Changing a UK ETA to a Visa

| November 15, 2023
Changing a UK ETA to a Visa

Confusion reigns as the British government prepares to introduce the new Electronic Travel Authorisation system (UK ETA) for visiting non-nationals. As things stand, there is no requirement for many visitors to the United Kingdom to possess either a British visa or UK ETA. Visitors who require no documentation other than a valid passport include all citizens of countries belonging to the European Union, Schengen Area, and a number of other countries that have visa-exemption policies with the European Union.

This is because these agreements were in place when the UK was a member of the European Union and still hold today despite the United Kingdom’s exit from the EU in 2021. Following Brexit, British citizens continued to enjoy the same ease of access to Europe for a transition period, but this arrangement is rapidly drawing to an end.

The European Union is currently rolling out its own electronic screening system for visitors called ETIAS. This is scheduled to become a mandatory requirement for non-EU nationals by the end of 2024. This means that citizens of all non-EU countries who currently enjoy visa-free access to Europe will be deemed “third country” nationals and require ETIAS approval before embarking on a European visit. The “third country” status will also apply to the United Kingdom.

UK ETA or British Visa

Just as all visitors to Europe will soon require ETIAS approval to do so, visitors to the United Kingdom will require either a UK ETA or British Visa and which one will be necessary depends on the:

  • Visitors nationality or passport country of issue
  • Length of time to be spent in the United Kingdom
  • Purpose of the visit

Both the UK ETA and visa application processes are designed to determine if an intending visitor poses a security risk to the United Kingdom. Visiting non-nationals will require one or the other but not both. In broad terms, a UK ETA will be required for short stays such as holidays, visiting family or friends and even short study courses, while a visa will be necessary for those who wish to remain in the United Kingdom for periods longer than six months, for example, to study or to seek employment.


The UK ETA requirement will apply to visitors arriving from any of the European Union or Schengen Area member states as well as from countries such as Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Japan, Canada and the United States. There are also a number of other countries whose citizens will require a UK ETA rather than a visa and these are all countries that currently enjoy visa-free entry into the United Kingdom.

The British Visa

Visitors from all other countries (those that do not currently enjoy a reciprocal visa-exemption policy) will require a British Visa. The type of visa will depend on the main reason the visa is being sought. This could be to seek employment, attend a lengthy course of study, undergo medical treatment for retirement purposes or be reunited with family members who are British citizens or legally resident in any of the four countries that comprise the United Kingdom: England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Switching to a UK Visa

There may be occasions when a non-national in the UK with a UK ETA may discover that this is not sufficient for requirements. While in the United Kingdom, the visitor may, unexpectedly, be offered an excellent employment opportunity or meet someone and decide to remain longer or even get married.

The UK ETA only allows the holder to remain within the UK for a maximum period of six months at a time, although it is possible to leave and re-enter any number of times during the period of validity. Taking up employment with a UK ETA is not permitted, and marrying a British citizen does not automatically qualify the holder for citizenship.

Should such rare situations arise, it will be necessary for the visitor to possess the relevant form of visa in order to remain legally in the UK and avoid the risk of fines, imprisonment and deportation.

Difficulties in changing a UK ETA to a UK Visa

While the vast majority of UK ETA holders will be visiting the United Kingdom for a specific reason and for a specified amount of time, others may find that the permission to enter the jurisdiction is no longer sufficient for various reasons. This, however, presents a serious problem as a UK ETA CANNOT be exchanged for a visa regardless of the reason.
Although the visitor may only be required to have a UK ETA to enter any of the four UK countries, a visa will be required for longer stays and other unforeseen circumstances. However, any British Visa cannot be applied for while still in the United Kingdom.

This means that, in order to change a UK ETA for a visa, the visitor must leave the UK and return home, from where a visa application may be submitted.

The Correct UK Visa

Regardless of one’s country of origin, the application process for a British Visa is fairly standard. The most important element in submitting a visa application is to ensure that the correct form of visa is being applied for. For example, a visitor holding a Tourist Visa may not seek employment while in the United Kingdom or enrol in a long course (over six months) of study.

Choosing the correct type of visa is vital to ensure it covers the main purpose of the extended stay in the United Kingdom. This will usually be a visa for one of the following:

  • Employment
  • Business
  • Study
  • Settlement

Other types of British visas are also issued for family visits and travellers merely transiting through the UK. Choosing the wrong type of visa at the application stage can be disastrous as, like the UK ETA, this cannot be changed once in the United Kingdom. If the main purpose of the visit changes, then a new and more suitable form of visa will be required. Once again, this will entail submitting a new visa application from the applicant’s home country.

The key points with the UK ETA

By the end of 2024, it is expected that visitors from the European Union (and other) countries will require UK ETA approval before entering the United Kingdom. Citizens of other countries will need the most suitable form of British Visa, as is currently the case. A UK ETA:

  • Cannot be converted into a British Visa under any circumstance
  • Is chiefly targetted at visiting tourists or short-term visitors
  • Does not permit the holder to work in the UK
  • Can only be used for a maximum of six months at one time
  • Only allows for short (less than six months) study courses

Apart from short study courses, family visits or holidays that a UK ETA covers, for non-UK nationals, a British Visa will be necessary. The only exceptions to the rules are for citizens of the Republic of Ireland who require neither a UK ETA nor a British Visa to enter or remain within the United Kingdom.

Attempting to breach the terms and conditions of a UK ETA can (and probably will) result in more than just legal difficulties and deportation. Anyone found in breach of the UK ETA conditions will find it difficult, and most likely impossible, to have any future applications for either a UK ETA or British Visa granted.

Applicants found guilty of any infringements of the rules pertaining to the issuance of the UK ETA will remain on the offender’s permanent record with the British Home Office. For this reason, ensuring that the correct form of approval, whether a UK ETA or visa, is secured before arrival in the United Kingdom is prudent.