29 Jan. 2021). A 29 January 2021 press release by the Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) states that beginning on 31 January 2021,

  1. BN(O) passport cannot be used for immigration clearance in Hong Kong. The Hong Kong residents concerned may continue to use their HKSAR Passports or Hong Kong Permanent Identity Cards for entering or departing Hong Kong;
  2. BN(O) passport cannot be used as any form of proof of identity in Hong Kong. The Hong Kong residents concerned may continue to use their Hong Kong Permanent Identity Cards as proof of identity;
  3. When passengers board flights for Hong Kong, airlines concerned must require Hong Kong residents concerned to present their HKSAR Passports or Hong Kong Permanent Identity Cards as proof;
  4. Hong Kong permanent residents who are not of Chinese nationality and do not hold other valid travel document may apply to the Immigration Department for Document of Identity for Visa Purposes for international travel. (Hong Kong 29 Jan. 2021)

A January 2021 article from the South China Morning Post (SCMP), an English-language newspaper based in Hong Kong, reports that airlines and "associated parties" face a fine of 10,000 Hong Kong dollars (HKD) [C$1,630] if they do not follow the new immigration rules (SCMP 31 Jan. 2021).

A January 2021 Guardian article notes that "Hong Kong citizens and foreign residents are not required to show a passport when they depart Hong Kong international airport, instead using a smartcard ID" (The Guardian 29 Jan. 2021). The February 2021 BBC article states that "Hong Kong residents can use other documentation to enter mainland China, and wouldn't normally need a BNO passport" (BBC 1 Feb. 2021). The January 2021 SCMP article reports that "most eligible Hongkongers were known to use their Hong Kong passports, or other travel documents if they held dual citizenship" (SCMP 31 Jan. 2021).

A 4 February 2021 SCMP article reports that "[t]he Hong Kong Association of Banks has instructed members to stop recognising British National (Overseas) passports as valid identification for opening or renewing accounts" (SCMP 4 Feb. 2021).

The January 2021 Guardian article notes that not all Hong Kong citizens hold Chinese passports (The Guardian 29 Jan. 2021). A 3 February 2021 SCMP article reports that the non-recognition of the BNO passport as a travel or identity document will impact ethnic minorities in Hong Kong who only hold a BNO passport (SCMP 3 Feb. 2021). The same source observes that "[m]any members of ethnic minority groups rely on their BN(O) passports as their sole travel document, as they say they have long faced difficulties in applying for an HKSAR passport given they are not Chinese nationals" (SCMP 3 Feb. 2021). The 3 February 2021 SCMP article notes that Hong Kong residents without an HKSAR passport will need to apply for an identity document for visa purposes and that, according to the government, the processing time for the identity document is about five days (SCMP 3 Feb. 2021). The 31 January 2021 press release by the HKSAR government indicates that Hong Kong permanent residents who are not of Chinese nationality and who only have a BNO passport may apply for a travel document by submitting an application form and paying a fee and that the Immigration Department will generally process applications in five working days (Hong Kong 29 Jan. 2021).

This Response was prepared after researching publicly accessible information currently available to the Research Directorate within time constraints. This Response is not, and does not purport to be, conclusive as to the merit of any particular claim for refugee protection. Please find below the list of sources consulted in researching this Information Request.

References

Agence-France Presse (AFP). 31 January 2021. Jerome Taylor and Yan Zhao. "UK Predicts 322,000 Hongkongers May Arrive in Next 5 Years as New Visa Scheme Opens." [Accessed 3 Mar. 2021]

British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). 1 February 2021. "UK BNO Visa: Can Hong Kong Residents Now Live in the UK?" [Accessed 2 Mar. 2021]

British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). 1 July 2020. "Hong Kong: UK Makes Citizenship Offer to Residents." [Accessed 3 Mar. 2021]

Deutsche Welle (DW). 29 January 2021. "China 'Will No Longer Recognize' British Passports for Hong Kong Residents." [Accessed 2 Mar. 2021]

The Guardian. 29 January 2021. Erin Hale. "Hong Kong: China Will No Longer Recognise British National Overseas Citizens." [Accessed 2 Mar. 2021]

Hong Kong. 29 January 2021. "HKSAR Government Follows Up on China's Countermeasures Against British Government's Handling of Issues Related to British National (Overseas) Passport." [Accessed 8 Mar. 2021]

South China Morning Post (SCMP). 4 February 2021. Christy Leung, Lilian Cheng, and Ethan Paul. "Hong Kong Banks Told to Stop Accepting BN(O) Passports While Inmates with Dual Nationality Forced to Choose." (Factiva) [Accessed 5 Mar. 2021]

South China Morning Post (SCMP). 3 February 2021. Emily Tsang and Ethan Paul. "BN(O) Rule a Hurdle for Minority Groups." (Factiva) [Accessed 3 Mar. 2021]

South China Morning Post (SCMP). 31 January 2021. Danny Lee and Lilian Cheng. "Britain Vows to 'Not Look the Other Way' as It Stands Firm on Visa Scheme." (Factiva) [Accessed 5 Mar. 2021]

United Kingdom (UK). 29 January 2021. Home Office. "Media Factsheet: Hong Kong BN(O) Visa Route." [Accessed 3 Mar. 2021]

United Kingdom (UK). 22 July 2020. Home Office. "Guidance: Hong Kong British National (Overseas) Visa Policy Statement." [Accessed 5 Mar. 2021]

United Kingdom (UK). N.d.a. "British National (Overseas)." [Accessed 3 Mar. 2021]

United Kingdom (UK). N.d.b. "British National (Overseas) Visa." [Accessed 3 Mar. 2021]

Additional Sources Consulted

Internet sites, including: Amnesty International; Business Insider; Canada – Consulate General in Hong Kong, Travel.gc.ca; CBC; ecoi.net; Foreign Policy; The Globe and Mail; Hong Kong – Department of Justice; Hong Kong Free Press; Human Rights Watch; The National Post; Netherlands – Ministry of Foreign Affairs; The New York Times; UK – Consulate General in Hong Kong, Home Office; UN – Refworld; The Washington Post; Xinhua News Agency.