As part of its continued efforts to tighten control of the UK’s borders, the UK Government will introduce a new system of pre-travel immigration checks for visitors: the Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA) scheme. Once fully operational, the scheme will require all visa-exempt foreign visitors who were previously able to enter the UK using just their passports, to obtain prior authorisation before travelling to the UK. This includes EEA nationals.
The proposals may be familiar to those who have recently travelled to the United States, who operate the similar Electronic System for Travel Authorisation (ESTA). This system requires visitors who don’t need a visa to complete an online form and pay a small fee prior to travelling to the US. It is anticipated that the UK’s ETA will be similar to the US’s ESTA.
The scheme will first apply to nationals of Qatar from 15 November 2023. It will then be extended to other Gulf Cooperation Council states (UAE, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait, and Bahrain) and Jordan in February 2024. Following this the scheme will be extended to more countries and be fully operational by the end of 2024. Importantly, residents of Ireland travelling to the UK from elsewhere within the Common Travel Area will not need to apply for an ETA to enter the UK.
It is probably no coincidence that the scheme is being introduced following Brexit because British travellers to the EU will soon be subject to a similar scheme, the European Travel Information and Authorisation System (ETIAS), which is expected to be fully operational by 2024.
Who will the ETA apply to?
The ETA will eventually apply to all “non-visa nationals” visiting the UK or transiting through the UK. Non-visa nationals are citizens of countries that do not require visas to visit the UK and these people can currently enter the UK by presenting just their passport. This includes citizens of the EU / EEA, Switzerland, United States, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and others.
By the end of 2024, all non-visa nationals who wish to visit or transit through the UK will need to apply for and obtain an ETA before travelling. As well as affecting individuals, employers and organisations will need to plan ahead and ensure that employees due to visit the UK for business purposes hold the correct authorisation in advance of travelling.
By way of example, a French citizen who does not hold a UK visa needs to travel to the UK for a business meeting. Whereas previously a person in this position could simply board a flight to the UK and show their passport at the border, they will now have to apply for and receive an ETA before they travel. This will be checked before they are allowed to board their flight.
This also applies to certain visa categories which can be claimed at UK border, such as the Creative Worker route.
What is the process for acquiring an ETA?
All eligible travellers will be required to complete the ETA application form online or via an app before travelling to the UK. We expect the application form will be quick to complete and will ask travellers to provide their personal details including their full name, date of birth, country of citizenship, and travel details. Travellers will also be asked questions about their “suitability” on topics such as their previous criminal history and immigration history.
There will also be a small cost for the application, which is yet to be announced, but we expect fees to be comparable with the US ESTA (currently 20 US Dollars) and the EU’s ETIAS scheme (7 Euros).
We understand that once the online form has been submitted a response will normally be made within three working days. If successful, applicants will then receive their confirmation by email and be allowed to travel to the UK.
Travellers who need an ETA must obtain one in advance of travel. It will be a criminal offence for a person who requires an ETA to knowingly arrive in the UK without one, which can lead to a fine and even imprisonment of between 12 months and four years in some cases. This could also, of course, jeopardise any future UK immigration application that the traveller may wish to make. It will also be a criminal offence to obtain an ETA by deception.
What happens after the ETA is granted?
Once granted, an ETA will be valid for two years or until the expiry of the traveller’s passport. Travellers with multiple nationalities or passports must ensure their ETA is linked to the document they are using to travel, and ensure they reapply for a new ETA if they obtain a new passport.
When embarking on a journey to the UK, travellers’ permission must be checked by their carrier (i.e. plane, ferry, etc) and confirmed prior to travel. The Government will place the responsibility on carriers to complete the appropriate checks on travellers before allowing them to embark. We recommend that travellers carry digital or printed evidence of their successful ETA application prior to boarding.
What happens if the ETA is refused?
If an ETA is refused for any reason, the traveller must apply for and obtain a visit visa in advance of travelling to the UK. This process can be more expensive, time-consuming and document-intense, and travellers will need to factor in a longer processing time (currently five working days where the priority service is available or up to 12 weeks if not). Moreover, any visa application made following an ETA refusal is likely to attract greater scrutiny and we would recommend that, in these circumstances, you seek legal advice before making any further applications.
If you are a Non-Visa National planning to travel to or through the UK after the introduction of the ETA system, or you are a company whose employees regularly visit the UK for business purposes and require further information regarding the ETA regime, please contact Adam Hoefel, Sonia Cala-Lesina or your usual contact at the firm on +44 (0)20 3375 7000.
This publication is a general summary of the law. It should not replace legal advice tailored to your specific circumstances.
© Farrer & Co LLP, May 2023