Danger of Hold-ups on British passports

Thousands may be left in limbo after rule changes on renewals mean applicants are waiting up to four weeks, prompting calls for ‘express service’ in HK


Keith Wallis
Dec 04, 2011Thousands of British passport holders in Hong Kong and on the mainland face being marooned because of little-known changes in renewal procedures.

Regulations introduced last August mean that the applications are dealt with in Hong Kong but the passports are issued from Britain.Previous passports are cancelled as soon as the person applies for renewal, and the new passports are taking up to four weeks to arrive.That means business people across Asia can be stranded and unable to travel while they wait.

One Hong Kong businessman was forced to spend HK$15,000 travelling to London to renew his passport or risk losing key deals in China and India because the Hong Kong processing centre could not guarantee the new passport would arrive before he travelled.

The regulations are also severely affecting British passport holders who commute between Hong Kong and the mainland on an almost daily basis. They have to renew their 10-year passports as often as every 10 months because they are full.

Officials in London say the move was prompted by security concerns and the need to save money.

But British chambers of commerce in Hong Kong, Singapore and Bangkok are so concerned about the impact on business they have written to British Prime Minister David Cameron and several ministers calling on them to amend the system.

They are also worried about further proposed changes, due to be introduced by 2014, that will force passport holders to apply directly to Britain for a new passport rather than to one of the seven regional passport processing centres around the world.

The Hong Kong centre, covering north and southeast Asia, deals with around 53,000 applications a year, of which about 40,000 are for renewals.

Brigadier Christopher Hammerbeck, executive director of Hong Kong’s British Chamber of Commerce, said it was “unacceptable” there was no fast-track service to shorten the renewal time.

He said the chamber had suggested an express service along with a larger, 96-page passport in a letter to Vince Cable, Britain’s secretary of state for business. The chamber has also contacted three other government officials, including Foreign Office minister Jeremy Browne.

The British consulate general estimates there are 250,000 British citizens in Hong Kong, including 30,000 expats and around 16,000 British nationals with mainland work visas.

The changes also affect holders of British National (Overseas) passports, although out of around 3.4 million issued, only about 7,000 are renewed each year as travellers appear to prefer Hong Kong SAR passports.

Tony Wines, director of Turnkey Consulting, spent HK$15,000 on a return air fare, a hotel and meals to renew his passport in London.

Wines, whose passport had one page and eight years left, urgently needed a replacement because he was making visits to China and India inside a week to support bids for new contracts. “I had to go,” he said.

But when Wines applied at the British consulate in Hong Kong he found the passport would not be issued locally. Instead, he was told it would take a “minimum of three weeks and possible four” for the new passport to be sent from Britain.
An emergency travel document could be issued, at a cost of about HK$1,300, but while it would be accepted by the mainland authorities, Wines said it would not be recognised by Indian immigration.

With no fast-track service available, Wines decided to fly back to London, where a new passport was issued in 24 hours. He said: “It was a real hassle. The change in legislation has not been brought to people’s attention. I don’t understand why there is no premium service here.”

One British citizen, who became aware of the changes only when he checked the British consulate website said: “I work in Hong Kong and my family is in Shenzhen.

“What am I supposed to do every 10 months when the time comes to renew my passport? Spend HK$800 a night for a hotel room for three or four weeks waiting for a new passport or try to work from Shenzhen?”

Jo McPhail, head of the overseas passport management unit at the Foreign Office, said the passport operation was shifted back to Britain to economise and improve security by cutting the number of blank passports being moved globally.

She said the majority of applicants received new passports within two weeks and that 28 days is the “maximum turnaround [time]“.

No express service was currently available outside Britain.

McPhail said technology issues meant a person’s passport was cancelled as soon as they applied for a new one.

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(c) 2011 South China Morning Post – All Rights Reserved

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