Applying for a UK ETA

| April 5, 2023
London Tower Bridge at night

In the coming years, it will be necessary for foreign nationals wishing to visit the United Kingdom to possess Electronic Travel Authorisation or ETA. Like other pre-screening systems in operation across the globe, the UK ETA can be viewed as a digital visa granting the holder admission to the United Kingdom.

It should be remembered that the United Kingdom is not a single country but a union of four. These four countries are:

  1. England
  2. Scotland
  3. Wales
  4. Northern Ireland

Once fully operational, a UK ETA will be mandatory for all foreign nationals entering any of the four countries, with the only exceptions being:

  • Citizens of the Republic of Ireland
  • Holders of British or Irish passports
  • People with existing permission to study, work or reside in the UK
  • UK Visa holders

Intending visitors to the UK, who do not qualify under any of these conditions, will require a UK ETA, with the scheme being phased in over the coming months and years.

ETA Basics

The United Kingdom has only recently left the European Union. As an EU member state, British passport holders enjoyed visa-free access to all the other EU countries, and a valid passport was basically all that was required for easy access to Europe.

This visa-free access benefit still applies to British passport holders. Still, those days are fast coming to an end as the Brexit agreement comes to a close and the EU begins to implement its European Travel Information and Authorisation System or ETIAS.

ETIAS is an up-to-date form of visa and performs the same basic function. The application procedure involves completing a detailed questionnaire and supplying personal details and information regarding the applicant’s medical condition and criminal history.

The information supplied on the ETIAS application form is checked against numerous criminal and other databases before an applicant is granted an ETIAS. In other words: Permission to Travel. Once approved, the ETIAS is not a paper document but a digital form of approval which is electronically linked to the successful applicant’s passport.

The new UK ETA scheme is identical in its application, approval and issuance. A non-national wishing to enter the United Kingdom for a short period of time (visiting, holidays) must complete a detailed online application form and the information supplied is then checked against English, European and world databases for any red flags.

Once granted, the ETA is linked to the relevant passport. The holder is then free to travel to any of the United Kingdom countries for up to six months for personal, holiday, visiting or study purposes.

ETA Application Process

The application form for a UK ETA must be completed online as there is (as yet) no other option. Clearly, therefore, any applicant will require access to a computer (or the ETA phone app) and a valid email address for any correspondence and to receive the ETA approval or denial.

The online portal for ETA application states that the process is “quick and easy” and should take “ no more than 15 minutes” to complete, but whether either of these statements is true or accurate is questionable.

The application form follows the usual pattern of requesting basic information before delving deeper into the applicant’s background.

The first section requires the applicant to supply:

  • Name in full
  • Address
  • Date of birth
  • Nationality
  • Details about a planned visit to the UK

All applications must be accompanied by a valid, current, biometric passport issued by a recognised country.

As the application process is done completely online, applicants must also have a valid email address for the response and an acceptable credit or debit card to pay the processing fee in full.

The second and most challenging part of the online application deals with an applicant’s background and particularly as it relates to any criminal or terrorist activity. Applicants should answer all questions as honestly and fully as possible, as any information supplied will be cross-checked against numerous British and international databases.

The whole purpose of the UK ETA is to protect the United Kingdom from unwanted criminals or suspected terrorists attempting to enter the jurisdiction. Previous convictions for a serious criminal or terrorism-related activity will only lessen the chances of a successful application but supplying incomplete or false information will almost certainly end in a refusal.

ETA Implementation

The British government expects that the Electronic Travel Authorisation system will be fully in operation in 2025, but this date is far from being definitive. The scheme is being rolled out in stages, with citizens of Qatar being the first to come under the new requirement. As of November 2023, Qatari passport holders must have applied for and received an ETA before visiting the United Kingdom.

Qatar will be followed in early 2024 by other Middle East countries, including:

  • Kuwait
  • Jordan
  • Bahrain
  • Oman
  • United Arab Emirates
  • Saudi Arabia

These dates and countries have been confirmed so far, but the list is expected to grow significantly in the coming months. As the introduction of ETIAS in the next few months will impact all travellers, it would hardly be surprising to see several (if not all) EU member states being subjected to a similar demand to copy the British version from UK authorities sooner rather than later.

ETA Validity

The British government website states that an application should be approved or denied within three working days, and the applicant should be notified at the supplied email address. However, it also states that approval may take longer if more detailed background checks are required.

Once granted, a UK ETA is valid for two years, during which time the holder may enter and exit the United Kingdom on multiple occasions. It should be noted that if the passport expires during this time frame, then the ETA also expires. It makes sense, therefore, to ensure the expiry date of the passport exceeds that of the ETA.

ETA Refusal

There is (as yet) no defined procedure should an ETA application be unsuccessful. This omission should be addressed in the near future, but as things stand, a NO means NO!

If an ETA application is denied then, a non-national wishing to visit the United Kingdom is rather limited in alternatives. Depending on the reason for the visit to the UK, the available alternatives are:

  • Standard UK Visitor Visa
  • Temporary Work Visa

Both options are unsatisfactory and involve more paperwork and red tape. It is to be hoped that an appeals process will be put in place soon.

Finally, it should be stated that possessing a UK ETA does not automatically entitle the holder to enter the United Kingdom. As is always the case, the final decision rests with the border and security officials at the point of entry.