The new British National (Overseas) visa will allow successful family applicants to stagger their arrivals so one parent can remain in Hong Kong to continue earning an income while the other goes over with their dependants.
Such details of the much-anticipated scheme emerged as the British Home Office announced on Friday morning that applications would open online at 5pm on Sunday.
Britain decided to introduce the new visa last July as a response to Beijing’s imposition of a sweeping national security law on Hong Kong. Some 5.4 million people in its former colony are eligible for British citizenship after six years of living there using the special visa.
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“I am immensely proud that we have brought in this new route for Hong Kong BN(O)s to live, work and make their home in our country,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in a statement.
“In doing so we have honoured our profound ties of history and friendship with the people of Hong Kong, and we have stood up for freedom and autonomy – values both the UK and Hong Kong hold dear.”
Setting out the process for the new visas on Friday, the Home Office said Hongkongers lodging their applications between January 31 and February 22 would have to make an online appointment to submit fingerprints at its North Point visa centre.
But from February 23, a new smartphone app will be available to allow the entire process to be done online. The app will be able to read the biometric chips on BN(O), HKSAR and European Economic Area passports and thus applicants will no longer need to visit the North Point centre to submit their fingerprints.
A day before Johnson talked of national pride, China’s foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian accused Britain of “obstinately and repeatedly hyping up the BN(O) passport issue to interfere in Hong Kong affairs and China’s internal affairs”.
“This will only end up hurting its own interests,” he said at the daily press briefing on Thursday.
“No forces under whatever circumstances can erode the determination of the Chinese government and the Chinese people to uphold national sovereignty and security, safeguard Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability, and oppose external intervention.”
Before returning Hong Kong to China in 1997, Britain granted Hongkongers born before the handover BN(O) passports, which allowed them to visit the country for up to six months without giving them the right to work there. At the time, the passport was a source of disappointment for Hongkongers who had wanted Britain to grant them full citizenship as former subjects.
According to British Home Office estimates, there were 167,000 BN(O) passports in circulation as of July last year. That figure was estimated to have risen to 733,000 by the end of 2020 – an increase of more than 300 per cent.
The new visa will allow everyone with BN(O) status and their dependants to stay in the country for up to five years, with the right to work and study, and to apply for citizenship after six years.
From January 31, an estimated 5.4 million people out of Hong Kong’s population of 7.5 million will be eligible to apply for these new visas. The processing time of each application is expected to range from a few days to a maximum of 12 weeks.
Those who apply by submitting their fingerprints in person at the North Point office must arrive in Britain 90 days after their application is approved as they need to collect an actual biometric residence permit there.
But for those who apply online through the “UK Immigration: ID Check” app that is available on iPhone and Android, they can move to Britain any time they want as there will be no need to collect the residence permit.
Children under 18 need to apply with both of their parents. But one of the parents is allowed to stay in Hong Kong to work and earn an income while the other moves to Britain first with the children, a flexible arrangement likely to appeal to many who had feared they might not be able to find jobs easily in Britain.
A 32-year-old married man who works in a public organisation said he had not considered moving to Britain as he was worried about not being able to secure a job, especially if he decided to have children in the future.
“Many of my friends hesitate about going too because it could be difficult to find a job in Britain that pays as much as they get in Hong Kong,” he said.
Others interviewed by the Post said they were looking forward to making the move, a decision welcomed by British Home Secretary Priti Patel.
“I look forward to welcoming people wanting to put down roots and build a new life with their family in the UK,” she said in a statement this morning. “This new visa delivers on our promise to the people of Hong Kong, honouring our strong historic relationship and upholding their freedoms.”
Britain has since July last year been granting Leave Outside the Rules (LOTR) status to Hongkongers and their dependants who wished to be in the country before the BN(O) visa is to be introduced later this month.
Between last July 15 and January 13 this year, about 7,000 BN(O) status holders and their dependants were granted LOTR status, which allows them to remain and work in the country for six months, with no access to public funds.
Those with LOTR status can also apply for the BN(O) visa online, but the time they have already spent in Britain will not be considered in calculating the six years they need to be in the country to be eligible for citizenship.
The BN(O) visa fee to stay in the country for five years will be £250 (US$342) per person, or £180 for those applying for 30 months first. The Immigration Health Surcharge, which gives BN(O) visa holders access to public health care services, will range from £1,175 to £3,120, depending on the applicants’ age and the length of their visas.
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