What is the UK Border Force?

| October 21, 2023
UK ETA Border Force

The unprecedented number of migrants illegally crossing the English Channel from France has been a hot topic of debate in the English media in recent times. Illegal immigrants, whether asylum seekers or economic migrants, seem to be able to enter the United Kingdom (and particularly England) at will with little or no effort seemingly being made to stem the flow.

Responsibility for immigration matters rests with the British Home Secretary, and a recent act of parliament, the Nationality and Borders Act of 2022, has given the British government more power to deal with the current immigration crisis.

On the ground, however, it is not the government who are responsible for the processing and handling of asylum seekers, economic migrants and other matters of border security. This falls under the remit of the United Kingdom Border Force.


The UK Border Force is an arm of law enforcement and is under the command of the British Home Office. To the general public, the UK Border Force is viewed as just police in boats who patrol harbours and the British coastline. However, the Border Force is responsible not just for maritime security but also security at airports and other points of entry. The UK Border Force is responsible for:

Immigration status checks on persons arriving in the United Kingdom as well as those departing the jurisdiction.

  • Searching travellers baggage and vehicles as well as cargo and freight for illicit materials and goods.
  • Detection of illegal immigrants on vessels, planes, trains, lorries, coaches and other methods of travel attempting to enter the United Kingdom.
  • Maintaining a presence along the coastline.
  • Stopping and searching boats or other seagoing vessels when necessary.
  • Intelligence gathering on suspected illegal activity through UK ports and airports.

Working in conjunction with British police and national security services to keep a watch on persons of interest.

To prevent criminal activity or detect breaches of the law, UK Border Force officers maintain a presence at over 140 rail stations, sea ports and airports not just in the United Kingdom but also overseas.

Three Entities Become One

Although the concept of a single border force was first proposed in 2003, there were three distinct agencies charged with UK border control up until 2007. Each of the three agencies had its own areas of responsibility which were:

  1. HM Revenue and Customs (previously called HM Customs and Excise) was responsible for the collection of taxes and duty on goods entering and leaving the United Kingdom as well as the protection of UK borders.
  2. Immigration and Nationality Directorate handled applications for British citizenship, the right to remain within the UK and was also responsible for identifying, monitoring and deporting illegal immigrants.
  3. UKVisas processed all visa applications for non-nationals entering the United Kingdom.

The three agencies working in tandem was cumbersome and ineffective and it was decided that protecting British borders would be better served if the responsibility for border security was centralised into one authority. Revenue and Customs border protection duties were transferred to the UK Border Agency as were the immigration powers of the Immigration and Nationality Directorate. And in 2008 UKVisas was also absorbed into the new UK Border Agency.

The UK Border Agency (UKBA) soon ran afoul of the British government over numerous failings in its operations including poor service, numerous complaints and a case backlog in the hundreds of thousands, and an inquiry into the UKBA was announced in 2011. Following the inquiry, the UKBA was abolished and split into three new entities:

  1. UK Visas and Immigration which was to oversee all matters pertaining to the issuing of British visas.
  2. Immigration Enforcement was given the task of looking after all matters of immigration both legal and illegal and enforcing the law as it pertained to breaches of immigration regulations.
  3. Border Force was set up to enforce everyday immigration and customs affairs at all points of entry to the United Kingdom.

In March of 2021, the UK Border Force was recognised as a separate entity and commenced activity at airports, sea ports, international rail stations and numerous small airfields and harbours across the United Kingdom.

UK Border Force Operations

The UK Border Force has a workforce of around 10,000 according to the UK government and covers five operational areas across the United Kingdom.
The five regions are:

  • Central Area
  • Heathrow
  • Northern Area
  • Southern Area
  • South East and Europe

Border security is enforced 24 hours a day every day of the year and Border Force personnel are based at virtually every airport, sea port, international rail stations and other points of entry to the United Kingdom including the Eurotunnel running from Folkestone to Coquelles in France and the Eurostar rail service from St. Pancras International to Paris and Brussels. Operational duties for Border Force personnel includes:

  • Checking documentation of travellers
  • Immigration control
  • Searches for illegal goods including drugs, money, alcohol, weapons, counterfeit goods and prohibited foods or goods
  • Vehicle and cargo searches for illegal or undocumented travellers

Border Force agents have the authority to stop, question and search passengers, luggage, cars, coaches and heavy goods vehicles as well as air and sea cargo containers.


Although uniformed, Border Force personnel are actually civil servants although they do have certain legal powers and authority by virtue of their standing as designated immigration officers and customs officials.

Immigration Officer

As designated immigration officers, Border Force personnel have the power to arrest and detain both at points of entry to the United Kingdom and inland should the need arise. Arrest and detention may be used where a person is determined to be liable for arrest by a police officer for suspected offences.

Customs Official

Border Force personnel who are designated customs officials have the same powers as those of officers with the Revenue and Customs department. This means they may enter vehicles or containers, search for illicit goods or illegal migrants, seize any contraband found and arrest suspects. However, Border Force personnel have no authority over non-border affairs such as income tax or Value Added Tax fraud although they do have the power to check that the correct tax and duty has been paid on imported goods.

Identifying factors

Border Force personnel are recognisable by their dark blue uniforms which bear the wearer’s rank and identification number on the epaulette. Officials may also carry certain equipment that may be required for personal protection or to assist in carrying out their duties. Equipment carried or worn includes:

  • Baton
  • Radio
  • Handcuffs
  • Stab vest
  • Utility belt or vest

The UK Border Force also employs a number of dog handlers and has a dog unit. The dogs are trained specifically to detect drugs and explosives and are generally deployed at the larger entry points to the UK such as Heathrow Airport, Southampton harbour and the entrances and exits of the Eurostar and Eurotunnel.

Naval Force

Protecting the United Kingdom’s coastline is an important part of the Border Force’s activities and particularly so in recent times as the numbers of illegal migrants from France to the English south coast has steadily increased.

All UK Border Force ships are prefixed with the letters HMC which stands for His Majesty’s Cutter although only five of the eleven ships currently active are actual cutters.

Operating in both British and European waters, and with a displacement of 257 tonnes, the five cutters in UK Border Force service are:

  1. Seeker
  2. Searcher
  3. Vigilant
  4. Valiant
  5. Protector (434 tonnes)

Coastal Patrol Vessels

To supplement the five cutters, the UK Border Force also has six coastal patrol vessels in service. Faster and more mobile than the cutters, the coastal patrol vessels are primarily used for patrolling close to shore and chasing down illegal maritime traffic. Coastal patrol vessels currently in operation are:

  1. Active
  2. Alert
  3. Eagle
  4. Nimrod
  5. Hunter
  6. Speedwell

Additionally, the UK Border Force has chartered the use of the MV VOS Grace. The Grace was designed as a supply vessel for offshore oil and gas platforms but is now employed as a rescue vessel to assist illegal boats and migrants in maritime difficulties.

Joint Control

Entry to southern England either through the Channel Tunnel or by ferry crossing is overseen by juxtaposed immigration control. This means that the responsibility for checking travellers and cargo is shared between French, Belgian, Dutch and United Kingdom immigration authorities.

Travellers from England to the Schengen Area member states of Belgium, France and the Netherlands must go through passport controls while still in the United Kingdom and possess the correct documentation for the trip including a Schengen Visa when (or if) it becomes necessary.

UK ETA an added Responsibility for Border Force

Beginning in 2023, and set to become mandatory by 2025, British visitors to Europe will require ETIAS (European Travel Information and Authorisation System) approval before undertaking any trip between the United Kingdom and mainland Europe. ETIAS is similar to a visa (but in electronic rather than paper format) and is intended to screen intending visitors to the European Union and Schengen Area to determine whether they should be allowed to enter Europe or not.

Travellers headed in the opposite direction, from Europe to the UK, must clear passport and UK immigration checks before leaving mainland Europe. As with the EU and ETIAS, the United Kingdom is also set to introduce a pre-screening system for intending visitors called the UK ETA. The UK ETA (Electronic Travel Authorisation) is to be up and running in 2024 and fully implemented in 2025. In addition to its existing duties, the UK Border Force will play a large role in UK ETA enforcement.