27 February 2020
A mock passport of the Republic of Hong Kong. Photo: hkgolden
A mock passport of the Republic of Hong Kong. Photo: hkgolden

HK passport may not be as good as many think

Among the many charms that Hong Kong holds for mainland Chinese, the city’s passport is surely one of the biggest as the document enables convenient visa-free entry or visa-upon-arrival facility innumerous countries around the world.

According to Hong Kong government’s Security Bureau, as of the end of March this year, up to 150 countries and territories have granted preferential treatment for holders of the Hong Kong passport. The figure is seen as a remarkable feat since the passport was introduced only 17 years ago. 

In contrast, a Chinese passport provides visa-free or visa-on-arrival privilege from just 41 countries — and that too, mainly in Africa or destinations that most Chinese have never heard of, according to the Henley Visa Restriction Index 2012.

While Hong Kong scores by a long mile over mainland China, a recent ranking by travel website however puts Hong Kong passport’s usability in the 14th place worldwide, putting it in the same league as the documents of Estonia and Latvia. In the top spot are passports of Finland, Sweden and Britain as they enable bearers to travel to 173 countries visa-free.

In Asia, Hong Kong passport also lags behind of that of Japan (170 countries), Singapore (167) and South Korea (166). Believe it or not, Malaysian passport is also a notch above, as its holders get visa-free entry in 163 nations.

It’s embarrassing that the United States is still yet to allow Hong Kong passport holders to enter freely. This can be troublesome since the territory has strong economic and trade relations with the US — nearly 129,000 travelers from Hong Kong visited the US in 2011, according to the US Department of Commerce.

To resolve the issue, Hong Kong’s former Chief Executive Donald Tsang had appealed to the then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on several occasions.

Under Washington’s Visa Waiver Program (VWP), nationals of 38 countries, including South Korea, Japan, Singapore and Taiwan, can travel to the US without a visa and stay up to 90 days.

A key determinant of the VWP qualifications is the visa refusal rate. Hong Kong has had a fairly good record in this regard — just 1.7 percent as of 2012 and even better than the figures of some VWP countries before they joined the program. Also, most Hong Kong applicants get 10-year US visas. It is said that Hong Kong has met all VWP criteria but yet does not qualify since it is not legally a separate country, despite having its own immigration system.

The US media reported last year that a bipartisan amendment bill was passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee clearing the way for Hong Kong to join the VWP in the near future.

But unfortunately, US-Hong Kong relations have soured somewhat following the Edward Snowden saga last year when Hong Kong authorities, under apparent pressure from Beijing, allowed the whistleblower to leave the territory despite strong plea by Washington to deport him back to the US.

Snowden took refuge for a while in Hong Kong after blowing the lid on Washington’s extensive snooping activities around the world. He eventually travelled to Russia and won asylum there. 

Former US Consul General to Hong Kong Stephen Young said the Hong Kong government’s handling of the case had “blurred the one-country, two-systems concept”.

Another thing is consular protection.

Chinese diplomatic and consular missions offer such protection to Hong Kong passport holders, but it may not always help when Hongkongers have troubles overseas, because of red tape.

Local media reported earlier this year that a Hong Kong woman was detained in Egypt on human trafficking accusations. Her relatives in Hong Kong turned to the Immigration Department for help but the department just forwarded the case to the Chinese embassy in Egypt.

It was said that the Chinese diplomats in Egypt recommended a local lawyer for legal assistance, but it then turned out that the lawyer tried to rip off the woman by overcharging service fees and the amount of the bail. The woman then contacted the Chinese embassy herself but she was abruptly turned away.

She finally got consular protection from the British embassy there with her British National Overseas (BNO) passport — a special passport created before the run-up to the handover, for Hongkongers born before July 1, 1997 — and was released shortly.

Some Hong Kong passport holders also complain that they are sometimes mistakenly treated as Chinese passport holders and asked to apply for a visa as there is a conspicuous Chinese national emblem on the cover of the Hong Kong passport.

Such cases usually happen with Middle East countries or at feeder airports. Hong Kong passport holders would in the end be allowed visa-free entry, but only after they convince overseas officials that they are not from China, and go through additional verification and checks.

Many Hongkongers have both Hong Kong passport and BNO passport. Prior to the 1997 handover more than 3.4 million Hong Kong people applied for the BNO passport and the British government has pledged that BNO passport entitles bearers the same consular protection as offered for British citizens who have the right of abode in Britain.

Currently 179 countries grant BNO passport bearers visa-free entry, according to BritishHongKong, a group that fights for full British and EU citizenship for all British Nationals Overseas. And, although many European Union countries allow both BNO and Hong Kong passport holders to enter freely, using a BNO passport can be more convenient since these countries categorize BNO passport holders as British citizens and thus allow them to enter through the faster lanes for EU citizens.

In this sense, next time when travelling overseas, taking both your Hong Kong passport and BNO passport can be a good idea.

Related stories:

Chinese tourists loathe their passports — for good reason

HK people just don’t like to call themselves Chinese

Hong Kong youth start entertaining idea of independence

– Contact the writer at
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Compared to their mainland cousins, Hong Kong passport holders can travel to far more countries without a visa. Photo: Tanni

Around 3.4 million Hongkongers who were born before the handover also have the British National Overseas passport. Photo: HKgolden

Hong Kong passport also has a Chinese national emblem. Sometimes foreign immigration officers cannot distinguish the difference between a Chinese passport and a Hong Kong one. Photo: Wikimedia

EJ Insight writer