Can I get a UK ETA with a criminal record?

| September 5, 2023
Can I get a UK ETA with a criminal record?

The United Kingdom’s pre-travel approval scheme is expected to be fully operational by the end of 2024 and is a mandatory requirement for all non-UK or non-Irish visitors to any of the four United Kingdom countries. The new travel requirement is called the United Kingdom Electronic Travel Authorisation (UK ETA) and is very similar to other pre-travel screening systems currently operated by countries like the United States and Canada.

As is the case with the new European Travel Information and Authorisation System (ETIAS), the UK ETA aims to increase border security by gathering as much information as possible about prospective visitors. The system is designed to wean out those who may pose a threat while in the United Kingdom.

This includes UK ETA applicants who have a past history of overstaying the time limit in other countries and, more specifically, those who have a a criminal record or have been associated with criminal or terrorist activity.

Application Process

Applying for a UK ETA is done either online or via a mobile app. The form is detailed and will require the applicant to supply basic personal information, including:

  • Full name
  • Date of Birth
  • Gender
  • Nationality
  • Contact details

A current, valid biometric passport is necessary, and applicants will also need to supply details and dates of travel to, from and within the United Kingdom. It is anticipated that the UK authorities will also seek to add an applicant’s fingerprints to the application process, but this is not yet technically feasible.

An important part of the application process is checking on an applicant’s suitability for admission to the United Kingdom. To this end, applicants will be asked to supply details of any previous history of having overstayed a visa, deportations from other countries, and details of recent visits to areas of conflict. Any criminal record or convictions for criminal or terrorism-related offences must also be disclosed on the application form.

Of course it would be possible to simply lie about any past criminal or terrorist offences but, as preventing such activity in the UK is a cornerstone of introducing the UK ETA, all applications are thoroughly checked through numerous UK, European and world police and security databases and the chances of being caught out in a lie are extremely high.

Background Checks

All applications for a UK ETA will be checked for inconsistencies, omissions and possible fraud. Supplying information regarding previous criminal or terrorism convictions is not an option, and failure to do so honestly will likely result in a refusal to travel.

Applicants who declare a past criminal record will have their applications reviewed and assessed before the UK ETA is granted or denied. A history of minor offences may result in further scrutiny but does not necessarily mean the application will be automatically denied. However, a long and persistent record of criminality or a long period (a year or more) of incarceration may well result in a refusal to travel to any of the United Kingdom countries.

Reasons for UK ETA Refusal

The grounds for refusing an application are many and varied, but a conviction for criminal or terrorist offences is one of the main reasons. While minor offences with minimum custodial sentences will not aid in the granting of a UK ETA, they do not automatically disqualify an applicant.

The basic reasons for refusal are the same as those used for UK visa applications. Obviously, the more serious the crime and the longer the sentence, the more likelihood of a refusal. Some applicants with a record will be automatically refused, while, for others, permission to travel is at the UK authorities’ discretion.

Mandatory Refusal

A UK ETA application will be refused if the applicant:

  • Has served a prison term of four years or over
  • Has spent between one and four years in prison unless it has been fifteen years or more since the last day of incarceration
  • Has served a short prison sentence of up to one year unless it has been seven years or more since the last day spent in prison

A mandatory refusal also applies to applicants who have received a non-custodial sentence less than a year before applying for the UK ETA. These non-custodial sentences may be for driving offences, civil orders, non-payment of fines and other minor offences.

Discretionary Refusal

The UK authorities may refuse a UK ETA application on various discretionary grounds. Although the applicant may have no criminal record, this does not mean permission to enter the United Kingdom is a certainty.

Among the reasons for denying an application are:

  • Non-adherence to previously held visas
  • Visits to areas of war or conflict
  • Suspected links to terrorist organisations
  • Suspected connection to criminal activity
  • Persistent offending
  • Potential risk to national security

These discretionary grounds for refusal are problematic as an application may be refused based on nothing more than suspicion. However, they are not used lightly and usually only after an extensive background check has been carried out.

Honesty is the Best Policy

Applying for a UK ETA with a criminal record, while not helpful, does not automatically result in refusal. It comes down to how serious the crime committed was, how long the offences were served in prison and how long ago they occurred. Disclosing any criminal record will result in the application receiving closer scrutiny but not disclosing one will almost certainly end in rejection.

While a past involvement in criminality can pose problems for an applicant it is nothing compared to a history of terrorism-related offences or terrorist associations which will almost certainly end in refusal.

Honesty when filling in the application is crucial as the information will be checked and applicants vetted before the UK ETA is granted. Should an honest and forthright application be refused, the decision can be appealed and overturned. This is not an option when an applicant deliberately lies or tries to mislead the authorities by omitting details of past criminal offences or custodial sentences.
Honesty is DEFINITELY the best policy!