Is UK Entry Guaranteed with an ETA?

| December 6, 2023
Is UK Entry Guaranteed with an ETA?

The UK government is starting to roll out a system of pre-screening intended visitors to any of the four United Kingdom countries of England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. Starting in November 2023, the program is set to expand throughout 2024, and it will become a mandatory requirement for foreign nationals (with the exception of the Republic of Ireland) to have applied online (and received) a UK ETA before embarking on any travel to the United Kingdom.

UK ETA stands for United Kingdom Electronic Travel Authorisation, which is precisely the new requirement. Intending visitors must seek permission to travel to the UK and cannot enter any of the four UK countries or even undertake a journey to the UK without authorisation to do so.

Although the UK ETA performs the same basic function as a visa, it is not a paper document but digitally linked to a traveller’s passport. The UK ETA shows up when scanned at the point of departure as well as upon arrival in the United Kingdom. A traveller without the required UK ETA linked to a passport will be refused permission to travel.

If, somehow, a visitor should arrive in the UK without the required UK ETA, then he or she will be detained at the point of entry and subject to return to the point of departure.

UK ETA Phased Introduction

The new system will initially only affect citizens of several Middle East countries. From the middle of November 2023, Qatari nationals will require a UK ETA linked to their passports. Applications for the UK ETA can be submitted on the 25th of October.

This will be the first real test of the system and is designed to detect any issues, weaknesses, or glitches in the system. This is not expected to be the case, and the second phase is set to come into effect in late February 2024. From the 22nd of February, the UK ETA mandate will also apply to nationals of:

Applications from these six countries can be submitted from the 1st of February.
These are the only countries that will be affected at the beginning of 2024, but it is fully expected that the UK ETA will be rolled out throughout the year with the expectation that citizens of all countries who currently enjoy visa-free access to the United Kingdom will be included in the scheme by the end of the year.

UK ETA or British Visa

With the exception of British nationals and citizens of the Republic of Ireland, all visitors to the United Kingdom will require either a British Visa or a UK ETA once the system is up and running. The UK ETA requirement will apply to:

  • Citizens in all European Union countries
  • Citizens of Schengen Area member states
  • Visitors from the United States, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Mexico, Hong Kong, Israel, Japan, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea.
  • Visitors from these countries can currently visit or transit through the United Kingdom without a visa. All other countries are subject to a visa requirement, which will remain the case even after the UK ETA is introduced.

However, although a UK ETA is valid for a period of two years, it only allows the holder to remain within the UK for a maximum period of six months in one block. This is because the UK ETA is designed to cater for short-term visitors, and the six-month limit is deemed to be more than adequate for the following:

  • Vacations
  • Business trips
  • Family visits
  • Short study courses

A UK ETA does not permit the holder to find employment (even unpaid work) while in the United Kingdom, nor is the holder entitled to remain within the jurisdiction for the full two-year period of validity.

Although UK ETA holders may enter any of the four UK countries multiple times during the two years, they must leave if they have spent a consecutive six months in any of the countries and return later if desired.

Any visitors who wish to take up residency, find employment, attend educational courses longer than six months or remain for longer than six months for any reason must possess a British Visa relevant to the specific purpose of the visit to the United Kingdom.

Application Process and Use

Applying for a UK ETA must be done either online at the website or via a dedicated phone app. The application process involves answering a series of personal questions as well as providing details of any police record for criminal or terrorist offences. All details provided on the application form will be thoroughly checked against numerous civil and security databases worldwide before the UK ETA is granted or denied.

The vast majority of applications should be approved within three working days, although approval may be granted in less than that. Not all applications, however, will receive such a speedy response and it is generally advised to submit an application two to three weeks before the date of travel to allow for any unforeseen difficulties or delays.

All visitors should have their own UK ETA, even children and babies, although those children travelling on a parent’s or guardian’s passport are exempt as the UK ETA covers those named on the passport. Currently, the price of a UK ETA is set at £10 (€11.70), although this figure may be changed at any time.

Once granted, the UK ETA is digitally linked to the applicant’s passport, and approval confirmation will be emailed to the recipient. Although not required, it is advised that successful applicants print a hard copy of the UK ETA for their own records and take a copy on their travels in case any issues should arise at the point of departure or upon arrival at the UK border.

No Guarantee of Entry

Although a UK ETA will be mandatory, and a traveller may not travel to or enter the United Kingdom without one, it does not convey an automatic right of admission. Visitors to the UK should not be able to embark on a train, boat or plane as all carriers are expected to check UK-bound travellers for a valid passport with the linked UK ETA.

Possession of a UK ETA does not mean that a visitor is exempt from customs checks and border controls. The passport and attached UK ETA will be checked again by the UK Border Force agents on duty, and the traveller is either allowed to proceed or denied entry to the United Kingdom.

Although refusals are expected to be minimal, the ultimate decision rests with the UK Border Force. If there are suspicions about the holder, the passport or the UK ETA, it can, and probably will, result in the traveller being detained and returned to the point of departure or even arrested and charged should the circumstances warrant it.