| April 26, 2023

Is a UK ETA Free?

Still, a work in progress, the United Kingdom ETA should come into being sometime in 2023 and become a mandatory requirement the following year. Whether this schedule can be adhered to remains to be seen, but the British government seems to be quietly confident that it can be achieved.

ETA stands for Electronic Travel Authorisation and is the United Kingdom’s version of the European Travel Information and Authorisation System (ETIAS) and works in precisely the same manner. Like a standard visa, the ETA is a means of pre-screening intending visitors to the UK to assess whether they pose a criminal, terrorist or health risk.

An ETA application is carried out online through a detailed questionnaire. The applicant will also have to supply various required pieces of documentation, such as a scanned passport. The information and personal details on the application form will be checked through various international and world databases for verification.

Assuming no red flags are raised, an applicant can expect the ETA to be granted within two to three days. Once the application is approved, the ETA is electronically linked to the applicant’s passport and will show up when screened before boarding a plane, boat or train to any of the four United Kingdom countries of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

UK ETA Introduction and Applicable Fees

Originally set to begin a limited test operation in early 2023, is now likely to start in the latter part of the year. The UK ETA is to be rolled out in three phases:

Phase 1. Early 2023 should see the ETA released on a beta testing basis to detect any issues with the system.

Phase 2. The first real roll-out of the system is pencilled in for late 2023 and will be limited to the Middle East countries of Oman, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

Phase 3. From the end of 2023 and into 2024, the UK ETA will become a mandatory requirement for citizens of all eligible countries.

Nationals of countries outside of the EU and Schengen Area or of countries that currently enjoy visa-free access to the UK will continue to require a UK visa in order to visit, study, work or reside within the United Kingdom.

The UK ETA is part of a plan to digitalise borders by 2025 and is designed to improve border security and reduce queueing times by better managing passenger flow. While these improvements might be welcomed by intending non-national visitors, they will come at a cost.

Firstly it will be necessary to possess a current biometric passport which may mean acquiring (and paying for) a new passport. Secondly, there will be an administrative cost applied to each application, but the precise amount has yet to be specified.

The current cost of the EU version, the ETIAS, is €7 (£6.15). The current cost of the UK ETA is £10 per applicant. This may seem a reasonable fee, but the ETA is only expected to be valid for a period of two years. Once expired, it will be necessary to go through the application procedure and pay the application fee again.

Who will require a UK ETA?

The short answer is: citizens of every country that currently enjoys visa-free access to the United Kingdom. When the UK was part of the European Union, British citizens were free to enter and travel through all of the EU member countries as well as the four European countries that are Schengen members but not in the European Union. The four are Iceland, Switzerland, Norway and Liechtenstein.

Conversely, citizens of any of the EU or Schengen countries were free to visit the United Kingdom for a period of up to ninety consecutive days without the need for any visa or other form of approval.

While a European Union member, all that British citizens required for European travel were a valid passport. This remains the situation as the British government negotiated an extension of visa-free access as part of the Brexit agreement.

However, this visa-free grace period is due to expire shortly. Once expired, it is possible that British citizens wishing to visit a European country will require a Schengen Visa for this purpose. This may or may not be the case, but one thing is certain. From 2024 any British citizen travelling to Europe for any purpose will require ETIAS approval before even leaving the United Kingdom.

The British response is to roll out its own electronic travel authorisation system under the Nationality and Borders Bill. The ETA is still under development but once completed and functioning, nationals of all EU and Schengen member states will require a UK ETA to visit the United Kingdom.

It is not only Europeans who will be affected when the UK ETA comes into effect. There are several countries around the globe that currently enjoy a reciprocal visa-free agreement with the European Union and the United Kingdom. The list includes most of the world’s biggest and most prominent countries, including:

A complete listing of which countries are eligible for ETA is continuously updated, but the only country exempted from the UK ETA requirement will be the Republic of Ireland which operates a Common Travel Area with the United Kingdom.

ETA Application

As the ETA application process is carried out entirely online, applicants will obviously require access to a computer with internet access. Precise details of what information and documentation will be required to complete the application process are, as yet, unclear, but some details have already been confirmed. An applicant must:

  • Possess a current, valid, biometric passport
  • Supply an email address for contact and confirmation
  • Have an acceptable means of online payment, such as a debit or credit card

An applicant will also have to supply details of the entry and exit dates from the United Kingdom and any planned travel itinerary. It is also a certainty that, along with the applicant’s personal details, it will also be necessary to complete a detailed questionnaire which will include questions regarding any criminal or terrorist connections or convictions.

All the information supplied on the application form will then be checked against British Home Office records as well as international security databases, and an assessment will be made as to whether or not an ETA should be granted.

How long will an ETA application take to process?

The British government website states that lodging an ETA application should take no more than fifteen minutes, but this may be on the optimistic side. The applicant’s passport will need to be scanned and attached, and, likely, other documentation will also be required. Depending on the exact requirements, the application process is unlikely to be as simple as stated.

It may take considerably longer than fifteen minutes as it will also be imperative to double-check that the form has been fully and correctly completed and that all the required documents have been scanned and properly attached.

How is a UK ETA processed?

Once submitted and paid for in full, an application should be granted or denied within two to three days, but this may not be the case. The ETA is not a paper document but electronic approval to travel to the United Kingdom, which is linked to a passport. The ETA shows up when scanned at the applicant’s point of departure and again on arrival in the United Kingdom.

It is important to note that while an ETA will be mandatory, it is not a guarantee that the holder will be permitted to enter the UK. This, as is currently the situation, is at the discretion of UK border authorities.