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British National (Overseas)

British National (Overseas), commonly known as BN(O), is one of the major classes of British nationality under British nationality law. Holders of this nationality are Commonwealth citizens, but not British citizens. They are not granted right of abode of anywhere, including the United Kingdom and Hong Kong through their British National (Overseas) status.

The creation of the class of British National (Overseas) was a response to the question of the future prospect of Hong Kong back in 1980s, and therefore the nationality was specially "tailor-made" for the Hong Kong residents with British Dependent Territories citizen status by virtue of their connection with Hong Kong, and to let them retain an appropriate relationship with the United Kingdom after the transfer of sovereignty of Hong Kong to the People's Republic of China in 1997.From 1 July 1987 to 1997, around 3.4 million of British Dependent Territories citizens of Hong Kong, who were mainly ethnic Chinese, successfully gained British National (Overseas) status by registration. Hong Kong's British Dependent Territories citizenship then ceased to exist after 30 June, 1997.

Upon registration, British National (Overseas) status is for life and will not be lost in case of dual nationality. Nevertheless, this status cannot be passed to anyone and there is no way to gain this status after 1997 since its registration procedure was ended by then. All British Nationals (Overseas) are entitled to enjoy a variety of rights in the United Kingdom and to use British National (Overseas) passport as travel document. They can apply for or renew their passport if they wish. As at 2007, 3.44 million of Hong Kong residents still retained the status as British National (Overseas), yet, the number of valid British National (Overseas) passport had sharply declined that only 800,000 of them still held a valid British National (Overseas) passport.

Although British Nationals (Overseas) are basically regarded as British nationals under British nationality law, in light of the Nationality Law of the People's Republic of China and the decision made in the 19th session of the 8th Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, the People's Republic of China unilaterally regards British National (Overseas) passport as purely travel document and all British Nationals (Overseas) who are of Chinese descent are automatically and solely regarded as Chinese citizens. As a result, they are not entitled to consular protection in Hong Kong, Macau and the mainland China even if they have never applied for a Hong Kong Special Administrative Region passport.

History

Background

By the late 1970s, it had become a public concern in the colonial Hong Kong that the 99-year land lease of the New Territories, a major region of Hong Kong, to Britain was about to expire in around 20 years time. The public concern immediately resulted in a series of negotiations between the Chinese and British government in the early 1980s regarding the future prospect of Hong Kong. The issue was eventually settled down by the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration on 9 December 1984. Since then, the future of Hong Kong was destined that its sovereignty would be transfer to the People's Republic of China on 1 July 1997.

However, the decision reached by the two governments in the Joint Declaration brought uncertainty of future to the general public of Hong Kong. Many of them were deeply worried to be ruled by the mainland Chinese regime and started to doubt about the future prospect of Hong Kong. In order to effectively avoid Hong Kong people migrating to Britain and other places, and to reinforce people's confidence towards the future of Hong Kong, the British government introduced a new class of British nationality according to the provisions under the United Kingdom Memorandum to the Joint Declaration which would allow Hong Kong's British Dependent Territories citizens, who were mostly ethnic Chinese, to retain an appropriate relationship with its former sovereign state, the United Kingdom, after 1997.

Hong Kong Act 1985

After the signing of the Joint Declaration, a new class of British nationality, known as British National (Overseas), was created by the Hong Kong Act 1985 and was passed by the British Parliament. The new nationality was for life, non-inheritable and was specially created for British Dependent Territories citizens of Hong Kong.

The 1985 Act was brought into effect by the Hong Kong (British Nationality) Order 1986. Under Article 4(1) of the Order, it provided that on and after 1 July 1987, there would be a new form of British nationality, the holders of which would be known as British Nationals (Overseas). Article 4(2) of the Order provided that adults and minors who had a connection to Hong Kong were entitled to apply for becoming British Nationals (Overseas) by registration.

Becoming a British National (Overseas) was therefore neither an automatic nor an involuntary process and indeed many eligible people who had the requisite connection with Hong Kong never applied to become British Nationals (Overseas). Acquisition of the new status had to be voluntary and therefore a conscious act. To make it involuntary or automatic would have been contrary to the assurances given to the PRC government which led to the words "eligible to" being used in paragraph (a) of the United Kingdom Memorandum to the Sino-British Joint Declaration. Any person, who failed to register as a British Nationals (Overseas) by 1 July 1997 and would thereby be rendered stateless, automatically became a British Overseas citizen under article 6(1) of the Hong Kong (British Nationality) Order 1986.

No person could become a British National (Overseas) automatically by being born in Hong Kong, by descent or by any involuntary means. A person was required to make an application on the prescribed form to the British authorities, and applicants only became a British National (Overseas) when their application was approved and duly registered under the authority of the Home Secretary. The deadline for applications passed in 1997.

Registration procedure

The registration procedure of the British National (Overseas) status started on 1 July 1987. Any one who held British Dependent Territories citizen status by connection with Hong Kong could register for applying the new nationality in Hong Kong's Immigration Department, passport offices in Britain or any passport offices of the British Embassies, Consulates or Missions abroad. The applicant would automatically gain the new status once his or her application was duly approved. Same as British Dependent Territories citizen passport, the cover of British National (Overseas) passport was originally in black colour. When machine-readable British National (Overseas) passport and British Dependent Territories citizen passport were introduced on 1 June 1990, their cover-colour was changed into burgundy. The new machine-readable passport had built-in optical codes which could enable holders to pass through international immigration control points equipped with optical code readers more quickly.

Although the colonial government had continuously reaffirmed that British government adopted the same immigration policy to both British Dependent Territories citizen passport holders and British National (Overseas) passport holders, and the legitimacy of British National (Overseas) passport had not been denied by any country, most Hong Kong residents lost confidence to the new passport in the early years. From 1 July 1987 to 31 December 1989, the Hong Kong government had issued a total of 731,600 passports, in which 85% or 630,700 of them were British Dependent Territories citizen passports. In contrast, only 100,916 of British National (Overseas) passports were issued, which constituted merely 15% of the total number. The figures showed that most people chose to retain their British Dependent Territories citizen status and not to gain the new and additional status when renewing their passports.

In order to facilitate the registration procedure more effectively, the government started to divide Hong Kong's British Dependent Territories citizens into groups by year of birth in 1993, and a deadline for applying British National (Overseas) status and passport was set for each group. The deadlines are shown as follows:

Starting from the mid-year of 1993, applicants were strongly advised to register before the deadline of the group which they belonged to. All late applicants without a legitimate written-explanation will be deprived of their right to register. Basically, most applications were done on or before 30 June 1997 and British Dependent Territories citizenship of Hong Kong officially ceased to exist after that day. However, for the people who acquired Hong Kong's British Dependent Territories citizenship from 1 January to 30 June 1997, in order to let them have ample time for application, they were allowed to register by 30 September, which was by then nearly three months after the transfer of sovereignty of Hong Kong. In light of the United Kingdom Memorandum to the Joint Declaration, 31 December 1997 was the final expiry date to register for British National (Overseas) status. After that date, no more new registration can be made ever.

The measures adopted by the government attracted a large number of Hong Kong residents going to the Immigration Department for registration in the final years before the transfer of sovereignty. For instance, from 1 January to 30 March 1996, there were a total number of 200,000 applicants registered to be British Nationals (Overseas) in three-month time. On 30 March 1996, the deadline for people who were born from 1977 to 1981, 54,000 applicants rushed to the Immigration Department Headquarters on Gloucester Road, Wan Chai for registration. The queue was long enough to extend all the way to the nearby Wan Chai Sports Ground and the scene there was chaotic that a few applicants wrangled and fought with each other on the Sports Ground.

After the transfer of sovereignty

As of 31 December 1997, around 3.4 million of Hong Kong's British Dependent Territories citizens had successfully gained British National (Overseas) status and there were around 2.7 million of valid British National (Overseas) passports in use. In addition, around 2 million of Hong Kong residents did not obtain British National (Overseas) status. For those who did not obtain the status, some of them not to register because of private reasons but most of them were not British Dependent Territories citizens and held only Hong Kong Certificates of Identity, and therefore they were not entitled to registration. Besides, some British Dependent Territories citizens of Hong Kong acquired British citizenship before 1997 so they did not register to be British Nationals (Overseas).

In the early years after the transfer of sovereignty of Hong Kong, British National (Overseas) passport was once the most popular travel document to Hong Kong people. From April 1997 to the end of 2006, including the number of issuance for application and renewal, the British government had issued a total of 794,457 British National (Overseas) passports. The number of issuance reached to a peak in 2001 that 170,000 passports were issued in a single year. However, the number of issuance since then has declined sharply that only 30,000 British National (Overseas) passports were issued in 2006. As at May 2007, around 2.6 million out of 3.4 million of British Nationals (Overseas) did not hold a valid British National (Overseas) passport.

Prior to the transfer of sovereignty, the data of British Nationals (Overseas) were collected and managed by the Immigration Department. Following the transfer of sovereignty, the British Consulate-General Hong Kong has taken over the responsibility for administering the British National (Overseas) database.

From 2006, biometric British National (Overseas) passports have been introduced by the British authority. To largely reduce the chance for forgery, each biometric passport bears an "electronic travel document symbol" on its cover and a contactless chip storing digital data including holder's personal data is inserted in a page of the passport.

In October 2007, former Attorney General of England and Wales Lord Goldsmith was commissioned by the British Prime Minister Gordon Brown to conduct a review on the feasibility of future reform of British nationalities. As the Citizenship Review which was released later in March 2008 did not clearly state the British government would reform the status of British National (Overseas), it is still uncertain whether such reform will be taken place in future or not.

Visa Free Access

According to the website of British Consulate-General Hong Kong, as at 25 August 2008, a number of 120 countries provide visa free access or visa upon arrival to British National (Overseas) passport holders.

Furthermore, it is believed that at least 23 more countries provide visa free access or visa upon arrival to British National (Overseas) passport holders. They include Andorra , Bulgaria , Cyprus , Egypt , Estonia , Latvia , Lithuania , Malta , Monaco , Morocco , Nepal , Oman , Palau Qatar , Romania , Slovakia , Slovenia , Tanzania , Turkey , Uganda , Yemen , Taiwan and New Caledonia

The Republic of China only fully recognizes British citizens but not British Nationals (Overseas) since they are mostly ethnic Chinese. British National (Overseas) passport and Hong Kong Special Administration Region passport holders need a Exit & Entry Permit (landing visa) specific for them to enter Taiwan but British Citizens are eligible for full visa free access programme.

British Nationals (Overseas) are not yet approved to participate in the Visa Waiver Program of the United States. The adjusted refusal rate of US B-visas (B1, B1/B2, B2) of BN(O) passport holders in the fiscal year 2007 was 2.4%, which was lower than the 3% or less requirement for the programme. The refusal rate of HKSAR passport was 3.4% in that year, which was above the 3% requirement. Currently, the United States confers "Hong Kong reciprocity" for British National (Overseas) passport holders (as for HKSAR passport holders). The "United Kingdom reciprocity" is not applicable for British Nationals (Overseas). However, for statistical reasons, British National (Overseas) has a different country code HOKO in US visas, while HKSAR passport and HKSAR Document of Identity have the country code HNK. British Nationals (Overseas) can enter Guam without a visa while HKSAR passport holders require one.It is interesting to note that, for student visa applications (F, M and J) (SEVIS), British National (Overseas) passport holders must fill in the nationality field as "Hong Kong" or "China", while British citizens must fill in the nationality field as "United Kingdom".

British National (Overseas) passport holders are eligible for Electronic Travel Authority of Australia, with the restriction that they cannot apply online through the Internet.

From early 2007, British Nationals (Overseas) have been eligible for full visa-free visit to the European Union. When Jack Straw was Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom, he wrote to the European Commission and the European Union arguing that British Nationals (Overseas) passport holders should be granted visa free access to the Schengen area. The European Union refuses to grant visa-free access to British Overseas Territories citizens without right of abode in the United Kingdom, British Overseas citizens, British protected persons and British subjects based on the ground that these people only have a "tenuous" link with the United Kingdom, as they have no right of abode in the United Kingdom and are subjected to the United Kingdom immigration controls. Nevertheless, although British Nationals (Overseas) currently have no right of abode in the United Kingdom, they are now eligible for visa-free access to the Schengen area. Yet, HKSAR passport holders have started to enjoy this privilege in 2001, which contributed to the decline of renewals of British National (Overseas) passports.

Other privileges

Although the status of British National (Overseas) is not granted right of abode of anywhere, British Nationals (Overseas) are themselves Hong Kong permanent residents and thus the following statement is printed in each British National (Overseas) passport:
The holder of this passport has Hong Kong permanent identity card number XXXXXXX(X) which states that the holder has the right of abode in Hong Kong.

British Nationals (Overseas) enjoy visa-free access for up to six months to enter the United Kingdom and the following statement is also printed in each British National (Overseas) passport:

In accordance with UK immigration rules the holder of this passport does not require an entry certificate or visa to visit the UK.

British Nationals (Overseas) are Commonwealth citizens and therefore, they can enjoy many rights in the United Kingdom. For examples, they are eligible to join Her Majesty's Civil Service and become civil servants, and are eligible to vote if they have lived in the United Kingdom for more than six months.Besides, British Nationals (Overseas) can receive peerages and become peers of the House of Lords. They can also be conferred British honours, enjoy working holidays in the United Kingdom and can apply for Indefinite leave to remain if they have continuously lived in the United Kingdom for five years.

If British Nationals (Overseas) intend to study in the United Kingdom, UK Residence Permits (UKRPs) are issued in Hong Kong without charge to them, (while a nominal fee is charged if applied at all other consulates) and they are not required to register to the local police of the place where they study. Different from other British nationalities without right of abode, such as British subject and British protected person, British National (Overseas) status is for life and will not be lost in case of dual nationality or even multiple nationality.

Restrictions

The class of British National (Overseas) was specially created to British Dependent Territories citizens of Hong Kong and the British government does not provide right of abode of the United Kingdom to them. Different from most of the nationalities all over the world, the status of British National (Overseas) is neither inheritable nor transferable. It means that the children of British Nationals (Overseas) who are not British Nationals (Overseas) themselves cannot gain this nationality from their parents. In other words, the British National (Overseas) parents have no right to pass this nationality to their non-British National (Overseas) children.

Apart from that, since no more registration can be taken place after 1997, the number of living British Nationals (Overseas) actually reached its peak in that year, and therefore, it is generally reckoned that this number will continue to drop in future, and will slowly vanish eventually, owing to the aging and decease of them in the long term.

When Nationality law of the People's Republic of China has become applicable to Hong Kong since 1 July 1997, all British Dependent Territories citizenships of Hong Kong effectively cease to exist permanently and cannot be revived. In addition, early in the 19th session of the 8th Standing Committee of the National People's Congress held on 15 May 1996, the Chinese authority explained the adoption of Nationality law of the People's Republic of China in Hong Kong after the transfer of sovereignty in details, in which the Chinese authority stated that all British Nationls (Overseas) who are of Chinese descent are deemed as citizens of the People's Republic of China. The decision made by the Standing Committee resulted in the inapplicability of Chapter 9 of Nationality Law of the People's Republic of China towards British Nationals (Overseas) with Chinese descent, which writes that "Any Chinese national who has settled abroad and who has been naturalized as a foreign national or has acquired foreign nationality of his own free will shall automatically lose Chinese nationality."

For those British Nationals (Overseas) who are regarded as Chinese citizens by the Chinese authority, starting from 1997, they can hold Hong Kong Special Administrative Region passport, which is a type of the People's Republic of China passport.

It should be noted the British government has made it clear that British Nationals (Overseas) with Chinese descent cannot enjoy consular protection in Hong Kong, Macau and the mainland China. In practice, when a senior journalist and British National (Overseas), Ching Cheong, of The Straits Times from Singapore was detained, accused and imprisoned from April 2005 to February 2008 by the government of People's Republic of China for alleged espionage by providing state secrets to Taiwan, the British government refused to provide consular protection to him despite there were civil groups urging the Foreign Office to do so. The British Foreign Office explained that they could provide assistance to Ching Cheong, but they simply could not intervene into the judiciary of other countries.

However, in fact, many Hong Kong residents with foreign passports can enter the mainland China as foreigners without hindrance even though they are regarded as Chinese citizens by the Chinese government. The reason is because it is difficult for the Chinese authority to know which Hong Kong residents have dual citizenship. Regarding the United Kingdom, there is no restriction on its nationals to acquire dual nationality.

For British Nationals (Overseas) who have successfully abandoned their Chinese citizenship, or never have Chinese citizenship, such as those ethnic minorities with Indian, Pakistani or Nepalese descent, their British Nationals (Overseas) status may be recognized by the Chinese government and may enjoy consular protection in China.

Criticisms

The idea of British National (Overseas) is generally criticized by the British nationals of Hong Kong as a nationality of absurdity which shows the lack of commitment and the irresponsibility of the British government who owes a moral debt to British Nationals (Overseas) by refusing to grant full British citizenship to them. Many of them have suggested that the creation of the category of British National (Overseas) by the British government is to prevent British nationals of Hong Kong, who are mostly ethnic Chinese, migrating to the United Kingdom and to intentionally weaken its relationship with them.

Comparing with Macau, a former colony of Portugal, many of the Macau residents with Chinese descent were granted right of abode in Portugal when Macau was still under colonial rule. Their right was not deprived of even after the transfer of sovereignty of Macau in 1999, their Portuguese passports and citizenship are valid and inheritable, and it turns out that many of them choose to stay in Macau.

The discontent towards the concept of British National (Overseas) was especially aroused in the final years under British rule. Many British nationals of Hong Kong were highly disappointed that their sovereign state, the United Kingdom, failed to secure the confidence of Hong Kong residents. A Legislative Councillor, Emily Lau even mocked in 1995 that the abbreviation "BNO" should be read as "Britain says NO" instead of "British National (Overseas)" since the British government did not take the obligation to effectively protect the interest of British nationals of Hong Kong.

Furthermore, after the outbreak of the June Fourth Incident in 1989, another Legislative Councillor, Dr Henrietta Ip criticized heavily on the idea of British National (Overseas) and again urged the Governor, Sir David Wilson, for granting full British citizenship to Hong Kong's British nationals in the Council Meeting held on 5 July 1989, saying that:

...we were born and live under British rule on British land...It is therefore...our right to ask that you should give us back a place of abode so that we can continue to live under British rule on British land if we so wish...I represent most of all those who live here to firmly request and demand you to grant us the right to full British citizenship so that we can, if we so wish, live in the United Kingdom, our Motherland...In fact, your resistance to granting us full citizenship and the right of abode in the United Kingdom reflects your doubt about the Joint Declaration. Yet the more you lack confidence in it, the stronger is the reason why you should grant us full citizenship to protect us from communist rule...I say to you that the right of abode in the United Kingdom is the best and the only definitive guarantee...With your failure to give us such a guarantee, reluctant as I may, I must advise the people of Hong Kong, and urgently now, each to seek for themselves a home of last resort even if they have to leave to do so. I do so because, as a legislator, my duty is with the people first and the stability and prosperity of Hong Kong second, although the two are so interdependent on each other...

Besides, then Shadow Home Secretary, Jack Straw, said in a letter to the then Home Secretary Michael Howard dated 30 January 1997 that a claim that British National (Overseas) status amounts to British nationality "is pure sophistry". The Economist also criticized in an article published on 3 July 1997 that "the failure to offer citizenship to most of Hong Kong’s residents was shameful", and "it was the height of cynicism to hand 6m people over to a regime of proven brutality without allowing them any means to move elsewhere." The article commented that the real reason that the new Labour government still refused to give full British citizenship to other British Dependent Territories citizens in around 1997 was because the United Kingdom waited until Hong Kong had been disposed of “would be seen as highly cynical”, as Baroness Symons, a Foreign Office minister, has conceded.

In recent years, British National (Overseas) passport has been criticized for being too expensive comparing to the much less expensive Hong Kong Special Administrative Region passport, which has also gained visa free access to a large sum of countries. As a result, the popularity of British National (Overseas) passport has sharply declined and the number of Hong Kong Special Administrative Region passport holders has substantially surpassed the number of British National (Overseas) passport holders.

In the early years after the transfer of sovereignty of Hong Kong, the issue of fake British National (Overseas) passports once aroused international attention that they were being circulated and used by illegal immigrants from the mainland China who wished to gain access to the United Kingdom. Fortunately, those illegal immigrants were easily discovered by the Hong Kong immigration officers since they failed to speak fluent Cantonese, which is the native language in Hong Kong.

Notice for renewing or applying passport

From 1 July 1997, all application and renewal of British National (Overseas) should be done by the British Consulate-General Hong Kong or the nearby British Embassy and British High Commission, as well as Identity and Passport Service if the applicant is visiting the United Kingdom. Applicant should bring along the following documents when submitting an application:

  • the completed application form
  • the required documentation
  • applicant's Hong Kong Permanent Identity Card
  • two identical passport photographs taken within the last three months
  • the appropriate fee

The adjustment of application fee is subject to the change of the consular exchange rate between pound sterling and Hong Kong dollar. As at 16 September 2008, the passport fees are:

  • Consular exchange rate: £1 = HK$15.00
  • Payments: Visa, Mastercard, EPS or cash
    • 32-page adult (16 and over) passport:            HK$1,800
    • 48-page adult 'jumbo' passport:                HK$2,200
    • 32-page 5-year passport for a child under 16:          HK$1,150
    • Amendments to a valid passport:               HK$1,460

In order to honour the contributions made by British nationals during the Second World War, the Home Secretary announced on 19 May 2004 that all British nationals including British Nationals (Overseas) who were born on or before 2 September 1929 can renew their passport for free from 18 October 2004.

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