Hong Kong British National (Overseas) status – what does it mean?

Does British nationality enable you to live in the UK for ever? The answer to this is – probably surprisingly for many people – “it depends”.

If you are a British citizen then you can. British citizen is, if you like, the ultimate status in UK immigration law. But supposing you are a British Overseas Citizen, or a British Protected Person or you hold British National (Overseas) status? Then – although you are entitled to hold what looks like a British passport – you do not have that right.

This subject is deeply complicated, and in this article we will focus on British National (Overseas) status, which is complicated enough to be getting on with. This is a form of British nationality which is associated solely with Hong Kong. What with the present unrest there, no doubt a lot of Hongkongers would like to relocate to the UK. Hong Kong and the UK have long links dating back to the 19th century, English (along with Chinese) is one of the official languages there, and it was a British colony until 1997, when it was handed back to China as part of a longstanding agreement.

Before the handover to China many Hongkongers held a status called “British Dependent Territories Citizen” (which has now been abolished). The British Government offered the status of British National (Overseas) – commonly known as “BN(O)” – to these people, many of whom successfully applied for it. As it entitles the holder to a British passport it might have made them feel that they still had some continuing British connection.

But such a feeling would have been largely illusory, because the BN(O) passport confers only a few advantages. It does not – as indicated above – confer the right to live in the UK without let or hindrance. It does make the holder a Commonwealth citizen but this is in most cases an obscure advantage.

It does also confer non-visa national status (ie the right to come to the UK and apply for entry at the border as a visitor without needing a visa). This is an advantage which mainland Chinese do not have – they need to apply for a visitor visa. And BN(O)’s are one of the select group of nationalities who are entitled to apply for a Tier 5 Youth Mobility Scheme visa.

But neither of these two immigration advantages is quite as good as they sound, in the sense that a Hongkonger who holds a Hong Kong Special Administrative Region passport also has these advantages. Hong Kong is (like Macau) a Special Administrative Region of China and the Chinese authorities issue passports for such territories.

So BN(O) status, when analysed closely, is very limited in the rights which it confers. And, generally, entitlement to the various different types of British nationality is in many cases complex, and the rights which the different types of nationality confer need to be properly understood. If you have issues about these subjects we can advise you about your legal rights.