The British government is currently in the process of introducing an electronic permission-to-travel system for all non-British and Irish citizens. Called Electronic Travel Authorisation, or ETA, the system is not fully operational as yet but is expected to be fully in place by the end of 2024, although this may yet prove to be an optimistic expectation rather than a fact.
Similar to other electronic travel authorisation systems already in place in the United States, Canada, Australia and (very shortly) the European Union, the UK ETA is a method of pre-screening intending visitors before arrival anywhere in the United Kingdom, whether by air, land or sea.
When the new system is fully operational, it will be a mandatory requirement for all foreign nationals to possess ETA approval before embarking on any trip to the United Kingdom. Intending visitors will be checked at the point of departure. The ETA is not a paper document like a visa but electronic approval that is digitally linked to a passport. When scanned at an airport, seaport or other points of departure, the presence (or lack) of an ETA will be detected, and the traveller either allowed or prohibited to embark on the UK visit.
It is anticipated that the vast majority of ETA applications will be granted within a matter of days, but rejections can be expected for a number of reasons.
For most applications, the processing time should be less than 48 hours, but it is recommended that a minimum of 72 hours should be allowed for. Applying for a UK ETA can be done online, and the application process basically consists of the following:
- Completing the application form fully and honestly
- Having a valid, biometric passport
- Providing personal details including name, date of birth, gender and nationality
- Passport details, including an ID number, date of issue/expiration, country of issue
- Supplying contact details such as an address, phone number (s) and email address
- Answering a series of security questions
All applicants will also be asked to confirm the dates of entry and exit as well as supply details of any travel plans, outings or trips planned while in the United Kingdom.
As the process is carried out via the internet, applicants must have a valid email address where they will be notified of the application’s outcome and an acceptable online payment method. The ETA, once granted, will be automatically attached to the applicant’s passport, and a printable version will be sent to the email address supplied.
The application form, though detailed, is fairly easy to complete and should take an estimated fifteen minutes at most. The biggest problem with applications is expected to be errors or omissions on the form, so all applicants are urged to take great care and double-check their forms for any such problems.
Although the ETA application form has not yet been finalised, the security-related section of the form is expected to broadly be the same as that currently applicable to a UK Visa application.
Areas covered and expected questions should include all or most of the following:
- Details of any previous visits to the United Kingdom (last ten years)
- Details of any international travel in the preceding ten years
- Details of any previous visa refusal for any country, including the United Kingdom
- Details of previously-issued UK visas (last ten years)
- Details of any previous refusal to enter the United Kingdom and reasons why
- Details of any previous deportation or removal from any country
- Details of any application to remain in the UK within the previous ten years
- Possession of a UK National Insurance number and relevant number (if applicable)
The final sections of the form are expected to cover an applicant’s criminal history and any connection to a criminal or terrorist organisation. An applicant is expected to give details of:
- Any previous criminal convictions (including offences for driving) in any country
- Any pending or upcoming court appearances for criminal offences
- UK court judgements for non-payment of debts
- Any civil penalties imposed under the UK Immigration Acts
- Any expression of personal opinions that support, glorify or justify terrorist acts or groups
The last component in assessing an applicant’s suitability for an ETA involves the applicant giving details of activities that may concern British authorities, but what exactly these may be is not defined.
Reasons for ETA Refusal
Excluding basic spelling errors, omissions or typos in the application form, the most likely reasons for a UK ETA to be refused would be possible criminal or terrorism concerns. While all applicants are expected to answer all questions honestly and completely (it is an offence not to), this is hardly going to be the case for someone who is trying to conceal a criminal or terrorist history or remain in the UK illegally.
Citizens of certain countries may be asked to supply a Criminal Record Certificate from the national police authority, but this is not always possible. Regardless, the British police and security authorities will conduct their own background check on applicants using databases at Interpol and other international security agencies. If blatant errors or omissions are included on the application form, a refusal can be expected.
While criminal convictions for minor offences may not result in refusal, obtaining an ETA will be more difficult for those with a criminal record. Applicants with a record of terrorist offences or with ties to known terrorist organisations will, most likely, find it almost impossible to be granted an Electronic Travel authorisation for the United Kingdom.
All electronic pre-screening systems worldwide have a built-in appeals process for those applicants who have received a negative response. The new UK ETA, however, is still very much a work in progress, and there is very little information available as to how a refusal can be appealed or how long it may take to process.
If the ETA appeal process follows that of a refusal for a UK Visa, an applicant can lodge an appeal immediately upon refusal but should do so within fourteen days. This will involve detailing the reasons why the ETA was (erroneously) refused and correcting any errors or misunderstandings which may have resulted in the refusal.
Overturning a refusal is not easy, and the chances of success will depend on the seriousness of the errors made or the gravity of criminal or terrorist offences. In some cases, it may be necessary to avail of legal services, which can be an expensive undertaking with no guarantee of a favourable outcome.