Applying for a UK ETA

| December 15, 2023
Applying for a UK ETA

The British government is introducing a new screening method for most foreign nationals wishing to visit the United Kingdom. The UK ETA, which stands for the United Kingdom Electronic Travel Authorisation, is set to become a mandatory requirement for visitors to the United Kingdom who do not currently require a British visa to enter any of the four UK countries of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Despite the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union following Brexit, British citizens still enjoy visa-free access to all of the European Union and Schengen Area member states. However, this situation is set to change from 2023 onwards, when British passport holders will require ETIAS approval before undertaking any European trip.

ETIAS (European Travel Information and Authorisation System) is similar to other electronic screening systems currently operated by countries such as Canada, Australia and the United States. The application process for all of these electronic approval systems is designed to screen out undesirable travellers or visitors who may pose a security or criminal risk.

Unlike a traditional paper visa, electronic approval to travel is digitally linked to a passport and shows up when scanned at the point of departure from the passport holder’s country of origin. All digital approval must be secured before travel, as travellers will be denied access to all forms of travel unless the passport has the required form of approval.

This will also be the case for those non-nationals wishing to enter or transit through the United Kingdom once the new system is fully operational. This is currently expected to happen sometime in 2024.

Staggered Roll-out

Introducing the new UK ETA is a complicated business and impossible to have up and running overnight. For this reason, the British government is rolling out the UK ETA in stages. The new system will first come into operation in November of 2023, when citizens of Qatar will require a UK ETA before any planned visit to the United Kingdom.

In February 2024, the scheme will be extended to take in a further six Middle Eastern countries, these being Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates.

Once any bugs in the system have been detected and rectified, the UK ETA requirement will be rolled out across the rest of the world throughout 2024.

The UK ETA will only be a requirement for citizens of those countries that currently enjoy visa-free access to the United Kingdom. This includes all EU and Schengen countries and a number of countries with a reciprocal visa exemption policy with the UK. Countries on this list include the United States, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, South Africa and a number of countries in South America.

Holders of British or Republic of Ireland passports are exempted from the UK ETA requirement, as are those who have residency, employment, or study permits for the UK. Nationals of countries that currently require a visa to enter the UK will still be required to possess the correct form of visa, but a UK ETA will not be necessary.

Application Process

Applying for a UK ETA is done entirely online, where an applicant must provide basic personal details and answer a number of questions. This includes:

  • Applicant’s name in full
  • Date of birth
  • Nationality
  • Contact details

The application form also contains a section requesting details of any past convictions for criminal or terrorist offences. These should be given in full as all information supplied is thoroughly checked against numerous security databases in the UK and worldwide. Similarly, another section covers recent travel history where applicants must give details regarding previous visas issued, trips to areas of conflict and any history of overstaying a visa or deportation.

Applicants will also need to supply travel details of the upcoming trip to the UK as well as the main reason(s) for the visit. As it is an online process, an applicant must have a valid email address, which will be used for contact purposes and confirmation of the UK ETA being granted.

In order to complete the application process successfully, it will also be necessary to supply passport details such as the passport number, country of issue and the expiration date. It is important to ensure that the passport expiration date is beyond the last date spent in the United Kingdom. A passport that expires during the UK stay will not be acceptable, and the UK ETA will be denied.

It will also be necessary to have an acceptable form of credit or debit card, as payment in full must be made at the time of applying. The fee for a UK ETA is currently set at £10 (€11.70), but this is subject to change at any time.

Once granted, a UK ETA is valid for a period of two years, during which the holder may enter the UK on any number of occasions as long as the passport has not expired. If a passport expires during the two-year period, the UK ETA expires with it.

It is expected that the vast majority of UK ETA’s issue will be to tourists visiting the UK for short breaks or holidays. However, a significant number will also be issued to foreign nationals entering the United Kingdom for business or study purposes. The UK ETA covers these (and other) purposes but the holder is limited to a maximum stay of six months in one block. A suitable form of British visa will be necessary for stays longer than six months.

It is estimated that the online application process should take from ten to fifteen minutes to complete, and a decision should be returned within three working days (if not sooner), with confirmation being delivered via the email supplied on the application form.

Using the UK ETA

Once fully operational, a UK ETA will be a mandatory requirement for non-British visitors to the United Kingdom. The UK ETA must be secured before any travel can be undertaken, as this will be checked by the carrier taking the visitor to the UK. This includes all forms of transport and not just air or sea carriers.

Passports will be checked to ensure they have a valid UK ETA at any point of departure to the UK, be it by land, sea or air. Passport holders without the necessary linked UK ETA approval will be refused permission to travel. Passports will also be checked on arrival in the United Kingdom, and anyone who has somehow managed to arrive in the UK without a UK ETA will be returned to their point of departure.

Each individual must have his or her own UK ETA, and this rule also applies to children and infants. A parent or guardian may apply to young children if they have their own passports. The UK ETA covers children travelling on a parent’s or guardian’s passport linked to that passport.

Although the UK ETA is a digital link to a passport, it is a good idea to print a hard copy of the confirmation email as this could be invaluable should any issues arise at the UK border checkpoints.

The scheme is being introduced primarily to protect the UK from illegal immigration as well as to ferret out possible criminals and terrorists. UK ETA applicants with a criminal record or a history of visa offences may find it difficult, if not impossible, to secure the required permission to travel.

It should be noted that while a UK ETA will be a mandatory requirement for visiting the United Kingdom, it does not guarantee automatic entry to any of the four UK countries. The final decision rests with the border security agents on duty, who can refuse a traveller’s admission if they have reasonable grounds for suspicion.

If a UK ETA application is denied, there are no grounds for appeal, and the applicant should instead apply for a suitable form of British visa.