Should Hongkongers Take Up The UK BN(O) Visa Offer?

Nov 19, 2020

Earlier this year the UK government announced a program for British Overseas Nationals. The following months have been time enough to see the details of the UK BN(O) Visa Offer and analyse the Chinese government’s reaction. This blog will take direct look at the UK BN(O) Visa Offer and offer some thoughts as to who should take advantage of the program, and an honest reckoning of who should steer well clear!

UK BN(O) Visa Offer: How other former colonies got a better deal

It’s worth noting how the Hong Kong UK BN(O) Visa Offer contrasts with that offered to the holders of British Overseas Territories citizens (BOTCs). These territories include locations such as those of Bermuda, Cayman Islands, British Virgin Islands, Turks & Caicos, Anguilla, and Monserrat. Their offer was complied back in 2002.

The UK had a distinct motive when it came to assembling the offer used for these BOTCs. Many BOTCs had become financial centres and so the UK wanted them to adopt UK anti-money laundering standards. This required the UK to enter into a quid pro quo arrangement with local BOT jurisdictions. With this leverage the deal proved to be a good one!  BOT citizens were offered full UK citizenship. This included the right of abode. Of course this was also in those heady days before BREXIT so the deal also meant the full EU mobility rights.

Key differences

It is important to note that the BOTC agreement would only be applicable to around a quarter of a million citizens spread over numerous jurisdictions. Theres also the question of desirability…. Whereas the odd BOTC may prefer a UK life, there weren’t massive queues to relocate to Liverpool from the Caymans…

Let’s contrast this with the Hong Kong case. Both in ’97 and 2020 there existed and exist a far larger number of UK BN(O)s. Indeed, the figures are estimated at over 3 million. There is also a much greater expectation that they may well  choose to relocate to the UK.

Current UK politics and popular thinking must also be examined. The current Brexit voting populous alongside rising unemployment and growing ecomomic anxiety amid Covid-19 might not be deemed hospitable to a large influx of Hong Kong immigrants. Therefore it becomes clear why the UK BN(O) Visa Offer is much less generous.

The UK BN(O) Visa Offer

So what exactly does the UK BN(O) Visa Offer consist of? Rather than full UK citizenship, the BN(O)s are being offered residence only.

Furthermore, there are substantial physical presence requirements in order to change this residence status to the UK’s version of permanent residence.

Under the British Nationality Act, any applicant for UK citizenship needs to have at least five years of Leave to Remain. They also need at least one year of Indefinite Leave to Remain. Therefore, essentially,  an individual who takes up the UK BN(O) Visa Offer will be eligible to apply for full citizenship only after six years. This is assuming they have met the physical presence requirements.

Naturalization applications also do not happen overnight. They are taking, on average, 6 months (but could be longer).

This means that a BN(O) who takes up the UK offer must wait six and a half years to obtain the same status that BOTCs were able to obtain immediately.

UK BN(O) Visa Offer protestsChina’s reaction to the UK BN(O) Visa Offer

China have made their position on the UK BN(O) Visa offer very clear. They have unequivocally stated that  any individual who takes up the BN(O) offer will be denied future entry both to Mainland China Hong Kong. This clearly conveys that the Chinese government deem the BN(O) offer to be provocative and inappropriate.

What should a BN(O) do?

Clearly there is no one answer fits all here. The appropriate decision should depend on the individual’s answers to the following questions:

  1. Do they have the ability to secure alternative residences or citizenships in any way other than the BN(O)?
  2. Are they able to finance those requirements placed on a BN(O) in the UK?
  3. How do their future financial prospects in HKSAR compare to potential prospects in the UK?
  4. Are there any concerns about the potential impact of the Security Law?
  5. How would being denied future entry into Mainland China or the HKSAR affect them? Would it constitute a personal or business hardship?
  6. Do they have property / business in HKSAR and/or Mainland China?
  7. How do their HKSAR banking relationships work? Are they dependent on being seen to support the Chinese/HKSAR governments?
  8. Is it necessary to immediately relocate from HKSAR? If not are they more looking for an insurance policy, an escape route “just in case”?
UK BN(O) Visa Offer riots

For those involved in the riots the decision to take up the UK BN(O) Visa Offer may be clearer

The combined answers to all of these questions should help provide a clearer outlook for a BN(O). For instance, for those who took part in the demonstrations and who feel that they don’t have an economic or personal future in Hong Kong, the BN(O) visa may be an attractive option.

Conversely for those in business, the “free” BN(O) offer may in reality prove too expensive. This is when they take in to account all the ‘hidden’ costs  of physical presence, UK taxation, and UK divorce courts! Also the true cost of the loss of any future access to Hong Kong and China may be much too high.

When to ask for more advice

The right route for these individuals is more complex and requires more research and insight. High Net Worth families should seek out expert advice of qualified, independent immigration and tax advisors. This could help them avoid the potential high costs of taking up the UK’s free offer.

My advice? Tread carefully and choose wisely, and get in touch if you want to discuss options.