Explained: What is special UK visa scheme for Hong Kong residents?

From today, the UK is opening a special visa scheme that will allow lakhs of Hong Kong residents a chance to migrate and eventually apply for British citizenship.

The move comes months after China imposed a sweeping national security law over the former British colony, taking aim at pro-democracy protests that had captured global attention since 2019.

What is the special visa scheme for Hong Kong residents?

The visas will be issued to those in Hong Kong who hold a British National (Overseas) passport and their immediate dependents, and will offer a fast track to UK citizenship.

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Applicants who get the visa can live and work in the UK for 5 years, after which they apply for settlement. Twelve months after this, they can apply for citizenship.

The scheme potentially covers over two-thirds of the city’s population of around 70 lakh. According to the BBC, some 29 lakh people are eligible, who along with 23 lakh dependents would be able to move to the UK. The British government, however, estimates that some three lakh will apply in the first five years.

To avoid applying for the visa in person, the BN(O) holders would be able to apply through a smartphone app from February 23. The five-year visa application fee is 250 pounds per person, or 180 pounds for 30 months. Applicants will also have to pay an immigration health surcharge of 624 pounds per year.

There is no minimum salary requirement for those wanting to move, and is it necessary to first secure a job in the UK before migrating.

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Since July, after the national security law was implemented, the British government has already allowed around 7,000 people from Hong Kong to move to its shores. These were allowed permission to migrate not through the visa scheme, but through government action on compassionate grounds.

The move is considered the UK’s most generous welcoming of foreign workers since the entry of new EU citizens in 2004 — when 10 countries were added to the bloc– at a time when the UK was also a member.

Why did the UK announce this scheme?

At 11 PM on June 30, an hour before the 23rd anniversary of Hong Kong’s transfer from Britain, China implemented its far-reaching new national security law for Hong Kong, greatly expanding Beijing’s power in the city.

Under the law, four widely defined offences can invite life imprisonment as the maximum punishment, followed by lesser penalties. Britain called its implementation a “grave step”.

Prime Minister Boris Boris Johnson called the imposition of the security law “a serious and clear breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration”, referring to a 1984 treaty between the two countries under which China promised to honour Hong Kong’s liberal policies, system of governance, independent judiciary, and individual freedoms for a period of 50 years from 1997. Foreign secretary Dominic Raab said that would not duck its “historic responsibilities” to the people of Hong Kong.

How has China reacted?

While announcing the visa scheme, Johnson said that he was “immensely proud” that Hong Kong BN(O)s now have a new route to live, work and settle in the UK. “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,” Johnson said.

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China criticised the UK move, its Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian saying, “The British side disregarded the fact that Hong Kong returned to China 24 years ago”.

Beijing also said that it would no longer be recognising BN(O) passports, saying that the citizenship offer “seriously infringed” on China’s sovereignty. It is unclear, however, how this could deter Hong Kongers from leaving, since city residents are usually known to use Hong Kong passports while leaving for another country.

The BN(O) passport can only be used while arriving in the UK, or in any other country that recognises the document, the BBC report said.

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