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Are Hong Kong Nationals Taking Up the Offer of a BNO Visa in the UK?

In the past year, we have written about the announcement and then opening of the new UK BN(O) visa for Hong Kong nationals. The scheme was open for applications on 31st January 2021, with British PM Boris Johnson stating, “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. 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”. But has the scheme been a success? In this article, we will take a look at the extent to which Hong Kong nationals are taking up the offer of a British National (Overseas) visa.

Signs Of Increasing Demand For The British National (Overseas) Visa

According to the Times newspaper, in mid-April 2021, around 3,000 Hong Kong nationals were applying for the new BN(O) visa each week. At the same rate, this would equate to over 150,000 applications each year. At the time of the article, around 35,000 people had already applied. To put this number into context, the Home Office had originally expected 300,000 people to apply over five years, hence more than 10% have applied in the first ten weeks of the scheme opening. On this basis, it is believed that the Government may have underestimated the demand for the new visa.

The Government had expected around 120,000 applications in the first year, however, if the numbers continue as they are, it may be more like 175,000.

Some may argue these are still relatively small numbers given that 350,000 Hongkongers hold BNO passports, another 2.5 million are eligible for one, in addition to another 2.5 million dependants. However, relative to the 612,000 people who moved to the UK in 2019, the expected number just from Hong Kong is significant. In addition, the Home Office has not placed any caps on the number of Hong Kong nationals who can gain a visa. While the overall number of people who could be eligible is extremely high, the British Government expects the majority of those wishing to exit Hong Kong to choose to remain in the pacific region, choosing destinations such as Singapore and Taiwan.

Millions Invested In Hong Kong Welcome Hubs

In April, the UK Government announced it was injecting £43 million to help Hong Kongers to integrate into UK society, including £5.1 million into setting up 21 Hong Kong Welcome Hubs around the UK. They have also published lots of guidance and a new Welcome Pack (written in English and Cantonese) on the Home Office website regarding living in the UK, including information on:

  • accessing healthcare
  • applying for a national insurance card
  • careers advice
  • starting a business
  • renting or buying a home
  • setting up a bank account
  • childcare
  • choosing a school, further education, high education
  • qualifications
  • learning English
  • registering with a GP

According to the Home Office guidance, the new Welcome hubs will provide “support to help BN(O) status holders settle into their new communities and understand the services available to them. We are also expecting the new Welcome hubs to work with partners to tackle hate crime; therefore, an additional £300,000 will be available to address BN(O) related hate crime in 2021/222”.

Strong Demand For Property By Hong Kongers

Another sign that Hong Kong nationals are taking advantage of the new BN(O) visa scheme can be seen in the UK house buying data. According to property consultancy Knight Frank, Hong Kongers accounted for 8.5% of all purchases by foreigners in central London in 2020. Only French buyers exceeded this, accounting for 14.6% of all purchases in the prime London market.

In addition, according to Marc von Grundherr, director at Benham and Reeves, between July 2020 and March 2021, Hongkongers purchased 1,932 units, equating to a total purchase spend of around £959 million, he estimates. He says, “The UK has always been a popular destination of choice for Hong Kong investment into bricks and mortar. This has certainly been bolstered by the offer of the BNO visa, and for the first time in some thirty years, our Hong Kong office saw more interest from those looking to buy versus those looking to invest during the first quarter of the year. Many are doing so with an eye on the future, laying the initial foundations required for life in the UK. Some of this activity is being seen in the very high-end London market, but in fact, much of the demand coming from Hong Kong is focussed around more average market price thresholds”.

According to the Times, “A 45-bedroom mansion overlooking Hyde Park is the most expensive residential property sold in recent years. It was bought for £210 million last year, before the pandemic struck, by Cheung Chung-kiu, 57, chairman of the Hong Kong-based property development company CC Land”.

Of course, while there is a strong demand in London for high-value real estate, as Marc von Grundherr says, the majority of demand from BN(O) visa holders from Hong Kong is for average-priced housing in the UK.

Final Words

It is still too early to say whether the BN(O) visa will realise the Government’s expected number of applicants for 2021, but based on the data so far, this looks promising. Numbers may even exceed those originally estimated. It is also very positive to see the Government putting money into making Hong Kong nationals arriving in the UK feel welcome and safe. Ultimately this will play an important role in determining where future migrants from Hong Kong choose to live, and it will be the first cohorts who will come here who will measure whether the Government is successful in achieving this.

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