What travel purposes does the UK ETA cover?

| July 6, 2023
What travel purposes does the UK ETA cover?

Between 2023 and 2024, the United Kingdom is rolling out the new UK ETA programme. UK ETA stands for United Kingdom Electronic Travel Authorisation. It is a method of pre-screening intending visitors to any of the four United Kingdom countries of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Initial trials of the system are scheduled to take place in late 2023, when Qatari nationals will be the first to require a UK ETA before travelling to the UK. Barring any technical issues, or problems with the system, the scheme will be extended to other Middle East countries in early 2024, followed by the rest of the world later the same year.

Who Does the UK ETA Affect?

The answer to who will the UK ETA introduction affect is quite simple. Pretty much everybody in the world wishes to visit the UK for a short period of time but does not currently require a visa to do so. This could be to visit friends or family, a school trip, a business meeting, or to attend a particular event.

Once the system is fully functional and up and running, the requirement to possess a UK ETA before visiting any of the four United Kingdom countries will be mandatory for everyone, with only two exceptions.

These exceptions are:

  • Holders of a British passport
  • Citizens of the Republic of Ireland with an Irish passport

The reasons why British passport holders are exempt are obvious but not so clear when the exemption applies to citizens of the Republic of Ireland. Irish citizens are exempt from the UK ETA mandate because Ireland and the United Kingdom operate a Common Travel Area (CTA) agreement. This is a long-standing agreement between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland which allows citizens of one jurisdiction to enter, transit through, study, work, and even reside in the other. The CTA pre-dates Irish and British admission to the Europe Union, and the agreement was reaffirmed as recently as 2019.

Although nationals of all of the European Union countries continue to enjoy visa-free access to the United Kingdom, as was the case when the UK was still a member of the EU, this situation will change with the introduction of the UK ETA. From mid to late 2024 onwards, it will be necessary for not just EU citizens to have applied for and received a UK ETA before entering the United Kingdom but for citizens of every country across the globe apart from the two named exceptions.

Why is UK ETA Required?

In recent years there has been a dramatic increase in acts of terrorism and international criminal activity. In order to combat this and increase national security, many countries have introduced a method of pre-screening, intending visitors to ascertain whether they may pose a security or criminal risk.

The United States, Canada and Australia already operate a pre-screening system, and the European Union is currently introducing its own version called ETIAS:  European Travel Information and Authorisation System.

All of these systems operate in the same basic manner. Intending foreign visitors must complete a detailed questionnaire which includes questions regarding any criminal or terrorist connections or history. The information gathered is then thoroughly checked against numerous criminal and other databases to check an applicant’s veracity and suitability.

Once an applicant has cleared all security checks (which is the vast majority of cases), he or she is given “permission to travel”. He or she is authorised to enter the jurisdiction in question. The UK ETA is no different in that it is a means of tightening security across the United Kingdom to prevent unwanted and undesirable elements from entering any of the four UK countries.

UK ETA Mandatory for All Purposes

Any non-British or non-Irish nationals who wish to visit the United Kingdom for a short-term visit can currently do so under the current rulings regarding whether a visa is required or not. Citizens of countries that require a UK visa will continue to do so, while Europeans and nationals of countries that are visa-exempt will still require just a valid passport.

This situation will change over the coming years as the UK ETA scheme expands across the globe. Once fully operational, all visitors will require a valid biometric passport and a UK ETA in order to enter the UK for any reason, no matter how short the visit.

Although the UK ETA is not a visa, it basically operates in the same manner as a Schengen Visa. Once approved, it allows the holder to:

  • Transit through any of the United Kingdom countries
  • To remain within the UK for up to six months

While there are numerous types of Schengen Visa that cover specific reasons for the visit, there is only one type of UK ETA which covers all purposes for visiting the United Kingdom.

These include:

  • Transit to another country
  • Study
  • Visiting family and friends
  • Business-related matters
  • Holidays and tourism

The UK ETA allows the holder to visit the United Kingdom for these and other common reasons, but it does have limits, as is the case with a standard Schengen Visa. It is valid for a period of two years and permits the holder to enter and leave the jurisdiction on multiple occasions. However, it is limited to a maximum stay in the UK of ninety days, whereupon the holder must leave and re-enter if this is what is required.

It is only intended for short-term visitors and does not entitle the holder to seek or take up employment, even if this is unpaid work. It also does not entitle the holder to take up residence in the United Kingdom.

Online Applications Only

The application process for a UK ETA is carried out entirely online, so it must be completed on a computer with internet access or via a dedicated mobile app. In order to complete the application, a detailed personal questionnaire must be completed, a series of security questions answered, and the following will be required:

  • A valid, biometric passport
  • Dates and times of travel
  • Valid email (for confirmation purposes)
  • Acceptable debit or credit card for payment of processing fees

British authorities state that approval (or refusal) should be granted within two to three days and advise intending travellers to lodge an application before this time.
No precise amount has yet been given as to the cost of processing an application, but this should range from £5 (€6) to £20 (€28), which is comparable to other such systems. The most likely cost looks to be about £6, which is equivalent to the stated cost of the European ETIAS at 7 euros.

The UK ETA is not a paper document but electronic approval, which is linked to the traveller’s passport. Despite this fact, it is necessary to carry a paper copy of the UK ETA as this may be requested at the UK port of entry.

It is important to note that the UK ETA scheme is still a work in progress and subject to change at any time. Intending foreign visitors to the UK should check for the latest updates and particularly as the date of travel draws nearer.
It should also be stated that while a UK ETA will be mandatory, it does not automatically entitle the holder to enter the United Kingdom. The final decision on whether to grant or deny admission rests with the border security agents, who may refuse entry if there are sufficient grounds for so doing.