Choosing between a UK ETA or UK Visa

| June 8, 2023

As was the case when the United Kingdom was a member of the European Union, British citizens continue to enjoy visa-free access to all European Union and Schengen Area countries just as European visitors to the United Kingdom require nothing other than a valid passport.

This situation is set to change as ETIAS (European Travel Information and Authorisation System) comes into effect in 2023 and is expected to be mandatory by the end of 2024. At this time all British citizens intending to visit any of the EU member states must have applied for and received ETIAS approval before embarking on any European trip.

In response, UK authorities are introducing their own pre-travel screening system for foreign nationals wishing to visit the United Kingdom and this is expected to be fully operational by the end of 2024 or early in the following year. Just as the European Union is rolling out its pre-travel ETIAS so the United Kingdom is preparing to introduce its own version. This is called the UK ETA, short for Electronic Travel Authorisation, and will affect all foreign nationals wishing to visit any of the four United Kingdom countries of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The UK ETA is not a visa. It is simply permission to visit the United Kingdom on a short-term visit for a multitude of purposes. It is primarily designed for tourists but can also be used for short study courses and other reasons. A visa is a requirement for nationals of countries outside of the European Union and Schengen Area or of countries that do not have a visa-exemption agreement with the United Kingdom.

What’s the difference between a UK ETA and a UK Visa?

Once the UK ETA is fully in force all non-UK citizens (with the exception of those from the Republic of Ireland) will need to possess a UK ETA approved passport before embarking on any trip to the UK. However, citizens of countries that currently require a British visa will continue to need a visa as well as the UK ETA.
On the other hand, European and visa-exempt nationals may also require a visa depending on the reason for visiting the United Kingdom and the duration of the intended stay.


Once fully operational and mandatory the UK ETA allows the holder to:

  • Enter and exit any or all of the United Kingdom countries on multiple occasions as long as the UK ETA remains valid.
  • Remain in the United Kingdom for a maximum period of three months whereupon the holder must leave the jurisdiction.
  • Use any form of travel (sea, land or air) to transit through the United Kingdom en route to other destinations.
  • Visit the UK for reasons such as holidays, visiting friends or relatives, study and business.

A UK ETA does not grant the holder permission to take up employment while in the United Kingdom. It is expected that a UK ETA will be valid for a period of up to two years when it must be renewed and paid for once more. If, however, the linked passport expires during this period then the UK ETA expires with it.

UK Visa

There is a long list of countries whose citizens require a visa to enter the United Kingdom but it basically consists of all countries outside of the EU, Schengen Area, the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and a few others.

There are many reasons foreign nationals might wish to come to the United Kingdom on either a short visit or a long-term stay which is why there is a range of visa types to choose from.

UK visas are issued for:

  • Work
  • Business
  • Study
  • Family
  • Visitors
  • Transit
  • Settlement
  • Refugee

Each visa category is subdivided into further sections and each will have its own method of qualification and period of validity associated with it.

Quick Summary of UK Visa Types

Work and Business

There is a variety of different types of visa issued for work or business purposes. These may be issued on a points basis or because of certain valued skills the applicant may possess. The period of validity varies for each visa type.


Foreign students wishing to attend even short courses in the United Kingdom need to apply for and receive a Student Visa that is valid for the entire duration of the course(s) being undertaken.


Depending on the individual circumstances it is necessary to possess a Spouse, Parent or Child Visa for visits of six months or more.


Rarely issued for periods greater than six months, a Visitor Visa covers brief visits for vacation purposes.


Passing briefly through UK territory via an airport or seaport requires a Transit Visa. The Direct Airside Transit Visa prohibits the holder from leaving the confines of an airport while a Visitor in Transit Visa will be necessary for visitors who must travel to another part of the UK to make an onward connection.


Also known as Indefinite Leave to Remain, a Settlement Visa is reserved for those foreign nationals who have been resident in the UK on a temporary basis for a long period of time and now seek to make it a permanent arrangement.


Applications for Refugee status must be made immediately upon arrival in the UK and can be granted on a temporary basis for up to six years while the applicant’s case is heard and decided.

Switching from UK ETA to a Visa

All citizens of all countries, apart from those of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, will be required to possess a UK ETA before entering the UK while many will also require a visa to do so. Although the two may seem to be issued for identical purposes there are subtle differences.

The UK ETA is easier and quicker to obtain and is sufficient to cover most reasons for visiting the United Kingdom with one notable exception. The UK ETA does not allow the holder to take up any form of employment while in any of the four UK countries. Should a visitor decide that working in the United Kingdom, even for a short period, is an appealing option then a visa to do so will be required.

Under current guidelines it is not possible to simply trade in the UK ETA for a Work Visa and this must be done separately. This can be done from the applicant’s home country and the visa application submitted to the nearest British embassy or consulate.

Taking up any form of employment while visiting the UK with just a UK ETA is an offence and can have serious consequences. Not the least of which is the possible (even likely) refusal of any future application for a Work Visa in the United Kingdom.