UK ETA to Improve Border Security

| November 28, 2023
UK ETA to Improve Border Security

Set to come into operation in November 2023, the UK ETA is similar to a visa in that it is a means of pre-screening intending visitors to the United Kingdom and only grants permission to travel to persons not deemed to pose a potential criminal, terrorist or security risk.

ETA stands for Electronic Travel Authorisation, and this is precisely what the new UK ETA is. Before even departing for one of the four United Kingdom countries of Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland, a traveller must apply for and receive permission to do so.

The application process is relatively straightforward, and the online form is designed to elicit information from the applicant which will allow UK officials to determine whether or not the intending visitor poses a threat to the United Kingdom’s security.

UK ETA Launch

While the United Kingdom was still a member of the European Union, travel between the UK and Europe was a simple matter. All that was required for British visitors to the EU or Schengen Area was a valid passport, and the reverse was true for Europeans entering the United Kingdom.

Similarly, foreign nationals from a number of visa-exempt countries could enter the UK on just a passport and without the need for any form of visa. Today, however, Britons visiting countries such as Canada, the United States, and Australia must possess electronic pre-approval before travelling, and this will also soon be the case as the European Union begins to introduce its own pre-screening mechanism called ETIAS.

ETIAS (European Travel Information and Authorisation System) will come into effect during 2023, and it will soon become a mandatory requirement for all visitors to any of the European Union and Schengen Area member states. The ETIAS requirement will apply even to citizens of countries that currently enjoy visa-exempt status with the EU, and this list includes the United States, Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Brazil, as well as the United Kingdom.

UK ETA Introduction

The rollout of the UK ETA is somewhat behind that of the European Union’s ETIAS, but the British government remains confident that the system will be up, running and fully functioning by the end of 2024. This may be slightly optimistic given the slow state of advancement so far, but it is expected that the first trial runs should begin later in 2023.

The UK ETA can be viewed as a type of visa but in electronic form rather than paper. Once granted, the UK ETA is digitally linked to a passport and shows up when the passport is scanned at an airport, seaport or other points of departure, including international train and coach stations.

Citizens of Qatar will be the first to test out this new system. From October onwards, Qatari citizens will require a UK ETA before any travel to the United Kingdom. Following this, assuming there are no technical issues, the scheme will be extended to include six further countries in the Middle East. The six countries whose citizens will require a UK ETA from February 2024 are:

Once again, barring any issues with the system, the UK ETA requirement will be rolled out across Europe and the rest of the world throughout 2024 and should be mandatory for citizens of all applicable countries by the end of the year.

Application Process

Applying for a UK ETA is similar to applying for a visa, but the process is carried out entirely online or via a dedicated UK ETA phone app. This means that the applicant must have access to a computer with internet connectivity or a smartphone. A valid email address is also a necessity as all communication is carried out in this fashion, as is the confirmation of approval or denial of the UK ETA.

The information required on the application covers a range of basic and personal details, and all questions must be answered completely and honestly as the information provided can (and will) be checked against a number of British, European and world databases.

The first sections of the application form require the applicant’s:

  • Full name and address
  • Date of birth
  • Nationality
  • Occupation
  • Marital status
  • Passport number and expiration date
  • Contact details

In addition, an applicant will be asked to upload a recent and acceptable photograph. Payment must accompany the application. This is currently estimated to be somewhere between £6 (€7) and £10 (€11.60), but a precise fee has yet to be confirmed.

A confirmation of acceptance or a refusal will be sent to the email address provided on the application, and it is expected that a response should be delivered within three working days or less.

The final and most important piece of the application process is the provision of an applicant’s record of convictions for any past criminal or terrorist activities, as well as details of past visa transgressions.

Focus on Security

Travelling on just a passport, as is currently the situation, poses a real risk of undesirable elements entering the UK for nefarious purposes. A passport can only supply border security forces with very limited information about the visitor, and running a background check upon arrival takes time and is inconvenient for both the traveller and the Border Force agent on duty.

The UK ETA is being introduced to make things simpler for visiting non-nationals and strengthen security within the United Kingdom. With the new system in place, it should be virtually impossible for any person to enter the United Kingdom, as checks for a UK ETA should be carried out at the visitor’s point of departure.

Should someone evade detection at the point of departure, the visitor’s passport will be checked again upon arrival in the United Kingdom. If a visitor arrives without the required UK ETA, that person will be detained and returned to the point of departure as soon as this can be arranged.

With the UK ETA fully up and running, the British government fully expects to see a significant reduction in the number of people entering the jurisdiction as illegal immigrants or for the purpose of committing criminal or terrorist acts.

Background Checks

There is currently no defined set of security questions set out for the UK ETA application process, but it can reasonably be expected to closely follow those used for the ESTA system operated in the United States. The ESTA questions cover four basic topics:

  • Criminal record
  • Terrorism links (and suspected terrorist activity)
  • Use of drugs
  • Immigration history and previous visas

The questions asked and answers supplied are a key part of the UK ETA application process. Some sections may be very detailed, but this is because the UK Border Force must be assured that people entering the UK have been background checked as much as possible and do not pose any risk once granted permission to enter the United Kingdom.

Criminal History

Applicants for a UK ETA should fully disclose any record of convictions for criminal offences. Minor offences such as driving offences or non-payment of bills may not adversely impact an applicant’s chances of being approved, but prison sentences for serious crimes certainly will.

Terrorism Links

Countries around the world are more vigilant than ever about the possible risk of terrorist attacks. Any convictions for terrorist offences or even links with known terrorist groups or visits to areas of conflict, can seriously reduce the likelihood of being granted a UK ETA.

Use of Drugs

A history of drug abuse or dealing in illegal substances will count against an applicant but may not result in a refusal as this will depend on the seriousness of the matter and how long ago any abuse or dealing took place.

Immigration History

One of the purposes of the UK ETA is to curb immigrants from entering and illegally remaining in the United Kingdom. A record of similar past offences, overstaying on visas or a history of deportations will negatively impact upon an applicant’s chances of success.

Medical Conditions or History

Another area of concern for the American ESTA is an applicant’s medical history. This was particularly the case at the height of the coronavirus pandemic when all visitors to the United States had to be fully vaccinated against the disease. US ESTA questions also covered contagious and transmissible diseases. The UK ETA application form may include some medical background questions, but this is still unclear.

Honesty is the Best Policy

It is expected that the vast majority of applications for a UK ETA will be processed and granted with little difficulty or delay. However, applicants who may have a somewhat chequered past may be tempted to supply false or misleading information on the form in the hope that such transgressions will be missed and the application granted.

Application Processing

All applications are thoroughly checked against numerous police and security databases, not just in the applicant’s home country but across the globe. Any incorrect or downright false information supplied on the application form will be discovered, and the UK ETA will be denied immediately.

No appeal process is currently offered and a refusal is a final decision. Those wishing to enter the United Kingdom, for whatever reason, must instead apply for a suitable form of UK Visa, but the chances of this being granted are severely diminished with a refused UK ETA on the record.

Questions asked should be answered fully and honestly. Unless an applicant has convictions for serious offences, there is always a chance the UK ETA will be granted. Providing false information or failure to answer honestly can only result in refusal and disappointment.