The UK ETA System and How It Works

| October 21, 2023
How the UK ETA System Works

The British Home Office is currently in the process of introducing a new method of pre-screening intending visitors to the United Kingdom. Similar to a visa, the ETA system is intended to determine whether or not arriving non-nationals pose a criminal or security threat by gathering as much background information as possible about the visitor and to use this information to determine whether that person should be allowed to enter, or transit through, any of the four countries that make up the United Kingdom: England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The new system is called the UK ETA which stands for United Kingdom Electronic Travel Authorisation and is similar in nature to other such pre-screening systems currently in operation around the world. Electronic travel authorisation is used by:

  • The United States (ESTA: Electronic System for Travel Authorisation)
  • Canada (eTA: Electronic Travel Authorisation)
  • Australia (ETA: Electronic Travel Authority)

Another pre-travel screening system currently being introduced is the European Union’s ETIAS, European Travel Information and Authorisation System, which will become mandatory by the end of 2025.

The British government intends to have the UK ETA operating by the end of 2023 and fully operational sometime in 2024.

What is the UK ETA?

The UK ETA can be viewed as the modern digital equivalent of a standard paper visa and is part of the United Kingdom’s plan to strengthen border security by checking the background of intending foreign visitors. The application process is done entirely online, or via a mobile phone app, and the applicant will be required to supply:

  • A recent photograph
  • Passport number and expiration date
  • Personal details
  • Contact information

In addition, applicants must also supply details of convictions for criminal offences and a history of recent travels where a visa was used. The details supplied on the UK ETA application form will be cross-checked with UK, European and world security and police databases and if any red flags are raised the UK ETA will be denied. The passport being used should be biometric and valid for at least three months beyond the last date to be spent in the United Kingdom. In the near future the application process will also include a scan of the applicant’s fingerprints but this is not, as yet, feasible.

The UK ETA is not a document but digital approval to enter the UK linked to the holder’s passport. The UK ETA will be required before travel to the United Kingdom commences as it must show up when scanned at the airport, sea port or other point of departure.

People arriving at a point of departure without the required UK ETA approval will be refused permission to travel or, if somehow, managing to arrive in the United Kingdom will be denied entry and returned to their point of origin.

Who Requires a UK ETA?

As a member of the European Union British citizens could travel freely between any of the EU member states without the need for a visa or other form of approval. This visa-free travel agreement meant that EU citizens were also able to visit the United Kingdom using just a valid passport. Following Brexit this reciprocal visa-exemption agreement remained in place but is shortly coming to an end.

Sometime in 2024 or 2025, British citizens wishing to visit any of the EU or Schengen Area member states will require an ETIAS in order to do so. In return the British government will require any EU visitors to the UK to posses a UK ETA before coming to any of the four UK countries.

Basically, citizens of any country that currently enjoys visa-free access to the UK will soon be required to have applied for and received a UK ETA and this includes countries such as the United States, Canada, Japan, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia.

A notable exception to the upcoming UK ETA requirement is the Republic of Ireland whose citizens will be exempt from the mandate. This is because Ireland and the United Kingdom have a long-standing Common Travel Area agreement whereby UK and Irish citizens enjoy ease of travel between the two jurisdictions.

UK Border Checks

The prime reason behind the introduction of the UK ETA is to prevent unwanted or undesired persons from entering the United Kingdom. This, of course, means that any intending visitor must be checked for the UK ETA before reaching any UK country and this must be done at the visitor’s point of departure.

To this end, the British government expects the airlines or shipping companies to check that travellers to the UK have the necessary UK ETA and that it is still valid. In addition, British border security personnel will be stationed at French harbours and the Eurostar train tunnel to check visitors travelling from or through France.

It is expected that very few travellers will be able to arrive in the UK without the proper approval but arriving travellers may still be checked and questioned should any doubts or suspicions arise. Even travellers arriving with the passport and linked UK ETA in order may be refused entry as the final decision will rest with the UK Border Force‘s agents on duty.

The UK ETA Difference

The United Kingdom, and particularly Heathrow Airport, is an important international hub and gateway between the Middle and Far East and the United States. Because of this many non-nationals travellers arriving in the United Kingdom are merely transiting through en route to another destination.

While countries like the United States and Canada make allowances for visitors transiting through their territory, and do not require them to possess an American ESTA or Canadian eTA, the UK does not and requires that even those spending a short time at an airport or seaport possess a UK ETA.

It is estimated that around one third of passengers arriving at Heathrow Airport are in transit and, because of this extra layer of bureaucracy and the cost involved, British tourism authorities fear that many non-nationals will chose an alternate route where possible in order to avoid the inconvenience involved in acquiring the required UK ETA for such a simple matter. Concern about loss of business and revenue has been voiced by Heathrow authorities as well as major airline companies such as Virgin Atlantic and British Airways but there is no indication that this regulation will be altered or dropped.

UK Government Stands Firm

The UK government, while acknowledging the possible loss of income to Heathrow and airlines, is standing firm in its decision to demand passengers in transit through the UK should possess a UK ETA. The reasoning behind the decision is to close a possible route to illegal immigration as it would be possible for undesirable elements to claim they were in transit and thus avoid the security checks that are at the core of the UK ETA application process.

Heathrow and the airline companies point out that it is possible to transit through Canadian and American airports with the minimum of fuss but the difference here is that arriving passengers are processed through U.S. Customs and Border Protection or the Canada Border Services Agency and must have the necessary electronic approval for the final destination.

This is not the case at Heathrow Airport where British security personnel do not check arriving passengers who are making an international connection. With the UK government refusing to budge on its position and business concerns fearing economic disaster, the introduction of the UK ETA has not been a smooth process and there will likely be a few more bumps in the road before it eventually becomes a mandatory requirement.

Another issue that has not been adequately addressed is the situation for international visitors who wish to visit both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Travellers arriving in the North will require a UK ETA while those who arrive in the Republic first will not. So what about visitors arriving in Dublin, Shannon or Cork who want to travel up to Northern Ireland by car, coach or train? The border between north and south no longer exists in that there are no checkpoints or border crossing stations. Official tour operators will be legally required to check passengers have a UK ETA if needed but individuals can easily cross the (now non-existent) border without ever being checked for any form of documentation.

Just one more issue that needs to be resolved before the UK ETA system can be properly and efficiently brought into being and the 2024 deadline may well turn out to be wishful thinking by UK authorities.