British National Overseas visa app spikes in popularity in Hong Kong

British National Overseas visa app spikes in popularity in Hong Kong

Britain moves to make process completely digital

The UK Immigration: ID Check app allows Hong Kongers to apply to for British National Overseas visas entirely online. (South China Morning Post photo)
The UK Immigration: ID Check app allows Hong Kongers to apply to for British National Overseas visas entirely online. (South China Morning Post photo)

Hong Kongers looking to settle in Britain, many of them motivated by worries over the city's future, rushed to download a smartphone app to apply for the country's new British National Overseas (BNO) visa scheme after the Home Office made the process completely digital on Tuesday.

The app, called UK Immigration: ID Check, was originally designed to allow citizens of the European Economic Area - a bloc comprising EU member states along with Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway — to apply for British visas. But the Home Office has modified the app to allow Hong Kong citizens with British National Overseas status and their dependants to apply entirely online from Tuesday at 5pm, without the need to visit a visa centre to submit a fingerprint.

Just hours before the changes were made, a rush of user downloads made "UK Immigration: ID Check" the second most popular free title on Apple's App Store in Hong Kong, just behind the local government's "Leave Home Safe" Covid-19 exposure app.

UK Immigration: ID Check was also ranked No 1 on the App Store's list of the most popular free utility apps in Hong Kong, up from No 4 from the night before.

It remains unclear exactly how many people have downloaded the app, and not all of those users are necessarily seeking to apply for BNO visas, but social media platforms were flooded with excitement about the new arrangement on Tuesday.

"I hope it all goes smoothly and I can get my visa as soon as possible," said one 24-year-old woman who was active in 2019's anti-government protests, and who left Hong Kong for Britain in December, fearing for the city's future after Beijing imposed its national security law on the city last year.

"I feel a bit nervous because we don't have much idea of the details [required for applying via the app]."

While applications for the new BNO visas first opened on Jan 31, applicants at the time were required to submit some personal information via the British government's website and then to submit their fingerprints at visa centres.

Many potential applicants, such as the 24-year-old Hong Kong protester and her 28-year-old boyfriend, chose to wait until the app was available to skip the visit to the visa centre.

Britain decided to introduce the new visa last July in response to Beijing's imposition of the security law on its former colonial territory, an act London has described as a breach of the Joint Sino-British Declaration. Some 5.4 million Hong Kongers with BNO status would be eligible for British citizenship after six years of living there under the special visa.

British National Overseas passports (BNO) and Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China passports sit on top of a family's baggage in Hong Kong on Dec 17, 2020. (Reuters photo)

The Home Office said in a Tuesday statement that thousands of BNO status holders and their dependants had applied for the new visas since Jan 31, saying the scheme was "already a success".

Kevin Foster, Britain's Minister for Future Borders and Immigration, said: "I am pleased we have not only managed to launch this new route, enabling those with BNO status and their households to settle in the UK, but have now enhanced it with this new wholly digital application process."

Hong Kongers are the first group of non-European Economic Area nationals to be allowed to apply for British visas using the app.

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