The United Kingdom is introducing a new system of pre-travel immigration checks for visitors, called the Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA) scheme. This system will require visa-exempt foreign visitors, who were previously able to enter the UK using only their passports, to obtain prior authorisation before travelling to the UK. This article provides a detailed analysis of the ETA scheme, its implementation timeline, associated costs, and its implications for travellers and businesses. British citizens, Irish citizens and those with some other type of UK visa status such as someone with a Skilled Worker visa issued by an employer with a sponsor licence will not need to apply for an ETA.
What is the Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA)?
The ETA is an online pre-travel authorisation system, similar to the US's Electronic System for Travel Authorisation (ESTA) and the European Union's upcoming European Travel Information and Authorisation System (ETIAS). The UK's ETA will be introduced as part of the government's efforts to tighten border controls following Brexit.
Who Does the ETA Apply To?
The ETA will apply to all "non-visa nationals" visiting or transiting through the UK. Non-visa nationals are citizens of countries that do not require visas to visit the UK, including EU/EEA countries, Switzerland, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, among others. By the end of 2024, all non-visa nationals will need to obtain an ETA before travelling to the UK.
ETA Implementation Timeline
The ETA scheme will be introduced in phases. It will initially apply to nationals of Qatar from 15 November 2023, and then extend to other Gulf Cooperation Council states (UAE, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait, and Bahrain) and Jordan in February 2024. The scheme will progressively be expanded to cover more countries, with the aim of becoming fully operational by the end of 2024.
ETA Application Process
Eligible travellers will need to complete the ETA application form online or via an app before travelling to the UK. The application form is expected to be quick and straightforward, requiring personal details, travel information, and responses to questions about the applicant's suitability, including their criminal and immigration history.
A small fee of £10 will be charged per applicant. The fee is similar to the US ESTA (currently 20 US Dollars) and the EU's ETIAS scheme (7 Euros).
Upon submission, a response will usually be provided within three working days. Successful applicants will receive their confirmation by email and be allowed to travel to the UK.
Penalties for Non-Compliance
Travellers who need an ETA must obtain one in advance of travel. Arriving in the UK without the required ETA will be considered a criminal offence, potentially leading to fines and even imprisonment of between 12 months and four years in some cases. Perhaps in practice the penalties will not be so severe. This could also jeopardise any future UK immigration applications that the traveller may wish to make. It will also be a criminal offence to obtain an ETA by deception.
ETA Validity and Carrier Checks
Once granted, an ETA will be valid for two years or until the expiry of the traveller's passport, whichever comes first. Travellers with multiple nationalities or passports must ensure their ETA is linked to the document they are using to travel and reapply for a new ETA if they obtain a new passport.
Carriers (e.g., airlines and ferry companies) will be responsible for checking travellers' ETA permissions before allowing them to embark on their journey to the UK. It is recommended that travellers carry digital or printed evidence of their successful ETA application before boarding.
ETA Refusals and Alternatives
If an ETA is refused for any reason, the traveller must apply for and obtain a visit visa in advance of travelling to the UK. This process is more expensive, time-consuming, and requires submission of documents, with longer processing times. A visit visa application will take from about five working days where the priority service is available or perhaps up to 12 weeks if not. Visa applications made following an ETA refusal are likely to attract greater scrutiny.
Impact on Businesses and Employers
Employers and organisations will need to plan ahead and ensure that employees visiting the UK for business purposes hold the correct authorisation in advance of travelling. This may require additional administrative efforts and adjustments to travel plans.
Ireland and the Common Travel Area
Residents of Ireland travelling to the UK from elsewhere within the Common Travel Area will not need to apply for an ETA to enter the UK.
The introduction of the Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA) system in the UK will bring additional layers of bureaucracy for visa-exempt foreign visitors, making travel to the UK more complex and more costly for many people. It is claimed that it will improve border controls and streamline the immigration process for legitimate travellers.
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