British National (Overseas): A new UK visa route
By way of background, there are currently six different types of British nationality, but only British citizenship grants the right of abode, giving an individual the right to live and work in the UK.
BN(O) citizenship was granted to British Overseas Territories citizens by connection with Hong Kong who voluntarily registered for this nationality prior to 1 July 1997. It was also granted automatically to British Overseas Territories citizens from Hong Kong who would otherwise hold no other nationality on 1 July 1997.
Current rights and restrictions of BN(O) citizenship
BN(O) citizens can hold a British passport and can access consular assistance and protection from UK diplomatic posts. However, they are subject to UK immigration control and do not have an automatic right to live or work in the UK.
The main benefit of BN(O) citizenship is that it allows travel to the UK as a visitor for up to six months without having to obtain a visa in advance. Furthermore, BN(O) citizens aged 18-30 can apply for a temporary visa under the Tier 5 (Youth Mobility Scheme) to come to the UK to live and work for two years.
It is no longer possible to apply for BN(O) citizenship and it cannot be obtained by descent (that is, it cannot be passed onto children). Consequently, the number of BN(O) citizens will decrease over time. Currently there are around 2.9m BN(O) citizens.
The UK Government released a Statement of Changes to the Immigration Rules on 22 October 2020 which sets out a new immigration route for BN(O) citizens from Hong Kong, and eligible family members, which will come into effect on 31 January 2020.
BN(O) citizens and their non-BN(O) dependants (which include their spouse/partner, children under the age of 18 and adult children born on or after 1 July 1997) will be able to apply for this new BN(O) visa. In exceptional circumstances, the Home Office may exercise its discretion and grant this visa to other family members where there is a high level of dependency which will be assessed on a case-by-case basis.
In order to qualify for a BN(O) visa, the applicant and their eligible dependants must:
- if applying from overseas, be ordinarily resident in Hong Kong and be able to provide documentation in support of this (e.g. utility bills, bank statements, etc.) or, if applying from the UK, be ordinarily resident in the UK, Jersey, Guernsey or the Ise of Man. The effect of the new Immigration Rules appears to be that, contrary to the UK Government’s previous announcements, applicants cannot apply in the UK if they are visitors. The UK Government has stated that more detailed information will be published before the visa route opens;
- demonstrate that they can accommodate and support themselves in the UK for at least six months (e.g. provide bank statements as evidence of sufficient funds). This is not required if the applicant has been living in the UK for more than 12 months prior to applying. The UK Government has stated that more detailed information on what documents need to be submitted will be published before the visa route opens;
- demonstrate a commitment to learn English in the UK. Applicants will not be required to pass an English language test before applying for this visa;
- provide evidence of the dependants’ link to the BN(O) citizen (e.g. marriage certificate or birth certificate);
hold a current tuberculosis test certificate from a clinic approved by the Home Office – there are approved clinics overseas and in the UK;
- pay a fee for the visa of £250 per applicant for a five-year visa and the Immigration Health Surcharge, which is £3,120 per adult applicant for a five-year visa or £2,350 per child under the age of 18 applicant for a five-year visa; and
- have no serious criminal convictions and be of good character.
Applicants will not be required to meet a skills test or show that they have a job offer in the UK.
Applications can be made from Hong Kong or elsewhere if the applicant is ordinarily resident in Hong Kong. Applications can be made in the UK if the applicant is ordinarily resident in the UK, Jersey, Guernsey or the Isle of Mann. As stated above, it therefore appears that applicants cannot apply whilst they are in the UK as a visitor.
It is important to note the BN(O) citizens and their family members must all apply together at the same time. Family members will not be able to apply for their visa to join the BN(O) citizen in the UK at a later date.
The application will involve submitting an online application form and supporting documentation.
It will be possible for BN(O) nationals to apply for this visa even if they do not hold a valid BN(O) passport. Applications can be submitted on the basis of either an expired BN(O) passport or, if this has been lost, another passport such as the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region passport. In this latter situation, the UK Government will undertake eligibility checks using historical records held by Her Majesty’s Passport Office to confirm that the applicant is a BN(O) citizen.
BN(O) nationals and their eligible dependants will need to enroll their biometrics and will have to attend a visa application centre to have their fingerprints and digital photographs taken.
Once the application has been approved, the applicant will be issued with a visa for up to five years.
Conditions of the BN(O) visa
The visa will be granted for a period of up to five years. During the five years, BN(O) citizens and their dependants have the right to work and/or study in the UK and have access to state education and healthcare. They cannot, however, access public funds, such as income support, universal credit, housing benefit, etc.
After five years, BN(O) citizens and their dependants should be eligible to apply for Settlement (also known as Permanent Residence or Indefinite Leave to Remain). Prior to applying for Settlement, adult applicants will be required to pass an English language test and meet the residence requirements by not having spent more than 180 days outside of the UK in any rolling 12 months during the five years of holding the BN(O) visa.
In order for a BN(O) citizen to obtain British citizenship, they would be subject to the standard requirements, which are that the BN(O) passport holder must:
- hold ILR for at least one year, in most cases; and
- meet the residence requirements for British citizenship, which would require them to: not be absent from the UK for more than 450 days in total in the five years prior to applying; not be absent from the UK for more than 90 days in total in the 12 months prior to applying; and not be absent from the UK for more than six consecutive months in the five years prior to applying. Under current nationality law, excess absences from the UK can be waived on a discretionary basis in limited circumstances.
When can BN(O) citizens and their dependants apply?
The BN(O) visa will be open for applications from 31 January 2021. As mentioned above, it will be possible to make applications outside of the UK, or in the UK if the applicant is ordinarily resident in the UK, Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Mann.
What BN(O) citizens and their dependants can do now
In preparation for the scheme opening on 31 January 2021, applicants can start preparing the necessary documentation required for the application.
The UK Government will announce further details of this visa, in the form of Guidance, before the visa route opens.
Those who are living in Hong Kong without BN(O) status and wish to come and live and work in the UK should note that there are a number of other UK immigration options available which lead to Settlement and British citizenship, such as the Tier 1 (Investor) category. Please contact us if you would like to discuss the other available options further.