In October of 2023, the United Kingdom introduced a new system of pre-screening visitors to any of the countries that comprise the UK: Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland. Called the UK ETA (United Kingdom Electronic Travel Authorisation) the system will first affect citizens of several countries in the Middle East before being extended to other nationalities during 2024.
British citizens, and those of the Republic of Ireland, will not require a UK ETA before entering the United Kingdom but this will become a compulsory requirement for citizens of countries that presently have visa-exempt access to any of the UK countries. This includes nationals of all European Union countries (and Schengen Area states outside the EU) as well as the United States, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Japan and others.
When the new pre-screening system is fully operational it will be mandatory for all intending visitors from those affected countries to have applied for (and received) a UK ETA before a trip to the United Kingdom can be undertaken.As with other digital pre-screening systems like the American ESTA, Canadian eTA or the Australian ETA, a UK ETA is not a paper document but electronic approval to travel which is linked to a visitor’s passport.
Without the necessary UK ETA it should be impossible for an intending visitor to even leave his or her home country as the passport and linked UK ETA will be scanned at the point or port of departure regardless of the mode of travel being used.
Although a UK ETA will soon become a mandatory requirement before even travelling to the United Kingdom it is not a guarantee that the traveller will be permitted to enter. This decision remains in the hands of the UK Border Force agents on duty who may deny access if there are reasonable grounds or suspicions for refusing entry.
Similarly, a UK ETA once granted is not automatically valid for the associated two-year duration of the permit as this may be revoked or annulled by the UK authorities if there are sufficient reasons for so doing.
UK ETA and Security
One of the main reasons for introducing the UK ETA is to strengthen British security. Under the current system, whereby visa-free visitors may enter or simply transit through the UK with just a valid passport, there can be little or no background information about any new arrivals. Passport details and a photo can only identify a traveller but offer no insight into a visitor’s past history.
As part of the UK ETA application process it is necessary to provide details of any past record of convictions for serious criminal offences or acts of terrorism. An applicant is also expected to supply information regarding any past visa infringements or deportations and any visits to areas of conflict.
The information supplied by an applicant is checked against an array of civil, police and security databases across the globe for possible red flags relating to the applicant. Using the information on the application form, and the results obtained from the checks, British authorities expect to make it more difficult (if not almost impossible) for criminal elements to gain access to the United Kingdom and greatly reduce the risks posed by international terrorism.
In the vast majority of cases it is expected that applicants will be granted a UK ETA, with confirmation expected within two to three working days. This should be the norm but prospective visitors to the UK should not wait until the last minute before submitting an application. Two weeks before travel is the recommended time that should be allowed but even this may be optimistic and it would be more prudent to apply for a UK ETA four to six weeks before the date of arrival in the United Kingdom.
A UK ETA may be denied due to an applicant’s criminal or terrorist record or a bad history with previous visas issued and once denied there is no right to appeal. In such cases, those wishing to visit the UK have no recourse but to apply for a standard British Visitor Visa but even this may be unsuccessful as the reasons for the UK ETA refusal may also make receiving a visa difficult if not impossible.
Grounds for Revoking UK ETA
The application procedure for the UK ETA has been designed to weed out unsuitable or undesirable visitors to the United Kingdom. However, despite the most stringent checks, there remains the remote possibility that the system may be circumvented by unscrupulous applicants who provide false information that eludes the background checks.
On arrival at a border checkpoint in the UK the passport and linked UK ETA is again scanned by Border Force agents and unless a problem is detected the traveller is allowed to enter the jurisdiction. Being permitted entry, however, does not mean that the UK ETA cannot be retracted or rescinded at any point in time.
New information concerning the holder’s history and possible fraudulent application can come to light at any time and the UK ETA declared null and void with immediate effect. There are a range of grounds why a UK ETA may be revoked even when initially granted with no detected issues.
 Deportation or Exclusion
If the holder is subject to a deportation order (or awaiting a decision) or has been previously excluded from the United Kingdom.
 Criminal Record
An undisclosed record of conviction for criminal offences (whether in the United Kingdom or abroad) which resulted in a jail sentence of one year or more.
 Non-conducive Reasons
The UK ETA may be cancelled or revoked if the authorities have good reason to believe the holder is non-conducive to public law and order because of previous bad conduct, questionable character or known associations with undesirable elements.
 Immigration Breaches
Past breaches of immigration regulations include:
- Overstaying previously issued visas or permits.
- Breaches of terms and conditions applicable to previous stays in the UK and overseas.
- Record of being an illegal immigrant in the past or currently.
Any form of deception used to acquire the UK ETA will result in revocation. These include:
- Supplying false or misleading information on the application form.
- Obtaining the UK ETA by deceptive or illegal means.
- Non-disclosure of relevant facts.
 NHS Debts
The UK ETA can be revoked if the holder has incurred charges due to the British National Health Service of £500 (€580) or more which remain outstanding and the holder cannot or will not pay.
 Unpaid Litigation Fees
Any litigation fees due to the British Home Office must be paid in full or the holder risks immediate revocation of the UK ETA.
Background checks on holders of a UK ETA do not end when the application is processed. Screening methods are constantly being updated and improved and issues that may have previously gone undetected may come to light at any time. Providing false information on the application form or neglecting to provide the requested details are the most likely grounds for refusal or revocation.
The UK ETA
A UK ETA has a validity period of two years for a range of purposes from the date of issue. However, if the holder’s passport expires within this time frame the linked UK ETA also expires. Once granted the holder is entitled to enter and transit through the United Kingdom as often as he or she wishes during the period of validity but may only remain for a maximum of six months at one go.
While in the United Kingdom it is highly unlikely that a UK ETA will be cancelled or revoked unless the holder has obtained the travel authorisation under fraudulent or deceptive circumstances. Of course, breaking the law while in the UK, or breaching the other conditions attached to the granting of the UK ETA, may result in an undesired outcome as well.
By completing the application form fully, accurately and honestly there should be little difficulty in securing the required UK ETA. Fraudulent applications will be considered as being from those who wish to enter the United Kingdom for illegal, criminal or terrorist purposes and will be dismissed out of hand.
The vast majority of those wishing to visit the UK are doing so for valid reasons and the British government is well aware of this fact. Visitors and tourists mean additional income and this is always welcomed by the British exchequer. Refusing a visitor’s request to visit is counter-productive and only done when there is genuine concern or suspicion regarding the applicant.
Being evasive on the application form or giving false information may work in the short term but such misrepresentations will likely come to light at some juncture and result in the UK ETA being revoked and the offender removed from the jurisdiction.
In addition, having a UK ETA revoked, for whatever reason, will impact negatively on future applications and it is unlikely the offender will be granted a new UK ETA at any time in the future. This would mean that not only could a traveller not enter or remain in the UK but also could not even obtain a UK ETA in the event it became necessary to transit through the United Kingdom to make an onward sea or air connection.
As there is currently no right to appeal a refusal or revocation of a UK ETA this means a person is effectively permanently banned from the United Kingdom unless some form of British Visa can be secured. However, the UK ETA refusal or revocation will make applying for a visa problematic at the least and most unlikely to have a successful outcome.