Arriving at any of the major British airports during peak holiday periods can be a wearing experience as long queues at passport control are a regular occurrence. Even during less busy times waiting to clear the UK Border Force checkpoints can be time consuming. To cut down on unnecessary queues and accelerate the procedure many airports in the United Kingdom now provide an automated passport control system. These are known as eGates which is an abbreviation for electronic immigration gates. Also known as ABC (automated border control) gates, eGates are automated barriers that use digitally stored data to verify a traveller’s identity by biometric means.
As of October 2023 there are more than 270 operational eGates in the United Kingdom with the majority of these located at airports and several at other points of entry such as the Eurotunnel.
The installation of eGates to streamline visitor access to the United Kingdom is a work in progress with additional facilities being added on a regular basis. The following airports in England have eGates installed and operational:
- East Midlands
- London City
Additionally, the Scottish airports at Edinburgh and Glasgow as well as Cardiff Airport in Wales also have eGates. There are no eGates as yet in Northern Ireland but Belfast Airport should soon join the list of British Airports that provide an automated passport control service.
How eGates Work
There can be a number of entry gates to choose from and a new arrival should wait for the next one to become free which will be indicated with a green tick mark or light. In order to use an eGate it is essential that a passenger has an up-to-date, biometric passport. The information stored on the passport’s chip is read when scanned and the biometric details such as facial recognition or iris scan is matched against the person standing in front of the eGate screen. After a short pause the system will verify the person’s identity and the gate will automatically open. In the case of a machine malfunction, or difficulty in the verification process, the barrier will remain closed and a member of the immigration service will attend to try and resolve any issues.
A biometric passport, recognizable by the camera-like symbol on the cover, is essential as older, standard passports will not be accepted by the eGate system. The digital chip contained in a biometric passport contains the holder’s personal details which includes:
- Full name
- Date of birth
- Holder’s nationality
- Country of passport issue
- Passport number and expiry details
- Photograph of holder
The chip may also store pertinent travel details, visa information where applicable and, importantly, biometrics which may consist of a facial or iris scan. In the future, fingerprints may be added to the biometric details contained on the chip but are not a requirement at present.
The photograph page of the passport is scanned at the eGate while the built-in camera photographs the traveller. This photo is checked against the one contained in the passport by an immigration officer and, once the official is satisfied the two match, and all other details are in order, the barrier opens and the traveller is allowed entry. If a “stop” icon appears on the screen, the gate will not open and immigration officials will handle the matter in person.
Simple and Fast Process
Using an automated passport control gate is simple and fast and following a few basic rules will help speed the procedure up even more and avoid confusion, delay and possible problems:
- Before approaching the eGate remove hats, sunglasses, scarves or any items that may obscure the face (this can also include regular glasses if these are not worn in the passport photograph).
- Remove any passport covering and open to the photograph page.
- Wait for the next available gate as indicated by a green light.
- Only one person at a time should enter the gate.
- Hold any hand luggage, bags or personal items in front to avoid catching them in the gate when cleared.
- Place the passport (open to the photo page) face down on the scanner with the passport cover at the front.
- Hold the passport firmly flat and in place for a few seconds (do not move the passport).
- Look straight ahead at the eGate screen while holding the head still.
- After a few seconds the passport should be verified and the barrier will automatically open allowing the traveller to enter the United Kingdom.
Families or groups travelling together should endeavour to use the eGates at the same time in case there are any issues with a passport or the machine. If it is necessary to speak personally with an immigration officer remember to put away mobile phones or laptops.
Eligibility to Use eGates
While a biometric passport is essential in order to use eGates in UK airports this does not mean that all biometric passports are acceptable.
Use of eGates is confined to:
- British citizens
- Citizens of any of the 27 European Union member countries
- Citizens of the three EEA (European Economic Area) of Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein
- Swiss nationals
Citizens of countries that currently have a reciprocal visa-free agreement with the United Kingdom may also use eGates at UK airports and these include passport holders from:
Another group that have access to automated passport control gates are members of the Registered Traveller Service. The Registered Traveller Service (RTS) is a membership scheme which is open to citizens of most countries and is of most benefit to frequent travellers as it provides quicker and more convenient service at UK passport control checkpoints.
It should be noted that children aged between twelve and seventeen may use the eGate system but only when accompanied by an adult.
UK ETA Concerns
Concerns have been expressed about the upcoming introduction of the UK ETA system and how it may affect the automated passport control system. The UK ETA (electronic travel authorisation) is a method of pre-screening intending foreign nationals wishing to enter any of the four United Kingdom countries of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The requirement for a UK ETA will only affect citizens of some Middle Eastern countries up to the end of 2023 before it is extended worldwide during 2024. The only difference it will make to citizens who currently qualify to use eGates is that the biometric passport will need to have the requisite UK ETA approval linked to the passport when the UK ETA becomes mandatory for all eligible travellers in 2024, or possibly even in 2025.
As things stand a current, valid, biometric passport issued in any of the qualifying countries is all that is required to avail of the faster eGate system but it is advisable to have obtained UK ETA approval if a new passport is being sought and an upcoming visit to the United Kingdom is a real possibility.