Over the next two years, the British government is introducing the UK ETA, which stands for Electronic Travel Authorisation. This is a means of pre-screening intending visitors to the United Kingdom and is similar to other electronic pre-travel approval systems already in operation in countries such as Australia, Canada and the United States. The UK ETA is not technically a visa, although it does serve much the same purpose.
Before Brexit, when the United Kingdom was still a member of the European Union, all that a British citizen required to visit Europe or the Schengen Area was a valid passport and the same privilege applied to EU citizens wishing to travel to the United Kingdom. This remains the situation at present but those days are drawing to an end as the Brexit withdrawal agreement runs down.
The European Union is strengthening border security by introducing the European Travel Information and Authorisation System (ETIAS) which is currently being rolled out. Acquiring ETIAS approval will soon become a mandatory requirement for British citizens travelling to any EU member state as the UK becomes what is termed a third country and loses its previously held freedom to travel.
Similarly, in a move designed at tightening border control, the United Kingdom is presently fine-tuning its own pre-travel screening system, the UK ETA, and this is set to become operational at the end of 2023 when some Middle Eastern countries become the first to trial the fledgling system. Following initial tests, the UK ETA requirement will then be tried further afield. Present estimates suggest that the UK ETA will be operating globally by the end of 2024, but this is not yet an absolute certainty.
Once up and running, every citizen of every nation will require a UK ETA to visit the United Kingdom on a short-term basis. This will also apply to citizens of countries who currently require a visa to enter the United Kingdom. For these intending visitors a visa will still be necessary but so will UK ETA approval before any travel to the United Kingdom can even commence.
After the initial trial period, the UK ETA requirement will then be extended to cover every country in the world. This will include countries that currently enjoy visa-free access to the United Kingdom, such as the United States, Canada, Australia, Japan, Mexico, Israel and most of the EU and Schengen Area member states.
Just as British citizens currently require an ESTA to enter the United States or an eTA for Canada, citizens of these (and other) countries will need UK ETA approval to enter UK territory. It is expected that the ETA system should be fully operational by the end of 2024 but this remains to be seen.
Exceptions to the Rule
As with all rules there are always exceptions and the UK ETA requirements are no different. Once fully implemented nationals of every country will need a UK ETA to visit the United Kingdom with the following exceptions:
- British passport holders include nationals of the four United Kingdom countries of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as well as the islands of Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man.
- Foreign nationals already holding residency permits in the UK or legally in the UK for work or study purposes.
- Citizens of British dependencies Gibraltar and Bermuda.
- Citizens of the Republic of Ireland.
Also, at least for the present, foreign nationals who currently require a visa to enter the UK will not require the UK ETA, but this situation will change in the near future.
Common Travel Area
It would seem fairly obvious that holders of British passports (those issued in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) would not require a UK ETA to visit what is, in effect, home territory. But why should Republic of Ireland citizens also be exempt from this upcoming requirement? It is because of an arrangement between the United Kingdom and Ireland called the Common Travel Area or CTA.
The CTA is a formal agreement between the UK and Irish governments that allows easier access and freedom of movement across the British Isles. Although the Republic of Ireland is not a part of the United Kingdom, it is a very close neighbour and shares a border with the UK-governed Northern Ireland.
The CTA dates back to the 1920s when a border was established between Northern Ireland, governed by Britain, and the new Irish Free State. This created major problems for citizens moving from one jurisdiction to another for personal or professional reasons. It also adversely affected trade between the two countries. In short, the border was a barrier to both people and commerce in terms of time wasted and inconvenience.
It was decided to simplify matters by making special concessions regarding movement for Irish, Northern Irish and British citizens by establishing a Common Travel Area. Under this arrangement, it was (and still is) possible for citizens of one jurisdiction to avail of many benefits that are denied to others.
Irish citizens do not even require a passport to enter and move around the United Kingdom (although it is advisable and safer to carry one) and enjoy almost all the same rights as a UK citizen. These include the right to enter, travel through, and even take up employment or reside in any of the four UK countries, and the reverse is true of UK citizens wishing to relocate to the Republic of Ireland. Nowadays, following Brexit, even EU citizens no longer enjoy these advantages and a visa is required for any long-term stay in the UK.
Applying for a UK ETA
The UK ETA will replace Electronic Visa Waivers (EVW), which are currently used by many non-nationals worldwide. The new system is an improvement on the old as not only is there a higher emphasis on security, but the ETA is also cheaper and can be used on multiple occasions during its validity period of two years.
The UK ETA introduction will initially affect countries in the Middle East but all intending visitors will require a UK ETA in the near future. Regardless of nationality, the application process will be the same for everyone.
Presently, it is proposed that the application process will be carried out entirely online, so applicants must have access to a computer with a reliable internet connection. The applicant will require:
- A valid, current biometric passport
- Email address
- Acceptable debit or credit card for payment.
The applicant must also furnish details of the planned dates of arrival and exit as well as provide an itinerary of any planned trips while in the United Kingdom. As with a Schengen Visa, a UK ETA only allows the holder to remain within the UK for a maximum of 180 days and does not grant permission to work or reside in any of the UK countries.
The UK ETA is not a paper document but electronic approval that is linked to a passport, which shows up when scanned at a point of departure or arrival. The UK ETA is valid for a period of two years, and the holder may enter and leave the United Kingdom as often as desired during this time. However, if the passport expires, the UK ETA expires with it and must be applied for (and paid for) once again.