By the end of 2024, the British government expects to have the new UK ETA system up and running and a mandatory requirement for many visitors to the United Kingdom who currently enjoy visa-free access to all four UK countries: England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
The UK ETA (Electronic Travel Authorisation) is being introduced to strengthen security by ensuring prospective visitors do not pose a criminal or terrorist risk or are not attempting to enter and remain within the United Kingdom illegally.
A UK ETA is acquired by completing an online application form which requests the applicant’s personal details, including convictions for criminal or terrorist offences, as well as a history of travel to areas of conflict or past breaches of visa regulations.
How is a UK ETA processed?
Once the information supplied has been thoroughly checked, the UK ETA is granted and digitally linked to the applicant’s passport. When fully introduced and mandatory, a UK ETA must be secured before any trips to the United Kingdom can be undertaken. This will be checked at the passport holder’s point of departure.
The UK ETA is designed to deal with overseas visitors visiting the United Kingdom for a stay of up to ninety days and covers those visiting for tourism, business, family matters, short-term study and medical reasons.
However, as the United Kingdom is a major hub between the United States and destinations in Europe and Asia, it is expected that a significant proportion of arrivals at a UK airport will only be transiting through the United Kingdom en route to other destinations.
This begs the question: Will such visitors still require a UK ETA if they do not intend to remain in the UK but only transit through a British airport?
According to United Kingdom immigration regulations there are two types of transit, sometimes referred to as layovers. These are “airside” and “landside”, and both require the passenger to possess a UK Transit Visa.
Airside Transit is for arriving passengers making an onward connection without passing through immigration checks. This generally means a period of hours spent in a secure area while awaiting the connecting flight.
Landside Transit applies to arriving passengers who must be checked through border control as the connecting flight may not be scheduled for up to 24 hours (or more) after arrival, and the time will be spent outside the confines of the airport’s secure area.
The Right Choice
There are two types of UK Transit Visa that can apply to non-British visitors, and which one is the right choice depends on the individual’s travel schedule. The options are:
Direct Airside Transit Visa
The Direct Airside Transit Visa, or DATV, is for passengers who are scheduled to make an onward connection from the same airport as the one they arrived at and on the same day of arrival. Holders of a DATV are not subject to border control checks and are not permitted to enter the airport proper. A DATV is only valid for a maximum of 24 hours.
Visitor in Transit Visa
Arriving passengers not making an onward connection within 24 hours or taking a flight from an airport different from that of arrival require a Visitor in Transit Visa. This will, of necessity, entail a short stay within the UK, and passengers in transit will, therefore, have to be checked by border control officials. There is a time limit of 48 hours on a Visitor in Transit Visa.
Both the DATV and Visitor in Transit Visa should be applied for and received before any travel to the UK commences, and the application process for both is fairly similar.
Both the DATV and Visitor in Transit Visa applications must be submitted online except those applying from North Korea where a printed form is required. The application form covers basic personal information as well as details regarding the date of arrival and the scheduled airline connection. A current, valid passport is essential when applying. Details such as passport number, country of issue and expiry date will be requested.
Once the form is submitted, an interview must be arranged with the UK embassy, consulate or designated visa processing centre. The applicant will be asked to explain the reason for the visa and answer any questions the officials may have about the application.
At the interview, the applicant will also need to:
- Provide a current passport (or other acceptable travel documentation)
- Show any valid visa of the layover in the United Kingdom
- Show proof of the onward journey (flight bookings, etc.)
- Provide proof of permission to enter the next country if such is necessary
It is also possible that biometric information such as facial/retinal scans or fingerprints may have to be provided at the interview, but this is not always the case.
Any documentation requested at the interview should also be taken for the layover in the United Kingdom, as customs or border officials may ask for it.
There are no set fees for either a DATV or Visitor in Transit Visa, and prices vary from country to country. Currently, in 2023, a DATV costs approximately £35 (€40) and a Visitor in Transit Visa about £64 (€75) but these are just a guideline and the actual cost should be checked at the time of application.
Standard Visitor Visa
For non-British travellers who need to transit through the United Kingdom on a regular basis, obtaining a Transit Visa for each trip can be a tiresome and expensive business. The solution for such travellers might be a Standard Visitor Visa.
This type of visa can be valid for two, five or even ten years and is subject to the same rules as the DATV and Visitor in Transit Visas, with one notable exception. Holders of a Standard Visitor Visa are permitted to remain within the UK for a maximum period of six months on each trip.
As with the other forms of Transit Visas, applying for a Standard Visitor Visa must be done online and a personal interview is also a required part of the process. All applicants must also provide evidence of being financially capable of financing themselves for any prolonged stay within the United Kingdom.
The visa processing officials may also require proof that the applicant is entering the UK for valid reasons and will leave the jurisdiction at the end of any stay. This may be in the form of proof of regular employment, close family ties or ownership of property in the applicant’s home country.
No Visa Required
Most, but not all, non-British travellers transiting through a British airport will require some form of permission to do so, and this will normally be in the form of a Transit Visa. However, there are exceptions to this requirement, and these exceptions can be divided into four groups.
EEA and Swiss citizens
Citizens of any of the European Economic Area (EEA) countries do not currently require a visa to transit through the UK or stay for a maximum period of ninety days. The EEA comprises all twenty-seven European Union countries, Norway, Liechtenstein and Iceland. Swiss nationals are also exempted from any visa requirement.
EEA Family Permit holders
An EEA Family Permit allows the holder to travel with qualifying family members to the UK or meet family in the United Kingdom. The Family Permit is valid for six months and the holder is allowed to work while in the United Kingdom. This scheme is also currently open to Ukrainian citizens who have relations in the UK.
Holders of travel documents from the British Home Office
Travel documents may be issued to asylum seekers, those seeking protection on humanitarian grounds, stateless people and persons who have been granted leave to remain in the United Kingdom. Applications for permission to travel must be made from within the UK, and once approved, the travel documents allow the holder to leave and re-enter the jurisdiction.
Holders of a Marriage Visitor Visa
With a Marriage Visitor Visa, it is permitted to enter the UK for the purpose of getting married or enter a civil partnership, which must be conducted at a licensed venue. It is also possible to transit through the UK en route to another destination without the need for a Transit Visa.
Potential future changes to UK ETA or Visa
As the European Union begins to implement the European Travel Information and Authorisation System (ETIAS) and Britain moves forward with its own form of electronic travel authorisation (UK ETA) there is every indication that the current travel requirements between the EEA and the UK will change.
Currently, British and European citizens enjoy visa-free access between both jurisdictions, but this simplicity of movement will change when ETIAS and the UK ETA are fully operational, which is expected to be by 2024 in the case of ETIAS and the following year for the UK ETA.
At this point in time, it is not expected to greatly alter the requirements for European visitors to possess a Transit Visa to use British airports as a stepping stone, but this a fluid situation and could well change if the European Commission should decide to impose such requirements on British citizens transiting through European airports.