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Hong Kong harbour and skyline, seen from Victoria Peak on a rainy night of June 2019.

by Roberta Imperial

What does Boris Johnson’s promise of UK citizenship for Hong Kong citizens involve?

Updated on 1 July 2020.

National security legislation by the Chinese National People’s Congress which would undermine the existing legal commitments made under the Sino British Joint Declaration¹ to protect Hong Kong nationals’ rights and the one country, two systems framework led Prime Minister Boris Johnson to promise UK citizenship to Hong Kong citizens if the legislation goes ahead.

The new security law was passed unanimously on 30 June in a session of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress in Beijing. It was published the day before the 23rd anniversary of the handover from Britain to China. On July 1, less than 24 hours after the law came into force, the first person was arrested for holding a Hong Kong independence flag.

What has the British Government promised Hong Kong citizens?

The UK government had insisted that if China implemented the controversial national security legislation, the British Government would amend its Immigration Rules to allow Hong Kong citizens who hold British National (Overseas) – (BN(O)) passports to enter the UK visa-free without the current six months limit permitted under the Rules. They would be given rights to live, study and work in the UK which “could place them on a route to citizenship”.

Speaking in the House of Commons the day after the law was enacted, Prime Minister Boris Johnson confirmed that the UK would enact its visa programme for Hong Kong residents with BN(O) status.

“The enactment and imposition of this national security law constitutes a clear and serious breach of the Sino-British joint declaration. It violates Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy and is in direct conflict with Hong Kong’s direct and basic law,” said the PM.

What does BN(O) mean and who is entitled to it?

The BN(O) status was acquired by British Dependent Territories citizens of Hong Kong who registered before the territory was returned to Chinese control after a 99-year agreement with Britain ended on 1 July 1997. BN(O) status was conferred on British Dependent Territories Citizens connected with Hong Kong as part of the package of arrangements that accompanied the Joint Declaration in 1984, in preparation for the handover of the territory to China to become a semi-autonomous Special Administrative Region.

Citizens who did not register for BNO status and did not hold another nationality/citizenship on 30 June 1997 automatically became British Overseas Citizens on 1 July 1997. Hong Kong residents who do not have BN(O) status are not able to apply for it. It cannot be inherited either.

As confirmation of BN(O) status, the British Government issued passports which gave its holder the right to remain in the UK for up to six months and to access consular assistance outside Hong Kong and China. Up to now it did not confer the holder with the right of abode in the UK, though Hong Kong passport holders can visit the UK visa-free.

How many people may be eligible to apply for a path to UK citizenship?

According to the Home Office, as of 24 February 2020, there were 349,881 holders of BN(O) passports and an estimated 2.9 million people eligible to apply for a BN(O) passport. The Home Office has suggested that all of these people with BN(O) status should be allowed to apply, even if they do not currently hold a valid passport, as well as their dependants. There is no mention of any quota. There is also no mention of other Hong Kong residents being able to come to the UK on such a long-term basis.

How might a path to British citizenship work?

The route announced by Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab and in a UK Government press release on 1 July 2020 allows BN(O) citizens to live and work in the UK for longer and have a path to UK citizenship.

This new bespoke immigration route will allow BN(O)s to come to the UK without the current 6 month limit, granting them five years limited leave to remain, with the ability to live and work in the UK. At the end of this period (which may involve not leaving the UK for long periods of time) they would be able to apply for settled status. 12 months after that they can apply for British citizenship.

The new bespoke route will be implemented in the coming months, with exact date and further details to be announced in due course. In the meantime, BN(O) citizens who wish to come to the UK will be able to continue to do so, subject to standard immigration checks.

UK Home Secretary, Priti Patel, said: “China’s decision to impose national security legislation on Hong Kong is deeply regrettable. Now China have imposed this law we will launch a new immigration route for British Nationals (Overseas) and their families.

“The UK has a historic and moral obligation to British Nationals (Overseas) in Hong Kong and we will honour our commitment to them.”


For more information on these or other immigration issues, do contact us on +44 (0)207 033 9527 or enquiries@vanessaganguin.com.


¹What is the Sino-British Joint Declaration? On 19 December 1984, the United Kingdom and China signed the Sino British Joint Declaration (SBJD) which set out that Hong Kong’s high-degree of autonomy, rights and freedoms would remain unchanged for 50 years, ie. until 2047. In apparent violation of the SBJD, the Chinese National People’s Congress is now seeking to enact national security legislation which will bypass Hong Kong’s legislature to develop and enact national security legislation on its own for the semi-autonomous territory. Furthermore, such legislation would criminalise acts by “foreign forces” to interfere with Hong Kong. The UK argues that the legislation would spell an end to the one country, two systems framework, in clear violation of China’s international obligations, including those made specifically to the United Kingdom under the joint declaration.


(Photo of Hong Kong harbour and skyline cc Benh Lieu Song)