Charlie Pring

Senior Counsel

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Will Liebrecht

Immigration Adviser

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Charlie Pring

Senior Counsel

Read More

Will Liebrecht

Immigration Adviser

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10 January 2024

UK Electronic Travel Authorisation: what is it and who needs it?

  • Briefing

2024 is shaping up to be a busy year for UK immigration, including new minimum salary requirements for Skilled Workers and other changes coming in the spring, the continued digitalisation of the immigration system and the ongoing move towards eVisas.

One other big change that's coming is the UK's new Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA) scheme, which launched at the end of last year. Once it's fully operational, the ETA scheme will affect travel planning for millions of business and tourist visitors to the UK.

What is the ETA scheme?

Visitors and people transiting through the UK who do not currently need a visa to visit the UK for business or tourism will need to obtain an ETA before travelling to the UK. Once it is fully implemented, the new ETA travel requirement will apply to visitors to the UK from all round the world, including the EU, US, Canada, and Australia.

An ETA gives permission to travel to the UK but is not permission to enter the UK – it is not a visa or permission to live or work in the UK. It is an online (digital) travel authorisation that is similar to the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) scheme for visitors to the US.

Who can apply?

The scheme is currently only open for nationals of Qatar travelling to the UK.

From 1 February 2024, nationals of the following countries travelling to the UK on or after 22 February 2024 must apply for ETA approval before travel:

  • Bahrain
  • Jordan
  • Kuwait
  • Oman
  • Saudi Arabia
  • United Arab Emirates.

For nationals of all these countries other than Jordan, the ETA replaces the existing Electronic Visa Waiver (EVW) system, which exempts citizens of those countries from needing to apply for a visit visa. The ETA scheme will make it significantly easier for Jordanian nationals to visit the UK, as they currently need to apply for visa to visit the UK but will be exempt when the ETA scheme goes live for them.

The UK aims to roll out the scheme to travellers from all other countries who do not currently need a visa to visit the UK, including US and EU nationals, by the end of 2024.

Who does not need an ETA?

Travellers will not need an ETA if they:

  • are a British or Irish citizen
  • already have a UK visa 
  • already hold settlement in the UK or are exempt from immigration control
  • are a British Overseas Territory Citizen (BOTC) travelling on a BOTC passport
  • are a person with entry clearance or permission to enter or stay in the UK.

Visitors may also be exempt from the ETA scheme if they are not Irish but are resident in Ireland and do not need a visa to visit the UK – here for details.

How to apply

There are two ways to apply for an ETA – by using the 'UK ETA' app, or by applying online. You can find details about how to apply here.

The process involves scanning the traveller's passport and face, and answering a few basic questions.

How much does it cost?

It costs £10 per person to apply for an ETA. Everyone travelling needs to apply for an ETA, including babies and children, but adults can apply on behalf of children. The ETA fee is non-refundable.

How long does it take?

Applicants should normally get a decision by email within 3 working days of submitting the form.

Anyone needing to travel to the UK urgently must apply for an ETA before travel, but can travel to the UK while waiting for a decision.

How long does the ETA last?

The ETA will last for two years, or until the date that the traveller's passport expires, whichever is sooner. Anyone with ETA approval can travel to the UK as many times as they want during the two years, but must still comply with the rules for visitors, including a general prohibition on work or making the UK their main home. 

An ETA does not guarantee entry to the UK, so travellers may still need to demonstrate to immigration officers on entry to the UK that they will comply with the visitor rules.

Applicants will need to apply for a new ETA when they get a new passport.

Can an ETA application be refused?

In certain cases, the Home Office will refuse an application for an ETA. The main situations where this could happen are where the applicant has:

  • previously been excluded or deported from the UK
  • been convicted of a criminal offence in the UK or any other country for which they have received a custodial sentence of 12 months or more
  • been convicted of any criminal offence in the UK or overseas unless more than 12 months have passed since the date of conviction
  • previously breached UK immigration laws, including overstaying their visa
  • made false representations or failed to disclose relevant facts in the current or a previous ETA application
  • failed to pay litigation costs awarded to the Home Office.

The Home Office will also cancel an ETA if it discovers that any of the factors above apply after it has granted an ETA, or if it discovers that the applicant has unpaid debts to the NHS of £500 or more.

What to do if an ETA application is refused

If an ETA application is refused, there is no right to administrative review or appeal against the refusal decision. An ETA refusal does not mean that the applicant has been refused permission to enter the UK, but they cannot travel to the UK. Depending on the circumstances, they may instead be able to apply for a visa to visit the UK and provide more supporting evidence relating to their situation.

How does this affect visa nationals (travellers that have to apply for a visa to visit the UK)?

For those who currently need a visa to visit the UK, the visa application process will remain the same, and they will not need to apply separately for an ETA. 

However, as the UK moves to a fully digital immigration system over the course of 2024, the visit visa application process itself is likely to change, so that applicants will likely have to scan their passport with an app rather than attending an in-person biometric appointment. 

Is the ETA linked to the EU's European Travel and Information Authorisation System (ETIAS) scheme?

No, they are separate travel authorisation schemes. But they are similar – ETA is the scheme for travellers to the UK and ETIAS is for travellers to the EU.  

British citizens, UK residents and non-EU citizens travelling regularly into the EU should look out for updates on ETIAS, which is due to be launched in mid-2025. In the meantime, the EU is expected to introduce a new Entry/Exit System (EES) later this year, which will automate border control procedures and replace passport stamping. 

The EES is intended to help monitor the limits on non-EU travellers' stay in the Schengen area (up to 90 days in any 180-day period).

What should employers do now?

Employers who have colleagues based outside the UK who regularly visit the UK, or who are responsible for business travel to the UK – particularly if any of them are nationals of the countries listed above – should circulate the message about these new ETA requirements.

For businesses with executives and employees used to jumping on a plane to the UK at short notice, including travellers from the EU or the US, obtaining an ETA once the new rules go live will be a crucial addition to travel planning checklists.

If you have any questions about the ETA system or if you need assistance with an upcoming UK visa application or UK immigration compliance and planning, do get in touch with us.

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