Commencing in 2023 with a test run and scheduled to be fully up and running the following year, the United Kingdom is introducing a pre-travel screening programme for foreign nationals wishing to visit the UK on a short-stay basis.
The new system is called the UK ETA, which stands for United Kingdom Electronic Travel Authorisation, which describes its purpose perfectly. Once operational, all intending non-nationals wishing to enter any of the four United Kingdom countries must be pre-screened and given the authorisation to travel to:
- Northern Ireland
The only exception to the UK ETA scheme will be citizens of the Republic of Ireland. This is because of the UK and Ireland agreement known as the Common Travel Area. Under this agreement, citizens of the United Kingdom and Ireland are free to travel between the two jurisdictions. Citizens of one are entitled to take vacations, work, study, and reside in the other.
Nationals of every other country will require the UK ETA, which will entail completing an online form and questionnaire. The application form will require details of a person’s nationality, contact information, passport held, and any criminal record or association with terrorist activity.
As with all personal information supplied to a third party, there may be some concerns about how the information supplied will be processed, stored and used.
Safe and Secure
Applications for the UK ETA are all processed automatically with few people having access to an applicant’s personal information. The primary function of the new system is to help secure the United Kingdom’s borders against possible criminal or terrorist activity by verifying each applicant’s identity and background.
This will involve checking the information on the application form against numerous online databases in order to assess an applicant’s suitability for travel authorisation and admission to the United Kingdom.
In order to complete the application, the intending visitor will require:
- A current biometric passport
- An email address for contact and approval of the UK ETA
- An acceptable debit or credit card for payment
As well as these items, an applicant must also submit a detailed description of travel plans while in the UK and include dates of arrival and exit from the United Kingdom.
All information supplied on the application form will be checked through the British Home Office’s databases as well as those of international security agencies in Europe, America and further afield.
The applicant’s information and details will be stored securely on encrypted servers and accessible to designated personnel only who have security clearance to do so.
Similarly, any personal details shared with outside agencies will only be used for verification purposes and not retained unless there is an exceptional reason for so doing.
The UK ETA scheme is still a work in progress, and there is no precise way to determine what type of security questions may be included on the application form. However, as the priority is to prevent criminals and terrorists from entering the United Kingdom, these questions may be assumed to mirror those currently used on forms from other jurisdictions.
The ETIAS (European Travel Information and Authorisation System) application form, for example, covers convictions in the preceding ten years for the following serious criminal offences:
- Child exploitation
- Drug trafficking
- Human trafficking
- Terrorist activity (preceding 20 years)
Convictions for any of these offences will raise red flags about an applicant but do not necessarily mean the UK ETA will be summarily refused, as each case will be decided on an individual basis. A previous history of illegal immigration or overstaying a visa are other red flags that the UK authorities will also be mindful of.
It must be assumed that some non-nationals will not be totally honest in completing the application form as they may wish to hide connections to criminal or terrorist organisations.
For this reason, it is only expected that the UK authorities will want to check the information supplied and use whatever means possible to verify an applicant’s suitability for admission to the United Kingdom.
British security databases will only provide a certain amount of information but this will be largely confined to people who have had a previous interaction with UK authorities.
To make the process as foolproof as possible, the UK ETA will also cross-check an applicant’s details and information against various international agencies’ databases, including those of:
EUROPOL = European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation
EURODAC – EU database storing fingerprints and information of illegal migrants
ECRIS = European Criminal Records Information System
VIS -Visa Information System
INTERPOL – International Criminal Police Organisation
SIS – Schengen Information System
Cross-checking information with all these organisations is done automatically for each applicant, and if no issues arise, the application should be processed and approved within two to three days.
The EUROPOL database contains records of not just those people who have been convicted of criminal offences but also has a watchlist of persons with suspected terrorist connections.
A non-national applicant for a UK ETA may not have served time in prison for any offence, but EUROPOL may be aware that he or she still poses a real criminal or terrorist threat to the United Kingdom.
Criminals have been known to use stolen passports and for this reason, the passport number can be checked against the INTERPOL stolen or lost travel documents database.
ECRIS was primarily established to enable information regarding non-European criminals to be exchanged swiftly and easily across Europe and the world. The ECRIS database can be searched for any previous prosecutions or convictions outside the European area.
Honesty is the Best Policy
The new system is not yet in operation but will begin to come into effect late in 2023, when Qatari nationals will become the first to require a UK ETA. This trial run, if successful, will be extended in early 2024 to other countries in the Middle East, followed by the rest of the world later the same year. The system is scheduled to be fully functioning and mandatory by the end of 2024.
Convictions for minor offences will not automatically disqualify an application, but providing false or misleading information almost certainly will if discovered. Most non-nationals wishing to visit the United Kingdom will do so for honest purposes, such as visiting friends or taking a short holiday.
Nobody is perfect, and some visitors will have a criminal record, but this alone will not prevent the UK ETA from being granted. All questions on the application form should be answered honestly and in full, and approval should be granted in all but a few rare cases.
Once the UK authorities are satisfied that the visitor poses no criminal or terrorist threat, the UK ETA should be granted. The best way to achieve this is by being honest and straightforward when completing the application form.