British National (Overseas): A new UK visa route

Following China’s implementation of new security laws in Hong Kong, the UK Government is now offering British National (Overseas) (BN(O)) citizens a new visa route which could eventually lead to full British citizenship.

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.

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.

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.

BN(O) citizens are permitted to travel to the UK as a visitor for up to six months without having to obtain a visa in advance.

BN(O) visa

From 31 January 2021, the UK Government introduced a new immigration route for BN(O) citizens and eligible family members (dependants).

BN(O) citizens can apply for this new BN(O) visa, along with their dependants of the same household, such as their:

  • spouse/partner/unmarried partner;
  • children or grandchildren under the age of 18; and/or
  • adult children born on or after 1 July 1997 (and their partner or children under the age of 18).

In exceptional circumstances, the Home Office may exercise its discretion and grant this visa to other family members in the same household where there is a high level of dependency.

Dependants must be part of the same household as the BN(O) citizen. A person will form part of the same household as the BN(O) citizen if they normally live together at the same address and intend to live together throughout their stay in the UK.

Eligibility

In order to qualify for a BN(O) visa, the applicant and the dependant must:

  • be resident in Hong Kong if applying from overseas or if applying from the UK, be resident in the UK, Jersey, Guernsey, the Isle of Man or Hong Kong and be able to provide documentation in support of this (e.g. utility bills, bank statements, resident permits etc.);
  • 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;
  • hold a current tuberculosis test certificate from a clinic approved by the Home Office – there are approved clinics overseas and in the UK;
  • provide evidence of the dependants’ link to the BN(O) citizen (e.g. marriage certificate or birth certificate) and proof that they are part of the same household;
  • pay a fee for the visa of £250 per applicant for a five-year visa and pay 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, show that they have a job offer in the UK or pass an English language test.

Application process

Applications can be made from Hong Kong or elsewhere if the applicant is resident in Hong Kong. Applications can be made in the UK if the applicant is resident in the UK, Jersey, Guernsey, the Isle of Man or Hong Kong. Therefore, applicants can apply whilst they are in the UK as a visitor, provided they were resident in Hong Kong before coming to the UK.

It is important to note that the BN(O) citizen and their dependants must all apply together at the same time. Dependants 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.

Once the application has been approved, the applicant will be issued with a visa valid for up to five years.

Conditions of the BN(O) visa

During the validity period of the visa, 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.

Settlement

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. The BN(O) citizen must be eligible for settlement in order for the dependants to be eligible for settlement. Furthermore, if the child is under the age of 18, in most circumstances, both parents must also be eligible for settlement.

British citizenship

In order for a BN(O) citizen to obtain British citizenship, they are subject to the standard requirements, which include 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.