HONG KONG people will be able to apply for Special Administrative Region (SAR) passports before 1997, although they will only be issued after the changeover. Deputy Director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, Wang Fengchao, said under the Basic Law the SAR government was the issuing authority and it could begin receiving applications at any time, although passports could only be issued on and after July 1, 1997. 'We'll prepare everything so the passports can be issued right after the establishment of the SAR government,' Mr Wang said. Details of the application procedure were yet to be fixed, he said. Mr Wang said the mainland would send out diplomatic notes to promote and explain the passport to other countries. China would also identify countries with close ties with Hong Kong to see if they were willing to grant visa-free entry to SAR passport-holders. China has visa-free entry agreements with more than 40 countries but only those holding diplomatic or service passports can enjoy this privilege. The SAR passport will be a private document and does not fall into these categories. Given Hong Kong's special situation, Mr Wang said, the preliminary idea was to enter into separate negotiations with countries. He hoped Britain would take the initiative in offering visa-free entry: 'This will increase other countries' confidence in the passport.' China would discuss with Britain in the Joint Liaison Group whether they could jointly promote the passport, Mr Wang said. It was hoped London would take 'co-ordinated diplomatic action'. China also hopes the Immigration Department can help, because it has the equipment and information for the issue of travel documents. The Hong Kong Government pledged yesterday to co-operate with the Chinese side, and a spokesman said the Immigration Department was developing a computer system for issuing the passports and for record-keeping. She said the Government would work closely with the Chinese side in introducing the passport to other countries. The Joint Liaison Group was discussing how to promote the convenience of travelling with SAR and British Nationality (Overseas) passports. While Mr Wang admitted it would be impossible to issue passports to all eligible citizens within a short time after the handover, he said that would not affect the public's freedom to travel. British National (Overseas) passports, Certificates of Identity, Documents of Identity, re-entry permits and Hong Kong seafarers' travel documents could continue to be used, he said.